Curating the Dead: Manipulating the Body and its Memory

Curating the Dead: Manipulating the Body and its Memory

Michelle Scott (University of Manchester, michelle.scott@manchester

Emma Tollefsen (University of Manchester,

The key themes of this session are intentionality and curation in the manipulation of the body in death. From antiquity to modernity, the human body has occupied a difficult and sometimes dangerous space in mortuary practices and the post-mortem translation and transformation of bodies and bones. With a focus on the visual language of the deliberate manipulation of the body and its elements, this session invites papers that take new approaches to the epistemologies surrounding the ancient dead and the social motivations behind the practices of deliberate curation of the dead, in both the past and the present.

In the context of the session, curation is defined as a deliberate alignment for usage within a specific social narrative. Papers might address the pre-burial strategies for halting, arresting and/or managing the effects of death. Papers are equally encouraged that consider funeral rites themselves but also post-burials exhumations and consequent manipulations of a body as well as reburial. This broad definition of ‘curation’ is extended to the ways in which the bodies of the ancient dead are dealt with in the present within museological, institutional and restitutional contexts, including display, interpretation and reburial.

Keywords: curation, mummification, osteology, museology, burial



The “Timeless” Dead? – Neolithic Chambered Tombs, Disarticulated Remains, and Bayesian Modelled Chronologies

Dan Boothby (University of York,

This paper uses the 2007 Histories of the Dead Bayesian modelling series as a starting point, which provided chronologies for the construction, use, and closure of five early Neolithic chambered tombs in southern England. These chronologies provided evidence for much shorter timescales of action than had previously been considered. I will discuss the impact of these timescales on our understanding of early Neolithic disarticulated remains. This includes potential challenges to the current conceptualisation of Neolithic “ancestors”, and the relationship to personal memory and personhood. Of further interest is the extent to which the potential intentionality of disarticulation as a practice affects these debates.


Just Remember that Death is Not the End: Curation and Excarnation of Human Remains in Bronze Age Britain

Tom Booth (Natural History Museum, and Joanna Brück (University of Bristol,

Potentially curated disarticulated human skeletal elements and multiple/token cremations are recovered from variable contexts throughout the Bronze Age in Britain (c.2500-700 BC). Determining the duration over which these human remains were curated, and their precise post mortem treatment is vital to understanding the meaning of these practices. Through a novel programme of radiocarbon dating and micro-CT analysis of cremated and unburnt human bones from variable Bronze Age contexts, we found that radiocarbon dates from curated human remains were consistently offset from and sometimes statistically significantly older than dates from their depositional context, suggesting that they had been curated over relatively short timescales, decades rather than centuries. These results are inconsistent with curated bones representing the remains of long dead anonymous collective ancestors and are more in line with suggestions that they represent the remains of individuals who lived within living or cultural memory.


The Clue is in the Bone: Curating the Iron Age Dead in Britain

Emma Tollefsen (University of Manchester,


From 2014 onwards, scholarship from the fields of archaeological sciences and bioarchaeology has demonstrated that there is a causal relationship between bone diagenesis and funerary treatment. Employing a diverse suite of scientific techniques this paper aims to explore ideas of curation through investigating aspects of the taphonomy and decomposition of several archaeological collections of human remains dating from the British Iron Age. This research will shed light on subtle clues regarding the funerary treatment, the post-mortem trajectory and depositional history of burials where the body of the dead is arranged in such a way that active anthropogenic manipulation is implied; such as bodies found in an exceptionally tightly contracted position whilst maintaining its anatomical articulation. Lastly, this paper will touch on the social motivations for why prehistoric people chose to preserve/mummify/curate the body after the death of an individual.


Denials of Death? Chinchorro Mummification and Affect Theory

Yvonne O’Dell (University of Leicester,

There is a paradox in the Andes: a material denial of death. Across different geographical and temporal contexts people die, and yet they continue to engage in the realm of the living. In most contexts, treatments of the dead are understood as mourning rituals or ancestor worship. However, by engaging in an ontological approach the scene becomes considerably more complex. Drawing on the recent ‘affective turn’ in the social sciences, and especially on the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Baruch Spinoza, I intend to explore how we might use affect theory to better contextualise and comprehend Chinchorro attitudes to death. I argue that mummification was not simply an elaborate grieving process or some generalised form of ancestral worship, but part of distinct ontological experiences in which Chinchorro mummies served to reinforce social unity, exert social power, and maintain the general wellbeing of the group.


Osteological Trauma as an Indicator of Identity: A New find of Sharp Force Trauma for Garton Station, East Yorkshire.

Catherine Jones (University of Manchester,

Osteological analysis of human remains is vastly important for studying violence in the past as it can provide direct evidence of trauma and cause of death. When coupled with interpretations of the funerary record osteological trauma may also reveal information about an individual’s identity. During analysis of 18 skeletons from the Iron Age cemeteries at Garton Station and Kirkburn, East Yorkshire a new discovery of healed sharp force cranial trauma was recorded for one of the individuals. This paper presents the osteological findings with reference to the funerary context within which the individual was found. The performative nature of their burial, whose curated assemblage was devoid of weaponry, prompts discussion around the interpretation of warrior identity in the archaeological record. Through the investigation of osteological evidence, funerary context and material culture this paper adds to the discussion of the prevalence of warrior culture during the Iron Age of East Yorkshire.


