REVIEW: The Loved Body's Corruption: Archaeological Contributions to the study of Human Mortality
Updated: Apr 29
Jane Downes & Tony Pollard (eds.) 1999. Cruithne Press. ISBN 1 873448 06 6
The Loved Body’s Corruption. Archaeological contributions to the study of human mortality is a collection of papers, and of perspectives, on the study of death in archaeology. In the introduction to the volume, the editors Downes and Pollard describe the archaeology of death as a ‘specific genre within the wider field of archaeological writing’ (p. x) with its own set of rules , the object of which encompasses the physical remains of the dead, as well as the role of funerary rites within society (ibid.). The archaeology of death clearly spans traditional academic boundaries and unites the natural sciences with the humanities, and indeed, this volume covers this wide spectrum of approaches. Simultaneously, the encounter with death is emotional, and this important aspect of our work as "archaeologists of death" is given a central role in this book, an approach that is both very important and very welcome.
Since the format of this review does not allow for me to comment on and do justice to each contribution, I will briefly mention some of the central themes. Several of the papers have a clear ethnographic element, some of which (Haley and Parker Pearson) uses ethnography rather traditionally to illustrate the important theme of diversity of mortuary practices in different cultures. Another approach is taken by Downes, who uses the study of Balinese Hindu cremation in reflecting on the role of ritual in social reproduction in Bronze Age Britain. Among the more ‘strictly archaeological’ papers, we find similar variation in the topics addressed. From the reports of fascinating results from an ongoing project in Malta (Stoddart et al), through the confrontation, and complementarity, between text and material remains from early historic periods (Samson, Wicker) and the more recent past (Richmond), to the situatedness of past mortuary practices within a mental landscape (Beavan, Pollard), we see the diversity of archaeological practice today. All these contributions, in their way, offer a valuable insight into the experience of death and the dead in the past. Roberts’ contribution on tuberculosis gives us an insight into dying and mortality in the past. The archaeology of more recent periods is given a significant place in this book, and rightly so. The authors clearly show both the responsibility and the importance of these studies (Richmond, Reeve & Cox). In a different way forensic archaeology (Hunter) takes archaeological methods into the legal sphere and the social reality of our contemporary society. Not surprisingly, the issues of emotional response and ethical responsibility to death and to the dead are most strongly expressed in the papers concerned with the most recently dead (Boyle, Beattie, Kirk & Start, Reeve & Cox). However, the discussion in these papers clearly concern all archaeologists working with human remains and mortuary practices.
If this volume was to be summed up in only one phrase, it would be that it is a eloquent illustration of the incredible diversity of approaches to mortality in archaeology today. On the other hand, if there should be a critique, it would be that the volume excludes important perspectives developed in other parts of the world (particularly in France) from which it could have benefited. In fact, all contributions in the volume are made by archaeologists and anthropologists from the UK, the US and Canada. It is strange that these should be the only "writers it was felt had something new to say about the subject" (Downes & Pollard 1999 p. x). However, this problem is not one of this volume alone, but both an old and a general one in academia, caused mainly by language barriers.
The initial goal of the volume was to encourage the authors ‘to write subjectively about their work’ (Downes & Pollard p. x), and the collection should thus be seen as ‘an experiment in writing archaeology’ (p.xii). As the editors themselves admit, the degree to which the individual contributors responded to this call varies (ibid.). While some of the articles are personal and introspective, other authors have chosen a more traditional academic form for their contributions. These differences in the style of expression, as well as in perspectives, contribute to making The Loved Body’s Corruption a rather eclectic book.
However, I believe that this is a strength rather than a weakness. This mosaic of different approaches illustrates how death and the dead should be considered in archaeology, since death is simultaneously a biological and an emotional adventure. Even if each archaeologist cannot represent all the facets of death equally in every piece he or she writes, then surely, as this book clearly shows, an open-minded archaeology, as a whole, can. This is promising for the future of the archaeological study of death, mortality and burial.
Institute of Archaeology
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