Know Your Ancestors?

Eastbourne Ancestors Exhibition: The Pavilion, Royal Parade. 1 February – 16 November

Yesterday I visited the Eastbourne Ancestors exhibition and I was blown away!

It’s a collection of the archaeological finds discovered during digs around the town, and begins to piece together the stories of our ancestors who lived mostly in the Roman and Saxon times in this area.

The work that’s been done by volunteers to restore the finds and uncover the stories is extraordinary, and the ways the exhibition is displayed is really accessible for children and adults alike. There’s a digital map of how the area may have looked in our ancestors’ times, opportunities to dress up and discover, an audio recording of an Anglo-Saxon document spoken aloud, and a facial reconstruction of ‘Beachy Head Woman’, among exciting documentary evidence of the skeletons uncovered and beautifully arranged displays of various grave goods unearthed at the sites.

Some important and challenging truths are revealed in this exhibition. Many of us like to believe ourselves superior to our ancient ancestors, in terms of our understanding and ‘advancements’ in technology and science. But to see the evidence of sophisticated medical knowledge – one skeleton is a successful amputee – healing and social care, alongside effective weaponry and household objects, and beautifully crafted jewelled adornments, we must challenge that assumption head-on.

The care and artistry that went into producing such small objects as we would find insignificant today – brooches, beads, miniature combs – and their placing in the graves of local people must suggest that these things held a significance in both life and death that was integral to the social and spiritual understanding of our ancestors. I’m interested in their love of beauty. In today’s world, we often overlook the importance of beauty in our daily lives: work work work always seems so important. Yet those who came before us, whose survival depended on working the land they lived on, found time for grace and beauty that accompanied them to their graves.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

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I’ll be visiting the exhibition again between now and November, trying to discover what I can about the people whose lives are held within the belly of our land, and particularly trying to delve into the way they created and valued beautiful objects, which may have held sacred symbolism as well as ordinary functions. There are lives to be discovered and stories to be told…

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