Sutton Hoo’s Deviant Dead: Display and Reception

Madeline Walsh (Independent Scholar,

Recently, early medieval deviant burials have come to the fore in mortuary archaeological debates. Despite this, discussion about criminal burials’ characteristics and their relation to either the rest of the cemetery, or to the surrounding landscape has faced little to no critical discussion. Often with no data to discuss aside from the physical remains, the criminals’ crimes are left up to the interpretation and pre-conceptions of the viewer.

This paper shall discuss the Sutton Hoo criminal burials, and how they are depicted within the exhibition hall, information boards and the physical landscape. It shall also discuss Sutton Hoo’s methods and applications in displaying and interpreting criminal burials and how such methods can and should be applied to other heritage displays. While the punishment may not always fit the crime, the issue of how to interpret and contextualise criminal burials ethically and respectfully within a heritage setting still remains.


Long-term Curation of a Legendary Body

Sian Anthony (AOC Archaeology,

The young, beautiful, and rich widow Giertrud Birgitte Bodenhoff was buried in Assistens cemetery, Copenhagen on 23 July 1798 but was she dead? Family legend tells how she had been buried alive, but unconscious, from an excess of opium. When grave robbers opened her coffin, she woke up and they killed her to conceal their crime.

This tale has long been used as a Gothic horror story for visitors to the cemetery. In 1953 a descendant decided to exhume her. The findings, particularly the position of her skeleton, were used to suggest the story was true and the legend grew.

With advances in forensic taphonomy and comparison with graves from a recent excavation in the cemetery, the conclusion and the legend can be re-interpreted. However, the legend continues through the discussion of how her body and the story have been intentionally manipulated over time.


Curating the Animal Dead: Evidence of Changing Human-Animal Relationships in Post-Medieval Britain

Eric Tourigny (Newcastle University,

The animal body was treated in a variety of ways throughout the post-medieval period. Following their deaths, animals could be buried in back gardens, tossed in rubbish heaps or even provided with their own cemetery plots complete with commemorative monuments and gushing epitaphs. Others were never buried, their human companions opting to send bodies to knackering yards, sell them for their skins or send them to the taxidermist to be forever positioned in a manner thought to best serve their memory.  Citing zooarchaeological data and pet cemetery surveys, this paper explores the extent to which archaeologists can infer people’s intentions by analysing the meanings behind animal body curation. Can certain practices serve as evidence for care or neglect? How does manipulation of the body inform on religious beliefs and the roles animals held in the afterlife?


Twitter Papers

Curating the Dead on Bronze Age Cyprus (c. 2500 – 1340 BC)

Sarah Douglas (University of Manchester,

The organisation of the Bronze Age mortuary arena on Cyprus was a complicated and complex process in which the curation of both bodies and grave goods played a central role in the construction and display of both individual and group identity. This aspect of funerary treatment was prevalent from the onset of the transitional Philia facies on Cyprus and evolved throughout the period as tombs were used to inter larger groups of deceased in collective burial ritual. This digital paper will introduce some of the most tantalising examples of funerary practice from the island’s burial record that illustrate this concept. This includes the primary and secondary treatment of and human interaction with deceased bodies after death, as well as bodily connections between individuals and groups and the grave goods with which they were laid to rest.


Projecting Personhood, Imagining Identity, Engaging Audiences

Michelle Scott (University of Manchester,

As social creatures, our interaction with both humans and things is entangled within a web of signs and signification; just as we perform our own identities, the archaeology of an object constructs a narrative within a social-linguistic framework. It is demonstrated how the emic language used in description and classification, at discovery and accession, becomes part of an object’s memory.

Considering ‘tag’ figures from Egypt’s fourth millennium BC, this paper discusses the agency of the object (especially in the absence of a body) in both its deposition and afterlife, with the object becoming a site of negotiation between the storage of memory, projection of personhood and the (re)construction and (re)imagination of the ancient dead. Further, it explores ways of subverting institutional narratives and binaries of gender, class, race, subject and object, liberating past actors and shifting the interpretative paradigms of traditional museum display.


Enduring and Everlasting: Romanticism and the Secular Relic in 19th Century Mourning

Kate Morris (Independent Researcher,

From the 18th century, the physical body appears to have become increasingly absent from funerary ritual, a thing to be glossed over and hidden, replaced by sentimentality and euphemism. This culminated in the legitimisation of cremation in the 1880s, the destruction of the physical body without ceremony and in the absence of mourners. The bereaved were increasingly engaging in elaborate and extensive mourning rituals, extending far beyond the actual funeral and interweaving with almost every aspect of daily life, actively keeping the memory of the deceased at the centre of their social life. This paper will examine the evidence that this distancing of the corpse from the funerary ritual is reflected in the inclusion of a symbolic, everlasting ‘body’ in this mourning ritual, in the form of hair jewellery and other secular relics.