Eastbourne Ancestors Exhibition 2014

Last week I attended the preview of an exhibition for Eastbourne Ancestors; a Heritage Lottery Funded, community based, osteological & archaeological project that I had been the Project Co-ordinator (& osteoarchaeologist) of for the last 18 months, managed by the Eastbourne Heritage Service.

Eastbourne Ancestors

The preview was amazing! It was great to see professional archaeological colleagues rubbing shoulders with the volunteers, interns and local archaeological society members who had enabled the project to happen, (something I’ve always been keen to promote).

A few of the many volunteers and interns who took part in the project.
A few of the many volunteers and interns who took part in the project.

I’ll not give too much away as it’s an exhibition that you really need to see for yourself and get hands-on with; you can dress up, compare your height with that of people from the past and have a go at being an osteoarchaeologist! (just a few of the many things going on).

Hayley, (L-R) Beachy Head Lady, ECAT 98 & ECAT 28
Hayley, (L-R) Beachy Head Lady, ECAT 98 & ECAT 28

If you have an interest, or would like to learn more about archaeology, history, human remains or Eastbourne, then you should definitely visit. Even if you don’t share these interests, visit the exhibition. There are opportunities to leave feedback in the comments box and visitor book.

Beachy Head Lady without her hair and makeup.

The exhibition is located in front of the Redoubt Fortress at Eastbourne’s seafront on Royal Parade, in what used to be The Pavilion Tea Rooms (see map). Entry is free and will run from 1st February until 16th November 2014. Please check the website for opening days and times throughout this period.

ECAT 28 & ECAT 98
ECAT 28 & ECAT 98

Interest in the exhibition has been growing rapidly; local & national newspapers and BBC News have featured the project. (Eastbourne Herald, Daily Mail, the same article also appears in the Mirror online). I also discovered a blog post written by a visitor to the exhibition by Inner Nature. Not to mention all the previous media the project has attracted in the past.

Hayley recording skeletal remains.
Hayley recording skeletal remains.

The media focus has created a lot of attention for Beachy Head Lady and rightly so as she is a very interesting individual. The exhibition does include other human remains, which we have learnt a lot about, and covers several periods of archaeology/history too. There are also wonderful objects on display as well.

So, what are you waiting for, go and check out the exhibition!

*I have spotted a few photographs with some bone related errors. Team members assisting with the exhibition had tried to help out with the best of intentions, although with no experience of osteoarchaeology. Unfortunately photos had been taken and used by the press. The display has been corrected by an osteoarchaeologist.*

A Field Trip: Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons.

At the end of May I organised a field trip for the volunteers who have been assisting me on the HLF Eastbourne Ancestors Project.

This trip needed to be special, a way of saying ‘thank you’ to my volunteers for their dedication and hard work for over a year. So, what better place for people drawn together by morbid curiosity to visit than the Hunterian Museum, one of my most favourite places.

If you are visiting London this Museum needs to be part of your itinerary, check out the July to December 2013 events here. I also thoroughly recommend buying the guidebook as it is extremely informative and interesting. The displays are fantastic and the little shop is also full of goodies.

The collections relate to John Hunter, the development of surgery through the ages and prominent surgeons of the times, wet and dry examples of human and animal diseases and trauma. As well as displays of art, fossils and specimens from the natural world. You can see why it’s one of my most favourite places to be, especially amongst the pathology and trauma sections!

Several of the volunteers who attended reviewed the Museum and their experience:


‘From start – the Evelyn Tables (is this science or art?) to finish – the little shop area with such friendly staff, the Hunterian is an absolute gem. The specimens were exhibited in an attractive and informative way. There is much to learn at the Museum about the history of medicine and anatomy and the labelled specimen jars tell fascinating stories about this history. The Museum told us about a time when there was less distinction between art and science, with artists such as George Stubbs assisting with the research. It was a great visit to a Museum that deserves to be more well known!’


The range of exhibits was quite amazing and as a visitor you were transported to another age. I don’t have any problem with the fact that these are body parts and bodies. Can anyone imagine someone collecting things such as these today?  It is all a bit macabre for today’s taste but without the men who lived in this bizarre world of competitive collecting, science would not have advanced’.


