Review of ‘Origins: In Search of Early Wales’

The following review is of this exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, and was sent in by Dan Carpenter, January 2008.

The exhibition is entitled ‘Origins: In Search of Early Wales’ and covers pre-history up until the Roman occupation. The exhibition is housed in a long narrow gallery like a tunnel, with the oldest exhibits at the front and the least old at the back. As you enter the exhibition through heavy double doors you are confronted by a clear wall with reproductions of skulls of different species of hominids attached. These look very real and there is no notice to say that they are not actual remains.

Nor is there any sign on entering the exhibition that human remains are on display – or if there is then it is not noticeable. Directly on the left (and the second thing you encounter after the skulls) is the ‘Lady of Paviland’ exhibit. The remains are in a glass case about six feet long and three feet wide, set perpendicular to the wall. The remains are laid out on a glass platform set about four inches above a grey silhouette of a human body on a black background, with the feet closest to the wall. The remains are lit by a spotlight suspended from the ceiling about ten or twelve feet above the remains, so as to cast a shadow of the bones onto the appropriate positions on the silhouette below. The light is bright enough to cast a clear and sharp shadow on the grey silhouette beneath.

The remains include most of one arm, four and a half ribs, part of the pelvis, most of one whole leg and parts of the other lower leg. Also in the case are four other objects, which I will mention below.

On the wall at the feet of the remains is an artist’s impression of how the man may have been buried. It depicts four men and one woman dressed in skins, standing over an open grave in a cave. The men are carrying spears and torches. The body in the grave is that of a man, fully clothed and laid flat on his back. One of the men in the cave is sprinkling red ochre powder from a bag over the body.

To the left of the picture is a description entitled ‘The oldest grave’. It describes how Paviland Cave is famous for the earliest formal burial known in Britain. It says that at the time of the burial the weather was getting colder as the last Ice Age began. It also says that animal bones were found in the vicinity and that at the time there would have been an open plain in front of the cave where people may have hunted. Underneath the description is a photograph of Paviland Cave today, looking out of the cave to the sea. There is no mention, however, of where in Wales Paviland Cave is or was.

On the right-hand side of the painting is a timeline entitled ‘Life and Death at Paviland Cave’. The first entry is 1823 – William Buckland, who discovered the remains and believed that they belonged to a prostitute who followed Roman soldiers on campaign. The next is 1913 – William Solace, who discovered that the lady was in fact a young man, and that animal bones found with the remains showed that they had to be pre-Roman. The next entry is 1969 – Kenneth Oakley, who radiocarbon dated the remains to an age of 18,460 years. The next is 1998 – Stephen Aldhouse-Green, who dated the remains at 26,000 years old and suggested that the red ochre found on the remains may have been used for ceremonial or preservative purposes. The final entry is 2007 – Roger Jacobi and Tom Higham, who undertook improved radiocarbon tests to date the remains at 29,000 years old.

At the head of the remains is a small placard describing how William Buckland discovered the remains in a shallow grave disturbed by erosion. Underneath, and entitled ‘Belongings?’, the objects in the case are listed as items that may have belonged to the ‘Red Lady’. These objects are: one bone tool; one mammoth ivory pendant (described as ‘cast’); and two stone tools. There is no indication as to whether these objects were found in the grave, in the vicinity, or were just included in the exhibition as hypothetical belongings that the ‘Red Lady’ might have owned.

The only real connection of the body with the land and the circumstances in which it was buried is in the artist’s rendering and the photograph. There is no description of the Gower area and its possible importance other than the description of the plain that might have been in front of the cave. Another point was that as I was making notes I overheard on two or three occasions parents talking to their children about the ‘lady’ and using the words ‘she’ and ‘her’. Although it was possible to discover that the remains were of a man by reading the second entry in the timeline or by looking at the picture, this was not clear enough to prevent people from believing that the remains were of a woman. Making this explicit would have been an easy way to make the exhibit more respectful.

There were three other examples of human remains in the exhibition as far as I could see. The first was perhaps the most disturbing of all in the way it dehumanised the dead. Ironically, it was entitled ‘Caring for the dead’, and it consisted of a collection of bones in a haphazard pile, each with a description card tied to it (e.g. ‘left tibia’), but mostly illegible to the visitor due to the way the bones were all mixed up in a pile. The description said that they were from a communal burial chambre in Penywyrlod, near Talgarth in Powys. They were dated as 3700BC, and were disturbed by accident in 1970 and brought to the museum for ‘safe-keeping’.

The next sentence was: ‘Here we do our best to treat them with respect and dignity.’ The way that they were piled up certainly didn’t give me a feeling of respect or dignity. Behind the exhibit was a photo of a landscape, and to the right was a piece of text entitled ‘Coping with death’. It described how some bodies were buried, some cremated and some exposed to the elements. It describes the 100 tombs found in Wales as ‘houses of the dead’, which were often revisited and new bones added. At the end it says: ‘Here lay the community’s ancestors, revered bones.’

The next exhibit of human remains was entitled ‘Monument and memories’ and subtitled ‘Central beaker burial. With beaker’. It consisted of a nearly complete human skeleton in the foetal position with a decorated beaker behind his head. It is described as a ‘man of distinction’ buried in Llandow around 4,000 years ago. According to the description he was around 40 and suffered from arthritis. Years later his grave was re-used and the cremated remains of a man, woman and baby were added, along with tools. To the right of the exhibit is some information on beaker pots and how in earlier times they were placed next to bodies, but later were placed alongside, or contained, cremated remains.

The final example of human remains I saw was entitled ‘Undy coffin’. This consists of a stone coffin with the lid broken in two places and with the central section missing. Through the gap and beneath a layer of glass is it possible to see the skeletal remains of what is described as a woman between 25 and 34 years of age, which radiocarbon testing dates as belonging to the 200s or 300s AD. The exhibit doesn’t say where the coffin or the remains are from, nor does it make it explicit that they were found together, although this is the impression given by the exhibit.

The other point of interest in the exhibition is a description of Druids entitled ‘Spreading the word’, next to an exhibit of metalwork found in a lake. It gives a short description of the Druids from the classical sources and shows the depiction of an ‘arch-Druid’ that famously features on the cover of Stuart Piggott’s ‘The Druids’. Next to this are two pieces of text entitled ‘Worshipping on water’ and ‘Sacred lakes’ which describe finds at Llyn Cerrig Bach in Anglesey dating from 300BC to 100AD, and talk about lakes as possible places of worship.

All in all, the exhibition was very informative. However, some of the displays of human remains did not seem as respectful as they should have been, and some seemed positively disrespectful. More reverence in the style of display and more humanising descriptions would have helped, along with more information about the places the remains were found in and their possible importance to the lives of those who were on exhibit.