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Social Anthropology: Research


Statement of Interests

Human bones matter to people. Not all bones, to all people, all the time, but cross-culturally, bones, as the hardest and most lasting remnants of the body, do matter. How they matter varies widely. For many, they matter as part of the people they once were, or indeed may still be. So it is that bones are often central to rituals of mourning and remembrance, for in handling bones and situating them purposefully in the landscape, the living relate with the dead who can achieve a quality of enduring presence, in the very materiality of their remains and their communion with the land, that transcends the work of time (cf. Bloch 1988). For others, bones matter as trophies or curiosities, objects whose handling and display is less about relating to the dead and more about affirming the identity of the owner or collector (cf. Harrison 2006). For yet others bones (it does not really matter whose bones) held in baskets and scattered on the ground, are a way of divining the future. Whatever the case, bones matter. They do stuff, make things happen, change things, enable us to remember the past and reveal the future, and so we care and feel about bones.

Social scientists have long taken an interest in human bones. They have done so in a variety of ways. Archaeologists and forensic/physical anthropologists have been interested in the form and materiality of bones: their composition, the marks upon them and their emplacement in the earth. Past lives somehow dwell in the substance of these bones and, if they are properly studied, these past lives may become known, right down to the details how people looked, what they ate, what diseases they suffered and injuries they sustained, and even how they, themselves, related to their dead. Social and cultural anthropologists, in contrast, have been more interested the significance that different peoples give to bones and how the significance of the dead relates to the meaningful existence of the living. In this case, the substance of the bones, beyond the mere fact of their material presence (and perhaps not even that), is less important. What is important is how we, the living, interact with, and so give meaning to, the remains of the dead.

In developing our shared research agenda under the name ‘What Lies Beneath’, we are interested in the meaning of bones and how this meaning varies cross-culturally and through time. Yet in saying this, we also acknowledge that human bones are, indeed, things-in-themselves, and any study of the social and cultural significance of bones must encompass their physical being, their affective quality of presence and their emotive materiality. In other words, if the bones of the dead are “"richly filled with meaning”" (Weingrod 1995: 12), this meaning is not simply bestowed upon them, but also relates intricately to something that inheres in them, and exists, therefore, in the relationship between bones and those who handle, talk or write about them. In recognising bones, and the significance of the materiality of bones, we highlight that they possess a curious quality of presence, for they are, as Howard Williams argues, “"intrinsically situated as being both ‘person’ and ‘object’”"(2004: 264). So, even as we consider bones as things that have meaning only as they are caught up in human transactions and endeavours, this consideration is haunted by the animate personhood, which is imminent within the thing, held in its very form and substance.

In recommending this approach, we are arguing for a study of, with a nod to Igor Kopytoff (1986), “the cultural biography of bones”. This study would follow the movement of the bones themselves through space and time, and map the unfolding networks of relationships of which bones are a part. Such a study rests on the recognition of the ‘agency’ of bones; an agency which, as Roger Sansi-Roca develops from the work of Alfred Gell, "“does not derive from the ‘abduction’ of the mind, the attribution of thought, but comes from the evidence of their physical presence and [their] dialectical relationship to the human body"” (2005: 150). In the case of bones this relationship is peculiar, in as much as they are, at once, both of the body, bearing the traces of their embodied being, and yet also objects external to and abstracted from it.