ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Encounters with the past: the emotive materiality and affective presence of human remains
Location Wills 3.32
Date and Time 7th April, 2009 at 09:00


Cara Krmpotich (University of Toronto)
John Harries (University of Edinburgh)
Joost Fontein (British Institute in Eastern Africa)
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Short Abstract

This panel explores the encounters people have with human remains and asks what it is about remains that gives them an affective presence and an emotive materiality. What factors influence these affective or emotive qualities? And how do the demands of the dead influence these encounters?

Long Abstract

Rarely do social relationships end with death; rather, people the world over continue to engage and have encounters with the deceased. Social anthropologists have had a long and varied interest in the ways people relate to the dead. More recently, these studies have grown from a focus on death and mourning rituals to encompass the repatriation, mobility, agency and politicisation of human remains. While social anthropologists have tended to study the relationship between others and their dead, archaeologists frequently have direct encounters with the dead as they excavate and analyse human burials and remains. For archaeologists, human remains are not a representation of the past but are in themselves the objects of study—a past other. The papers in this panel explore the encounters people have with the remains of humans—their bones, flesh, memorials, ghosts, and spirits—and seek to understand what it is about human remains that gives them an affective presence and an emotive materiality. What can bodies do to those who encounter them? Moreover, these papers ask how the emotive materiality or affective presence of human remains is shaped by time, genealogy, the condition of a corpse, scientific testing, shared or foreign cultural values, or location. What is the affect of anonymity or an identity, partiality or wholeness, in encounters with human remains? And, ultimately, how do the demands made by the dead upon the living—whether it be reburial, solitude, remembrance, or companionship—influence these encounters?

Chair: John Harries
Discussant: John Harries

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The role of human remains, portrait photographs and possessions of the dead in the scientific and 'affective identification' of Republican civilian victims from the Spanish Civil War

Author: Layla Renshaw (Kingston University)


This paper addresses the points of convergence and tension between the process of forensic identification of human remains and the concurrent process of 'affective identification', meaning the reconstruction of locally meaningful identities, recognition of familial bonds amongst the living descendants of the dead, and the emotions of mourning elicited in this process. This paper draws on field work in two rural communities in the Burgos region of Spain as they undergo the exhumation of mass graves containing the human remains of local Republican civilians, victims of extrajudicial killings during the Spanish Civil War. The chronology of the Civil War deaths and their subsequent investigations in the present, place these events on the boundaries of living memory, making the question of affective identification more pressing and more complex for these communities.

This paper looks at how the exposure of human remains, the personal possessions encountered in the mass graves, and portrait photographs of the dead mediate the different understandings of 'identity' and 'identification' held by the archaeologists and specialist practitioners investigating the grave, and the wider community of residents and descendants of the dead. In particular it considers how bodies, objects and images of the dead feature in the discourse between expert practitioners and the communities in which they work.

'Mute witnesses': the ruins of the battlefield and the reality of war on the former Western Front

Author: Paola Filippucci (Cambridge University)


In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the Michelin Guide to the Battlefields invited people to go to France to see the ruins created by the conflict as a means to 'understand' and 'feel' a war that survivors found hard to describe in words. In my paper I examine the idea that such ruins give privileged access to the 'reality' of the war, still found today in the former battlefields of Eastern France. Drawing on ethnography conducted on the former Western Front I show how the ruins of the Great War (including the remains of military installations, materiel and objects left behind by combatants and the remains of villages) play a central role today in evocations of the conflict, especially seen as means to access and make 'real' the 'unspeakable' and 'unimaginable' aspects of war and of combatants' experience associated with the extreme violence and brutality of the conflict. Paying particular attention to collecting as a way to relate to battlefield ruins, my paper critically evaluates these claims and more generally interrogates the idea that ruins can mediate an 'affective' way of knowing, capable of transcending the limitations of language and imagination in the face of violence and violent events.

The continued presence of ancestors: the affective presence of ancestral remains

Author: Cara Krmpotich (University of Toronto)


The Haida First Nation in British Columbia, Canada, has worked for over a decade to repatriate the physical remains of their ancestors from institutional and private collections. During the repatriation process, Haidas encountered the physical remains of their ancestors, but also the ancestors themselves: people felt, heard, responded to and interacted with these ancestors again. Haidas' reminiscences of their repatriation experiences reveal a strong affective presence inherent within their ancestors' remains. I suggest it is the continued presence of ancestors within people's lives, and within their sense of self and collective identity, that fosters this affectivity. Looking more broadly, I explore the nature of the relationship between materiality, relatedness and emotion.

