4.3 The Body and the Person

Consideration of the modern person begins with the body. It is often through and on the body that selfhood is created and bodies, or their remains, are one of the key kinds of evidence about personhood that archaeologists encounter. Thinkers in the social sciences have paid particular attention to ’embodiment’ – the nature of experience through the body – and archaeologists can consider past embodiment and also consider the body as material culture, which is the most frequent form in which we encounter past bodies (Sofaer 2006). Research into the body can develop our understanding of the ways modern persons were formed through their bodies, as highly individualised persons who treated their bodies as unique or as other kinds of person.

The modern person was closely defined by their body. The treatment of the body after death, and its commemoration, are important sources of evidence for understanding how the modern self was constructed. ‘Embodiment’ refers to the lived experience of having/being a body. In archaeology the turn toward embodiment is exemplified in, for example, the move from studying food in the past as economy to studying consumption ( Hamilakis 2002), and the move from studying landscape in terms of the material and physical features of the land to thinking about how spaces are inhabited, lived and perceived (see chapter 8 People and Landscape). Thinking about embodiment shifts perspectives towards the experiences of past people, how they underwent changes over the course of their lives and how they understood their own bodies, their needs and their practices.

Infant life and death has been consistently overlooked and marginalised in Scottish excavation data and the burial practices relating to young infants under-theorised throughout the modern period (e.g. Lowe 2008). And there are other areas of archaeology relating to children which ought to be explored here, including: investment in childhood as indicated by toys; relationships between changes in toys and games and changes in experiences of childhood; boundaries between childhood and adulthood as indicated by entry/exclusion into specific workplaces and industries; and the archaeology of schooling and the relationship between church and school. The archaeology of other aspects of the life-course, especially archaeologies of childbearing and of aging has also not yet been pursued extensively.

The history of medicine is central to an understanding of the modern person and this history can be enhanced by the archaeological study of human remains. Charlotte Roberts’s History of health in Europe from the Late Palaeolithic to the present project collects and co-ordinates some of this data (see Roberts and Cox 2000, Roberts and Manchester 2005). The history of medicine can be studied not only through human remains themselves, which display evidence of surgical procedures such as amputation, trephination and bone setting, but also through the material culture of medical treatment, the environmental evidence of pharmaceuticals and the architectural evidence of specialised treatment and research spaces (e.g. hospitals with operating theatres). Studies of health can also make use of indirect sources of evidence. For example, the remains of sewers and waste systems, which are ubiquitous in urban excavations, should not only be regarded as ‘modern disturbance’ or unfortunate truncations of more interesting archaeological layers below. They are evidence of historical developments in knowledge of and concern for public health. Consideration of hygienic disposal systems alongside pathological examination of bodies should reveal changes in the general health of the population.

Studies of folk medicine may also provide understanding of changes in how the body has been perceived, potentially revealing very different notions of the body to those revealed through research into scientific medical practice. Folk medicine provides a useful entry point for the exploration of the history of the idea that illness and disease is something contained within an individual body. Folk medicine practices suggest other ways of understanding illness – understanding predicated on complex networks of actors in which bodies, intentions, material culture and landscape interact with one another to produce and/or change positive or negative embodied states. Gilchrist’s work (2008) on apotropaic burial objects, though primarily focused on the high medieval period, is of relevance here as such objects may have continued to be used after the Reformation (as they are, for example, in post-medieval Irish infant burial grounds (Finlay 2003; Donelly and Murphy 2008)). Crossland (2010) provides a very useful discussion of amulets and charms – in this case witch bottles designed to harm a witch’s body – as evidence of how the body and health were constituted and re-conceptualised in the early modern period.

The potential for an archaeology of sexuality has been suggested by several recent studies focusing on urban gay sub-cultures (e.g. Higgs 1999, Houlbrook 2005, Cook 2008). These have sought to identify the geography of homosexuality, focusing on where in the past gay men met and socialised. For the period before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968, sites to explore might also encompass places of punishment for sodomy. ‘Microarchaeologies’ of gay or potentially gay individuals have not yet been attempted, In Scotland or elsewhere, though indications that the material evidence might be relevant to this area of history are suggested by an unusual access arrangement between bedchambers at Apethorpe Hall (Northants, England) – this arrangement has been tentatively linked to the sexuality of James I/VI and the Duke of Buckingham (English Heritage 2006). In a (presumably) heterosexual context, the recovery of 17th century condoms in excavations at Dudley Castle (England) indicates another, more direct, approach to the archaeology of sexuality. However, archaeologies of pre-20th century sexuality outside urban or aristocratic contexts may prove more difficult. In America a number of archaeological projects have successfully examined the experiences and values of urban prostitutes, but no comparable work has been done in Scotland (see the papers collected in Historical Archaeology 39(1) (2005).

Archaeological evidence of death comes primarily in two forms: recovered burials including human remains; and commemorative monuments and associated material culture. The above-ground archaeology of commemoration (e.g. Willsher 1985, Tarlow 1999, Spicer 2007) is better known for this period than the below ground evidence. Recording graveyard monuments has also been developed as a focus for community projects by the Archaeology Scotland/Historic Scotland Carved Stones Adviser project (2003). Work on commemorative monuments can address not only issues of demography, family and local history, but also attitudes to death and the dead, the relationship between the dead and the living, religious history, social relationships of power and inequality and the construction of identity.

