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Anna Reid’s Woven Bones Blog

May 29th, 2018

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On a drizzly Tuesday afternoon the Cap-a-Pie team took the train to Durham. Welcomed into Durham University’s Department of Archaeology we were given an incredible opportunity: a full tour of the human bioarchaeology laboratory and the chance to lay out a skeleton of our own in the pattern of the identification process of the Scottish Soldiers. These weren’t the skeletons of the Scottish Soldiers but others who are part of other research projects being conducted at Durham University. The visit was so we could better understand the archaeology and the science behind the story of the Scottish Soldiers.

We entered the room to find the dry yellow bones/bone fragments laid out with care across the benches. The room was warm and bright, busy but neat. I was reminded of the much loved plastic skeleton in the Biology department at school (Bob) who used to disappear and reappear in ever more unlikely places (the locker room / the roof / the garden) but that complete and anatomically precise cast didn’t come close to the weathered shards on the cushioned table top.

Dr Anwen Caffell of Durham University with some of the remains of the Scottish Soldiers. Credit: Durham University / North News and Pictures.

I’m not a squeamish person, I’m reasonably robust about the ins and outs of the body, and there was nothing gory in what we were looking at. But it was somewhere after the cast of the newborn baby skeleton and just before the detailed discussion of the way abscesses burrow through the jaw bone that my vision began to dim and a gradual, persistent wave of nausea started to build in my body. I realised I was on the verge of passing out and had to sit down with my head between my legs.

For me this was the most surprising thing of the afternoon: the instinctual connection I felt with the bodies (because that’s how I realised I was thinking of them, as bodies not skeletons specifically) and my own sudden awareness of the very real writing of injury, disease and poverty on the human body. Lives so hard and so brief that the pain is written into the skeleton itself.

And that’s what we need to capture in the design: an appropriate and respectful language which can speak not just about the short painful lives of the soldiers themselves, but also about the emotional impact of the dig; reading the story of these men and boys from their final remains. The archaeologists at Durham University are deeply respectful in their work, extending to a firmly worded sign on the door reminding students of the respect due to human remains. It is incredibly moving to see the curved leg bone of a child with rickets, the deep painful cavity a young man had to live with, or the spongey bone texture of a weak and malnourished body: there is so much story in the skeleton alone.

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