Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Row over Museum’s display of human skull

Traditional healers and archeologists clash over human skull window dressing a display cabinet at National Museum ÔÇô Writes BASHI LETSIDIDI

When El Negro’s remains were liberated from a display cabinet in a Spanish museum and brought back to Botswana for reburial, a lot of indignation was expressed on the impropriety of an African being inappropriately treated.

As El Negro lies in his final resting place at Tsholofelo Park in Gaborone, a human skull is on display at the ongoing exhibition at the national museum and art gallery that celebrates 40 years of Botswana’s independence.

The skull in the museum belongs to the archaeology department which excavated it in one of its digs.

The acting director of the National Museum and Art Gallery, Steven Mogotsi, sees no parallel between what they are doing and what the Spanish did.

His central argument is that the skull is a prehistoric finding that no community in the country can claim any direct link to. Mogotsi adds that, unlike the Spanish museum, they are not displaying the human skull in their possession, as some sort of attraction as was the case with El Negro.

“The national museum is basically a research institution,” he defended. “Prehistoric findings help us understand and trace our history better.”

Though he qualified his comments, former Bakwena regent and member of the customary court of appeal, Kgosikwena Sebele, said that, in Setswana culture, to dig up human remains and display them publicly is “taboo”.

“However, given the sort of work that museums do, it may not be that much of a taboo,” says Sebele, a noted expert on Setswana culture.

Ordinarily, the term that would be used to describe digging up human remains is “exhumation” but what archaeologists do is termed “excavation”.

The explanatory note next to the human skull at the national museum reads: “Archaeologists uncover the remains of past humans such as bones, broken pots, worn-out tools, jewellery and other artifacts through excavations.”

Mogotsi explained that after a certain period, human remains are regarded as relics.

Semantics aside, there is the question of whether archaeology, as being essentially a western enterprise, is adequately sensitive to African sensibilities.

Mogotsi’s answer is in the affirmative and in explaining how archaeologists are sensitive to customs and values of a people, he stressed the point that they always consulted with communities they operate within.

“That is why, as the national museum, we are custodians of natural heritage,” Mogotsi said.
Excavations such as those done by national museum archaeologists have brought this group of social scientists into direct conflict with traditional healers.

At a panel discussion three years ago, a national museum archaeologist lamented that traditional healers were desecrating important archaeological sites as they went about the process of spiritual healing in what are termed “sacred sites”.

In reaction to the archaeological enterprise of digging up human remains at sacred sites, a spiritual healer, an archbishop in his church, claimed that archaeologists reduced the spiritual potency of those sites.

“You find that a site invested with mystical potency loses its spiritual aura as archaeologists begin to dig it up for relics. If you take patients there, they don’t heal because the spiritual potency has been eroded.

There are special creatures that reside in those places and if they are disturbed by the presence of strangers on archaeological digs, they just disappear, taking their powers with them,” the healer said.

Among the special creatures that he named are leopards and anacondas. “I know people would think that we don’t have anacondas in Botswana but I have come upon several of them on the bed of a river in Kasane. They can only be visible to people like myself,” the healer said.


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