This week I am quickly looking at a recent French language academic title: Manipulations Post-mortem du Corps Humain: Implications Archéologiques et Anthropologiques by Jennifer Kerner, Sidestone Press, 380 pp.. Dr Jennifer Kerner is Junior Professor in Prehistory at the Department of Anthropology, University Paris-Nanterre, and a specialist in funerary archaeology.
Cross-roads of ethnology, funerary archaeology, taphonomy, osteology, and archaeothanatology.
This new title is a welcome addition to the corpus of literature studying the variety of ways of processing and disposing of bodies as part of funerary rituals. I would say this is an important, and useful book for two main reasons:
1. It embodies a ‘typical’ French school perspective, slightly different from the Anglo-Saxon literature, a view which combines archaeological insights, with osteological information, all placed under a wider anthropological understanding. By anthropological I mean a specific kind of ethnological focus, which moves between classical texts such as Arnold van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, to an extensive corpus of ethnographic parallels. Therefore, the author moves between Prehistoric cases, and ethnographic ones, seeing them as a continuum alongside an axis which places the corpse as part of wider cultural practices that ‘forget it or keep it in memory, hide it from view or expose it, reject it, or integrate it’ (p. 17). I have seen something similar in the Musee de l’Homme displays, structured by different kinds of questions that the ones other academic traditions might be familiar with- and the contact with the Other is always an inspiring experience, especially when it brings an important dose of humanity to the discussion of these topics.
2. It is a useful overview of current debates on terminology. At the same time, it comprises a variety of case studies, drawing from 350 archaeological sites, and 68 ethnographic populations.
The book is divided into six chapter, with multiple sub-chapters, looking in turn at: Methodological aspects (Chapter 1)- methods for analysing collections and bone depositions; Definitions (Chapter 2) – rite, grave, funerary deposit, primary/secondary/tertiary definitions etc.; The body whole in a funerary ritual (Chapter 3), The body divided (Chapter 4); Body-parts: objects, relics, talismans (Chapter 5), and Conclusions.
Even though the language of the book- French- might seem an obstacle to some readers, I would encourage them to not let themselves deter by it. Given that the author discusses terms and case studies that we are all familiar with, plus its methodological focus, I think it is quite easy to recognise the terms, and understand the main ideas throughout.
This is a work of synthesis, which goes through the existent literature, and evaluates how we can/should look at funerary traces. At times the text can get a little too heavy on unpacking definitions, aiming for finding a precise terminology – which I think it is not always necessary. Even so, it is informative to see the array of interpretations that are out there in the literature- e.g. what qualifies as a grave? or a secondary deposition?
Jennifer Kerner shows a number of superb examples of ‘dismemberment as funerary practice’ (p. 80-110), in which she makes detailed observations (each illustrated by photographs and drawings) of the potential acts of dismemberment, and/or human-animal hybridisation, and then looking at their potential social implications.
Mottos and chapter titles throughout constantly lead back the reader to thinking of these remains in terms of their humanity, and culture:
‘Il faut beaucoup de temps pour mourir’ Poverbe toradja [it takes a long time to die]
‘Accepter l’arret de la vie pour entamer la gestation de la mort’ [accept the end of life to begin the gestation of death; subtitle chapter p. 17]
Could be improved
The interesting case studies are interspersed with methodological, and terminological discussions, which makes it a little difficult to retrace them. Maybe would have helped to have a separate list, or index of them.
Anyone who studies historical funerary practices in their complexity: osteologists, funerary archaeologists, taphonomy specialists, cultural anthropologists. I think that especially for those looking at practices involving fragmentary bodies, curated bodies etc. this is a must read.
If you liked this you might also want to have a look at:
[while there are many titles out there dealing with bodies, rites, and taphonomy, these two old ones are still among my favourites]
⇒ Up next week: a superb graphic novel, Mezolith (Volume 1) by