Is the body in pieces at peace? And what role do osteoarchaeologists play in shaping a certain body narrative?

“I find myself opposed to the view of knowledge as a copy, a passive copy of reality…knowing an object does not mean copying it- it means acting upon it.It means constructing systems of transformations that can be carried out on or with this object…”(Piaget 1968 cited Turkle 2007, 87)

6 years ago I started my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology programme in Sheffield with the thought of improving my hands-on anthropological skills. However, throughout that master I’ve learnt to listen more to a growing concern of mine regarding the limitations of current interpretations of past bodies; feeling that it is our methods and questions that often lead to an objectification of the dead, I set up in my Master thesis to understand where exactly these limitations lie. Thus, I ended up with an exploration of what osteoarchaeology is: what happens in the laboratory of an osteoarchaeologist, when and how. I should also mention that the advice I’ve received from my supervisor, Prof John C Barrett was essential, for which I am extremely grateful; my encounter with ‘Pandora’s Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies’ by Bruno Latour set up in motion the whole set of intellectual explorations that followed:

A shoemaker, Ferdinand Vlădică, aged 38 died in 1935 at the hospital “Spitalul Central”, Bucharest (Romania). The cause of death was diagnosed as general paralysis. His body was dissected and his skeletal remains became part of the “Francisc J. Rainer” osteological collection, at what later became the Anthropological Institute from Bucharest. Ferdinand’s death marked an end of his individual existence, from which just sex, age, profession and cause of death were recorded and remembered. His remains were destined to be classified as objects, upon which scientists were to exercise their control through categorisations, measurements etc. His inner part – the skeleton was made visible, kept for the the advancement of anthropological knowledge, and his whole story was to reside just in his material body.

In my study I intended to analyse the way in which the human body can become objectified through the way it is experienced in the context of a scientific endeavour, and the narratives that are built around it. It is a text that talks about osteoarchaeologists, the human body they bring into view and the narratives they produce.  The focus moves between people and objects, instruments and procedures, text and image, in a game of intertextuality that ‘makes up people’s lives and their own interpretations of history’ (Solberg 2011). Osteoarchaeology sets a challenging and extraordinary goal of discovering past humanities, by viewing the body as a piece of heritage which embodies and signifies the past (Swadhin Sen et al. 2006, p.74). Paradoxically, however, due to the methodollogy employed the dead body looses the link with the former living individual and his/hers biography, taking its own ‘identity’ – that of a ‚body’, that can be dissected, cut, or dismembered to be displayed and manipulated in educative purposes, to be reconfigured according to the scientific ideollogy.

The account is set inside the walls of the Francisc I. Rainer Anthropological Institute (Bucharest, Romania). As soon as one passes through its entrance and climbs the stairs, one gets in the main lobby, where all the walls are covered in glass doors cabinets having on display human crania- one of the largest collections in Europe. In the furthest corner of one of the corridors there is the door of the Paleoanthropology laboratory. It is here where a fascinating process is happening: the transformation of the remains of once a living human being into a specimen destined to be studied as part of the osteoarchaeological paradigm.

An osteoarchaeological analysis is a complex process through which bones undergo a process of enculturation, being ascribed meanings that move between material culture and human beings, persons and things. This was not a paper about the knowledge osteoarchaeologists claim to have about the human body. Rather, I propose a reflective approach of the way in which osteoarchaeologists define, manipulate and talk about the human body, as a consequence of the established methodology. For this, I follow step by step scientists in their work to obtain that knowledge and I critically deconstruct their actions. Out of the multiple ways of engaging with human remains, the osteoarchaeologists follow certain ontological assumptions, established methodologies, and they use specific instruments and techniques. By focusing thus on scientific practice, I aim to understand the specificity of the osteoarchaeological perspective by revealing all factors used to build this particular scientific representation of the world. It is my goal to make explicit what otherwise remains hidden in the scientific narrative or is taken for granted, to explore the assumptions and choices osteoarchaeologists make when studying a human being.

The various meanings of the human body, along its role and constitution in society have been explored in numerous studies in the social sciences area (e.g. Featherstone et al. 1991; Fforde 2004; Foucault 1977; Gold 1996; Latour 2004; Metcalf and Huntington 1991; Schepper-Hughes 2001; Shilling 2003, Sofaer 2006). Its structure has been broken down to pieces and examined in relation to social and political relations, cultural customs, moral issues or economic implications. Even so, there are not many studies that have focused on the practice of the scientists themselves, the way they interact with the body-as-an-object-of-scientific-inquiry. With the exception of a number of recent studies that have focused on the engagement with human bones- articulating anatomical skeletons, touching and handling the skeleton or the substance of bones (Hallam 2010; Krmpotich et al. 2010; Sofaer 2006, 2012)- the interest in understanding the reasons and implications behind such researches seems to be quite low.

My text intends to explore a new dimension, to move between what Knorr Cetina (1977, p. 669) calls ‘the context of discovery and the context of justification’. Thus, the focus of the research moves in the laboratory. Following the social constructivism approach, the laboratory is not understood as a space where reality is observed and revealed. Rather, it is a place where one possible interpretation of this world is performed. The idea of an object that waits passively to be studied is replaced with an approach that takes into account all the factors that are part of the process of knowledge production: scientists, the dead human body, instruments, procedures, and environment (see Ingold 2008; Latour 1987, 2005). At the same time, by constructing meaning I do not intend to say that it involves imposing a pre-determined model on to a raw material. Rather, I follow the phenomenological approach that sees the process of living (or studying) the world as a process of engaging with it.

The results of the analysis and the references can be found online (OA), posted on my page: Ion A., Dissertation (2011): IS THE BODY IN PIECES AT PEACE? An analysis of the practice of Osteoarchaeology.


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