The Sadness Of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains

Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.

I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?

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One of the preserved paws of the Siberian dog (Photo Credit: Sergey Fyodorov, NEFU)

This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.

Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.

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The head and front limbs of the preserved foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body.  A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by  them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.

The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.

Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.

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Close-up photo of the preserved hooves of the foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.

As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).

Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?

References

Associated Press. (2018) Ancient Horse Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/foal-permafrost-1.4797543?cmp=rss

Day, J. (2013) Facing the Mummy: Physiognomy, Facial Reconstruction, and the ‘Delirious Biographies’ of Egyptian Mummies. 8th International Congress on Mummy Studies.

Gertcyk, O. (2018) Cute First Pictures of 50,000 Year Old Cave Lion Cub Found Perfectly Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/cute-first-pictures-of-new-50000-year-old-cave-lion-cub-found-perfectly-preserved-in-permafrost-of-yakutia/

Redman, S. (2016) Reconsidering BodyWorlds: Why Do We Still Flock to Exhibits of Dead Human Beings? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Seu, I.B. (2015) Appealing Children: UK Audiences’ Responses to the Use of Children in Humanitarian Communications. The International Communication Gazette. 77(7). pp. 654-667.

Siberian Times Reporter. (2018) ‘Sibling’ of Oldest Mummified Puppy in the World Found Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0386-sibling-of-oldest-mummified-puppy-in-the-world-found-preserved-in-permafrost/

Starr, M. (2018) Incredibly Preserved 40,000 Year Old Extinct Baby Horse Has Been Unearthed in Siberia. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/extinct-equus-lenensis-lena-horse-pleistocene-foal-found-preserved-near-perfect-permafrost

Wright, P. (2017) Empathising with Bog Bodies: Seamus Heaney and the Feminine Sublime. Brief Encounters. 1(1).

#FolkloreThursday: On High Status Animals, or Imagining Scrooge McDuck’s Vault But Filled With Pigs and Horses

When we think of “high status” in the archaeological record, we usually think about intricate metalwork or elaborate jewellery…but what about animals? If that sounds strange, remember this: we still have animals and animal-based foods that are culturally considered “high status” today! Think of things like caviar, lobster, peacocks, etc…cover them all with some gold leaf and you’ve got yourself a millionaire’s prized possessions.

As I’ve talked about before on this blog, one of the greatest strengths of zooarchaeological research is that there are so many elements of the past that can be derived from animal remains. So to demonstrate this point, here’s a quick look at two of the high status animals from Iron Age Britain…

Ignore the fact that this is a more medieval-looking high status feast…no offence to the British Iron Age, but it’s just way easier to find images like this online! (Photo Credit: Costume Company UK Ltd)

The humble pig as a high status animal may not come as a surprise…after all, how many feasting scenes in films have you seen where one of the main courses is a giant roasted pig complete with an apple in the mouth? Raising pigs for consumption in the Iron Age took up a considerable amount of resources and land, so it follows that higher status individuals would be the few to keep and consume pigs (Serjeantson 2007). Many archaeological sites with evidence of feasting have been observed to produce many pig bones as well – it seems like that cliche has a long history! Given how difficult it was to maintain pigs, it could be interpreted that feasts with large amounts of pigs consumed were important, possibly reflecting an important event or ritual that deserves a large portion of one’s wealth being used (Madgwick and Mulville 2015).

Pigs also have a symbolic value as well by having a wild counterpart in the form of boars. Beliefs in Iron Age Britain seem to have placed emphasis on concepts of “liminality” (or the “between” places that are neither here nor there) as well as ideas of the domestic sphere and the wilderness. With that in mind, its possible that this duality of pig/boar, domestic/wild could have made pigs (and boars) high status in symbolic/ritual value as well. Boar were often hunted during this period, and were especially appreciated for its fierceness, leading to many boar motifs found in Iron Age weaponry and armoury (Green 1992, Parker Pearson 1999).

A bronze figure of a boar from a Late Iron Age chieftan’s grave at Lexden, Colchester, Essex (Photo Credit: Miranda Green)

Probably one of the more equally valued animals at the time was the horse. Unlike pigs, however, horses were more useful to humans alive than dead; horses allowed people to move quickly across long stretches of land and transport large numbers of goods – what isn’t there to like about ’em? Horses were also important to both hunting and warfare, especially with the invention and use of chariots (Green 1992, Chadwick 2007).

Although highly valued in life, it is how horses are treated in death that provide evidence to their status in the Iron Age. There are many examples of horse burials that display a sort of reverence that isn’t afforded to other animals: for example, there are instances of horse remains that have been deposited with human remains. Chariot and cart burials – which were common in the Arras Culture of Iron Age Yorkshire – can also be interpreted as emphasising the importance of horses through the activities they were associated with (warfare and transportation), although most of these did not contain horse remains. However, in 2017 a chariot burial with a horse skeleton was recovered in Pocklington, Yorkshire (Keys 2017).

An Iron Age horse and chariot burial from Pockington, Yorkshire (Photo Credit: David Wilson)

So there you have it – a quick look at how zooarchaeologists can interpret aspects about social status and hierarchy in the past from animal bones – obviously, there are other animals that are considered relatively high status, and that all pigs and horses weren’t treated this way everywhere in the Iron Age – there’s lots of nuance that needs to be used in interpretation. But we have lots of evidence to suggest that pigs and horses were indeed considered high status animals – and hey, I have to agree…I mean, have you ever had pork cracklings? Mmm…

References

Chadwick, A. M. (2007) Trackways , hooves, and memory-days – human and animal movements and memories around the Iron Age and Romano-British Rural Landscapes of the English North Midlands. Prehistoric Journeys. Oxbow Books.

Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge.

Keys, D. (2017) Iron Age Chariot and Horse Found Buried Together in Yorkshire. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/iron-age-chariot-horse-yorkshire-archaeology-significant-find-half-a-century-buried-together-a7659091.html

Madgwick, R. and Mulville, J. (2015) Feasting on Fore-Limbs: Conspicuous Consumption and Identity in Later Prehistoric Britain. Antiquity.

Parker Pearson, M. (1999) Food, Sex and Death: Cosmologies in the British Iron Age with Particular Reference to East Yorkshire. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Serjeantson, D. (2007) Intensification of Animal Husbandry in the Late Iron Age? The Contribution of Sheep and Pigs. The Earlier Iron Age in Britain and the Near Continent. Oxbow Books.