3D scanning and the dead …

I have been thinking a little more about what to do about human remains in museums.

I claim no great ethical insights, but the experience of dealing with aboriginal remains in Australia may provide a baseline of good practice.

For example, the return and reburial of the remains of Mungo man, and a second, more difficult case where blood and tissue samples were taken, sometimes in questionable circumstances, from members of aboriginal communities.

And, quite clearly, a return to community was the most appropriate response given the cultural beliefs of community members.

This brings us full circle – we are treating the remains with the respect that original people who buried the dead would have expected of themselves.

Now just suppose that Mungo man’s remains had been through a 3D scanner prior to return. The images, the data are simply ones and zeroes sitting on a server somewhere.

Yes, they can be used to create 3D images of the remains, and print copies of the remains, but they themselves are not the remains.

Should these files also be deleted?

Equally, if we consider our dead Anglo Saxon, is it as distasteful to display a 3D printed copy of the skeleton as the skeleton itself?

One part of me says not, provided we treat the original skeleton respectfully, and another part wonders if we would simply be doing it for entertainment.

I have no answers. I am not an ethicist, but the appearance of new technologies such as 3D scanning does seem to change things somewhat

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Displaying the dead

The dead, they say, are always with us.

And sometimes, they are on display in museums. And as Jonathan Jarrett recently reminded me via a recent blogpost, there are a whole range of issues around the display of human remains.

Now, there are a number of good reasons why human remains should be kept and displayed in medical collections – essentially to illustrate various pathologies. Having once had pretensions to study psychophysiology I’ve seen my fair share of disarticulated skeletons and bits of dead people in bottles.

I assume that in most of these cases the people whose bits now float in jars gave their consent. And in the case of some of the older samples I recognise they may not have done, perhaps because they had no one to speak for them.

However, I have no problem with these collections. They clearly have a role in the advancement of human knowledge and alleviation of suffering. In other words, they have a purpose that we can all agree is useful, even if the items sometimes make us squirm.

And that’s fine in a medical context.

Historical and archaeological museums are something else.

I remember going to look at the Jewry Wall in Leicester one grey November day in the mid eighties.

I then continued on to the adjacent museum to look at their mosaics.

At the time, and it was nearly forty years ago, they had a dead Anglo Saxon in foyer – they had recreated the excavation of a grave and had the skeleton as found laid out with their grave goods. As I remember it the skeleton was an example from the transition from pagan to Christian practice, it had been buried with both a crucifix and grave goods.

I remember thinking that the display was a little tasteless. The dead person had been buried with some ceremony, by people who cared enough about the dead person to ensure a decent burial. They did not expect the bones to be displayed and gawked at.

Obviously, construction work means that we will always uncover burials, and it is perfectly understandable that we would wish to document the dead to enhance our understanding – questions such as where did they come from, did they exhibit any abnormal pathologies, how old were they when they died.

But display them?

I think we can say with confidence that the people who buried the dead human would expect the remains to be treated with something approaching the same degree of respect that they showed when they buried them, and that this most probably does not include having the remains put on display.

And basically this is what it come down to. Are we showing the degree of respect that the people who buried the dead person would expect of us?

And of course, it’s not just the actual dead.

Historical medical records equally need to be treated with something approaching the degree of privacy that they would have when they were ‘live’ records.

To explain:

At Dow’s Pharmacy we have a number of prescription books in which the pharmacist of the day wrote down what he or she had dispensed to whom, on such and such a date and how much they had been charged.

Much of the information is probably innocuous – after all who, especially in the days before antibiotics – did not have a cough that did not go away, or a cut that did not heal cleanly.

But of course, sometimes that cough was the first sign of consumption, and sometimes that cut never did heal and the person died horribly of sepsis.

And, while I don’t know this, there may be cases of people who were being treated for syphilis and the like, and records of medicine made up to treat an ailing child who subsequently died.

At the time, people would have expected that the books would have been kept private.

So today, we have one on display. We normally keep it closed, but open it at a ‘safe’ page when explaining the life of the pharmacy. We don’t let the pages of the book be photographed.

I think that’s an acceptable compromise. Things that people would have wanted to keep secret are kept secret. It is unlikely that anyone would be too upset if we accidentally revealed that someone’s great aunt Maisie had a very bad cold in the winter of 1931.

Just as if it was thought appropriate to recreate a burial to display items in context, as they did in Leicester all these years ago, it would be acceptable to use a modern plastic anatomy skeleton in place of the human remains.

It doesn’t change the validity of the display, but ensures that the remains themselves are treated with the respect that the original burial group would have expected.

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Victorian Vaccination …


Vaccination day in Port Mackay – attribution

When I went for my Covid shot, the nurse took a look at my arm to choose a vaccination site, noticed an old and faded scar, and asked ‘Was that a smallpox vaccination?’

