Dead Body Language: Positioning, Posture, and Representation of the Corpse

Posted on May 10, 2017


Another session from the TAG conference that we filmed:

Session Abstract:
Nothing gives a better portrait of death than the cold, pale corpse. Paradoxically, our understanding of death perpetually creates and conditions the corpse that we encounter.

The process of laying out the dead body is underlain by spoken and unspoken rules about how the corpse should be presented e.g. extending the legs, folding the arms, placing the hands on top of the chest, adjusting the head to face forward. Conscious or unconscious, these decisions are deeply ingrained in the specific death culture in which the corpse and its mourners are situated. The laying out of the corpse may be accompanied by elaborate ritual practices and performance. The gender, age, and status of the deceased may invoke different bodily ideals, and thus their bodies may be positioned in different ways. Objects may be used to enhance the positioning of the body (such as using pillows or headstones to prop the head up) or render it obscure (such as by covering with a blanket, putting in flowers, shrouding, and so on). Postures may also be used to stimulate an illusion of sleep, to ensure rest for the undead, or even to defy death. Death postures may even extend outside the actual corpse into different media: effigies, paintings, films, and so on. Moreover, the effects of postmortem changes to the body, such as rigor mortis, may have physical and emotional impact on the act of moving and positioning a dead body. In archaeological or forensic contexts, in particular, information about corpse positions may not be directly available, but it has to be inferred and reconstructed from what remains. The aim of this session is to promote new understanding of the representation of the corpse through body postures. It welcomes papers from any geographical regions and time periods, exploring different aspects of corpse positioning and posture.

Sian Mui, Durham University

Burial positions past and present: An introduction and some critical thoughts Sian Mui, Durham University

Archaeological bodies are found in a variety of positions. Supine, one-sided, prone, flexed, and crouched are familiar terms that burial archaeologists deal with regularly. By manipulating how the body is seen and experienced, the positioning of the corpse plays a significant part in the funerary ritual and the experience of death. For the western viewer, it might seem normal, proper, and suitably respectful that the body of the deceased is laid out in an extended supine position. However, this preference is hardly universal or timeless, and is historically rooted in over a millennium of Christian funerary traditions. Different societies have derived specific sets of rules about how and how not corpses should be positioned. Even within the same community, different people may be given different positional rites, invoking ideas about their identities in life and in death. This introductory paper to the session offers an overview of corpse positioning past and present – from the uninteresting extended supine graves to the baffling prone burials – and seeks to provide some critical reflections on how archaeologists approach and interpret dead bodies.

Facing the dead: Investigations of mummification and its social dimensions. A study of Garton Slack from Iron Age Britain Emma Tollefsen, University of Manchester

In Iron Age Britain mortuary practices span the full range of possible rites (Wait 1985): inhumation, cremation, excarnation (Stead 1991, Harding 2016), even rare forms of supposedly ‘accidental’ mummification (e.g. ‘bog bodies’ Giles 2009, Aldhouse Green and McDermid 2015), with a variety of disarticulated remains that have been further modified for public display or personal curation (Armit et al. 2011,2013). Within this landscape East Yorkshire is both an iconic and fascinating region, containing some of the only formal cemeteries from this time period.

Garton Slack and Wetwang Slack were excavated from the mid-1960s till the 1980s, initially by T.C.M. Brewster (1980) and later under the direction of Dr John Dent (1982, 1984). Despite their rich funerary archaeology and the international significance of these finds, a report on the sites were never fully published. Stimulated by wider research, and burial practices, my research tell the story of five individuals who were buried at Garton Slack cemetery; presenting case studies with unusual mortuary positioning of the corpse in the ground. Through osteological and histological analysis this paper will reveal important results into complex mortuary rites which challenge our current notions of inhumation traditions in the Iron Age. Demonstrating the potential of this new suite of analytical techniques to rewrite understandings of funerary practice, the paper will also touch on its wider importance in understanding past society’s relations with cadavers, and thus prompt us to think critically about how we display human remains or represent the associated mortuary rites, in more public museum contexts.


Punitive postures for the early medieval deviant dead Howard Williams, University of Chester

In his influential 2009 book, Andrew Reynolds integrated documentary, place-name and archaeological evidence to identify and interpret later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries as evidence of judicial practice, indicative of the political ideology, legal culture and dispersed administrative geography of the Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the 7th and 8th centuries AD and persisting as places of death and disposal into the post-Conquest period.