The strength of the land are its legs and arms

Author: Christel Mattheeuws (Aberdeen University)


Taking the entanglements of the living, the dead and the sky-land as example, I explain a Malagasy perception of organisms, phenomena, places and things, as being dynamic open systems shaping a relational world.

When a family in Central East Madagascar moves to a new place, people build villages and work the land. A deceased person will be returned to the family tomb in the place of origin. Only when people have faith in the new place, they will construct a local tomb. By this process, the living become 'children of the land' and the dead part of its strength.

The land gives, while the people work or move it. People make mobile what is immobile, they transport, carry and place, and they kill, but they do not generate until they are dead, having become ancestors in the land.

Limbs and head of a living body are the directions that convey the intentionality of the body-center where the vital organs take form. They allow the body to grow, move, act, think, perceive, bind and develop as an open system in a relational world. A human skeleton is called 'the eight bones' referring to the limb-bones. This perception reveals that the dead also have directions that convey a certain intentionality. The shape the dead take on, and also their place and role they have in the living community will become apparent when I describe the life-path of human bones and their entanglements in the body and the land.

The social afterlife of Swahili tombs on the Mrima coast, Tanzania

Author: Mark Lamont (Goldsmiths, UL)


The cemeteries and mosques that make up the Swahili 'ruins' found on the East African coast are regularly visited by Sufi pilgrims and non-Muslim tourists alike.

While highly emotive arguments between Islamic partisans, Sufis and Salafists, expose the tensions evoked by patrician tomb visitation, the legislative and technocratic impulse to preserve such tombs as cultural heritage sites also reveals the tenor of debate amongst archaeologists in turning such ritual sites into monuments of state and, thereby, asserting their own versions of genealogy vis-à-vis theoretical work on 'Swahili origins.'

The ritual intercessions that take place at the tombs of Swahili ancestors, some with 'saintly' genealogical claims to the Prophet, are integral to Swahili prayer and identity along this coast. Here the dead dwell in the tombs and baobab trees associated with such cemeteries and are expected to mediate in the wellbeing or misfortunes of their living 'descendants.' But here 'dwelling' is related to Swahili understandings of descent and social hierarchies, as the spirits of the elite are entombed, and the spirits of commoners (former slaves?) are embodied in trees. Here, the anthropological question of how these spirits are experienced by the living is broached. What is the form or context in which spirits mediate Swahili hierarchies?

The ethnography of the social afterlife of Swahili tombs is about struggles for the custodianship of the past within the present, and the effects this has in reconfiguring the relationships between genealogy, power, and ecumenical Islam.

When the dead have fun: haunting in the Brazilian Northeast Semi-arid Region

Author: Flávia Pires (Federal University of Paraíba)


My paper intends to contribute to the understanding of people's relationships with the remains of humans, given that "mal-assombros" (ghosts) are precisely a remain of human beings, in this case, the spiritual remains. These remains have a powerful and real presence in the everyday life of living people. They help to build a cosmology of the worlds of the living and the dead, where the dead are only considered something to be truly feared where they are not the spiritual remains of a family member. It is through these remains of the humans - the ghosts - that a complex cosmology is built (in relation to Christian and Spiritist religions), together with the (re)making and (re)definition of family identity through the exercise of remembering dead family group members.

It is known that the vision of a ghost regularly causes great fear. The fear is not intentional in the case of some ghosts (for example, the ghosts that feel lost in the dead people's world, a family member recently deceased, etc), but it is intentional (and even premeditated) in the case of the naughty mal-assombros. From a typology of "mal-assombros", we will particularly work on the naughty mal-assombros, the ones that have fun at the expense of the living people's fear. It appears possible to say that the mal-assombros which have fun causing fear in the living people are the ugliest and most dreadful, as well as the ones that escape all forms of kinship bonds. On the other hand, although a subject of fear, the ghosts of family members can be subject to other kinds of relationship with the living people, where for example, companionship, pity or closeness can be experienced and are not recognized as naughty mal-assombros.

The text draws considerations that may be of interest for researchers that work on the analyses of religion, kinship, festivals and entertainment; as well as researchers that have an ethnographical interest in this geographical area. It will be of special interest to the Panel 'Encounters with the past: the emotive materiality and affective presence of human remains' discussions given that it is discusses precisely the panel's thematic area: The presence of human remains amongst the living.

