Body Trouble


Oh, those troublesome bones.

As sensitive archaeologists, we are told that we are to avoid depictions of skeletons, particularly skulls. This is partially a reaction to a tendency to the macabre in our field, but it is primarily because several of the culture groups we study do not like having granny’s bones up on the powerpoint for people to gawk at.

This comes into direct conflict with the desire to give scientific talks about human remains but also with the interest in the macabre that drew many of us to the field in the first place. I have to say, I did not come to archaeology to dig up bones–but it is a great side benefit. I’m sad that my enthusiasm and love for human remains is seen as disrespectful and inappropriate to my profession. There’s also the perspective that I am benefiting financially and professionally off of the bones of groups of people who were already exploited by the scientific community. We try to be respectful and especially avoid Native American groups and other people who protest our casual attitude regarding their ancestors, but usually that just means that we go and ply our trade in other countries with more willing or apathetic populations.

People who are much more involved in the topic have written more lucidly than I (see Walker’s Bioarchaeological Ethics and Zimmermann’s When data become people) but they missed some of the romanticism of working on bones that is more often played on in popular culture.

The skull is a powerful symbol in many cultures, not the least of which being American 21st century capitalist commodified transgression. Skulls are a cheap and easy way to market to the perceived “edgy” demographic, of which I have taken part in. We’ve co-opted this shorthand for rebellion (or maybe it has co-opted us), but what do I do now that I actually traffic in bones? Is a stylized t-shirt more inappropriate when you’re holding a real life skull?

(The series of pictures are from a lovely page of Japanese prints of decay:


purple flowers warhol
Purple ‘flowers’ by Andy Warhol, 1964

“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” Calvino, “Invisible Cities”

“Sometimes I picture a botany book in the future saying something like, ‘The lilac is now extinct. Its fragrance is thought to have been similar to–?’ and then what can they say?” Warhol, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol”

“Another way the Kaluli dialectic between what is hidden and what is revealed emerges is powerfully signaled by the intersensory iconic mama, ‘reflection’ or ‘reverberation.’ Mama is one’s image in water, or in the mirror; it is the close-up reflection of onesself in the eyeball of another, the visual presence of the self apart from the self. It is also the lingering audio fragment of a decaying sound, its projection outward as it resounds by vanishing upward in the forest. Like the fading sharpness of a mirror image, mama is the trace of audio memory, fragmentary sonic remembrances as they reverberate.” Feld, “Places Sensed, Senses Placed”

As I write my field statement on place, or, more accurately, place-as-imagined-by-archaeologists-in-the-last-ten-years, I find myself colliding with memory and the senses. I am constantly having to draw myself back to the main topic, but place is so laden with sense and memory that it seems impossible to exclude them. It doesn’t help that the film I’m working on concurrently is about the sensory experience of place.

Back to Warhol’s lilac though, one of the central problems of archaeology is analogy–the link between the thing in the past and our knowledge of it in the present. As archaeologists, we all deal with the “and then what can they say?” His quote goes on, “Maybe they’ll be able to give it as a chemical formula. Maybe they already can.” Yes, Andy, it has been given as a chemical formula. But, ironically, he leaves out the bit that you’d think he would be the best at–imagination. And that frisson is what separates the great archaeology from the merely mechanical.

AAA Presentation

I uploaded the slides from my AAA paper to flickr:


I’ll upload my paper soon–I have to clean up the references a little bit.

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