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Memento Mori II


Here’s another skull. We know exactly where this one was found. Creswell Crags, near the present day human colony known as Nottingham, England.

Hyaena Skull (smaller)

This belonged to a Hyaena. Should it be treated in the same way as the first skull I showed? Why?
What right do we have to remove it from its grave?

This hyaena, ate and slept, watched sunsets and made decisions just as the humans do who now live there.

It is now extinct, just as humans will be.

It suits us quite well to forget that it was ever here. After all everything has led up to human civilization. The pinnacle, the perfection of creation. And we will always be here, just getting better and better.

An understanding of our shared space, humility in the light of kinship, these are not active qualities in us, so what is the purpose of keeping this relic?

Unless someone can actively show that they care for it, I propose to return this skull to where it came from.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. David Gelsthorpe permalink*
    06/07/2009 8:44 am

    Archaeologists found this skull at Creswell Crags, near Nottingham. It is from a hyena. Hyenas lived in Britain during the last Ice Age about 20,000 years ago. It shows that some time periods in the last Ice Age were warm.

    David Gelsthorpe
    Curator of Palaeontology,
    The Manchester Museum

  2. Jo Woodcock permalink
    06/07/2009 11:25 am

    ‘An understanding of our shared space, humility in the light of kinship’ – it seems to have taken us a long time, but are we not gradually arriving at that understanding, that humility? I do understand that it may well be too late, and maybe it matters not whether we keep the hyena’s skull …

  3. Henry McGhie permalink
    06/07/2009 11:30 am

    The skull is a rare object that has the potential to tell us a lot about the past environment. I could give a number of reasons to keep the skull- that museums hold collections in trust on behalf of society and enhance the quality of life, that they encourage people to explore collections, and that they encourage people to research and interpret collections being among them. If the skull were to be lost or destroyed then you would be reducing peoples’ ability (both now and in the future) to answer questions about the world and that would be a loss.

    Henry McGhie, Head of ‘Natural Environments’ Team and Curator of Zoology, The Manchester Museum

    • 06/07/2009 1:01 pm

      Forgive my bluntness, Henry, – and with all due respect to your position as Head of ‘Natural Environments’ Team and Curator of Zoology – but the abstract reasons you give leave me a bit cold.

      I am not asking what museums are generally supposed to do, or what they might do in an ideal world, or why they are ‘good’ and important’. Anyone can trot out mission statements. What I am interested in is what does this particular skull mean, and in what particular way does anyone access that meaning?

      This is akin to the work of a the archaeologist who doesn’t just think about digging up the ground, or imagine the secrets that it might be able to yield, but actually gets down on hands and knees and picks through the nitty-gritty. It is that direct involvement which is exciting and meaningful.

      I am not interested in being lectured at by someone who thinks I should be interested in something. I want to be inspired by someone’s enthusiasm. I’ll gladly listen to anyone who is clearly interested in what they are saying and believes it with their whole heart.

      I believe scientists do a great disservice to themselves, and society at large, by pretending to some sort of bland, anonymous objectivity. As long as museums continue in that tone they will turn off many people or allow us to continue as passive vessels into which knowledge is to be poured.

      On the other hand I’m willing to be convinced that there is something unique and vitally important about this hyaena skull. A meaning I can actively participate in creating. As an expert, can you tell me what it is that is unique and important about it? If not perhaps it should go to someone who can?

      I’m not sure if you have had time to read my answers to other posts here and here but I hope I am making my position clear. In order for words to have any value they must have some weight.

      Now, I believe that your words do have some weight because you have clearly already spent many years of your life actively valuing a certain attitude, enacting in your daily life a certain approach to the world. That’s why you now bear the title you do. However I can’t believe that it is enough to rest on the laurels of that authority.

      My purpose here is to open up a public forum, in which I invite any expert or any passionate person to tell everyone why this particular thing is important. The public can then decide what is convincing. I am merely personifying the default position. If we remain ignorant, things will be inevitably destroyed. But if the case for conserving it is publicly rehearsed then the museum’s core purpose can be clarified and widely validated.

      So I am asking again, very clearly, why is this thing important? This is not an abstract question. That’s why I have chosen particular objects. And I have tried to kick start the discussion not only by making an emotive threat but my making my own commitment amply apparent. For people to collectively make a difference in the world, for us to shake off our soporific complacency and stop somnambulistically destroying the very habitat we depend upon, we must each be convinced of the importance of our particular actions.

      This skull is a particular object, not only a cipher for evolution or history or global temperature. This hyaena, while it lived, had a particular experience of the world which I believe should be respected and honoured. And it is embedded in a web of natural selection, mutation, history, global temperature, behaviour, and the development of consciousness. While it was alive it made decisions about where to walk amongst the ravines of Creswell Crags, just as walkers do now, based on the wind and the vegetation and the comfort of particular crannies. In death it continues to shift and change.

      It’s highly likely that many scholars, including you, have studied aspects of this web of inter-relationships, but unless that knowledge is pooled in the popular imagination it will not inform our behaviour as a culture. You may say that this skull by itself doesn’t mean much, but that taken together with other finds it helps us to draw a picture. Well that would be interesting. But I need a detail of the picture from your own personal viewpoint. Otherwise I just don’t care.

      I am acutely aware that human beings are bent on a course of destruction which may already be too late to avert. For many of our fellow creatures it is already definitely too late. Some suffering is nobody’s fault. It’s just nature. Other suffering can be avoided.
      Humans who willfully remain ignorant are wreaking havoc out of blindness. Surely it is the job of experts to inspire each of us to open our eyes.

