“I am the Walrus”?

Posted on July 23, 2013

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I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together…

I can’t help it; that was my reaction when I read the story in England’s Daily Telegraph; the headline is intriguing (Walrus remains found buried under St Pancras station in London;
A Pacific walrus has been discovered among a 19th century human burial underneath St Pancras Station in London) but it was this sentence that set me off:

“The bones were in a coffin with eight other sets of human remains”.

“Eight other sets”?!

Obviously, the reporter didn’t mean to elevate walruses to human status, but then: “we are all together”, as the song goes. The place was a cemetery; the human bodies buried there, in the imagination of the reporter, were disposed of properly, in the manner of people.

So the walrus gets promoted to personhood.

Except that the equation probably should go the other way.

The original burial was part of a graveyard containing at least 1500 human bodies, removed when the old train station was renovated. The burial of eight human beings in the same coffin reportedly reflects their use in medical research “sometime after 1822”.

In 2006, the magazine British Archaeology covered the archaeology being carried out at St Pancras Station. It noted that St Pancras church burying ground was disturbed in the 1860s during the original construction of the railway station, and gives an excellent history of the use of this cemetery:

The parish of St Pancras lay on the fringe of the growing metropolis and offered cheap housing. It absorbed successive waves of migrant workers associated with construction of the Regent’s Canal in the 1820s, the Imperial Company Gasworks in 1822, and the railways from the 1830s onwards. The burial ground saw very heavy use. It was closed in 1854…

So our walrus presumably made it into his final resting place between 1822 and 1854.

In the current news article, archaeologist Phil Emery described efforts to find some historical record of a walrus in records of the London Zoological Society, without success. The article goes on to give the best guess the researchers have:

The most plausible reason for the walrus being in London was that it was brought to the city by whalers and sold for medical research or as a curiosity.

Which may well be true– but what piques my curiosity is the decision to bury the walrus along with (it seems) human bodies used in medical research. Why would the bones not be kept as a zoological specimen, entered into a museum or even a private collection?

Archaeologists generally don’t talk about the things we cannot begin to explain.

The burial of humans and a walrus, intermingled in a single coffin, requires us to face other possibilities.

For the people who placed these remains in what at the time was an over-crowded cemetery in a declining neighborhood of London, the human bodies were, like the walrus, not really people, but materials. Using an established cemetery as a disposal location was pragmatic.

We may never know precisely how they gained access to a Pacific walrus, or what they thought they gained from it. But this was, after all, the time of the “resurrection men” who committed atrocities ranging from exhumation to murder to provide anatomists with specimens:

Public hysteria eventually led to the Anatomy Act in 1835, which aimed to stem the illegal trade by allowing surgeons to appropriate the corpses of the “friendless”, or unclaimed…patients who died could, after a decent burial, be discreetly disinterred and moved onto the dissection table. This continued even after the Anatomy Act was passed…Although the hospital chaplain insisted on reburying the manipulated bones, the new law allowed surgeons to use the deceased’s body without his or her consent.

The ultimate outcome was the modern system that requires informed consent for medical use of human remains. Archaeologists working on nineteenth century cemeteries remind us that not so long ago, to be poor meant your body might be someone else’s object of study.