This year at the 24th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in Barcelona I had the pleasure to organise a very good session with Liv Nilsson Stutz (Linnaeus University) on the topic of: Boundary bodies: Critically thinking the body in contemporary (osteo)archaeology. The aim of the session was to talk about ‘boundary bodies’, that is to place the body at the cross-roads of scientific and cultural/embodied discourses. We hoped to articulate a critical reflection on some of the latest scientific, theoretical or technical advances in the field of human remains research in (osteo)archeology. From a ‘DNA revolution’, to the digitisation of the dead, from advances in archaeothanatology to the appearance of new sub-disciplines, such as biohistory, our field has been lately marked by new questions and ethical and methodological concerns. Following on from some recent scholarship focused on the conditions of knowledge production on past human bodies, we aimed to dismantle the illusion that this knowledge is a straightforward matter, and instead link it to the fields of ethics, law, heritage, and cultural anthropology.
The line-up included nine contributions.
Liv Nilsson Stutz opened the session with introductory remarks highlighting the importance of the topic, and the kinds of issues that body research currently faces in archaeology. Body research involves ‘power by proxy‘ as she importantly highlighted.
Following her, historian Ewa Domanska (Department of History, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan) spoke about ‘Necroagency‘, presenting some of the arguments from her recent book ‘Nekros. Wprowadzenie do ontologii martwego ciała [Necros: An Introduction to the Ontology of Human Dead Body and Remains] (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2017). She started from the question of ‘How can we talk about non-human agency of human remains’, highlighting that the way in which current new materialism approaches deal with this is problematic- everything and nothing is agency (see John Robb), and as such the concept looses any value. Instead, Domanska proposed a model of agency of human remains at the cross-roads of natural sciences (taphonomy), and humanities, through identifying two kinds of agency that dead bodies can have: ‘passive agency, i.e. the ability to effect changes in the socio-cultural world- necropolitics, and active agency, by having an impact on the environment (decomposing remains in the ground on the chemical composition of soil)’- necroagency. This leads to an ‘environmental history of the grave’, where for example in the case of mass graves we should imagine the decomposing bodies permeating the soil, and together forming what she called ‘humus’ = a metaphor for the new materiality. Thus, she militated for preserving these post-Holocaust spaces untouched, as memorialisation should take into account that the whole substance of the soil has been permeated by bodies. To quote her, ‘remains are migrants, a necrodiasporic persona’, while dehumanisation through decomposition is a matter of degree.
Next was William Duncan (Sociology and Anthropology, ETSU), giving a paper co-authored with Christopher Stojanowski (School of Human Evolution and Social Change, ASU), on Emerging opportunities and challenges in forensic biohistory. The two authors propose that we should consider the existence of a sub-domain of forensic anthropology, that is forensic biohistory, defined as ‘efforts to positively identify the famous dead (such as the case of Richard III), or
to characterize matters of facts surrounding famous historical remains (Mozart’s cause of death) or historical events’. Starting from the case study of a catholic martyr saint from US history, Duncan raised a couple of extremely important questions: ‘What constitutes a positive identification?’, ‘Why it matters? (for those commissioning it, but also for researchers)’. As he nicely stressed, forensic specialists are ‘arbiters of an emotionally charged narrative’ at the cross-roads of several kinds of perspectives of what the body stands for, and this status brings up the question: Are we to be activists for the deceased? (see their latest book Studies in Forensic Biohistory. Anthropological Perspectives. Edited by Christopher M. Stojanowski and William N. Duncan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017, and my review here)
After the break, we had Duncan Sayer (University of Central Lancashire) on Death, DNA and personhood: the bioethical conundrum. By taking the case study of Charles Byrne’s postmortem fate, he opened a discussion on the relationship between DNA as a technology, identity, and (maintaining) anonymity. ‘Can you hurt the deceased?’ Duncan asked. Through our research on past bodies we try to put individuality back on the body, so in this context it is important that ‘archaeologists consider the implications of
biotechnology alongside an ethical trajectory for research within the contemporary scientific context.’ He also talked about DNA and identity in the public sphere, and mentioned his personal experience with alt-right members reacting to his own positions on the matter.
