Skeletons, Stories, and Social Bodies

Posted on June 2, 2017


For your weekend viewing pleasure, a session we videoed at the TAG conference:

Session Abstract

The human body has been investigated and marvelled by anatomists since the earliest civilizations, with a wide variety of mortuary practices and attitudes to the body have dictating the nature of their work and the ‘appropriate’ methodologies employed. But the human body is much more than a construction of tissues – the body itself conveys a sense of identity and social meaning, and can do so well after the physical body has died.

The cadaver itself means different things to different societies – to some it is honoured and revered, and to some it is an object of fear and revulsion. To most the image of the corpse represents the end of a life, the loss of a loved one, and the absence of a social connection – but the dead can represent more than absence and loss. However, the declaration of death does not mean the end of social impact for the deceased – the body can continue to have social agency, can take on a new role as a cadaver in the anatomy laboratory, and can continue to represent the thoughts and beliefs of their society well after their body has been disposed of (eg. through burial).
This session aims to address the concept of the social body in death, changing attitudes to the dead in pre-history and history, and the information which can be visualised and re-constructed from a dead body. Whether that is by the archaeologist examining the excavated ancient skeleton or the anatomist making the first incision into the cadaver, this session aims to visualise the corpse as more than a dead body and understand their extended social impact within the society to which they belonged.
This session is based upon the topics which will be covered in an upcoming conference at the University of Southampton. The conference will be entitled ‘Skeletons, Stories, and Social Bodies’, and will be a three-day interdisciplinary conference which aims to connect those who research the dead and those who work with the dead.

Sarah Schwarz, University of Southampton; Lizzie O’Sullivan, University of Southampton; and Stephanie Evelyn-Wright , University of Southampton

Human remains as evidence for grief and mourning? A reinterpretation of plastered skulls from the Neolithic of the Levant Karina Croucher, University of Bradford

In a change to the types of evidence usually gained from skeletal remains, this paper considers whether skeletal remains can inform us of grief and mourning. Taking the case study of plastered skulls from the Neolithic of Southwest Asia, this paper re-analyses the remains. The plastered skulls are the treated crania recovered from burials beneath house floors, on to which have been recreated faces using mud, lime or gypsum plasters. They are traditionally interpreted as relating to ritual elites, or as a means for expressing community cohesion. This new analysis is informed by recent work between archaeologists and end of life care researchers on the ‘Continuing Bonds: Exploring the meaning and legacy of past and contemporary practice’ project, and investigates whether theories of grief and mourning can shed light on practices in the past at particular moments in time.

Weland’s Bones: Skeletons and Stories in Early Medieval Britain Howard Williams, University of Chester

The post-burial retrieval and circulation of human body-parts has been an infrequent but increasing focus of attention for early medieval archaeologists. The variegated roles bodies and bones in creating and mediating social memory has been proposed for both pagan and early Christian communities between the 5th and 11th centuries AD. This paper takes a new perspective on the significance of bodies and bones in the Early Middle Ages. Rather than exploring mortuary or osteological evidence, and the usual focus on ‘grave-robbing’ or the ‘cult of saints’ relics’, this paper tackles medieval literature, art, material culture and monuments in combination, focusing on one particular enduring story told about, and with, bones during the Early Middle Ages.
The legend of Weland the Smith is known to have been circulating throughout northern Europe and Scandinavia from at least the 8th century AD. This tale of retributive violence by the magical smith Weland upon the evil king who crippled and imprisoned him, focuses on the breaking of bodies and the making of new things from the bodies and bones of Weland’s victims. Weland also transforms himself through his artisanal skill and by breaking bodies. The article shows how this story had material and corporeal manifestations. An archaeological perspective on the story of Weland, contextualized in relation to a range of evidence for the economic, social and religious significance of animal and human bodies for early medieval communities, sheds new light on the materialities, fiery technologies and landscape dimensions of the story, and the role of bones in particular narratives of violence and transformation that constituted perceptions of the body, social identities and social memories for early medieval communities and kingdoms.

