Archaeology Review: What would you do?

Handling Objects

Box of Bronze Age axeheads
Box of Bronze Age axeheads

These axe heads show how axe technology evolved during the Bronze Age.  There is limited information about where these were discovered and how the museum acquired them. They were once part of a loan scheme for schools and an educational handling collection.

Using objects in museum handling sessions enables participants to discover how objects feel, their weight, what they are made from, and how they were made.

Museums aim to preserve collections for current and future generations. Objects used for handling are more likely to have a shorter life span due to the increased risk of damage and wear. Does this matter, as there are learning benefits from handling objects? Should we use objects for handling?

Finds from Afar

Prehistoric tool from Denmark, R1934/106
Prehistoric tool from Denmark, R1934/106

The prehistoric tools from Denmark have been in the collection for over 90 years and have not been investigated since then. In total there are six boxes of stone and flint tools from Denmark in the archaeology collection.

Many of the objects in the archaeology collections that were discovered outside Brighton & Hove were donated to the museum during the first quarter of the 20th century. Some are part of large collections donated to the museum by individual collectors. How significant are these objects to the history of the museum?

Human Remains

This skull fragment was discovered in a fishing net, off the coast of Ovingdean in 1935. It was initially thought to be late Bronze Age, around 3,000 years old. The two circular holes were considered to be evidence of trepanning, a medical procedure undertaken by scraping through the skull surface with flint tools, possibly to let infection or spirits out. Trepanning is rarely seen in the prehistoric archaeological record.

Recent analysis has shown that the holes were caused by a disease known as biparietal thinning and that the skull is not prehistoric but probably dates from between 1636 and 1677.

Skull fragment discovered in a fishing net HA230245
Skull fragment discovered in a fishing net HA230245

Keeping human remains in our collection helps us to understand about our ancestors. Advancing research techniques reveal information about age, diet, disease, genetics and migratory patterns.

However the debate concerning the re-burial of human remains from museum collections is becoming more prominent. If human remains have not been researched or displayed for long periods, should they remain in the archaeology collection even if there is still much that could be learnt from them? If the skull fragment had been buried following initial examination, new understanding about its age and pathology may never have been discovered.

What should we do with the human remains in our collection?

What would you do?

Let us know what you think. You can visit the small display Reviewing our Archaeology Collection which is located at the entrance to Brighton History Centre in Brighton Museum until March 2011 where you can leave your comments. Or you can email your views to


5 Responses

  1. Tim

    “How significant are these objects to the history of the museum?”

    Well the museum was founded with those type of objects, so that question is already answered. The collections of paintings and decorative art came later.

    The issue that you’re encountering here is to do with space and logistics – the museum doesn’t have enough space. Objects such as these deemed of less importance than say a Glyn Philpott are relegated to the store rooms.

    “Objects used for handling are more likely to have a shorter life span due to the increased risk of damage and wear. Does this matter, as there are learning benefits from handling objects? Should we use objects for handling?”

    Yes. A bronze or stone axe head will take a fair few thousand years worth of handling I expect – it was intended to break things, so any handling that might occur in a museum context is much gentler than its original purpose. Handling is essential to learning.

    “Would they be more accessible for researchers, and more feasible for public display, if they were transferred to museums in the areas where they were found or should some or all remain in the collection here?”

    Apparently Brighton is a city – compare the square meters of Brighton’s museum space to any other city and I expect it pales in comparison. The Towner and De la Warr probably have more space. Almost 100% of the National Gallery’s collections are on display, I bet about 8% of Brighton’s collections are on display. So find a way of expanding or find a way to sell off parts of the collection.

  2. jsquared

    There should be more archaeology exhibitions in Brighton Museum, simple ones, that explain archaeology to those of us who don’t know a lot about it.

  3. Jane Russell

    I feel that archaeology in the Brighton area is deemed unimportant at the Museum. Visitors must wonder if there is any archaeology in the Brighton area at all. We have some wonderful sites and artefact recovered from Sussex – so please, please let them be displayed for all to see!


    The first thing I do when I visit any town is to find out where the local museum is. Then I want to know what it exhibits and if it offers me more insight into that town’s unique history. As far as I am concerned it does not matter how small that museum is as long as it exists. Is Brighton not proud enough of its history through the ages to want to exhibit the wonderful finds that have been discover over the year by dedicated men and women? If it’s a question of money, why not charge a small entrance fee or have a box available for donations like the larger museums do.

  5. Lisa Fisher

    I think there should definately be handling of some objects from the collections, even if it causes breakage. It is surely more important to inspire future generations of curators/historians/archaeologists and looking at something behind glass is just not the same. After all, some objects have been conserved and glued back together in the first place!
    Finds from afar are not so relevent as local artefacts but still inform researchers and are very useful for comparisons between material culture in other societies. Perhaps they should be photographed, catalogued and available by request? Or (dare I say it) given back to their countries of origin once they are recorded?
    Human remains continue to be a sensitive issue; yes there are new ways of retrieving information and researchers often want to re-analyse bones but this cannot always be sustainable. I think there has to be an issue of respect as well; just because they are dead doesn’t mean to say they should remain in museums in perpetuity. Maybe the photographic record would serve a purpose here as well, with detailed examination of bones that are ‘out of the ordinary’ followed by re-burial?
    I know some of these suggestions may be impractical, but may be attainable by using volunteers. Space in museums is a National problem and we simply cannot store all objects. Perhaps there is a way of creating archives with local archaeological societies and individuals, building catalogues as they go but all of these suggestions cost time and money but a solution has to be found.
    What really concerns me is the lack of finds available for the general public to view in the museum. I think we desperately need to get archaeology off the shelves and into the public domain in Brighton; we are of National importantance and very little is accessible to the public.Good luck and thanks.

Leave a Reply