The dead don’t bury themselves

Grave goods are often used in exhibitions to tell a story, but whose story do they tell?

They don’t tell the story of the individual with whom they are buried. That person didn’t choose them, didn’t place them, didn’t curate them. The story they tell is of the broader society, their rites and rituals, and their beliefs.

Mike Parker Pearson, the English archaeologist and former director of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, summed it up:

…the dead don’t bury themselves, but are treated and disposed of by the living. (Pearson, M. P. 2003: 3)

What you are seeing when you open up a grave is a series of relationships. You see evidence of the relationship between the individual buried and their community, between their community and their beliefs, between their community and us. You may see evidence of trade relationships, linking communities across the globe together. You may see evidence of a community in the  midst of social or religious change (See: Bones Don’t Lie blog post). See also the British History podcast which talks about this.

In this post I’m going to talk about the over-reliance on grave goods to tell a very limited story, the consequences of presenting the public with limited and limiting information, and suggest that we may be missing out on a lot by being too narrowly focussed on grave goods as evidence.

Grave of a tenth-century woman

In the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, on a shelf with many other metal objects shining under the downlights, three brooches are grouped together. The caption reads:

Woman’s grave from the 10th century from Holmskov on Als with two tortoise brooches and a trefoil brooch. (Nationalmuseet, 2014)

Two tortoise brooches and trefoil brooch from the grave of a tenth-century woman

Is that it? A woman’s whole life: experiences, skills, attitude, hopes, regrets, injuries, aches, annoyances, likes and dislikes stripped away and replaced with three lumps of metal. There’s no information about women in Viking Age society, or any contextualising information about the find site or the production process. In short, how this object came to be made, who it was made for and what it might have meant to that person are not referred to. This woman was buried with these objects, but were they even hers in life? The questions raised by the absence of any information at all about the woman, or women in 10th century Viking society, may be due to the type of museum the Nationalmuseet is. It’s a traditional glass case aesthetic museum, focussed on the finished product rather than the process of production, and doesn’t ask any post-processual questions of its artefacts (or ‘art’). Workmanship, rather than relationship, is the focus of display. Display of this type isn’t wrong, but there is always a sense of confidence in these types of museums that all history is known, and that there are no questions that need to be asked. The starkness of the caption assures the visitor that all that is needed to be known is the date, the site, and the material and type of object. The woman in the grave didn’t choose these objects as far as we know. We don’t know that she ever wore these exact brooches, or even liked them. I hope I don’t get buried with some of the gifts people have given me over the years (I’m thinking of the pink suede handbag and yellow nylon turtleneck vest).

What’s the big deal?

Grave goods are perfectly acceptable objects to display in a museum or to use as evidence, but we need to be clear about whose story we are investigating. Archaeologists, historians, art historians, museum professionals etc may well understand that grave goods tell the story of the society, but do the museum-going public? Some of the exhibitions I’ve been to this year draw heavily on grave goods, and why not? They’re often finely worked, shiny, expensive looking and mysterious. Basically, they look good in a glass case.

My problem with it is that bigger, more interesting questions are being ignored. If the curiosity of the public isn’t engaged, why will they think to ask these questions or want to see the answers? Stagnation will occur and the potential to tell some really fantastic stories will be squandered.

Take for example the recent big blockbuster Vikings exhibition at the British Museum. They had the potential to tell the emerging story of Viking women. Better osteological techniques, better scientific knowledge and isotopic analysis of remains is starting to tell us that the old notion of ‘Scandinavian men + native women = cultural integration’ in the Viking world may be a little one-dimensional. Some of the remains long held to be Scandinavian men are actually native men, and the native women turn out to be from Scandinavia. Rather than engage with the idea of travelling women contributing to Viking society, the BM exhibition relied on grave goods to say that women in the Viking world were domestic. A variety of domestic implements, including ‘keys to storage rooms, chests and caskets that were suspended from her belt or a chatelaine’ (Williams et al. 2013: 140)


A grave is a curated space. It isn’t a disaster context – it lacks that authenticity and spontaneity. It is much more self-conscious and self-aware. We must be aware that by opening the grave and examining its contents we are adding a new relationship layer to its story: the relationship between that society and ours. In a way, we have opened a channel of communication, and we need to remember that people deceive, they lie and they mis-represent themselves (Facebook, anyone?). Reading through medieval or Roman ‘histories’ will reveal that societies edit their own histories (See De vita Caesarum) and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them, it just means that we need to look with a critical eye. Let’s ‘read’ the contents of a grave as we read an historical account of a major event or battle and be just as critical of bias.

Next week: museum display which draws on the senses – or, history stinks!

Works cited

PEARSON, M. P. 2003. The Archaeology of Death and Burial, Sutton.

WILLIAMS, G., PENTZ, P. & WEMHOFF, M. 2013. Vikings: Life and Legend, London, British Museum Press.


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