Visualising Taphonomy: reconstructing burial practices from 1m2 at the Xagħra Circle hypogeum J. E. Thompson, University of Cambridge

The dense deposits of largely disarticulated and commingled human bone from the Xagħra Circle hypogeum on Gozo, Malta provide a rich case study from which the process of death, and interactions with the dead, can be visualised. The hypogeum and nearby rock-cut tomb, both contained by a surrounding stone circle, held the remains of between 700-900 individuals, deposited from c. 4300-2300 cal BC. Preliminary analyses have shown that in most cases primary inhumation gave way to prolonged periods of engagement with the materials of the dead body, resulting in patterned deposits of rearranged skeletal remains. These episodes of activity are now being investigated through both taphonomic and spatial analyses. The excavation plans from the Circle have been digitised (by Dr. K. Boyle, Dr. R. McLaughlin, E. Parkinson and J. Thompson) in ArcGIS, providing means to study the spatial distribution of the remains, in relation to features such as skeletal element, age, sex, pathology, and taphonomy. This paper will investigate the alignment of ArcGIS with taphonomy, through a detailed examination of 1m2 of burial deposit on the edge of a single, large context (783). Within this 1m2 area, more than half of the 3,611 analysed fragments range in age from foetal to adolescent. The high percentage of nonadult remains allow us to theorise about the intersection of personhood with age and burial modes, through detailed visual and contextual analysis.

The use/misuse of Iron Age Bodies after Death: Denying Agency and Drawing on the Power of the Body Nick Thorpe, University of Winchester

There were, of course, Iron Age burials treated with apparent respect, laid to rest in chambers with a wealth of objects then covered by mounds which ensured the survival of the dead, and long recognition of their social agency. Although in some cases equally famous, many other bodies were dealt with after death in ways which sought to drain them of agency.
The best known of these are the bog bodies of northwest Europe, treated in a variety of ways (including their landscape location, restraining and dismembering) which rendered them less dangerous. However, there are numerous other cases across Europe of cadavers being restrained, dismembered, or placed in unusual burial locations within, or outside, sites. Many of these individuals had visible impairments rendering them as disabled, but such a marginal position can be one of both isolation and power. Sometimes this resulted in honoured burial, but fear of the dead was often the leading emotion. It has been argued, for bog bodies, that evidence of care suggests that these are ‘normal’ burials, but extraordinary care must be taken in dealing with the malign dead.
We can also see attempts to draw on the power of the body by using (misusing?) body parts after death. These were sometimes retrieved and used over long periods. In particular, we may see the use of the skull for magical purposes (perhaps particularly efficacious in cases of violent death), sometimes being used in weaving (bringing to mind the Fates, or the Norns of Norse mythology).
Visualised denial of rebirth of the dead in the mortuary process: Ritual disarticulation during the Middle Jomon Period in Japan Takeshi Ishikawa, Kyushu University, Japan

This study reconstructs the disarticulation of the corpse as a type of deviant mortuary treatment and argues its significance for the living in terms of manipulation of the dead body as a social resource.
The deviant treatment of a corpse includes various mortuary practices such as unusual body direction and posture. In the reconstruction of past societies, differences in mortuary practices can reflect differences in social personae. In addition, the deviant treatment of a corpse can suggest an unusual social background and/or context of death. Both of these explanations regarding the deviant treatment of a corpse may suggest the fear of death and subsequent rebirth of specific individuals. In other words, in the mortuary process, visualised deviant treatment of dead bodies, such as disarticulation, was used by the living as a social resource to represent religious thought and create an intense visual effect on the living.
In the present study, disarticulation of the corpse was reconstructed based on arrangements of skeletal remains and cut marks on the bones. The samples used for analysis were a skeletal population from the Middle Jomon Period (ca. 3500–2500 cal BC) excavated from a shell mound in eastern Japan.
Disarticulation was observed at the lower limbs in several cases. In other cases, cut marks were observed on the skull and neck, although the anatomical relations remained largely intact. These findings suggest that disarticulation of a corpse was a ritual attempt to prevent the rebirth of the dead during the Middle Jomon Period in Japan.

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