Protecting the bodies of the dead

By other museum staff on 30 Apr 2012

On 19 October 2012 the Museum of London will open Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, which will explore the early 19th century history of human dissection and the trade in dead bodies. Osteologist and exhibition curator Jelena Bekvalac talks about the work currently being undertaken for this major exhibition.

In 2006 archaeological excavations by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) took place on site at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel revealing an area of burial ground – used for a short period of time from c.1825-1840 – which had long since been forgotten. Significantly the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act took place during this period, a pivotal point in time that had enormous implications in medical and social history that continues to resonate into the 21st century. The discoveries from the excavation are the basis of our forthcoming exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men. 

The skeletal material recovered from the burials was extraordinary with the discovery of individuals who had undergone post mortems and dissection, as well as comparative anatomy and teaching preparations. Being in the context of a hospital it is not perhaps unexpected to find evidence like this but it is an unusual archaeological assemblage. It provides a unique snapshot into a past era of a functioning hospital treating patients, as well as one of the earliest established medical teaching schools, founded in 1785 by surgeon Sir William Blizard.

London in the 19th century was rapidly developing as an industrial and urban metropolis with a growing population. Scientific investigation was flourishing and with the ascendancy of the surgeon anatomists demand for dead bodies was rising and needed a good supply. The poor were vulnerable both in life and death. Conditions of the cemeteries in the 19th century were dire with high mortality rates and an ever increasing number of burials. Burials of the poor were particularly vulnerable to the manoeuvrings of the resurrection men (body snatchers) who would enter cemeteries under cover of darkness, having with them spades and sacks to dig up the bodies of the dead and sell for a high price to anatomy and medical schools for dissection.

Iron coffin - St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street

Iron coffin - St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street

One of the prevailing Christian religious fears of the time was the horror of being taken from your grave and dissected. Measures were taken in attempts to safeguard the dead but the resurrection men were resourceful and skilled in their grisly task. The wealthy were able to pay for more secure means of burial, including paying someone to watch over you after death until too decomposed to be of use to the resurrection men. There were also some extreme and bizarre innovations created to protect the dead. Lead coffins (triple shell) were a standard format for burial of the wealthy at this time but for a short period, at the height of the fear of resurrection men, iron coffins were offered by undertakers as the ultimate deterrent. These would have been very expensive and, therefore, the sole preserve of the wealthy.

With fear of body-snatching gripping 19th century Londoners, you might expect that there would be a number of iron coffins discovered during excavations but this is not the case. In all of the many excavations by MOLA not a single iron coffin has been found, making the iron coffin from St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street, which will feature in our exhibition, unique. The coffin has been on display for over 50 years in the crypt of the church. Continued investigations are under way as to whether the coffin was used for an interment or a patent model. The inclusion of this coffin in the exhibition illustrates the fear of the resurrection men and the world in which they moved and traded. In the following months leading up to the exhibition launch, the iron coffin will undergo conservation to expose and learn about its construction and decoration, revealing details to add to the history of iron coffins. The findings from this work will be posted here by our conservators so watch this space.

Our conservationists taking the iron coffin to the Museum

Our conservators taking the iron coffin to the Museum

2 thoughts on “Protecting the bodies of the dead

  1. Hannah says:

    This is fascinating! I can’t wait to see the exhibition.

  2. Paul Dean says:

    Looking forward to this Jelena….

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