Saturday May 20th,  2017  Afternoon Sessions - 1:30pm-5pm


Session: "The dead and the living: where is archaeological theory today?"


 Session Organizers:


Zoë Crossland, Columbia University


Shannon Novak, Syracuse University


ABSTRACT: In the theoretical ferment of the early Processual and then Post-processual archaeologies, mortuary evidence played a primary role, whether in the Binford-Saxe program of research, or the post-processual emphasis on the politics of funerary practice, and the social construction of the body. The vibrant theoretical interest in mortuary archaeology was also sustained through the work of feminist scholars and their attention both to the construction of gender and the effects of lived practice on the body.


In recent years there have been great leaps in the range and accuracy of scientific techniques available to archaeologists, opening up new perspectives on the mortuary assemblage. The effects of NAGPRA and related legislation have also shifted how researchers orient themselves to human remains and to descendant communities and other stakeholders. The expansion of the field of forensic archaeology has also opened an important and high profile new field of practice.


How do we see the role of mortuary studies today in the development of archaeological theory? What are the major contributions to archaeological debates that are currently emerging from the study of mortuary contexts, and where might we challenge the field to go? Recent programmatic statements in archaeological theory that deal with questions of with materiality and ontology seem to be focused primarily on artifacts rather than human remains. Why might this be, and what might mortuary archaeology offer to the debate? Papers are welcomed on any area of mortuary archaeology and theory.





Individual papers:



Introductory comments:

Crossland and Novak (15 minutes)



Part 1: Bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology


Persistent Contagion: Skeletal, Memorial, and Spectral Remains from a 19th Century Cholera Epidemic


Alanna Warner, Syracuse University


In the 1850s, a cholera epidemic moved through much of the Caribbean, killing thousands from the Bahamas to British Guiana. Reports circulated of individuals abandoned in their homes and others buried alive. With shortages of able-bodied gravediggers, infectious corpses accumulated, triggering shifts in burial and funerary practices. The epidemic thus drastically altered the social and material landscape. The remains—skeletal, memorial, spectral—of the epidemic continue to exert force, as some claim that it shapes collective identities and histories in the Caribbean today.

 In this paper, I present research conducted in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Barbados, and Guyana (formerly British Guiana), bringing together archival research, site visits, and oral history. Key to my discussion are bodies and burials. Their presence, and more often, their absence, become marked with notions of contagion and entangled in broader post-colonial contexts and politics of race. Furthermore, many of the known cholera sites have become associated with other uneasy places and uses today. In discussing this persisting contagion, I question the definition of the mortuary site, as the properties of the dead—particularly the property of contagion—emerges with other materials and their properties on the landscape, moving beyond the grave itself.



Structural Violence in the Bioarchaeological Context: Considering the Extended Life Course.


Cullen J. Black, Syracuse University


This paper seeks to contribute to the emerging literature on the bioarchaeology of structural violence through an investigation of a contemporary cemetery context in Guatemala City, Guatemala.  Drawing on Johan Galtung’s (1969) conception of structural violence, whereby individuals and groups experience inequality through often vague and indirect forms of violence sanctioned by large-scale structures, I will explore the manifestations of this violence throughout the life-course, extending into the postmortem lives of the cemetery’s occupants.  Considering Guatemala’s recent local histories and global engagements I will show how the country stands amongst the poorest in Latin America with one of the most unequal distributions of wealth and access to health care.  Through the documentation of the cemetery system and layout, the interment contexts, and the physical bodies of individuals interred within, I will consider the ways in which such inequality becomes embodied and how those marginalized in life experience similar forms of unequal treatment in death.



