How to say things with bodies: Meaningful violence on an american frontier

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11 Scopus citations


When archaeologists talk about “the body”, they are increasingly likely to consider it not just as a physical or biological object but as a semantic vehicle – a means of symbolic communication. There is, of course, a large literature devoted to the semeiotics of social life (e.g. Alexander 2006; Burke 1945; Collins 2004; Goffman 1959; Turner 1974). Much of this work has emphasized the living body as a text, metaphor, or natural symbol (e.g. Douglas 1970; Strathern 1996; Turner 1967). Yet in recent years there has been a move away from text and discourse, with more emphasis placed on the corporeal properties of bodies and their entanglements in social and material worlds. The literature on embodiment and materiality in general has dramatically expanded (e.g. Hodder 2012; Ingold 2011; Miller 2005; Olsen 2010; Shilling 2008), suggesting a breakdown of the Cartesian worldview that detaches mind from body and treats society as a set of abstract individuals or institutions (Latour 2002). In this light, we are challenged to conceptualize communication in practice, as context-specific processes involving actions with and through the body (Crossland 2009a, 2009b; 2010; Preucel 2006). Among those taking up this challenge are archaeologists who have emphasized the greatplasticity of the body – its transformative potential over the life course and beyond (e.g. Joyce 2008; Meskell 2004; Meskell and Joyce 2003; Sofaer 2006). While much attention has been devoted to the lived experiences of embodied individuals in the past, I focus here on the “social lives” of bodies after death. The life course, in this perspective, includes all the entanglements of the dead in the social and material worlds of the living, from funerary rites and other acts of remembrance to the exploitation of bodies for economic or political gain. My approach intersects with the work of cultural anthropologists (Verdery 1999; Wagner 2008) as well as archaeologists (Crossland 2009b; Renshaw 2011; Robb 2007, 2008, 2009; Tarlow 2008) who have come to see corpses and other seemingly inert, anatomical objects as constitutive elements of social life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781134677979
ISBN (Print)9780415842198
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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