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:

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

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