It was.

In Scotland, where I was born, it was policy to use a lancet to scratch the inoculation site to leave a noticeable scar as proof of vaccination – in effect a vaccine passport.

As a teenager, girlfriends would bitch about how unsightly they were, especially if they’d manage to get a bit of a tan, but to be honest everyone had them, and anyway this was Scotland – short sleeves and spaghetti straps were a lot less common than woolly jumpers and Damart thermals.

Smallpox and tuberculosis were two of the really big killer diseases of the nineteenth century. When I look at my family history it’s quite disturbing to see how many of my predecessors died of lung diseases – usually lumped together under phthisis, which was used as a catchall term for not only tuberculosis but diseases brought on by constant exposure to smoke and pollution.

Primarily smallpox and phthisis were urban diseases – the ones in my family who died of these complaints lived in Dundee or Edinburgh, never those living on the farms, where they mixed less, living an isolated life except for market days, and were possibly less exposed to pollution and either adulterated or contaminated food.

The other interesting thing is that from the mid Victorian period onwards none of them died of smallpox – the reason being that smallpox vaccination became compulsory in Scotland in 1864, although not without some opposition. (There was no cure for tuberculosis – diagnosis was a death sentence and though treatment got better, remained so until the advent of antibiotics)

England had made vaccination compulsory some years earlier, and in Australia, Victoria made vaccination compulsory in 1854 to stop the spread of smallpox in the goldfields appointing public vaccinators for each district.


The vaccinator would make an incision into the skin and scrape in infected material harvested from someone already vaccinated to induce a mild case of cowpox – in fact it was a requirement that vaccinated people had to come back and have their infected material harvested.

Nineteen century medical equipment catalogues are full of various gruesome instruments for vaccination


Although some vaccinators preferred to make an incision with a lancet and then use a special tool such as this


to transfer the infected material – as perhaps the vaccinator is doing in the sketch at the head of this post.

And of course this reveals another gruesome secret about nineteenth century vaccination. To get the safe vaccination material here from England they transported in in the arm – having no other way of transferring a live vaccine.

This meant starting out the voyage with a group of unvaccinated individuals and progressively vaccinating a pair every eight days or so with material harvested from the previous pair to be vaccinated and hoping that they would be able to harvest live material once they got to Melbourne.

From there the material could be transported (quickly) on glass plates and used to restart the vaccination cycle.

Gruesome as the story is, it worked. Compulsory vaccination and health inspection successfully controlled the spread of smallpox in nineteenth century Victoria.

Of the other colonies, Tasmania enacted similar regulations but didn’t actually enforce them terribly strictly, and New South Wales never had compulsory vaccination. I’m unsure about the situation in the other colonies, although the lead picture suggests Queensland had a vaccination service …

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RLS and St Cyrus


I was reading Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons, the story of the extraordinary Stevenson family, who over several generations built most of Scotland’s lighthouses, not to mention a quite a few elsewhere.

Robert Louis Stevenson, of course, was one of the family who did not take to lighthouse building and ran away to be an author, ending his days in Samoa.

Anyway, in the book, I came across a minor error that obviously slipped through the sub-editing process.

Bella Bathurst states the Alan Stevenson, after he resigned as Chief Engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board due to illness, lived for sometime at St Cyrus in Fifeshire.

Well St Cyrus in Kincardineshire I know well from summer holidays when a child, and also that we once had a farm there, but I didn’t know of one in Fife an area which I also know reasonably well.

A few minutes with Google Maps convinced me that there was only one St Cyrus in Scotland, and that was the one in Kincardineshire above the mouth of the North Esk and the border with Angus, which was known as Forfarshire in the nineteenth century.

But where did he live?

The answer was Kirkside House, which was amazingly adjacent to what was our farm. I remember old uncles referring to it as ‘The Toorie House’ due to its distinctive round tower and using it as a landmark from the beach to place the location of field boundaries when looking at landslips.

Thomas Stevenson, Alan’s youngest brother married Margaret Balfour, whose parents lived in the Mall House in Montrose, in 1848, with Robert Louis Stevenson coming along in 1850. However despite J’s assertion that every third person in Montrose is related to me in some way, I can claim no connection with the Balfours, unless it was as servants.

We do know that Thomas Stevenson’s family, including RLS, visited with Alan Stevenson when he was in Kirkside House, and while I had a moment of fantasy about some of my forbear’s children encountering the sickly RLS on walks, it actually can’t be true – we didn’t acquire the lease of the farm till the mid 1860’s and Alan Stevenson died in Portobello in Edinburgh in 1865, of something that sounds a lot like what we would nowadays diagnose as Multiple Sclerosis.

I’m assuming that RLS continued to visit family in the area – given that his father and brother David built Scurdie Ness Lighthouse in Montrose, it would be surprising if he did not – after all he would still have been trying to meet his father’s wishes and become an engineer in the family firm …

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Is reading onscreen so very different from print?

