Death on Display: The Dead in the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology

Margie Jones

Five Examples of the Displayed Dead

In March 2022, I visited the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street, Dublin. This archaeology museum is free to the public and is well worth a visit if you are ever in Dublin. The human remains are displayed very well in the museum, being securely laid out behind glass and lit very well. The bog bodies exhibit in particular is laid out excellently. I remember visiting this museum as part of my undergraduate modules when I was studying at UCD. Here are five examples of how the dead are displayed in the museum.

Clonycavan Man, Co Meath.

Date: c. 392-201 BC

The bog bodies on display in the museum are perhaps the most evocative of the dead featured. The display of the bog bodies is done in a respectful manner, with visitors able to bypass viewing the remains if they wish. Clonycavan Man is featured in the Kinship and Sacrifice Exhibit, which also features the other Irish bog bodies. Clonycavan Man was found in 2003 and is believed to be a murder victim, with possible indications that he was mutilated as part of a ritual killing (his nipples are missing for example). He also seems to have suffered a deep head wound that may have been the cause of his death. A reconstruction of the face of Clonycavan Man further humanises him – a ‘face put to the name’, as well as the discussion surrounding his ‘gel’ hairstyle which consists of resin. The hair and skin of Clonycavan Man is visible, although they have changed to a brown colour due to the anaerobic conditions of the bog, but his features are still very visible regardless. I highly recommend visiting this exhibit if you are ever in Dublin – they are a fantastic resource to engage in conversations about death and the display of the human body.

Replica of Clonycavan man
Clonycavan man

Viking Burial, Memorial Park, Co Dublin.

Date: c. 9th Century

An almost fully intact skeleton is on display in the Viking Ireland section of the museum. The skeleton dates to the 9th Century as was found in 1934 at Memorial Park, Island bridge, Dublin. The burial is labelled as belonging to a warrior, as a dagger and sword were found with the skeleton. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much other information accompanying the burial, which may have been due to a lack of information being gathered and recorded at the time of discovery. Furthermore, members of the public are not told whether the burial is male or female, something not known to the untrained eye – it is simply implied by the ‘warrior burial’ label. The ‘warrior burial’ label was also critiqued by Howard Williams on his blog (link in sources section).  The skeleton is dimly lit with partial reconstruction done on some elements of the skeleton. The glass case makes sure the remains are secure and cannot be touched by members of the public, and the darkness of the exhibit does allow one to appreciate the fact human remains are on display. Should these skeletal remains be presented in the same manner as the bog bodies? I.e., in a small, labelled section away from public view? These are the questions one should ask as a viewer – how much of human remains is too much for the public?

Viking burial

Burial 24, Mound of the Hostages, Hill of Tara, Co Meath.

Date: c. 2000 BC

Burial 24 contained an inverted encrusted urn and an inverted vase – the urn contained the remains of at least one adult, and a burnt flint knife was also found with the remains. As there is work going on in the museum at the moment, the entrance is now through the Hill of Tara section where this burial is located. You almost pass it by as you enter the museum. The exhibit shows fantastic finds through the centuries at the Hill of Tara. What is interesting about the cremated remains is that one would likely not realise you were viewing human remains unless you read the label on the exhibit. Do people pass by these remains without realising they are passing a part of someone? It would be interesting to do observations of visitor interactions with all the exhibits containing human remains and see how different ‘types’ are reacted to.

Cremated remains seen in the centre

Human Skull, John’s Lane, Co Dublin.

Date: c. 10th Century

As part of the Clontarf 1014: Brian Boru and the Battle for Dublin exhibit at the museum, I will be focusing on the human skull found at John’s Lane, Dublin. The skull itself is place in a glass case with an accompanying label stating the skull is from a young man, and that a large wound to the side of his head may have been fatal. What is unsettling about the skull, is the fact it is placed as though found with a ‘slave chain’ that was recovered from a completely different context. It gives the impression that this individual was from the slave trade, despite not being found with the chains – I remember mentioned the issues with this display as a case study as part of my undergraduate visit. It may be that the placement of the chain is to provoke a reaction from the viewer. The chain was found in Roscommon and may have been made for a slave or hostage.  Although the placement is obviously to illustrate what it would have been like for someone to wear such a device, it does make one feel slightly uncomfortable knowing the man displayed with the chain was not a wearer in life. A question of identity and post-mortem bodily integrity comes to mind.

The skull and chain display

Ptolemaic Mummy, Provenance unknown (Egypt).

Date: c. 300 BC

There is a large number of objects from Ancient Egypt at the museum, with the Egyptian collection found in the upper galleries. Most of the items on display were acquired from excavations carried out between the 1890s and 1920s. There are a few mummies on display, but for this blog post I will focus on the Ptolemaic Mummy of unknown provenance which dates to c. 300 BC. Unlike the Leeds City Museum, there is no sign outside the exhibit warning people that human remains are on display. This may be because unlike the mummies in Dublin, the Leeds mummy is unwrapped (He was unwrapped by the surgeon TP Teale in the 1820’s), and his facial features are on display and very prominent to the viewer. The mummies in Dublin are still wrapped – providing a ‘layer’ between them and the viewer. The unknown provenance of the mummy is likely due to the retention of the remains outside of Egypt from a dig over 100 years ago – post excavation records were likely not as detailed, particularly during a time when colonial attitudes were rife. The mummy in question is displayed very well with as much information as possible attached to the exhibit – they are also well lit in an area that has dimmed overhead lighting. A great way to show respects but also highlight to artefacts of importance.

One of the mummies on display

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