‘I once had to play a game (part of an exhibition guided tour): to choose a word that defines myself and write it on my name tag…’ (post)
When I meet new people at social events, the first question I get asked is: what is it that you do? The answer always puts me in difficulty (see past musings on the topic), as I do several things. However, trying to meet the expectations which usually understand ‘what you do’= the kind of material you are working on, my usual short answer is: dead bodies. A friend recently asked me about this- why do I keep telling people that I am researching dead bodies? ‘Simply tell them you do bodies’ she suggested. While from a social interaction point of view this is probably a healthy advice-many disappear after my reply-, this also made me think: what would be the most accurate phrasing?
The reply is not that straightforward as it might seem at first. In an article from 2004 (1), Bruno Latour presented a survey he had organised at a conference: he asked the participants what would be the antonym of the word ‘body’? Among the answers he had received, alongside ‘no body’ (!), or ‘antibody’ , he also discovered the words ‘unaffected’, and ‘death’. His point was to show that the concept of ‘body’ is a social construct, defined in a multitude of ways. However, I will pick something different from his little experiment- the pairing on opposing ends of the spectrum of the words ‘body’ and ‘death’. Do we associate bodies with living people, and death with inert matter? If so, how are we to talk about skeletonised remains that we regularly encountered in archaeological excavations?
Liv Nilsson Stutz alludes to this question in her latest article- ‘Building bridges between burial archaeology and the archaeology of Death. Where is the archaeological study of the dead going?‘ (2). She (I would say rightly so) points to the distinction between burial archaeology and the archaeology of death : burial archaeology ‘uses archaeological sources from burial contexts to enrich our understanding of the past’, and it relates more to the past living then the dead (‘from population and diet to social identity, social rank and relationships’), while the archaeology of death ‘seeks to understand how people handled death and the dead’- it explicitly deals with death (‘the realm of mortuary rituals, the treatment of the cadaver, ontologies, religion, and concepts of the afterlife’).
Her article stirred some debate in the same issue of CSA journal, with colleagues disagreeing with this distinction. Nevertheless, this tension between ‘decoding’ the actual remains of past people (and their depositional context) either as a window into the previous living individuals, or as a rite of passage has been present in the field of (osteo)archaeology/mortuary archaeology for many years now. Suffice to remember the distinction made by Joanna Sofaer between those practitioners who focus on past embodied beings, versus those seeing a body-as-material-culture, between archaeologists and osteologists, between bioarchaeologists and archaeothanatologists etc.
Mike Parker Pearson has famously said that ‘The dead do not bury themselves‘, thus proposing a reading of funeral contexts in social terms: the burial is a representation of the social identity of the relatives & group. In contrast, through her recent research on Medieval burials in Germany, Emma Brownlee (3) brings forth the agency of the cadaver. By looking at the inventory of graves in a period of conversion to Christianity, she explores how the ‘changing Christian notions of personhood, possessions and the resurrected body’ left a mark in the composition of the grave. In other words: the dead do bury themselves.
For me, the important thing is to place the (dead) body in its context, and to take osteoarchaeology towards anthropological questions. By this, I mean to move beyond an ‘objective’ and universal scientific methodology that measures and investigates bones, and actively engage with the agency of these remains. What did they represent for the community they were part of? What is the significance that the community gives to their own material? What is ultimately at stake here is an exercise in sincerity – our approach to the Other (whether we talk about a prehistoric skeleton or a Second World War soldier) is grounded in a certain metaphysical stance, which is often unacknowledged under the pretense of ‘objectivity’. It is precisely the rupture created by death that we need to think about in order to address what Thomas Browne (1835, 56) referred to as ‘This reasonable moderator, and equal piece of justice, Death’. Does death contribute to a change in those humans’ ontological status for us and/or for the people in the past? (4). My own interest is to give back a voice to those who got lost in the midst of history, or to reflect on the way the agency of their remains has impacted on the living.
As an example, when it comes to the study of human remains discovered in Neolithic settlements- disarticulated, fragmentary, and scattered human remains among dwellings- the question that I am currently thinking about is what would these deposits mean in terms of their presence and composition? Instead of focusing on a distinction: living-dead, what does it mean to have the 2 coming together?
(1) Latour, B. 2004. How to talk about the body? the normative dimension of science studies. Body & Society 10: 205-229.
(3) Brownlee, E. 2017. The Dead and their Possessions: The Agency of the Cadaver in Early Medieval Europe. EAA2017 Maastricht.
(4) Ion, A. 2016. The body of the martyr. Between an archival exercise and the recovery of his suffering. The need for a recovery of humanity in osteoarchaeology. Archaeological Dialogues 23(2):158–174.