Reynolds’ consideration of burial posture was primarily related to distinguishing execution cemeteries from contemporary communal cemeteries and identifying modes of punishment, including hanging and decapitation. This paper presents a further reading of the evidence for burial posture in later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries by drawing on theories of public execution as theatrical memory work. I propose that the lack of formulaic disposal, and thus considerable variability in deviant burial posture at many later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries, can be theorized as more than evidence of casual disregard for the dead or the violent punishments inflicted whilst killing the interred individuals. Burial posture can instead be interpreted as a key performative strategy at the culmination of public executions, choreographed to overtly contrast with burial practices in contemporary Christian burial grounds. As well as marking out the deviant dead spatially, burial posture enhanced the emotive and mnemonic force of public execution and the act of burial itself. Punitive postures thus built mnemonic citations between successive burial episodes, installing memories of violence into fixed landscape locales. Focusing on the evidence from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, I explore how varied punitive postures configured the remembrance of the deviant dead in the early medieval landscape.

The man with the stone in his mouth; and the symbolic replacement of severed body parts with objects in third- to seventh-century AD burials in Britain Simon Mays and Vicky Crosby, Historic England

Normative inhumation in third- to seventh-century cemeteries was extended supine burial, but sporadically burials are found which deviate from this norm. Occasionally such deviations take the form of burial in the prone position and/or decapitation or other mutilation of the corpse. In a small subset of these latter, the severed head or other missing body parts are replaced in the grave by objects at the appropriate anatomical locations. A small rural late Romano-British cemetery at Stanwick, England contains 35 inhumation burials. One burial, an adult male, which is the main subject of this paper, was found buried prone with a large flat stone wedged into its mouth. Various interpretations of the placement of the stone in the oral cavity are possible. However, analogy with other burials from Stanwick and elsewhere, where missing body parts are replaced with stones or other objects, suggests one possibility: the stone was a symbolic replacement for a severed body part, in this case the tongue. This interpretation is supported by osteological study: the mandible shows alteration that may be consistent with amputation of the tongue in life. A number of causes of tongue ablation are possible. One is judicial mutilation. The medical literature on tongue amputation suggests further possibilities: although assault or accident are sometimes responsible, more frequently such injuries are self inflicted in patients suffering seizures or mental illness. These possibilities are discussed for the Stanwick burial and the discussion is framed within the broader context of deviant burial practices in Roman Britain.

Assume the deposition: The position and effect of curated early Anglo-Saxon objects included in the grave during inhumation funerals Brian Costello, University of Chester

Anglo-Saxon inhumation graves from the 5th to early 7th centuries AD were furnished with grave-goods specifically to either display or idealise the identity of the deceased. Studies of these cemeteries depict patterns of how various types of objects, such as weapons or dress fasteners, were positioned on the corpse or around the body in a grave. In some instances, these objects reveal evidence of retention, curation, and an age older than the chronological context of the rest of the grave. These objects are thought to have complex biographies and were possibly heirlooms from past generations. Examples such as brooches or swords would have been worn or carried on a daily basis, and were probably well known throughout the local population and those attending the funeral. The inclusion of these known curated objects would have had a symbolic effect on the remembrance of the deceased and his or her family, creating links to a specific past person, people, or events. The position and visual display of such important items during a funeral created a focal point for the enactment and amplification of social memory, recollecting the complex biography of the object in tandem with the identity of the deceased. As a preliminary investigation into the deposition, placement, and significance of early Anglo-Saxon curated artefacts within inhumation graves, this paper will test the possibility that curated artefacts were positioned in a more visually distinctive manner to display their unique importance for social remembrance in relation to the body of the deceased.

Death: Mirroring life? An exploration of the perspectives gleaned from skeletal and burial material Stephanie Evelyn-Wright, University of Southampton

When a loved one dies it is usual to present a ritualised, but exceptional, set of behaviours. For example, today people often wear black to symbolise mourning, a corpse is often dressed in the deceased’s best clothing and funeral services often have a more religious underpinning than perhaps the rest of life entails. All this is behaviour that does not necessarily reflect the everyday, but is deemed ‘appropriate’ for that stage in the life course for the society.

Academics today often explore burial type, provision etc. in order to gain insight into an individual’s identity in the past. However, there is rarely discussion of how an individual’s newly ‘deceased’ status effects their identity overall in the eyes of their community and how the exceptional behaviours, like those discussed above, could distort the perception we have from the burial context. Using an osteobiography approach, I aim to explore the life story as exhibited in the bones and the death story through the burial context, to see how much the two narratives agree. To do this I have used case studies from Roman Britain and concentrated in particular on the theme of disabled identity.

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