I remember the night so vividly, my father and I stood behind a burgundy velvet rope waiting to go into the cinema. I didn’t know what to expect, it was quite a grown-up movie for me and the excitement around opening night was a big deal for a little girl. Seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark that night would change my life forever. I was hooked on Archaeology. I wanted to transcribe ancient texts, work in a museum, ride horses through rugged landscapes, and learn about mummies (little did I know it would be about pleading for grant money and A LOT of bugs). Having experienced quite a lot of death at a young age, I was fascinated by what people did with dead bodies, how they were preserved, what special things were buried with them, and how the living mourned for those they had lost.
I went on my first dig at 17 and became a docent for the Ancient Egyptian Gallery at the San Diego Museum of Man at 19 while doing my undergraduate degree in Anthropology. I lucked out with an internship in the Physical Anthropology collections and that is where I met one of mentors, Rose Tyson. She let me work with the human remains and trained me how to identify diseases, trauma, and showed me how to learn about life from the dead. By 21, the Museum hired me to work in their gift shop. I was thrilled because it was full of wonderful books and we got a discount! Over the next 11 years I held many positions at the Museum of Man, from ‘Shopgirl’ to Educator, to Associate Curator in physical Anthropology and Archaeology. During this time my exposure to human remains in museum collections evolved and so did my contemplation on death. I worked almost daily with the dead, whether it was cataloguing the collection of trephined skulls, preparing mummy exhibits, cleaning shrunken heads, or conserving ancient Egyptian coffins. I researched treatment of the dead across the world, and taught about what we can learn from bones. It was also at this time that I started to investigate the educational value and ethics in displaying the dead in the galleries.
This was recently in the San Diego Union Tribune and my lovely father cut it out and sent it to me, not realizing I was in it! Then he made a joke about how young I looked. (Colin is now a police officer).
In 2000 I attended the American Association of Physical Anthropology meetings and I gave my first poster presentation titled, “Mysteries of the Mummies: Educating the Public about Human Remains” which was based on a main floor gallery exhibition called Mysteries of the Mummies. I was utterly fascinated with how the living engaged with the dead. Was it right to display the dead? Did the public want to see these kinds of exhibits? The response was pretty overwhelming, the attendance had tripled at the museum the year we had that exhibition. What was really interesting though were the conversations between adult and child about death and dying. The exhibition encouraged dialogue about death by showing ancient death rituals with contemporary practices. Visitors left tremendous feedback that was both in praise for and in criticism of the exhibition.
Fast forward to today and I’ve now got two decades under my belt of working with human remains, whether it is in museums, university collections, or through excavations. I’ve analysed mummified remains from South America, Europe, Mexico, Egypt, Alaska, and the Canary Islands. My PhD at Cambridge was on Inka mummies and now I’m here curating one of the most significant collections of human remains in the world. But my calling is not without controversy. Not everyone wants to see dead bodies on display nor do they want their ancestors analysed to answer broad archaeological questions. Many collections were built on colonial endeavors and most of these were atrocious. The bodies of the impoverished, disfigured people, ethnic minorities, the sick, and the unfortunate filled collections all over the world. My goal today is transparency in displaying the dead- with communities, with researchers, with the public, to promote a better understanding of the creation and purpose of these collections.
I’m excited about an upcoming publication I have authored titled, “Displaying the Dead: Rethinking purpose, protocol, and popularity in displaying the dead in museums” which is part of a volume called Ethical Challenges in the Analysis of Human Remains by Elsevier. I’m also looking forward to sharing more content for the Mors Mortis Museum blog and social media sites. I’m thrilled to be working with Dr Katie Stringer Clary on this excellent endeavor.
‘Dying for Life’ Event at Cambridge Crematorium. Image courtesy of Susan Elaine Jones.
‘Plague Late’ evening event at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Image courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums.
I still watch Raiders every Christmas but the film has become what a lot of films in the 80s have become, heavily criticized and deconstructed with a different narrative that speaks to socio-political and colonial contexts…and as Amy in the Big Bang Theory pointed out, what did Indy actually do right? But for a tomboy in braids wearing unicorn-rainbow Vans, the film was the catalyst for my lifelong love of archaeology, museums, and my respect for people of the past.
Dr Trish Biers is the Collections Manager of the Duckworth laboratory at the Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. She curates a collection of roughly 22,000 archaeological and anatomical human remains, non-human primates, fossil casts, blood and hair samples. Since 1995, Dr Biers has worked in museums in all manner of roles from gallery attendant to Associate Curator. Previous positions she has held include Osteologist in the Repatriation Osteology Laboratory, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; Educator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge; Associate Curator and Repatriation Coordinator (NAGPRA Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) at the San Diego Museum of Man in California. Currently, she teaches Treatment of the Dead, Ethics in Archaeology, and Decolonisation in the Department of Archaeology. She lectures at the Institute for Continuing Education at Cambridge where she teaches about rethinking death from past to present, osteology, and epidemic disease in history.