Our visit to the Hunterian Museum last Thursday was a real success – everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy it.   The museum exhibits were very well laid out, and the labels were easy to decipher – and this really made all the difference.  One didn’t lose the will to live, trying to work out which label referred to which exhibit.  I think the highlight for me was the long bones, distorted  by the effects of rickets’.


‘I found the resources held in the Hunterian Museum incredibly useful. Some of the Anglo-Saxon skeletons we have been working with have interesting pathologies and to be able to visit your museum to look at specific examples of such conditions helped with my understanding of the effect of such illnesses on skeletal remains. As I am also an amateur palaeontologist I was surprised but delighted to see fossils in the Hunterian collection. I live on the south coast and have collected fossil sea urchins (Echinoids)for many years – and I enjoyed seeing the urchin’s preserved internal organs in one of the displays.The collection is so unique it is difficult to sum it up – I left with a sense of wonder that surgery and medicine have advanced so far yet it has only been possible by the brave early pioneers of science. Thank you for preserving this collection for future generations!’.

All in all, a great day out if you’re not squeamish.

I’ve developed a fascination with the history of medicine and the development of surgery through my visits.

Memento Mori and Me

Memento Mori is Latin for remembering the inevitability of death.

These ‘reminders’ are symbolic and can take many forms; paintings, sculptures, photographs, jewellery, sketches, prints, etchings and festivals like Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). The symbols are numerous and can include, amongst others, a skull or a full skeleton representing death, a living individual; Men, Women and Children in varying scenarios (deathbed, in life, deceased), a marker of time.


As an osteoarchaeologist I’m surrounded by death on a daily basis, my workspace is full of skeletons (at the last count approx. 200 individuals were represented). At home, every available space I can find houses an animal bone or two, or three, or four (you get the idea). The garden is full of decomposing animal specimens (deaths occurred naturally; roadkill etc – not by my car I hasten to add!) so that I can create a comparative reference collection for my archaeological research.

As I’m writing this post in my room, I’ve realised this space is also full of death too; a life-sized plastic anatomical human skeleton resides behind my door. A plastic skeleton left over from a Halloween long ago hangs on my wall, a resin skull on my bookcase and a plastic one in the aquarium. Not to mention the numerous postcards and posters from exhibitions and books illustrating the human and animal skeleton. And then there’s my interest in Anatomy and the History of Medicine in a mesh of art and science (a blog post for the future) which ties in nicely with my developed interest in Memento Mori.


It’s only in this last year or so that I’ve become interested in Memento Mori. It started with snippets of information in my twitter feed from the likes of @ChirurgeonsAppr (tweets about the History of Medicine and Syphilis), @thanatos_net (tweets about Victorian post-mortem & mourning photography), @besslovejoy (tweets about dead things and history), with several others contributing too.


Then it really kicked off when I attended one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever been to; The Richard Harris Collection, Death: A Self-Portrait held at the Wellcome Collection. Five very different rooms packed full of Memento Mori art in varying mediums; Contemplating Death, The Dance of Death, Violent Death, Eros & Thanatos and Commemoration.


I spent several hours in the exhibition wondering at all the pieces, modern and old, and how they made me feel about Death, something I hadn’t really thought about even though I’ve immersed myself in it by choice. As an osteo I analyse skeletons to learn about the individual in life, and in a twisted opposite, the living have Memento Mori to remind us we all die eventually.

I came away from the exhibition with my own piece of Memento Mori in the form of a book and ideas to create my own art as well (when I get some spare time).

Here are a selection of my current 5 favourite pieces:

#1. Dance of Death. By Michael Wolgemut 1493. This is my favourite piece; to me it’s humorous, death doesn’t have to be depressing but at the end of the day, we will all dance to Deaths tune. In Richard Harris’ exhibition this image was displayed in the biggest book I’ve ever seen.

#2. The Doctor, The Girl and Death. By Ivo Saliger 1920. (Has nudity so I didn’t include this picture in the post)  This was a close second for me as I like the crossover of science and art, it reminded me of lost loved ones and the battle between life and death, but Death always wins the war.