Assembling Heads and Circulating Tales: The Doings and Undoings of Specimen 2032


Shannon A. Novak, Syracuse University


In April 1859, U.S. Army Surgeon Charles Brewer was dispatched to a remote mountain valley in the Utah Territory with orders to oversee the burial of 120 massacre victims. The scattered bones of overland immigrants who had been murdered by Mormon militiamen were gathered and interred in a series of mass graves. Though Brewer reported that his work was complete, he carried away from the site two skulls and “long tresses of dark and blonde hair of some of the tender victims” (Phelps 1859). One of the crania was recently identified in the collections of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, historically known as the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. The details of “Specimen 2032” are presented, along with the history of movements and encounters that brought it to this place. Rather than focus solely on the object’s authenticity or its linkages to the massacre site, I examine it within multiple assemblages—lively gatherings of materials, agents, and practices. In moving through these assemblages, the so-called specimen, I argue, is ontologically modified and transformed. This approach allows us to trace the multiplicity of histories that become entangled with seemingly stable objects, especially human remains that have moved far from the grave or mortuary site.



Discussion (15 min)




Part 2: Contemporary practices around death




Archaeology of the Contemporary and Human Objects


Shannon Lee Dawdy, University of Chicago


We can define archaeology of the contemporary to mean the study of materiality in human contexts of the present. Sometimes this involves excavation and survey, but it may also mean simply approaching contemporary life with archaeological questions – such as the venerable one of what funeral objects tell us about a society’s beliefs, organization, and lived experience. In the U.S. today, death practices are changing rapidly, and creatively. The growing popularity of cremation has led to a proliferation of new things to do with human remains, including transforming them into different types of objects. In this snapshot from an ongoing project, I introduce three different innovators who are making such “human objects” that disturb conventional ontological understandings. And, I hope to show, disturb ontological theory as well.




New Understandings of the Past: Mortuary Archaeology and Contemporary Theories of Bereavement


Karina Croucher, University of Bradford


When studying archaeology from a post-processual perspective, we are all too familiar with the problematic nature of interpretation based on contemporary experience. We have moved away from the New Archaeological frameworks of using mortuary remains to reveal social organisation, and associated laws of human behaviour. However, following recent research with end-of-life care professionals, new questions are arising around the role of grief and mourning in our interpretations of mortuary material.


The 'Continuing Bonds' project is using case studies from the past to facilitate conversations around death and dying today, and to inform values, attitudes and beliefs around death for healthcare professionals. An unexpected consequence of this collaboration between archaeology and palliative care has been the reassessment of archaeological remains. Currently, bereavement counsellors are moving away from a model of 'detachment' and viewing the process of bereavement as one of distancing and 'getting over' the attachments with the deceased, to models of 'Continuing Bonds' (Klass, Silverman and Nickman 1996) and the 'Dual Process of grieving' (Stroebe and Schut 1999; 2010). The latter recognise that processes of loss are complicated, and rather than 'getting over' the dead, the dead can take up new positions within the lives of the living. One such response is the desire to keep the dead close, with modern examples including retaining ashes of the deceased and their incorporation in cremation jewellery or ornaments.


This paper takes a controversial approach and assesses whether theories such as 'Continuing Bonds' can be useful in the interpretation of archaeological funerary remains - through the case study of plastered skulls from the Neolithic of southwest Asia – and suggests that, rather than simply indicators of social stratification, these remains may also be indicative of processes of grief and mourning in the past. Following the seminal work of Tarlow (2000) and further discussions by Harris and Flor Sørensen (2010), this paper explores whether such emotive explanations have any role in our interpretative theoretical frameworks; not relevant for all peoples, times and places, but perhaps for particular moments in history/prehistory. Or, do contemporary theories have no relevance for our understandings of past mortuary practice?



Harris, O. J. T. and Sørensen, T. F. (2010) Rethinking emotion and material culture. Archaeological Dialogues, 17 (02), 145-163.

Klass, D., P.R.Sliverman and S.Nickman. (1996). Continuing Bonds: New understandings of Grief. London: Taylor and Francis.

Stroebe, M. S., & Schut, H. (1999). The Dual Process Model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. Death Studies, 23: 197-224.

Stroebe, M. and H. Schut (2010). The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement: A decade on. Omega 61(4): 273-291.

Tarlow, S. (2000) Emotion in Archaeology. Current Anthropology, 41 (5), 713-746.