      I hope you don’t think I’m being deliberately pugnacious, Henry. My job is to provoke. I trust you’ll agree that it’s in a good cause

  4. Cosi permalink
    06/07/2009 12:09 pm

    if you’re not going to keep it, then taking it back to Creswell Crags seems a good idea to me. However, is it not part of an exhibit on the last ice age? shouldn’t it be? or is there enough other material? it certainly serves to illustrate a scientifically valuable point.

  5. Bryan Sitch permalink
    06/07/2009 12:36 pm

    David Gelsthorpe and I recently attended the re-opening of the Creswell Crags visitor centre by David Bellamy and Dennis Skinner. Creswell is one of most important British Ice Age sites, not only because well-stratified deposits dating back to the last Ice Age have survived in the caves but also because cave art was found there for the first time in this country just a few years ago.

    We know from bones and skulls like this one that a range of different animals, some of them we would now think of as being very exotic, used the caves or were deposited in the caves by predators. In this way it’s possible to recreate a picture of life in the remote past that would be very difficult to do elsewhere because the evidence simply hasn’t survived. That in turn tells us about the enormous changes that can occur because of climate change (no small concern in view of what’s happening now).

    The new displays in the visitor centre show a selection of the animals together with stone and flint tools used by Neanderthals and anatomically modern human beings. If the various bones and skulls had been disposed of this important interpretation would have been impossible. How nice it was to see finds from the caves re-united on site after all this time.

    If human skeletal material were to be found at the site too I feel sure it would be kept because of its scientific and research value. Perhaps it would be displayed. I don’t know what the site policy to display would be in that case. Perhaps it would be a question of how it was done.

    Why is it ok to display animal remains but be more cautious about human remains? That’s because some people (for all sorts of reasons, as we found in our Lindow Man exhibition) see human remains as being more sensitive nowadays.

    I suspect that attitudes to animals in museums are changing too (as they have done with zoos) and the Museum regularly receives comments about how it came by the specimens used in the Natural History displays. Some visitors think that the Museum has animals killed to order to put on display. In fact many of them have been in the Museum’s collections for a long long time and date back to when it was acceptable to hunt the creatures, no matter how rare or endangered, and present them to a museum.

  6. 06/07/2009 2:42 pm

    Thanks Bryan,

    I’m particularly struck by the fascinating contextualization of our current concern about climate change.

    I’m also interested in getting to the bottom of our persistent belief, even 200 years after the first proof to the contrary, that human beings are somehow special, and different from all other animals.

    As for this hyaena skull, would it be more meaningful and valuable in the Creswell Crags Visitor Centre?
    I’ve already written to them to ask if they’d be interested. What do you think?

    • David Gelsthorpe permalink*
      06/07/2009 3:04 pm

      We have already had the pleaseure of loaning them some of Manchester Museum’s most spectacular Creswell Crags specimens to the new Creswell visitor’s centre.

      It is really important to tell the story of the last Ice Age at Creswell Crags itself, but it is also very important that we have some of the Creswell material in Manchester too. Having some of these objects on display in Manchester means we can tell the stories to a much wider range of people who might not be able to get the Creswell or may never have heard of it before.

      Our primary aim is to tell the world how important Creswell is and reveal some of the stories about climate change and the early human occupation in Britain. This is best done at Creswell and in other museums, such as Manchester.

      David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology, The Manchester Museum.

      • 06/07/2009 4:16 pm

        Granted. But currently this Hyaena skull is not actually on display anywhere. (except this blog)

        • David Gelsthorpe permalink*
          06/07/2009 5:46 pm

          The Hyaena skull is not currently on display, but is regularly used when I give tours of the stores. It has also been used in public handling sessions. This skull is incredibly useful in telling the story of the last Ice Age.

          It is important to remember that museum displays are a small part of what we do. We provide education sessions that reach over 30,000 children each year, use the collection in university teaching, have regular public activities, loan objects all over the world and provide access to stored collections to anyone who asks. Much of the collection is available on the web.

          It is not a question of whether it is on display or not, but how access is provided to an object.

          David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology, The Manchester Museum

  7. Lily Kennedy permalink
    06/07/2009 5:23 pm

    i think we should returne it back were it was found to be kind to its memonry becase if you were dead would you like people staring at your head for years.

    From Lily Kennedy aged 9

  8. Bodger permalink
    06/07/2009 6:42 pm

    D’you know, Mr Hermit, I’m beginning to warm to you much more after your responses above to the experts.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could all see the skull, listening to the quiet echo of its laugh and ponder whether our own actions are directly or indirectly leading to creatures’ extinctions?

    A lot more reverence and respect for the animal world wouldn’t go amiss.

  9. 06/07/2009 9:36 pm

    When you get out of there I think you should try the Manchester Then & Now Walk Talk Tour. I’m sure that the exercise will do you good.

    In fact, If you e mail me – I’ll arrange for you to download it for free!

  10. Angshuman Basu permalink
    07/07/2009 8:40 am

    I ‘ve seen few glimpses of this museum including the Skull, need to know more about the museum.

    Another thing, I am very eager to know How this museum is different than others. To be very honest, why this museum needs a Hermit to run the show? Is this so sacred?

  11. David Gelsthorpe permalink*
    22/09/2009 3:04 pm

    Here are the comments about this object from the Museum’s Collections Development Panel:

    While it had been suggested that we lend the specimen to Creswell Crags it was pointed out that we have recently lent a number of specimens to Creswell for their new visitor centre.

    David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Palaeontology


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