By Annette Hinkle
“Excuse me. Do you know where the severed fingers are?” my husband asked politely.
It was a fair question. We were in Oxford, England and the guidebook had promised we’d find them somewhere in the Pitt Rivers Museum.
The place is a veritable Victorian treasure trove of odd and random objects from around the globe all stuffed into wood framed glass cases and organized by theme — collectibles, no doubt, collected at the height of Britain’s extensive colonial period.
The museum was founded in 1884 after Lieutenant General Pitt Rivers made a gift of 18,000 archaeological and ethnographic objects he had personally gathered from around the world. Don’t ask how he got them. Just be impressed that at this point there are over half a million objects in the museum’s collection, including those severed fingers which were now the focus of our quest.
“Ah,” said the gentle silver-haired curator. “You see, I’m afraid they’re not on display at the moment. Temporarily removed, I believe, for conservation purposes…”
“But we do have quite of few shrunken heads, if you’re into that sort of thing.”
How can anyone not be into that sort of thing? Especially when offered up by an elderly gentleman with a proper English accent? We were off in a flash, winding our way through the massive museum and in short order came across a case labeled “Treatment of Dead Enemies” which, indeed, contained those shrunken heads as well as several other gruesome specimens that fit the bill.
This is my first substantial visit to the U.K. but within a very short time there are two things I’ve come to understand about the British. First, they have a marvelous sense of humor about themselves and their politicians and, secondly, despite their impeccable manners and refined tastes, over the course of history there’s virtually nothing they haven’t thought to torture, burn, maim, murder or stuff.
The evidence is on full and proud display not only in the glass cases of museums, but in history books, walking tours, churches (especially churches), castles and fine literature. Just the other night, we took in a marvelously bloody performance of Macbeth at London’s Globe theater (in which there were severed fingers to spare by the way), a play that offers quite the cautionary tale about the misguided quest for power.
When you think about it, Shakespeare’s tragedies are terrific antidotes to what’s happening stateside these days. In fact, anyone seeking an escape from the gory details of the current U.S. presidential campaign would do well to nip over to England for a bit of medieval cleansing — you know, a little art, a little culture, perhaps a recap of the plague — to help put modern politics into perspective. This country has a lot more history behind it than our own, and they’ve seen it all, including Henry VIII, a ruler so badly behaved that he beheaded two wives and divorced several more due to various personal slights, making Donald Trump’s unpredictable outbursts (and his marital history) seem tame by comparison.
But that’s one battle which thankfully seems far away right now. At the moment, I’m enjoying the scenery and quiet pace of rural life just north of Oxford where my husband, daughter and I have settled into a country house for a few weeks. For the last 10 years, we have spent every August away from the East End as part of our annual house swapping tradition. Sometimes, we trade our place for small apartments in big cities, and sometimes, like this year, we opt for large houses in small villages. Trading houses is not for everyone, but it’s worked well for us, and my current view atop a high hill above the River Glyme includes meadows and the 16th century stone village of Wootton across the way.
Wootton is a sleepy hamlet with a single tiny food store, a 12th century church and one convivial pub with great food and local ales served at room temperature. A narrow trail called William’s Path runs behind our house, taking us between stone walls, over the river and down into the village, so we don’t have to drive if we don’t want to. As a rule, so few cars pass through this place that at night the stillness is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced back home. If you lie awake and listen, you’ll hear absolutely nothing, save the occasional stirring of the breeze.
But today’s quiet belies a long and storied past for this area. A Roman road once passed through here, which means this place has been lived in for centuries. Evidence of past human activity, not always the polite and friendly variety, has turned up in fields and building sites around here and is now on display in the local museum including weapons meant to bring down game (or human enemies). The history is even on view in the house we’re staying in with shards of pottery and other items found around the property displayed prominently in various rooms.
Like the objects of the Pitt Rivers Museum, every relic tells a tale of lives and conflicts that at times seem unimaginable in a place which today appears so quietly sedate. But with time comes perspective and even on a sunny day the realities that rule life and death are never all that far away, and sometimes can be found in your own back yard.
That was evident on our first day at this house, when I came across a freshly killed rabbit lying on the grass path leading to the back garden. What did it in wasn’t obvious, but I suspected a fox. The next day, it was totally gone, no trace left at all. The following day, I discovered a deceased hedgehog which had been smushed on the gravel road leading to the house. The spines were intact but it looked as if it had been there a while. A few days later, my daughter and I went back out on the lane again, but like the bunny, it was totally and completely gone.
I guess life’s like that and even in the most pastoral field in England, if you look close enough, you can find evidence of fame, fortune, and fates which have ultimately been forgotten.
So a hundred years from now what will people have to say about life in 2016 — the year of Trump, Clinton, ISIS and Brexit? Will any of it matter at all or, like the bunny and the hedgehog, will it simply have been forgotten by distance and decay?
I guess we’ll just have to wait for history to write itself on that score.
In the meantime, I’ll let you know if I come across any severed fingers in the coming days.