Ethnography as Prelude: The Case of Heritage in Northern Haiti


Pamela L. Geller (University of Miami)


 I am an anthropological bioarchaeologist by training. But, in summer 2015, I found myself conducting ethnographic work in the northern Haitian community of Milot. The town is the location of the UNESCO World Heritage site Parc National Historique, comprised of Sans Souci Palace, Citadelle Laferrière, and Ramiers. Henri Christophe ordered his subjects to build these monumental structures after the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). I was there to document narratives about the Parc as told by multiple groups— state officials, foreign and Haitian visitors, locals whose families have lived in Milot for generations. One aim was to determine which historic threads are celebrated, silenced, or forgotten. Which is to say that my research agenda had nothing to do with human remains or mortuary archaeology.

During the course of interviews, community members related information about Haitian heritage that was unexpected but seemed significant. Specifically, they spoke of vodou religion. While less tangible than architecture, mortuary spaces and human bones are central in rituals. People also spoke of an ontological understanding of the body that differed from my biomedically based one. With these insights in mind (and the future possibility of work at 18th/19th-century plantations and their associated cemeteries), here I challenge bioarchaeological and mortuary studies to make ethnography a starting point in research designs. To engage with contemporary communities prior to excavation and analysis of ancient or historic burials—whether the ties that bind are geographic or lineal ones—is epistemologically essential and ethically responsible.

Discussion (15 min)



Part 3: Forensic archaeology in theory


Cross-examining Evidence of Theory in Forensic Anthropology


Derek Congram, University of Toronto


Forensic anthropologists typically assess a core set of characteristics of a skeleton (sex, age, stature, and possibly biological ancestry) as well as trauma, which serve as legal evidence of a person’s identity and cause of death. Recent court rulings in North America have established the Daubert standard, which mandates that the basis of expert conclusions must be generally accepted within the field and that expert conclusions must be founded in evidence. This gives the perception that forensic anthropology (which here includes archaeology) is seen, at least seen by the courts, as processual.

Since the 1990s, forensic anthropologists have been increasingly involved in international investigations of genocide and crimes against humanity. Among the core legal elements of these crimes are questions of social identity (e.g., ethnicity, “race”), which do not conform nicely to processual frameworks. Recent trials at the International Criminal Court have highlighted the complicated understanding and use of archaeological and anthropological expertise (e.g., by judges, lawyers, forensic experts, victim communities), ultimately establishing what constitutes legally admissible evidence of atrocity crime. They also demonstrate what, according to their standard, might be the limits of forensic anthropological expertise.

This paper will review court transcripts of archaeological and anthropological expert testimony in trials at the International Criminal Court. It will show the broad range and complex interplay of different criteria considered to be within the expertise of archaeologists and anthropologists (e.g., linguistics, taphonomy, mortuary behaviour, cultural diffusion/syncretism, bone biomechanics) that work against a unified theory of forensic anthropology. This is particularly clear in the context of international investigations where the so-called experts are giving testimony on people and places with which they might have little familiarity, thus provoking the question of who is an expert and how we might frame forensic anthropological expertise in discussions of theory



The Signs of the Dead: Ontologies of Semiosis and the Forensic Dead


Zoe Crossland, Columbia University


In this presentation I examine the dead body as a site of forensic investigation, looking at the semiotics of forensic practice and how it poses interesting challenges to the recent theoretical concern with ontology. Present in the various theoretical strands that argue for an ‘ontological turn’ is a rejection of a semiotic approach, in so far as it reduces the meaning and presence of things to representation. Forensic investigation revolves around a materially grounded semiotics that does not search for the ‘real’ material corpse lying behind a world of language or of discursive signs, but rather that shows an entity whose reality is disclosed and acted upon through the signs that different beings perceive inhering in it. It therefore provides insights into the semiotic practices of archaeology more generally and provides a productive site for thinking about what we mean by ontology




Lynne Goldstein (discussant, 20 min)


Discussion (30 min)