A Continental Divide Over Displaying the Dead: Celtic and American Indian Burial Exhibits

Maiden Castle, Dorset, England

Maiden Castle, Dorset, England

Maiden Castle was a Celtic Iron Age earthen enclosure and fort begun about 600 B.C. and expanded in the following several centuries.  It was attacked and taken by Legio II Augusta (the second Augustan legion), which was commanded by Roman general Vespasian, who later became emperor.  The photo above shows the Romano-British temple on the hilltop, and the surrounding landscape of Dorset – a truly beautiful county on the south coast of England.  Excavations recovered locally-produced pottery, projectile points, and skeletons of Celtic warriors killed in the battle, including one (below, left) with a Roman ballista bolt in his vertebrae.  Artifacts from the excavations, including several burials, are on display today in the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

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Celtic Warriors Buried at Maiden Castle, Dorset, and now on display at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester

It is interesting to note the relaxed manner British museums in general have toward exhibiting the remains of what are seen as the ancestors of modern-day Britons.  This can be compared and contrasted in an interesting fashion to American museums, which rarely exhibit burials or grave goods anymore due to a relatively new-found sensitivity over displaying the remains of Native Americans.  Such is the case partly because the indigenous peoples of North America are not normally seen as being the ancestors of the average American, and partly due to reaction against the complete and utter lack of such sympathy in the past.  Interestingly, many Americans today might be surprised to learn that their DNA exhibits some amount of admixture of Native American ancestry – particularly if one is from the American South where contact between Europeans and American Indians began almost 500 years ago.  Additionally, the DNA of most modern American Indians – no matter where they live – contains quite a bit of European ancestry.  More information on DNA studies of Southeastern Native Americans can be found in articles by Bolnick and Smith (2003) and Bolnick, Bolnick, and Smith (2006). Another highly interesting study into British DNA, showing that Celtic bloodlines are quite prevalent in today’s Brit, was recently performed by professors at the University of Oxford – http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/features/what-makes-british.

“But thou shalt not die unknown…my bards are many, O Carthon! their songs descend to future times. The children of years to come shall hear the fame of Carthon, when they sit round the burning oak, and the night is spent in songs of old.  The hunter, sitting in the heath, shall hear the rustling blast, and raising his eyes, behold the rock where Carthon fell….Three days they mourned above Carthon; on the fourth his father died. In the narrow plain of the rock they lie; a dim ghost defends their tomb.  There lovely Moina is often seen when the sunbeam darts on the rock and all around is dark. There she is seen, Malvina; but not like the daughters of the hill.  Her robes are from the stranger’s land, and she is still alone!

James Macpherson, excerpted from Carthon in The Works of Ossian, 1765

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Categories: Archaeology, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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