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Social Anthropology: Research




Dead Images Conference, part of the TRACES project,  Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh, June 28-30, 2018 

Linda Fibiger,  John Harries and Joan Smith

Whether considered at an individual or population level, collections of human remains contain multiple biographies that encompass the personal, biological and historical and the personal. Narratives generated from these different bi-ographies – by descendants, archaeologists, anthropologists, artists, curators and historians – are often represented as has having conflicting or opposing purposes, built on contradictory principles and values. 

Artistic engagements with these remains, such as ‘Dead Images’, may provide the opportunity to confront, appraise and mediate these tensions by creating unsettling spaces of encounter that transcend the limitations of history and science. In so doing they invite the possibility of an open and reflexive appre-ciation of other perspectives on this challenging heritage. 

This meeting brings together diverse reflections on encounters with collections of human remains, to critically explore the histories, including histories of vi-olence and dispossession, which are disclosed in these diasporic gatherings of bones and the problematic of their ongoing dwelling within the public sphere.


Dead body Politics, Materialities and Mobilities, part of the ESEC seminar series on ENCOUNTERING CORPSES, Manchester Metropolitain University, Manchester, 18th March, 2016

Craig Young and Jon Shute

The seminar explored multi-disciplinary approaches to the dead body,  focussing on the politics of corpse (im-)mobilities and materialities and foregrounding how human remains persist and can provoke new formations of identity and politics. Speakers included: Professor Craig Young (Human Geography, MMU), Dr Jon Shute (Law, UoM), Dr Jean-Marc Dreyfus (History, UoM), Dr John Harries (School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh), Dr Gemma Angel (Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London) and Dave Griffiths (Manchester School of Art, MMU), Michael Branthwaite (School of Art and Design, Staffordshire University) and Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls (Archaeology, Staffs.). 


Remains, Waste and Metonymy: a critical intervention into art/scholarship, The British Institute of East Africa, Nairobi, 24th October, 2015

Organisers: Joost Fontein and Neo Musangi     

Event Description: By approaching stuff as incomplete and emergent, Remains, Waste and Metonymy offers critical scrutiny to the assumed finality, stability and comfort of ‘objects’, ‘persons’ and ‘landscapes’. Always ‘in the making’ remains and waste often appear like unfinished biographies, stories and narrations that promise but rarely deliver entirely coherent meanings, bounded entities and stable wholes. Evoking presence rather than offering meaning (more metonymic than metaphorical) this indeterminacy is creatively explored to reveal the excessive multiplicities of time, substance and space. The interventions presented are works-in-progress that explore new avenues of collaboration between artists and scholars around these themes of waste, remains and metonymy.

For a video of the event click HERE


Corpses in Society, 3rd Annual & International Conference of the Research Programme CORPSES OF MASS VIOLENCE AND GENOCIDE, Manchester, 8th-10th September, 2014

Organisers: Elisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus

 Following a first conference in September 2012 focusing on the treatment of corpses by the perpetrator in mass crime settings, and a second conference in 2013 exploring the search for and identification of victims’ bodies, this third annual conference from the research programme “Corpses of mass violence and genocide” addressed the place given to the remains of victims in post- genocide and mass violence contexts.

Skulls, Faces and Being Human panel @ Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth ASA2014: Decennial Conference, Edinburgh, 19th-22nd June, 2014

Organisers: John Harries and Joost Fontein

This panel explored the significance of skulls and faces in diverse contexts, whether these be skulls collected and studied by 19th, 20th and 21st century anatomists and anthropologists or those handled differently by different peoples at different times and for very different reasons. As we particularly want to examine relationships between the materialities of bone and flesh and notions of humanness, we encourage submissions which consider this relationship "symmetrically" and focus on how these ideas are elaborated in affective, sensory and technological engagements with the bones that once lay beneath the face.

Community of the Dead, one day conference, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, 30th Janurary, 2014

Organiser: Jane Martin

The conference focussed on the practical difficulties of the ever-increasing challenge of full cemeteries and the exhumation of remains in the course of construction and archaeological excavations. This is an increasingly controversial and emotive issue that tests the ability of the law, researchers and diverse communities to find an agreed resolution. Speakers included: Mr John Doyle (Construction Manager, Crossrail), Dr Joost Fontein, Dr John Harries (both of Edinburgh University, Bones Collective), Ms Jane Martin (Anglia Law School, Anglia Ruskin University), Dr Nicola Rees (Kingston University Law Department), Dr Julie Rugg (Senior Research Fellow, York University, Cemetery Centre), Dr Duncan Sayer (University of Central Lancashire) and Dr Hilary Soderland (University of Washington).


