How do you talk about the human body after you’ve seen a tragedy? Emotion and funerary archaeologists

Until now I have seen thousands of skeletons, in situ or as museum displays. I have written and spoken about the relationship between ethics and archaeology, and the need for recovering humanity in our discourse, as our methods often reduce the body to a predetermined set of numbers and properties. However, I have always left out of my accounts my own experience with death- my own interaction has always been mediated by standardised procedures and I was one among others for whom this was an objective and detached exercise. As a friend asked me: why don’t you recount your own feelings in these academic texts? 6 months ago I’ve told him that I felt it would be unprofessional to include them, and I did not really see how best to fit them in my narrative- how can I tailor my analysis so that it feels humane, but scientific in the same time? (aka not pathetic) I knew he was right, but I was unsure of how to proceed.

The drama I have witnessed these couple of days (the Bucharest nightcub fire which left 31 dead and 180 wounded) will probably have an impact that will help me get better at what I was feeling was needed. As an osteoarchaeologist I can say that seeing the struggle of colleagues/friends of friends burning alive in the Colectiv nightclub will change forever how I engage with death/cremation/the body.

There are colleagues who have explored the relationship between emotion, death and archaeology (e.g. see here and here), but how can we really integrate the two? Witnessing this incident through the eyes of a body researcher, all I could see were bodies in motion, the living and dying closely tied and enmeshed together, bodies of victims and rescuers alike: there were bodies stepping on bodies, bodies imprinting themselves on other bodies, with flesh peeling off victim’s hands and getting embedded on doctor’s, the smell in the air stuck in nurses’ robes, numbers written in ink on the flesh, stains of ash from victim’s palms marked in rescuers’ arms and clothes, like the pain imprinted in our collectiv spirit. How can you talk about cremation or violent deaths in the past after you’ve seen/heard people you know being reduced in a couple of minutes to wounds, flesh and traces? The static images and familiar bones come alive and suddenly you see the process and stages that left them as they are. Until now, the spectacle of death has only been a historical curiosity or detached observation for me- it required a defined set of questions and standard methods devised to approach a dead body. However I fear that after these couple of days I will have to find new questions and tailor new phrases in order to grasp the body in death. In our professional capacity we only see what is left of a former body, but how can we meaningfully capture its story?

Photo: Agerpres

Further titles on death, emotion and archaeology

Crouch, K. 2015: Excavation and Emotion: archaeological encounters with the dead. http://deadmaidens.com/2015/08/03/excavation-emotion/#more-1102.

Baxter, M., 2003: Corporeal Realities of Flesh and Blood as well as Bone. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 16(2): 128-135.

Boyle, A., 1999: ‘A grave disturbance: archaeological perceptions of the recently dead’, in J. Downes and T. Pollard (eds.) The Loved Body’s Corruption: Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Human Mortality, Scottish Archaeological Forum: Cruithne Press, 187-199.

Krmpotich, C., Fontein, J., Harries, J., 2010. The substance of bones: the emotive materiality and affective presence of human remains. Journal of Material Culture 15(4): 371–384

Leighton, M. 2010: Personifying Objects/Objectifying People: Handling Questions of Mortality and Materiality through the Archaeological Body. Ethnos 75 (1): 78-101.

Photo:Paul Grover/The Telegraph

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One thought on “How do you talk about the human body after you’ve seen a tragedy? Emotion and funerary archaeologists

  1. Pingback: 2016: The year past and plans in the one to come | Bodies and academia

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