#3. Vanitas Still Life with a Bouquet and a Skull. By Adriaen van Utrecht 1643. The use of colour drew me into this piece, the detail and the symbolism.

#4. Death, the final boundary of things. By Unknown c. 1570. I like the detail in this piece.

#5. When Shall We Meet Again. By Unknown. Date Unknown. This photograph, and the text on the blackboard behind it just interested me, unfortunately I don’t know much about the context of this photo.

I’ve created (unknowingly) my own version of #5 although maybe it is a bit ‘smiley’ in comparison…

My version of #5
My version of #5

I’m beginning to research Memento Mori further to create my own collection of favourites.

Do you have a favourite? If so let me know and maybe I’ll add it to my new Pintrest board to share my collection (I’ve only just started it, so it’s still a bit bare).

Student Art Inspired by The Eastbourne Ancestors Project

In one of my previous posts; Death and Art, I mentioned that a group of art students had visited the Eastbourne Ancestors lab to research and draw skeletal remains. The students were from the Part-time Foundation Diploma in Art and Design class, led by Elaine Cameron from Eastbourne’s Sussex Downs College .

The students were working on a project based around ‘Collection’ (and ‘Structure’- a separate project). This involved considering the ethical, social and political implications of collections from a variety of museums, galleries and individuals and developing personal responses through art.

The students have now completed their inspired project pieces, and Elaine has sent me posters (laminated- apologies for the sheen on the photos below) of their work which I found amazing. I thought I’d share a few of these with you here. Unfortunately I don’t know the titles of these pieces, so I’ve given them basic names.

These pieces have been created by individuals who are not archaeologists, and to me its great to see how they have captured the different aspects of the project. This has helped me to see that I can reach out to individuals in other sectors and inspire them with an archaeologists curiosity.

The first pieces that caught my eye were these skeleton images, you can really appreciate the form and structure of the human skeleton.

Skeleton black & white Skeleton Colour

These pieces make me think of accessibility. Access to collections; public or private, access to archaeology; buried or excavated, or general lost and found.

The Lab - open The Lab - closed

My favourite pieces are these, which I may borrow for the Eastbourne Ancestors Saxon Festival. The use of the Scrabble tiles is very interactive, and allows individuals to get involved and express their opinions.

Scrabble Scrabble Map Scrabble - have a go

I like this piece because it makes me think about the structure of bone, how fragile it can be, but also how strong to survive for thousands of years.

Bone Structure

This piece is interesting in that its inspired by archaeologists and their record keeping. The English Heritage logo and the Council for British Archaeology are mentioned on the box, but these organisations don’t have anything to do with the site or the boxes contents (just in case anyone was wondering).

Archaeological Recording

These are a selection of pieces from the students who visited the Eastbourne Ancestors Project.

What do you think?

Eastbourne Ancestors Saxon Festival

I’ve got some big news!

The Heritage Lottery Funded Eastbourne Ancestors Project have booked Regia Anglorum, a living history re-enactment group to set up a Saxon village in Eastbourne! This group is well-known for their excellence in public interpretation and interaction.

The event is particularly relevant to the project as we are currently examining the human remains from two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries within Eastbourne (along with skeletons from other eras in the collection). Regia portrays this period to the public, putting  ‘flesh on the bones’ and giving us a glimpse as to how Eastbourne’s Saxon inhabitants may have lived.

The Eastbourne Ancestors Saxon Festival will take place over the May Day Bank Holiday (Saturday 4th – Monday 6th May 2013) in Gildredge Park, Eastbourne, East Sussex.

Saturday 4th May 11:00am to 17:00pm

Sunday 5th May 10:00am to 17:00pm

Monday 6th May 10:00 to 17:00pm

The event is FREE thanks to our HLF funding for the project.

The Eastbourne Ancestors team will have a stall promoting the project, so come and see what we have been discovering. You may even want to sign up to become a Museum Service volunteer and get involved with our different activities.

We will also be celebrating our 1st Birthday.

We hope to see you there!

