Thursday, July 12, 2012

'Buried on Campus' at the Grant Museum, 12th July 2012

The wonderful Grant Museum
Another day out and another pile of dusty bones unearthed from beneath London.  Today I hurried along to the penultimate day of ‘Buried on Campus’ at the Grant Museum at UCL.  The exhibition’s been open since April, but as it’s only open 1-5pm on weekdays, it’s hard to find the time to get over to it if you work during those hours. 

The small exhibition showcases a macabre discovery and the mystery surrounding it.  In 2010, builders carrying out some routine maintenance work began to find human bones buried under the ground in the Main Quad at UCL.  A huge collection of skeletal remains began to be unearthed from the ground, eventually totalling some 7000 bone fragments, comprising at least 84 individuals. The first reaction naturally, was one of suspicion. Was this evidence of some horrible crime?  The Metropolitan Police were immediately called, and after some investigation by UCL’s own forensic anatomist, Dr Wendy Birch, and forensic anthropologist Christine King it was established that the bones were quite old, and were not evidence of suspicious activity.

The Metropolitan Police investigate.
Theories began to fly thick and fast amongst the London archaeological crowd as to whose bones these might be and why there were there.  The location has a relatively storied history prior to being part of UCL, being previously used as a rubbish pit, a duelling spot and as the site for a steam railways exhibition.  The initial theory was that the builders had broken the seal on a 17th century plague pit.  During the Great Plague  cemeteries were unable to cope with the piles of bodies, and the inhabitants of the city resorted to digging trenches and tossing the bodies in haphazardly.  People suffering the agonies of the plague were even known to throw themselves onto the pile of corpses to save their relatives and friends the danger of transporting their infected corpse.

But this theory didn’t hold up.  Bloomsbury in the 17th century would have been far outside the City of London, and an unlikely place to bury plague victims.  Additionally, if the bones pre-dated the University, it seems unlikely that they would not have been disturbed during the construction of the university buildings in 1826.  Other possible theories were also discounted, for example that it was posited that this might be an example of a forgotten non-conformist or private burial site – but in case you'd expect to find complete human skeletons and fragments of grave markers. 

As the bones were examined, the forensic team began to find clues as to what this macabre treasure trove might be.  It was noted that a large proportion of the bones seemed to suffer some kind of disease, that many of them suffer the signs of being cut with saws or scalpels, that a few of the bones seem to have writing upon them.  A conclusion was reached; these are bones from an anatomical teaching collection.    

Examining the bones.
So, the ‘what’ has been conclusively established. The ‘why’ remains somewhat more elusive.  A prime piece of evidence is a jar of Bovril that was found buried with the bones.  The Bovril Company were contacted, and after conducting a search of their archives concluded that this style of jar was produced between 1886 and 1920, this means that the earliest these bones could possibly have been buried is 1886.  1886, to some degree is relatively recent history, so you would think there should be some record in a dusty tome somewhere of this anatomical collection.  Victorian curators, anatomists and zoologists tended to be quite fastidious in their record keeping and preservation of specimens, as the people in charge of navigating the vast archives in the Natural History Museum or the British Museum will testify.  So it seems odd that not only would someone decide to throw all of these bones away, that they would decide to do in the Main Quad of the university and with at least some degree of secrecy. 

On display at the exhibition are some of the more interesting specimens from this find.  There is a quite striking bone that has a root system growing through it where the marrow once was, as well as some which demonstrate signs of being clinically examined and cut.  We also see the Bovril jar which helped to date the bones.  The main attraction though is a complete skeleton constructed from many separate bone fragments found at the site.  This shows us examples of forensic science used to help age, sex and date skeletons.  We are shown part of a skull, and it is explained that we can tell that this is from someone in adolescence judging by the degree of fusion of the plates which makes it up.  Similarly, we are shown an arm bone with a separated epiphysis, which is evidence that growth has not stopped and therefore that the owner of this bone was young.  It is an informative, yet strange exhibit, and the fact that it’s assembled from many skeletons lends it a bit of an impersonal quality.  After all, if these bones were once some kind of Victorian teaching set, then perhaps it is appropriate that we should continue to learn from them.

But the mystery still remains – why were these bones dumped into the ground?  Then, as now, there were rules governing the disposal of human remains.  Today we are governed by the Human Tissues Act 2004, which sets out stringent guidelines on the treatment and ethics surrounding the use of human remains.  Victorian law was a somewhat less stringent, but the location of human body parts was legislated, and you couldn’t just chuck them in any old hole in the ground.  Attitudes seem to have shifted towards sympathy for the corpse in the modern era, and there were signs prohibiting photography of the specimens in this exhibition as a ‘Violation of the Human Tissues Act’.  It seems faintly bizarre that these bones have gone from being dumped into a hole like rubbish to being protected by legislation forbidding even the photography of them.  There have even apparently been a few complaints that the bones are being exhibited in the same space as animal specimens, something which I hadn’t even considered as potentially offensive.  

While we may never know the reasons behind these bones being mysteriously buried on campus, they fit nicely into a peculiar ongoing narrative regarding UCL and human remains.  Notoriously, the university exhibits the mummified body of philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who influenced the foundation of the university.  This body has been wheeled out to meetings commemorating significant anniversaries at UCL, where it is recorded as being “present but not voting”.  Additionally, Jack Asby, the manager of the Grant Museum has records of human remains being disposed of in skips in the 1950s and 60s – the rise of genetic science meaning the anatomical teaching collections being regarded as outdated and dumped.  

Jeremy Bentham. Wax head on top.  Real head below.
Personally, I like to think that some Victorian anatomy professor was sitting in his office late one night, despairing over a lack of storage space or maybe in a cantankerous mood after having stubbed his toe on a box of femurs.  Through his window he sees an open ditch having been dug in the quadrangle and thinks “sod it, they’re going in, someone else can worry about them”.  The next day all of the unwanted specimens have mysteriously disappeared, only for us to discover them again in the 21st century. 

I'm sorry I didn't get to this exhibition sooner - recommending a visit now seems a little sadistic as the last day of the exhibition is tomorrow, but everyone should visit the Grant Museum at some point, it's got a wonderful atmosphere and is packed full of fascinating specimens. 

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