Search and Identification of Human Remains in post-Genocide and Mass Violence Contexts, 2nd Annual & International Conference of the Research Programme CORPSES OF MASS VIOLENCE AND GENOCIDE, Manchester, 9th-11th September, 2013

Organisers: Elisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus

Following a first conference in Paris in September 2012 focusing on the treatment of corpses in the phase of destruction, this second annual meeting of the research programme “Corpses of mass violence and genocide” aims to explore another post-killing severe manipulation of the bodies: addressing their search and identification. The beginning of the 21st century has already experienced many occurrences of this phenomenon.  Whether bodies have been destroyed through industrial processes, mutilated, buried individually or collectively or even reburied in secondary or tertiary sites, the search and identification of these victims remains are undertaken in various circumstances and raise a wide range of questions. 

Corporealities of Violence in Southern Africa, Edinburgh, 4th - 6th September, 2013

Organiser: Joost Fontein

This second workshop in a series of 3 focussed on how human bodies are not only often the means and target of violence in a diversity of forms, and therefore transformed by it in a myriad of ways, but also how human corporealities are often at the centre of what often follows violence: including refugee displacements, and subsequent movements and ‘returns’; medicalization, documentation, and sometimes incarceration; as well as acts of burial, mourning, and commemoration; and forensic examinations and exhumations for (often elusive) processes of ‘transitional justice’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘healing’. Taking the transformations, interferences and flows of bodies and bodily substances animating violence and its consequences as its central problematic, it explored the convergences and discontinuities of different forms of individual and orchestrated violence, encompassing political and social violence alongside torture, intimate partner violence, rape and broader forms of structural or institutionalised violence. 

For  more information on the BA International Partnership click Here


The Vitality and Efficacy of Human Substances, Bones Collective Panel at CAS@50 Conference, Edinburgh, 6th - 8th June, 2012

Organisers: Joost Fontein and John Harries

This panel is therefore to explored, ethnographically and theoretically, the vitality of human materiality in diverse African contexts were the recognised ‘human-ness’ of substances is of great significance, even as personhood, identity, and social relatedness of the people from which they derive are of marginal or limited relevance to the ritual or political efficacy of the materials themselves. Examples  included  or the use of human bones/remains in practices of divination (‘throwing the bones’), fetishism, cannibalism or even art; or forms of ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’ (or ‘anti-sorcery’) in which skin, blood, bones and other body parts play an essential role. Importantly, an investigation into the vitality of human materials has the potential question or transcend conventional distinctions animism and fetishism, animate and inanimate, and human and nonhuman forms of material presence and absence. Speakers: Mike Rowlands (UCL, London); Florence Bernault (Wisconsin-Madison); Jean-Pierre Warnier (CEAF, Paris); Isak Niehus (Brunel, London); Diana Espirito Santo (Lisbon); Anastasios Panagiotopoulos (Lisbon); Katerina Kerestetzi (Paris); Joe Trapido (Pretoria); Joost Fontein (Edinburgh).


The care of Ancient Human Remains, HAD Conference, Leicester, 17th October, 2009

Organisers: Piotr Bienkowski and Emma Restall Orr 

The conference aims were to explore issues around value and custody of human remains, with particular focus on how the institutions that maintain custody engage with external communities who have a special interest in the remains. At conference, HAD clarified its own position in developing and maintaining dialogue and facilitating access to and consultations on human remains. The results of the conference will be used within subsequent discussions relating to the respectful treatment of ancient British human remains held between HAD and institutions such as museums or government departments. Speakers included: Dr Joost Fontein and Dr John Harries (Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh, Bones Collective), Philip Wise (Heritage Manager, Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service), Professor Piotr Bienkowski (Professor of Archaeology and Museology, University of Manchester),  Charlotte Woodhead (Barrister and Lecturer in Law, University of Derby), Emma Restall Orr (Honouring the Ancient Dead).

Encounters with the Past: The emotive materiality and affective presence of human remains, panel @ Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth ASA2009, Bristol, 6th - 9th April, 2009.

Organisers: Cara Krmpotich and John Harries

Panel 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?


What Lies Beneath, The Bones Collective Workshop, 4th & 5th December, 2008

Organisers: John Harries and Joost Fontein

The two-day workshop provided a forum for an interdisciplinary conversation concerning the affective presence and emotive materiality of human bones. This workshop was, in part, an opportunity for invited researchers to present and discuss their own research material in relation to each others work, but also be specifically targeted at the emerging and developing interests of the research group. Importantly, by enabling this conversation, we hoped to begin the process of mapping a common theoretical and methodological ground from which a substantial program of cooperative research concerning the social and cultural significance of bones would emerge. A discussion of this program of research, as well as innovative strategies for the dissemination of its results, including but by no means limited to, a substantial publication, but also an exhibition, were central to the agenda for the workshop.

Bones Workshop Flyer
Report of Bones Collective Workshop, Dec 08

The Bones Collective Seminar Series, January – March, 2008

Organisers: Joost Fontein and John Harries

Between January and March 2008 (semester two) we invited social scientists whose work we identified as being particularly relevant to the interests of the research group, to deliver papers at the weekly social anthropology seminars, which are held on Friday afternoons during term time. Although there was a congruence of shared themes around issues of materiality, the agency of objects and human remains, the papers in the seminar series also engaged with the broader theoretical and ethnographic field within which our project is situated.