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).

Not For You: Cultural Appropriation in Neo-Paganism and How Archaeology Plays a Role

Issues of cultural appropriation in “New Age” and holistic circles isn’t breaking news – over the past decade, there has been much in the media and news discussing appropriation of ritual garb, sacred herbs, and practices, often by white spiritual leaders who make financial gain through their appropriative acts without providing anything in return to those whose culture has been stolen. Although the material side of cultural appropriation is easy to spot (for example, the many, many examples of white people wearing indigenous war bonnets during festivals), it has also become far more engrained in some Neo-Pagan and modern witchcraft circles. Cultural appropriation doesn’t seem related to archaeology at first glance, but because appropriation is mostly performed through the creation and utilisation of material culture, it arguably is an archaeological issue.

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Just a small example of clashing cultures – a Norse rune alongside an oracle card depicting Egyptian deity Bast.

Arguably much cultural appropriation could be traced to comparative studies of religions – for example, comparative Indo-European mythology, which has resulted in the use of aspects of Hinduism in Celtic reconstructivism (Michale 2008). In some ways, this could be seen as coming from a good natured place – by utilising a form of soft polytheism, or the belief that all deities across religions are all aspects of the same god, it places all religions on a similar level of “respect” and does not place one particular religion over another.

However, this masks the negative effects of cultural appropriation. In Peter Grey’s book Apocalyptic Witchcraft (2013), he writes that “the New Age is one such form of cultural imperialism”, referring to the violence that cultural appropriation does towards the very rituals and rites that are being appropriated, torn from the cultural context that they originated from. An “outsider” from the culture will gain from their use (or, in many cases, misuse) of their practices – in a sense, they are stealing what is not rightfully theirs, which in some ways can recreate imperialistic power structures, especially if the culture in question has a history of being persecuted for practising the very beliefs that have now been appropriated.

The more malicious form of cultural appropriation is seen in the commodification of spiritual elements from other cultures by outsiders. The term “plastic shaman” is often used to refer to someone (often a white, non-native) who peddles “Native American spirituality” in the form of manufactured totems, jewelry, or oracle cards. This commodification often results in the homogenising of all Native American practices as one singular tradition, rather than the complex and diverse cultures that differ based on tribe and region (Lelandra 2008). The commodification of appropriation further “others” a culture, often advertising it as something “new” and “exotic” to Western consumers.

Ultimately, it seems that most instances of cultural appropriation can be traced to a similar cause that also creates pseudo-archaeological histories (which you can read more about here) in Neo-Paganism: a need for authenticity. Filan’s paper in Talking about the Elephant (2008) makes a great point about the word “authentic”, noting that “it is an outsider’s word”. Those outside of a culture want something “authentic”, something that is proven to be real and true, as they will not have the background knowledge to truly connect with the practice. Authenticity also implies a sense of insecurity as well – someone who has grown up in a particular culture knows that it is real, while an outsider will need reassurance.

This insecurity is similarly reflected in the pseudo-archaeological histories that have come out of many Neo-Pagan practices. In order to combat naysayers and disbelievers, many feel that they need to prove that their path is authentic and valid. So, in many ways, these drive for authenticity in both history and practice feeds into pseudoarchaeology and cultural appropriation – for example, Gardnerian Wicca extrapolates from different cultures (Celtic, Egyptian, etc.) to formulate its rituals as well as provide the aura of an ancient, authentic religion that harkens back to prehistory. This is also seen in “eclectic” paths, or spiritual practices that tend not to follow one particular pathway – by utilising “authentic” cultural practices and their histories as “proof”, their path is more “valid”.

The discussion surrounding cultural appropriation in Neo-Pagan and other New Age communities is still very tense, as practitioners try to balance between cultural diffusion and appropriation – on one hand, those who find themselves “called” to their current practice may feel as though they are not appropriating said culture at all, but rather can be seen as part of the culture due to their spiritual connection. Others argue that so long as the practitioner follows the laid out traditions of the culture and is knowledgable of their history (more specifically, by an elder of said culture), it should not been seen as appropriation (Barrette 2008). But there is a growing number of people within these communities who are becoming more informed about cultural appropriation and engaging with it, both on a spiritual level as well as a more aware, political and social level.

References

Barrette, E. (2008) Braiding Pagans: Cultural Etiquette in a Multicultural World. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Filan, K. (2008) Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby…Cultural Appropriation and the Myth of Authenticity. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Grey, P. (2013) Apocalyptic Witchcraft. Scarlet Imprint.

Lelandra (2008) Devouring Kitsch: Image Collecting and Cultural Appropriation. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Michale, J. (2008) Druids and Brahmins: of Cultural Appropriation and the Vedas. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.