Eastbourne Ancestors

Top 10 Bones from the Human Skeleton

The Eastbourne Ancestors volunteers were having an interesting conversation today in the lab…discussing their ‘Top 10′ of Human Bones. Here is what they came up with…

#1 Ear Ossicles (Incus, Malleus & Stapes)

Described by my team as perfect and distinctive in shape.

Ear Ossicles

#2 Teeth

Although enamel coated, the dentition is a fascinating part of the human skeleton. Very useful for isotope testing, analysing diet and lifestyle.


#3 Patellas

Interesting in shape, and the bone that seems to get knocked the most often (according to the volunteers).

#4 Phalanges (Distal)

A philosophical moment by the volunteers wondering what past people touched and felt using their fingers and toes.

#5 Vertebral Column

An amazing design of puzzle-like pieces supporting the body and at the same time giving us flexibility.

#6 Pelvis

An odd-looking bone, we can analyse this bone to determine the biological sex of an individual.

#7 Femur

A classic example of a bone, recognised by all (possibly due to the ‘skull & crossbones’ pirate flags). We can analyse this bone to determine the stature of an individual.

#8 Clavicle

A student (Tori) was studying these bones for her MSc Bio Anth and ever since the volunteers have been interested in the physics and mechanics of this element.

Exeter MSc Student

#9 Sphenoid

One of my favourites (mainly because it looks like a gremlin. I don’t have a sensible answer).

Sphenoid (juvenile without greater wings)

#10 Skull

This is the element that people seem to connect with the most, the one that draws the most emotive response.


What’s your  favourite?

‘Medicine’s Dark Secrets’ A project worth funding

I have been following the progress of ‘Medicine’s Dark Secrets’, a crowd funding project set up by The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice;  Dr. Lindesy Fitzharrris.

You can watch the trailer for the project here, (this video displays human remains).

I myself have gone for ‘The Quack’ package…(says it all really I guess).

I can’t remember how I first discovered The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, but I’m now following all of Lindsey’s interesting, macabre and sometimes gruesome updates on her blog, facebook and twitter.

I have been interested in human remains ever since I can remember, I was a morbid child, and I’ve rediscovered my interest in medical history because of Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris and her amazing work.

I’m an osteoarchaeologist (studying human and animal bones) and it’s fascinating what we can learn from the human skeleton in archaeology. Things like the age, sex and stature of an individual, lifestyle, status, metrics and disease for example. Studying the history of medicine is even more interesting as there are additional resources to analyse such as tools, documents, diaries, photographs, teaching aids, preserved specimens and more.

Studying the human skeleton, I’m only seeing part of the puzzle. By researching the history of medicine I’m beginning to learn about the manifestations of diseases and how different types present in soft tissue as well as understanding the effects on skeletal remains. I’ve always been interested in Leprosy as an example.

I think that ‘Medicine’s Dark Secrets’ is a project worth funding.

Skeleton etching

Death and Art

Last week a group of Part-time Foundation Diploma in Art and Design students from Eastbourne’s Sussex Downs College visited the Eastbourne Ancestors project with their tutor Elaine Cameron.

The students are currently working on an interesting ‘collection’ project. They are considering the ethical, social and political implications of collections from a variety of museums, galleries and individuals and developing personal responses through art. Elaine is hoping to exhibit the students work locally and I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

The week beforehand the students had paid a visit to the Wellcome Collection to see the ‘Death: A Self Portrait’ exhibition. It’s a fabulous exhibition by Richard Harris, who has collected different pieces of art that represent death in varying ways. I will be visiting the exhibition next weekend which I’m very excited about and I’ll review it here afterwards.

As a contrast the art students visited the Eastbourne Ancestors project to learn more about the Museum collection and the ethics regarding human remains in an archaeological context. I gave them a tour of our current project and then organised a session of artefact drawing of the Anglo-Saxon objects.

The collection of memento mori is something I myself am interested in, having received two lovely etchings as presents this Christmas. As you will know by now, I have a morbid fascination with the dead, I want to learn about them, who they were, how they lived and died and that’s thanks to my background in archaeology and osteoarchaeology. A little weird, but that’s just me.

Skeleton etching 1 Skeleton etching 2

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