Dead persons: British animism and the experience of ancestral remains

Author: Emma Restall Orr (Honouring the Ancient Dead)


Within the materialist and dualist worldviews of western society, animism is often dismissed as primitive, yet many of the growing faith community of British Paganism would define themselves as animist: they believe all matter is inspirited, ensouled or sentient, thus sacred and deserving of respect. Such beliefs encompass a connectivity within nature that not only engenders a heightened awareness of the nonhuman environment, but also provokes a sensitivity about human nature, the relational self, and how that extends beyond the transition of death.

In this paper, I speak of the particular qualities most prevalent in British animism, including what is still called ancestor worship: remaining present within the memory of the community, within the landscape, and within their own physical remains, the dead are revered. At and beyond death, their essence is of no less importance than in life. They continue to be 'persons', members of the tribe, their gifts acknowledged as still humming with the value of stories, experience and cohesion.

Whether the death occurred four or 4000 years ago, where there is any relational connection - such as a landscape shared - the animist's encounter with that person evokes a visceral reaction, provoking a profound need to embrace, to listen, to share, protect and care. When such a connection occurs within the artificial preserve of a museum, the overwhelming spiritual response can be to return those remains to the earth through reburial: the dead must be allowed the freedom of change, within the landscape, community and nature's cycles.

From respect to reburial: examining contemporary pagan interest in prehistoric human remains in Britain

Authors: Robert Wallis (Richmond University)
Jenny Blain


The Avebury Reburial Consultation has drawn attention to an issue recently emerging in Britain: along with growing public interest in British prehistory and archaeology has come an interest in 'ancestors' that goes far beyond curiosity or historic interest to spiritual engagement and ritual communication, notably among growing p/Pagan religious movements. Our Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights project, a collaboration between an archaeologist and an anthropologist, has examined pagan representations of pasts and engagements with ancestors. We here focus on approaches to the prehistoric dead and worldviews enabling communication from which calls or 'claims' for the reburial of prehistoric pagan human remains, versus their retention for scientific study, are articulated; frameworks for assessing and adjudicating such 'claims'; and implications for interest groups concerned.

We contrast the Avebury Reburial Consultation (closed February 2009) and the temporary redisplay of Lindow Man at the Manchester Museum (April 2008 - April 2009). In the former case, frameworks for assessing and adjudicating reburial 'claims' based on DCMS guidelines leave little scope for engaging seriously with the deeply-felt emotive responses to 'ancestors' felt by many pagans. In the latter, curators worked with interest groups, including local pagans, to display alongside scientific discourse the wide variety of emotions and interests in the bog body, and to accommodate private and community ritual actions. This paper, in examining issues with the DCMS framework, and expressions of kinship, knowledge and 'woundedness' expressed by pagans relating to the ancient dead, asks why there is such resistance to spiritual expressions of community with 'ancestors'.

The ice maiden: appropriation and contestation of an ancient mummy found in the mountains of the Altai, southern Siberia

Author: Kenneth Lymer (Wessex Archaeology)


In 1993 the excavations of a frozen burial in the Altai Republic (southern Siberia, Russian Federation) had uncovered a female mummy with animal tattoos dating around 274 BCE. News of her discovery was disseminated quickly to the wider public and she became known as the 'ice princess' or 'ice maiden' of the Altai. Subsequently, her body has become embroiled in a multi-faceted dispute to her ownership and custodianship that has pitted archaeologists against indigenous views of heritage and the rights of the dead. As an object of study the mummy is important to archaeologists for she belongs to the Pazyryk culture that flourished within the region around 500-200 BCE. Archaeologists, however, had transformed the mummy into a curio that has been put on display in a Russian museum and lies stripped naked to flaunt its exotic tattoos. In opposition to this there is a broad-based movement among the Altaians that aims to bring her back to her homeland to be reburied. Moreover, the conflict of values over the ice maiden is embedded in the greater socio-political struggles of the Altaians against Russian dominance. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Altaians, like many other minorities, are now asserting a new ethno-nationalism that actively reappropriates elements of the past. Thus, the archaeological discovery of the ice maiden's body is not only important to academic studies but plays an important part in the renegotiation of Altaian identity in post-Soviet times.