Work on the below-ground archaeology of death in the post-medieval period is mostly in the form of technical reports on individual sites, and many of these remain as grey literature. However, recent work includes a gazetteer of 55 excavated sites in Scotland (Cherryson, Crossland and Tarlow in press). As well as burials in parish kirkyards, these include the burials of bodies that have been subjected to post-mortem autopsy or dissection (e.g. at Infirmary Street and Surgeons’ Square in Edinburgh), the bodies of strangers and victims of shipwrecks or drownings buried along the shore (eg at Allt Briagh on Lewis) and executed prisoners (e.g. at Stirling Toll Booth). McCabe (2010) has tentatively identified more than 20 sites across Scotland as possible infant burial grounds, predominantly in the west of the country and often located in the ruins of early ecclesiastical sites. As these burial grounds are often considered an Irish phenomenon, further study of their occurrence in Scotland would be significant. Excavation could confirm the suggestion that burial grounds housing unbaptised infants were also used for other liminal persons, like strangers (see for example Lowe 2008, 272).

The excavation of human remains in this period is affected not only by religious and legal considerations, but also by local sensitivities. It is an area where careful negotiation and scrupulously ethical practice is necessary. This is sometimes in conflict with archaeological interests: for example, after immediate recording, post-medieval remains are nearly always re-interred rather than retained for further study, which affects the ability to carry out extensive osteoarchaeological study, but underlines the importance of carrying out as full an investigation and recording as resources permit at the time of excavation.

Personal and social identity need not end with the death of the body. A dead person continues to be part of meaningful social relationships with the living, whether as ancestor, ghost or personal memory. The aspects of personhood that are chosen for commemorative inscriptions (e.g. familial relationships, places of birth or residence, profession, etc.) can be informative about shared cultural ideals. Scottish commemorative monuments differ from those in other parts of Britain in that they normally use adult women’s maiden names on the stone rather than their married names. More research is needed to assess whether this means that Scottish ideals of gendered identity were different to those current elsewhere in the British Isles. And, in general terms, this example indicates how small details in the material evidence can potentially provide great insights into everyday understandings of the body, the person, life and death in the modern past.

An understanding of emotional experience in the past has often been considered as either beyond the scope of archaeological enquiry or only possible if one subscribes to a universal psychological understanding of the nature of emotion (i.e. that emotion operates in the same way, regardless of context). Most anthropological approaches to emotion, however, find emotion to be culturally constructed, with both a biological and a cultural component; work on the history of emotion (e.g. Stearns and Stearns 1985, Reddy 1997, Rosenwein 2010) might further guide research here. Archaeologies of emotion are still uncommon in British archaeology in general, but they are represented in Scottish historical archaeology by Tarlow’s study of the emotions surrounding death and bereavement as expressed in commemorative monuments in Orkney between the 16th and 20th centuries (Tarlow 1999). Potential for the archaeological study of emotion may lie more in identifying the emotional values of a society – i.e. those which receive cultural elaboration in material and other ways – rather than in trying to capture the complex and contradictory interior emotional experiences of an individual (Tarlow 2000).

It is through the senses of the body that we experience the material world and sensual perception is an important topic for archaeological research into the modern person. Recent work has, for example, encouraged thinking about church buildings and the way in which they were used and experienced in relation to the conception and understanding of senses in the past. Late medieval understandings of sight and seeing have been analysed to understand how wall paintings were intended to be viewed. The development of archaeoacoustics has led to interpretations of the role of sound in the past. Such techniques can be applied to the modern period to provide further insights into people’s sensory engagement with landscapes, buildings and artefacts. Such an approach has been taken in examining early modern music and the acoustic properties of church buildings, demonstrating what a congregation was able to hear during a service. There remains much research to be done in this field: for example, how did the material culture of preaching shape the way in which the Word of God was delivered and received by the congregation and how did the play and intensity of candle-light upon wall (or other) decorations affect experiences of church?

According to the theology of John Calvin, the faithful were called upon ‘to consecrate themselves to as a spiritual temple of God’ and in them ‘God dwells by His Spirit’. So the body was the vessel or vehicle for the Holy Spirit, which meant that it had to be treated with respect. When it came to burial, the body had to be disposed of with decency and respect as it had once been a living temple of the Holy Spirit. Tarlow has written about the nature of belief with reference to the dead body in the post-medieval period, pointing out that different and even incommensurable beliefs can exist side-by-side and are drawn upon contextually (Tarlow 2011). Thus theological writings – both Catholic and Protestant – might emphasise the insignificance of the dead body in comparison to the immortal soul while, at the same time, folk practices such as the medicinal use of the dead body suggest that it had some kinds of power attributed to it, and although it was not considered necessary for the body to be whole in order to be resurrected, the dissection of the body was so frightful that it could be used as a legal sanction. Beliefs about living bodies also demand further attention: how have empirical and scientific knowledge of the modern body sat alongside other traditional ways of knowing the body?

See also the ScARF Case Study: Grave robbing



A photograph of a solid metal frame shaped like a coffin

Case Study: Grave robbing

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