Headlines, North America

/ARTS WEEKLY/CULTURE-CANADA: ‘Bog People’ Display Provokes Protest

Mark Bourrie

OTTAWA, Jan 9 2003 (IPS) - Some art experts are protesting a travelling exhibition of items found in the peat bogs of northwestern Europe because it includes the mummified remains of people, some of them killed violently.

The ‘Mysterious Bog People’, a collaboration between museums in the Netherlands, Germany and Canada, is an impressive display of jewellery, coins, tools, clothing, Neolithic flint work, and the world’s oldest known boat. Peat cutters and archaeologists found all of the artefacts in bogs in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Along with the treasure trove of exceptionally preserved artwork and crafts, some 100 mummified corpses have been found in the bogs of peat – dense organic matter that is used as fuel after it is dried – over the past century. Most of them show signs of violent death, such as slit throats, nooses tied around their necks or disembowelling.

Seven of these bodies are part of the exhibit and have drawn the ire of some Canadian arts experts. Canadian museums’ ethical codes prohibit them from showing the mummified bodies or skeletons of aboriginal Canadians, and critics of the show say the same consideration should be offered to the dead of other cultures.

"What I think is what a lot of people think – that exhibiting human remains is really despicable," said Megan Williams, national director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, the country’s largest arts group. "It is disrespectful of the dead."

Just after the exhibition opened, the Canadian Museum of Civilization quietly returned several dozen skeletons of aboriginals to native bands in the Ottawa region. The bodies had been found during archaeological excavations or by construction crews.

Sylvie Morel, director of exhibitions for the museum, said the remains of the bog people are shown with respect and that the show emphasises the unique artefacts recovered from the peat bogs of northern Europe.

But the stars of the show are the ‘Yde Girl’, a murdered 16-year-old from Holland and ‘Red Franz’, a slain warrior from Germany. Both Iron-Age corpses are displayed along with re-creations of their heads to illustrate what they looked like before mummification. Both of these ancient Europeans died violent deaths.

The corpse of the Yde Girl is particularly disturbing to critics of the exhibition because it still bears the woollen cloth noose that was used to strangle her. Red Franz’s slit throat is also quite visible.

The Museum of Civilization, like all Canadian museums, now refuses to exhibit the remains of North American aboriginal people because the practice offends first nations cultures. But there is no similar taboo or policy against exhibiting the remains of people of other cultures.

According to the ethical guidelines of The Canadian Museums Association, the umbrella group for most of the country’s museums, the exhibition of human remains is unacceptable only if it offends the culture from which the corpse came.

But a local newspaper has published several letters from people offended by the display. "I refuse to believe that I am alone in my disgust” over the display, wrote Joseph Robillard of Gloucester, Ontario, in a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen.

"What does it really matter if the corpses are 100 years, 1,000 years or even 10,000 years old? What gives us the right to put the remains of these men and women on public display?"

The museum says it has received only one written complaint.

Despite the controversy, the Mysterious Bog People is the most complete exhibition of Neolithic and Iron Age European artefacts to be shown in North America, it adds.

After the Ice Age, northwestern Europe became increasingly wet, and vast peat bogs formed. People lived in settlements on the high, dry land between the bogs.

For religious reasons, they offered articles such as flint and bronze axes, pottery, bronze swords, leather shoes, textiles, silver and gold coins, jewellery, musical instruments and agricultural tools to spirits in the bogs. As well, hoards of coins were hidden in the wetlands, and, for various reasons, bodies were also placed there.

The exhibition features one of the oldest artefacts from a European bog – the Pesse dugout canoe. It was found in 1955 during the construction of a highway in northern Germany and has been carbon dated to between B.C. 8040 and 7510. It is the oldest known boat in the world.

About 200 years ago, people began to exploit the bogs for peat to burn as fuel. As huge quantities of turf were cut, the artefacts placed in the bog were revealed.

Later this year the exhibition will move to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary for a year-long show, before returning to Europe.

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