Earlier today, I retweeted a link to a Conversation article about why we seem to remember more when we read an article in print than we do onscreen.

The concern of the article was based around online learning and the argument was that reading on screen was different, and usually in a more distracted environment, while the physical engagement with the document reading a print article enabled greater concentration.

Equally the article argued that also, because we see digital contents as more disposable, we tend not to engage with it to the same degree that we do with printed text.

Well maybe.

My experiments with the dogfood tablet have inadvertently demonstrated (and this is only anecdotal) that if one has a distraction free environment on can concentrate on the text more.

My other anecdotal comment based on my own experience is that one has to learn to engage with the text.

In my youth I read a lot of science fiction. This gave me the ability to read quickly and retain a story. Unfortunately, this didn’t quite work at university when I started reading research reports and reading critically.

I solved this problem by teaching myself to read closely by writing a precis of the text, something I still sometimes do today.

But what if you lived in a pre-literate society, or one where very few people could read fluently?

When I worked for AIATSIS, I was privileged to hear a recounting of a dream-time story by a group of Aboriginal traditional performers.

Even in an anonymous meeting room in Canberra, it was an enormously powerful experience, spine tinglingly so, with a rhythm to the story and the beating of sticks for effect at critical points in the tale.

At the time, I could not help thinking that this was how the Iliad or the Odyssey must have been when first performed, or Beowulf with its beating alliteration.

You would remember these stories because not only of the performance but because the repetition and alliteration would make them easier to remember.

Even early Greek theatre, or at least those plays that have survived, or the plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked well and were memorable through not only the stories but the images and turns of phrase.

And the same must surely be true of onscreen reading.

The texts need to be memorable.

If they are not memorable one must make them so either by precising the texts or some other trick.

I’d like to see a study carried out to see if students who read onscreen while taking notes retained more than those who read a printed version of the text and did not …

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The Jamaican Connection …

 While messing about with family history this weekend I’ve finally found a Jamaican connection.

 As you may remember, I’ve long been puzzled about why there quite a few people who are the descendants of enslaved people in the Bahamas with the same (unusual) surname as me.

However, I’ve come across the Honourable Robert Fairweather, who lived in St Mary’s in Jamaica and died there in 1843.

Not one of my direct predecessors, but a cousin by marriage – the brother of my great^n grandfather’s wife

Born into relatively humble circumstances at Stracathro in what is today Angus in Scotland, he went to Jamaica and became what was described as a planting attorney – not a lawyer as we might think, but an estate manager who held power of attorney over the business of the estate – something which made sense when the owner could conceivably be on the other side of the ocean in London or enjoying the waters in Bath.

Robert Fairweather was a slave owner – he was registered as owning slaves and obtained compensation when slave owning was abolished.

So far, so embarassing.

However, if you delve a little deeper, the story becomes more complex.

When he died, he left fifty pounds to each of his siblings who were still in Scotland, and the balance was to be shared between his six children and his ‘good housekeeper’ Catherine Allen, who was incidentally the mother of his children.

In his will his children are described as free quadroons, meaning that they had one white parent (Robert) and one mixed heritage parent (Catherine) and were not themselves enslaved. It also implies that Catherine herself had one white parent and one black parent.

Given her rather Scottish sounding name, I’m presuming that one of Catherine’s parents was also from Scotland and may have known Robert already.

Then it gets murkier.

Catherine herself is registered as owning five slaves. One of Robert’s children with Catherine, John, is also registered as a slave owner, as is his wife.

John, interestingly, had a private act passed in the House of Assembly to be granted the rights and privileges normally accorded to a white person, and went from being described as a carpenter in a census in the mid 1820’s to a gentleman by the early 1830’s. I’m guessing that John acquired some wealth and position through his marriage and moved up in the world.

What this shows is not only how pervasive slave ownership was in Jamaica, but also that it was not restricted to the white elite – there was a developing middle class of people of mixed descent, some of whom clearly aspired to status, as shown by John’s becoming a gentleman, and going to the expense of having a private act passed to accord  himself the rights of the white population …

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Sealers, whalers, and Antarctic discovery

I’m about 80% through volume one of James Clark Ross’s Voyage to the southern seas, mostly speed reading it in idle moments on my newly acquired 7” tablet – the one I bought specifically for offline reading of pdf’s – and a number of things are quite clear to me.

Throughout his account of the voyage Ross recounts meetings with sealers or whalers, or coming across the remains of their camps on remote islands, showing the extent to which whalers and sealers were the first to explore the sub Antarctic islands.

And while the sealers were as gnarly and fetid as we might imagine – he describes meeting a group on the Crozet islands who stank of rancid seal oil who wore penguin skin boots with the  feathers turned inward – he also admits to making use of the sealing vessels’ logbooks to plot his course – the difference being that Ross went to these islands to survey them, not just club seals.

