Eleanor Swire, the Cathedral Curator, came back from her holiday in Malta with a fine example of an interpretation of an old bone in a museum:
A student once asked anthropologist Margaret Mead, “What is the earliest sign of civilization?” The student expected her to say a clay pot, a grinding stone, or maybe a weapon. Margaret Mead thought for a moment then she said, “A healed femur.”
A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. A healed femur shows that someone cared for the injured person, did their hunting and gathering, stayed with them, and offered physical protection and human companionship until the injury could mend.
Mead explained that where the law of the jungle—the survival of the fittest—rules, no healed femurs are found. The first sign of civilization is compassion, seen in a healed femur.
Winchester Cathedral is filled with such bones, each with a story to tell. We are especially excited about the prospects of learning more about the bones in our mortuary chests, which have been the subject of fascination for centuries. It will be at least another year before we have the definitive results from our collaboration with the Crick Institute. We hope that we shall learn about any family relations that exists among the bones, with the ultimate aim of identifying who they belong to.
From its inception more than a decade ago the aim of this project has been to humanise the remains found in the chests, to clothe every individual interred there with dignity and honour, rather than seeing their bones as forensic objects. The science is a means to an end. The fabric found put away tidily in tins in the chests will be another way to add to the humanity of these people.
Eventually the Kings and Scribes exhibition will be revised to incorporate these new human stories, which we hope will flesh out the lesser-known subtitle of the exhibition, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ What a privilege it would be for Winchester Cathedral to be able to demonstrate the diverse roots of early English identity.
The biggest story that our bones tell relates to our hope in resurrection. This hope emerged in later Judaism, as is evident from the Book of Job, in a passage often read at funerals:
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God.
Those buried in and around the cathedral lie in the hope of being raised bodily from death. We have always known that old bones are recycled into dust, but our Christian faith is that God will raise up new bodies for the saints, recognisable from their former flesh and bones, but now incorruptible, fit and ready for the society of God’s eternal kingdom.