|Sketch for Wrapped Bone, 2014|
Whereas the things they buried were then preserved...
...in order for us to then dig them up and reveal them again, and display them in museums.
The act of displaying something is an act of transformation. A prehistoric tool made from bone is transformed by us, by placing it in a glass case, from a useful material thing into an object for admiring, revering its age, beauty and ingenuity. A relic.
However, prehistoric people buried their special things.
"British prehistory represents a complex dialectic between hiding and revealing things..."1Prehistoric peoples buried things in pits, placed things in tombs, concealed their hoards and buried objects as well as bones in careful and specific ways. But were they separating things out as special, such as we do with display? Or were they returning things to the earth, thereby reuniting them with the original source of all things?
They might then be taken out of the box, sorted, and placed in other containers, transparent plastic bags or acrylic boxes. This time the boxes reveal their contents so that students can study them.
The relic container, the reliquary, is a box that conceals and displays simultaneously. The relic itself is hidden within the box, though sometimes the box is made around the relic to form the same shape, like clothing, describing what is inside. The outside of the relic displays something about the relic itself; often there are depictions of the life of the saint whose relics are held within.
The reliquary as an object of display and concealment represents, perhaps, the practice of archaeology itself as well as the practice of display and burial of both prehistoric and contemporary people.
You can see examples of medieval reliquaries on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. There are more, including Buddhist reliquaries, in the British Museum.
1 Making and display: our aesthetic appreciation of things and objects, Chris Gosden, in Substance, Memory, Display, Ed. Colin Renfrew et al: McDonald Institute for Archaelogical Research, 2004↩