The other thing is that there were women on these islands. As well as Campbell Island, Ross mentions the remains of a hut on the Auckland Islands where a castaway lived with what he describes as a New Zealand woman – as this is 1840 and before large scale European immigration to New Zealand, I presume he means Maori – suggesting that there were more women involved than usually thought to be associated with Antarctic sealing and whaling.

Equally interesting is the practice of deliberately stocking remote islands with pigs, goats and chickens to provide a food source for passing vessels, as well as planting gardens of potatoes, Siberian kale (which we would nowadays more commonly call Russian Kale, Siberian Kale and  Russian Kale, being alternate names for the same variety of kale – Brassica napus va pabularia ), as well as berry patches of gooseberries, red and blackcurrants …

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Family history and red herrings …

J’s Australian ancestry is a mystery to me. Her lineal great^n grandfather is Henry Thomas Hill, who worked for Victorian Railways and who died in Castlemaine in May 1882.

He had a wife, Anne Humfries or Humphries and they first appear in the records in Castlemaine in 1848.

I can’t find any record of their marriage, migration to Australia, or their individual births. They may have been free settlers, convicts, people who moved from Tasmania, I simply don’t know.

I can estimate Henry to have been born around 1810 as his death notice gives his age as 72 when he died, but that’s it.

Anne Humfries, who was ten years younger than him, lived to 1904, dying in Carlton. A number of her children were living in and around Carlton and Fitzroy at the time. She was possibly living with one of her children, I havn’t checked that out yet.

When she died, the funeral notice states that her coffin would be taken by train from Carlton to Castlemaine to be buried alongside her husband. This was obviously quite an expensive funeral, with two companies of funeral directors involved. It also suggests a deep and enduring relationship between the two.

Recently however, I came across a Henry Thomas Hill who also died in Castlemaine in 1882, but who married a woman called Charlotte Elizabeth Salt in Warrnambool in 1857.

This immediately raised a red flag – Henry and Anne’s youngest child wasn’t born until 1858.

So while it wasn’t impossible for Henry to have bigamously married Charlotte, it seemed a tad unlikely.

Charlotte had previously been married to William Julian Thomas, who had died in early 1857, with Charlotte remarrying in October of that year.

Interestingly, Charlotte and William married in Port Fairy, and there is a record of a Henry Hill arriving in Port Fairy from Tasmania. It’s possible that they had had a long standing friendship.

Charlotte’s Henry is described as a hair dresser and wood carver which is an interesting combination.

I also don’t think Charlotte is anything to do with J’s family – I think someone has confused the death records of two Henry Hill’s who died around the same time.

What is interesting is that Charlotte’s Henry (who sometimes has his birth year given as 1810, and sometimes as 1819) turns up as either being born in Stone in Staffordshire, or in Middlesex. Obviously he can’t have been born twice, so given that someone has mixed up the deaths of two Henry Hill’s is possible, just possible that one of these births is also our man – but which one I don’t know as yet …

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Women in nineteenth century sealer’s camps

Well, I’ve become a bit intrigued by the Elizabeth Farr story, not that I’ve got very far tracing her.

What I have found is that no one really knows much about sealer’s camps – there seems to be an assumption that they consisted of a group of gnarly and probably fetid men that went around clubbing seals, skinning them and rendering the remains.

If the sealers were local the men were usually dropped off early in the season by the seal boat which returned later to pick them up. Obviously if they were from further afield – America for example – they anchored their boat securely while working onshore.

But it does seem that sometimes there were women present in the camps.

James Clark Ross, on his 1840 expedition to Antarctica stopped off on Campbell Island and in his account of the voyage wrote:

Screenshot 2021-03-25 111436

This of course asks as many questions as it answers. Elizabeth Farr was clearly not a French woman, and it’s not clear from Ross’s account how recent the grave was, or indeed he had confused the grave with another.

However, it does seem to suggest that women were present on occasions in sealer’s camps ….

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The Long S in the Sydney Gazette ..

The Sydney Gazette story of Captain Hasselborough’s demise is interesting typographically for its use of the long s.

In the handwriting of the time the long s was only really used as the first s of double s in a word, Haſselborough, rather than Hasselborough.

However, a lot of English typesetters of the time stuck to an older set of rules, which basically meant that the long s was used where we would use a round s, except at the end of the word, so Haſſelburgh instead of Haſselburgh for Hasselburgh and Perſeverance Bay for Perseverance Bay.

Apparently some typesetters in the early nineteenth century switched to following the normal handwritten usage, but quite a few did not.

Sydney was of course a small isolated settlement, six months by ship from England, so it’s not surprising that eighteenth century typesetting practices should persist into the early nineteenth century.

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