Disturbing Bodies: A Relational Exploration of Forensic Archaeological Practice

Advanced Seminar

March 25–29, 2012

Disturbing Bodies: A Relational Exploration of Forensic Archaeological PracticeDisturbing Bodies: A Relational Exploration of Forensic Archaeological PracticeAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Zoë Crossland, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University and Rosemary A. Joyce, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, March 25–29, 2012.Disturbing Bodies: A Relational Exploration of Forensic Archaeological PracticeAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Zoë Crossland, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University and Rosemary A. Joyce, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, March 25–29, 2012.

“In titling the seminar ‘Disturbing Bodies,’ we wanted to call attention to the ways in which anthropologists disturb the dead, the justifications for it, and the ways in which the dead can disturb the living,” said seminar co-chair Zoë Crossland. Co-chair Rosemary Joyce continued, “This may be through their very presence, through the ways in which the dead can provide a site where political claims and challenges can be articulated, or through hauntings, dreams, and other forms of presence. The aim was to consider how forensic anthropologists work with the dead and to look at what the rest of the discipline might learn from being in conversation with forensic work.”

Forensic anthropological and archaeological work provides an important intersection to imagine new possibilities for anthropology and new conversations in a field that has radically fragmented over the last thirty years. This fragmentation can make it difficult to reach across the boundaries among the different parts of the discipline. In contrast, as the seminar participants explored, forensic anthropology draws upon all dimensions of the discipline in its work. “We’ve all developed our own languages and concerns and have very different ways of ‘being’ as anthropologists in the different subfields. During the seminar, we worked hard to develop cross-field discussion,” said Crossland.

Over the course of the seminar, three themes emerged: first, the responsibilities that exist because participants are working with the dead in relation to the living; second, the necessary emphasis this working relationship puts on the “personhood” of the dead and the reciprocal shaping of the personhood of the living, including the anthropologist; and third, questions of commemoration, memory, and the place of anthropological analyses in giving concrete shape to knowledge that might be entirely unknown or be present in a community in the form of unspoken secrets.

The seminarians also discussed the role of state power in exhumation and the constraints that the state puts on the anthropologist, whether because the state continues to shelter the perpetrators of violence or because the state is investigating and sometimes prosecuting violence. This situation leads to questions about the role of expertise and the limits to the authority of the anthropologist.

“The seminar was very productive. It allowed us to approach the question of archaeological exhumation and forensic analysis from a range of perspectives and to foster conversations that are not usually possible because of the very different contexts in which seminar members work.”—Seminar co-chairs Zoë Crossland and Rosemary A. Joyce

Another intersection between modern forensics and traditional bioarchaeology arises with the question of the historical context for interpersonal and state violence. What are the respective roles of forensic and traditional bioarchaeological anthropology in understanding these human propensities? Contemporary forensic anthropologists are, by definition, working on evidence of the shared human capacity for violence, and yet there is potential for their findings to be framed as exceptional, or even insignificant, compared to a largely peaceful present. What the bioarchaeological perspective on violence brings to our discussions is a reminder that interpersonal violence is something that can be seen throughout human history.

Finally, the seminar not only addressed various practices within anthropology that involve exhumation, but also explored the very nature of anthropology as a holistic and multidimensional project. Co-chairs Crossland and Joyce said that they expect the book that results from the seminar to speak to a broader set of questions. How does the holistic perspective of anthropology benefit from the dialogue across the spectrum from theory to practice that is required to talk about contemporary forensic anthropology? Can the orientation toward human justice, however defined, that underwrites forensic anthropology be read back into holistic anthropology? In what ways can the engagement of forensic anthropology promote more engagement of traditional anthropological knowledge production with wider publics? This kind of discussion between practitioners and those less involved in public scholarship illuminates why anthropology matters as a discipline today.

Zoë Crossland, Chair Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University Writing Forensic Anthropology: Textual Strategies in the US and Argentina
Rosemary A. Joyce, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley
Luis Fondebrider President and CEO, Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, Argentina Forensic Anthropology and the Investigation of Political Violence: Notes from the Field
Pamela Geller Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Miami Hybrid Identities: Seminole Skulls in the Morton Collection
Debra Martin Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Nevada Las Vegas Discussant
Isaias Rojas-Perez Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Rutgers University Transfigurations of the Missing Body: Justice, State Making and Forensic Anthropology in Postwar Peru
Victoria Sanford Associate Professor of Anthropology, Lehman College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York Discussant
Tim Thompson Senior Lecturer, Technology Futures Institute, School of Science and Engineering, Teesside University Deconstructing the Ideal of Standardization in Forensic Anthropology
Hugh Tuller Forensic Anthropologist, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s Central Identification Laboratory Identification vs. Prosecution: Is it That Simple, and Where Should the Archaeologist Stand?
Heather Walsh-Haney Assistant Professor, College of Professional Studies, Florida Gulf Coast University Creating the Biological Profile: The Question of Ancestry

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