Digging up cold cases, a useful metaphor

The start of the Cold cases exhibit in Museum Flehite, AmersfoortA few weeks ago I visited an exhibition with a title which I had associated first of all with law and justice, Cold Cases Amersfoort at Museum Flehite in Amersfoort. Even its subtitle Oude skeletten, nieuwe ontdekkingen [Old skeletons, new discoveries] did not turn me away from making the short journey by train from Utrecht to the lovely small city of Amersfoort. The exhibition was certainly not exactly what I had in mind, but in fact the very difference between my expectations and the actual exhibition made me think. While walking in beautiful old Amersfoort and visiting two other historic locations it seemed these three locations each bring their own perspective. In a way this post is about some of the metaphors we often use almost without noticing them. In the light of a sunny Saturday afternoon they became visible again.

An archaeological approach
Logo Museum Flehite

Cold cases, these words worked for me like a trigger. You might associate it first with reconstructing and analyzing cases, but here archaeologists worked with some five hundred human skeletons, a reminder that however abstract analysis can become you meet here the physical remains of people who walked on the surface of the earth, just as we do now. These skeletons were found during the excavations of cemeteries on four locations, some of them attached to monasteries. Some excavations took place a few decades ago, but with new technical equipment the skeletons can now be studied in far greater depth than a generation ago. Think only about the way tiny fragments containing DNA can now be analysed in a way simply impossible twenty years ago. In this respect the title Cold cases is certainly aptly chosen.

Harm and violenceIn this exhibition you do not just have complete and incomplete skeletons. There is general information, there are showcases about individuals whose skeleton in some way can tell us vital information about their life. There is for example attention for the way you can determine gender and age, or detect traces of diseases. Some skeletons, in particular skulls, show the signs of accidents or violence, others are marked by the deadly effects of a disease. Syphilis came to Europe in the early sixteenth century, and its harmful presence is clearly visible once you know the tell-tale symptoms.

Reconstructing a girlPerhaps the most telling part of the exhibition is the room showing the reconstruction of the face of a young girl. She has received the nickname “The Girl with the Ear Clamp” because of the iron clamp used for head caps found in her grave. A lot of techniques and skills are necessary to reach the final result, a startling lifelike face. In order to bring especially young visitors closer to the work done to achieve such results part of the exhibition is a kind of study room with a laboratory. Every Wednesday an archaeologist can give you more explanations about the exhibition and the way archaeologists can now approach human remains. On other days a story-teller takes you back to late medieval Amersfoort, and on Sunday afternoons you can meet the challenge to reconstruct yourself a skeleton.

Food for thought

When I left a bit earlier than expected the exhibition at Museum Flehite I had enough time to visit two other historic locations. I went first to a museum housed in the remaining buildings of an Early Modern hospital, the Sint Pieters en Bloklandsgasthuis at the Westsingel. In fact it is the only still existing one of its kind in my country. The chapel built around 1500 and the men’s hall from 1536 have survived the centuries. On weekdays visitor can meet actors dressed as inhabitants who re-enact some inhabitants in the year 1907, just before the removal to new premises at Achter Davidshof. The choice to play out this situation with as its surroundings the situation of the nineteenth century might seem startling, but it would indeed be more difficult to stage people from the sixteenth century. The actors tell the visitors they do not yet know the new place and that they are excited and anxious about their new housing. Instead of telling in ample detail about their daily life, as indicated in an ordinance you can read in the main hall, they prefigure almost the way a historian approaches the past. You do not know what is around the corner of what someone will day or do in a few moments, unless a lifetime of patient attention, study and reflection over the years has taught you something fundamental about people living in particular times and circumstances.

My third visit on this afternoon in August was to the Mondriaanhuis, a museum documenting the life and works of the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944), a pioneer of modern art, often associated with the De Stijl [The Style] group whose members favoured cubic forms and sparse use of colors. The museum is located in the very house where Mondrian was born. On the first floor there is a faithful reconstruction of his humble apartment and atelier on the attic of a Parisian house. Even the background noises and fragments of songs from the roaring twenties add to the atmosphere, as if the painter could walk in here any moment. Apart from documenting the life and works of Mondriaan this museum has also space for exhibitions that show his impact on contemporary art. To be honest, the Mondriaanhuis does have only a few works by Mondriaan himself in its holdings. I use the Dutch spelling Mondriaan on purpose!

Looking at the different approaches in these three museums is certainly interesting. At Museum Flehite there is much attention for the how of a reconstruction. At the old hospital there is a sharp contrast between the seemingly timeless space and the expectations of the last inhabitants about their new home. In the Mondriaanhuis the reconstruction of the attic in Paris evokes almost to perfection the surroundings of an artist in the world capital of art. Every approach has its values and shortcomings. I bring these museums together fully aware they cannot be compared completely at the same level, but any comparison goes faulty. We use metaphors from all kind of spheres of life together, often without noticing the funny effect of for example naval terms side by side with agricultural words.

Has archaeology any uses for legal historians? I was hoping this question would show up here sooner or later. When reviewing in my mind the three museums at Amersfoort I would say that any discipline can be important, either on its own or more as a kind of handmaiden in the role of an auxiliary science. At Bordeaux a symposium will be held on February 8-10, 2017 concerning the theme (Re)lecture archéologique de la justice en Europe médiévale et moderne, “An archaeological (re-)reading of justice in medieval and Early Modern Europe”. There will be three main sections, one focusing on justice and space, another on justice and the body, and the third on objects associated with justice. The way archaeological approaches and methods used more commonly by legal historians can interact with each other will be explicitly addressed. The deadline of the call for papers is September 15, 2016. If you think you can convince scholars to use with great benefit the ways archaeologists approach the past, or make inversely them aware of the particular and fruitful ways legal historians work, you are most welcome. Hopefully this post helps you to consider the role of archaeology for legal history, not to solve just one cold case, but to gain perspectives on cases that might be closer connected than you can see at the surface.

Cold cases. Oude skeletten, nieuwe ontdekkingenMuseum Flehite, Amersfoort – June 19 to September 25, 2016

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