Writing and Rewriting the Transitional Body: The Changing Narratives of the Ancient Dead

Posted on December 18, 2019


A session from the 2017 TAG conference that we videoed. Enjoy all of the presentations:

Session Info

The physical remains of the human body have long been a source of curiosity, particularly the ‘transitional’ body; mummies, bog bodies, and even shrunken heads occupy a space somewhere between the living and the dead, and narratives that surround these bodies, be they ancient or modern, historical or mythical, academic or fictional, have become layered and entangled over time and space. As early as the fifth century BCE, Herodotus already portrayed the Egyptian mummy as both sexualised and commodified. Likewise, as a mainstay of the Early Modern Cabinet of Curiosities, the mummy’s exotic ‘Otherness’ was to have a lasting impact on its interpretation. Academic interest in Egyptology at the end of the nineteenth century saw the mummy become a sociable body with a recoverable history, which in turn provided the potential for fictionalisation. The animated corpse of the gothic novel became at once decontextualized and eroticised, and now the scientific gaze of the twenty-first century virtually unwraps the mummy, narrating experience through pathology. In this way, the human body is an archive of its experiences (in life and death): its deposition and its discovery, interpretation, storage and display. Each process has become abstracted into both written and visual language, which means that the body of the ancient dead is already transformed within the imagination at the point of each of our individual encounters. With a focus on the changing narratives over time, and using the idea of writing in its broadest sense, this session invites papers that take a new and creative approach to the epistemologies surrounding the transitional body; weaving discourses, including those of personhood, gender, power and identity, together with the writings about, upon, and by the human body.

Organisers: Michelle Scott (University of Manchester) and Emma Tolleffsen (University of Manchester)


A Powerful Dead: Decapitation and plastering of human skulls at the Ancient Near East


In recent years archaeological excavations have yielded considerable new information regarding the burial practices of Neolithic communities. This paper sets out to establish the current importance of the Neolithic burial practices in domestic space in the ancient Near East. I will present an archaeological analysis of burials in the domestic context at the different Near Eastern sites, and moreover discuss several unique burial cases in order to capture potential changes in practices over time and space. In particular ways, these burials enhance our understanding of status and identity construction within community and the power of social memory across the prehistoric people. It can be seen that in the Middle East the practice of decapitation and plastering of human skulls took on a more developed form than the later Neolithic period in Anatolia. A question about the disappearance of this practice and person behind the modelled skull still remains to be studied.

Katarzyna Harabasz (University of Poznań)

Continuing Bonds and the Ancient Dead


We know that interpretations of past human remains are key sources of evidence for archaeologists. This paper discusses a new approach, using interpretations of human remains in a very different way. The ‘Continuing Bonds’ Project explores reactions by health care professionals and students to case studies of mortuary archaeology, assessing whether they can help facilitate conversations around death and dying today. In addition, case studies are used to explore the range of attitudes to death in different times and places. Through this, we demonstrate that while death is universal, approaches to dealing with this problematic topic vary widely, although they often reveal a motivation to keep the dead close to the living. The project generates different types of reaction through a variety of media: conversations; flip chart notes; and occasionally creative writing, demonstrating that different audiences express their emotions regarding the dead body in different ways.

Karina Croucher (University of Bradford), Lindsey Büster (University of Bradford), Jennifer Dayes (University
of Bradford), Laura Green (University of Bradford) and Christina Faull (University of Bradford)

Tattooed Women of Ancient Egypt: Inscribing power and protection upon the body


Drawing on the evidence of tattooed mummified remains from the sites of Deir el Bahari and Deir el-Medina, the paper will focus on the practice of permanent body modification within Ancient Egypt. While this evidence may be limited, these bodies provide a unique insight into the practice of tattooing in Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom contexts. Since the written word was integral to ancient Egyptian belief, the practice of tattooing could be argued as an act of eternalising symbols of power and protection upon the skin and within the individual. The abstract designs, symbols and figurative images inscribed upon the body were essential to the construction of identity and personhood. Whether these tattoos were for medicinal or cosmological purposes, they were undoubtedly transformative and embodied by the individual. The many possibilities as to why these ancient Egyptian women tattooed their bodies, allows for broad analysis and interpretation. Taking an inter-disciplinary approach of archaeological theory and ethnographic accounts from anthropological research on body modification, this paper will analyse the tattoos and critique the previous narratives associated with tattooed ancient Egyptian women. The themes of cosmology, gender, power, and status will also be explored.

Savanah Ebony Fahmy-Fryer (University of Manchester)

Sleeping Beauties: Mummies and the fairy tale genre at the Fin de Siècle


In this paper, I examine the relationship between mummy fiction and the fairy-tale genre at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. I observe the differences in depictions of male and female mummies, and argue that perfectly-preserved female mummies typical of fin-de-siècle mummy fiction emulate the figure of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, preserved in glass coffins (or museum display cases). Concurrently, I observe that while the suggestion of the marriage of the mummy is raised in several texts, any chance of longstanding romantic union is often foiled, in contrast to the (distinctly marital) ‘happily-ever-after’s which characterise the fairy tale. As human remains that were bought, sold and collected across the Victorian era (and beyond), mummies invited objectification. Yet their frequent disintegration or disappearance before they can be bound by the legal and religious strictures of marriage demarcates them as objects which cannot be tamed. I claim that we might read this, considering Britain’s contemporary imperial involvement in Egypt, a political and historical context which scholars have recognised as responsible for the emergence of the notion of the mummy’s curse: bodies which cannot be fully controlled might also be seen to resist Britain’s imperialist mission.

Eleanor Dobson (University of Birmingham)


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