The next paper was jointly signed by John Robb (University of Cambridge), and Lauren Hosek (Syracuse University), on Osteobiography as a research tool: developing concepts to go with the term. Unfortunately the authors could not be present, but they kindly sent the paper. In their provocative text, the two propose that ‘osteobiography is a term in search of a concept‘, which even though it has been around for a while it is seen ‘as a self-evident exercise’. Therefore, they reviewed the basic methods, and theoretical goals of osteobiography, to then venture into a discussion on ontology, and ethics. In essence, the authors argued that ‘individual human lives have a complex relationship to normative concepts of age, gender and the life path on one hand, and to individual sequences of events conditioned by path dependency and contingency on the other hand.’
From biographies we then moved to archaeology as aesthetics and memory practice with Layla Renshaw’s (Kingston University London) paper on ‘The body as its own monument: human remains and grave sites in art and protest’. She started by stressing the responsibility archaeologists have towards the data they produce, once this data is ‘out there’. Through the powerful example of a recent public burial of a Syrian migrant woman drowned at sea, Renshaw explored the multiple dimensions of burial: as a political act, aesthetics, humanitarian, and ‘speaking for the dead’. She placed this as part of a wider discussion on art performance activities, such as those of the Centre for Political Beauty’s artwork ‘The dead are coming‘, exploring the themes of migration, death, body & memorialisation. ‘Who is allowed to use human remains for political reasons’?, and in what way?
After another coffee break, we reconvened for the last three points of view.
Franco Nicolis (Archaeological Heritage Office – Autonomous Province of Trento – Italy) presented the inspiring research he is undertaking with the recovery, and identification of the bodies of soldiers who died in the Alps during the Great War. Such an endeavour navigates a challenging line between scientific methodology and ethical issues, given that this is ‘excavating “identities” in the field of memory‘. He nicely called this an ‘archaeology of the grandfather’, and talked about ‘bodies as depths‘, having a double Curriculum Vitae: one in life, and another in death. ‘Elegantly tragic’ – this was probably one of the most powerful metaphors he presented, cited from a young relative of these soldiers upon seeing a uniform displayed in the museum.
Then, Alexander Gramsch from the RGK – Romano-Germanic Commission DAI (and Birgit Grosskopf, Historische Anthropologie, Universität Göttingen) spoke about The itinerary of the human body. an approach to the body’s material history. Some of the important themes he discussed dealt with what do we consider to be a grave, the oppositions between display and concealment, and the kinds of challenges we face when dealing with fragmentary remains such as those discovered at the Prehistoric site of Herxheim.
Lastly, it was my turn- Alexandra Ion (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research) to talk about the challenges of talking about past bodies at the cross-roads of osteology, and funerary archaeology. When is one dead for society (see Jennifer Kerner’s work), and in what way? To illustrate this, I took the example of the particular case of the treatment of Neolithic dead bodies throughout South-East Europe and the Balkan, which raises the question: what are these deposits? This in turn raise two kinds of problems: a practical one, dealing with the transformation of a fleshed body into a skeleton (and a fragmentary one), and a historical one- bodies as historical objects, which reflects the split of the body between disciplines (taphonomy-osteology, and anthropology). Instead, I proposed an alternative way of thinking about them, in order to surpass dichotomies, as well as our analytical categories.
Interspersed throughout the session, and at the end, we also had three x 15 min slots of discussion. Unfortunately the time was too short for all the great topics & questions raised by the speakers, but nevertheless we managed to go through some of these such as:
A big thank you to all the speakers, the audience members, the EAA volunteers (& Jaime for social media), and to all those who tweeted & took photos! It has been a very enjoyable experience, and this final picture pretty much sums the collaboration with Liv:
My presence at the EAA2018 was made possible by my project which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 701230