The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Skull Art and Revulsion

This, a pinhole camera manufactured from the 150-year old skull of a 13-year old girl, got me thinking about human remains, or, rather, the treatment of human remains.  As I have been known to deal with human remains through my work, this type of musing has professional implications for me that it doesn't have for most people.

I do not subscribe to any supernatural views - I believe neither in souls nor gods nor spirits, and I do not buy the notion that the way in which one's remains are treated in any way impact the person to whom the body belonged*.  So, understand that I am aware that my thoughts here, steeped as they are in a sort of weird notion of what death and remains mean, are not particularly rational...and yet I suspect that they will be perfectly understandable to most people reading this.

But before we get into my own flavor of irrational, let's set the groundwork by stating what I think are perfectly reasonable views regarding the treatment of human remains. 

By and large, I feel that rules and regulations regarding the treatment of human remains should be designed to A) protect public health, and B) avoid reasonable and unnecessary upset to people still alive** - in that order.  So, if a coroner has to perform an autopsy against the wishes of a family in order to assess the likelihood of communicable disease, for example, then the prevention of disease should trump the family's wishes.  However, if a family member would like to prevent a body from being used for medical instruction or research, I think that they should have their wishes met. 

Going with these two principles (along with the ** below), you can take care of business.  People who wish to have their bodies donated for research or instruction can do so, but the families of those who don't wish that can be assured that unnecessary disturbance of their deceased will not occur.  And this is, more-or-less, what we usually have in our current society, and it seems to work pretty well.

But then you have cases such as this pinhole camera.  I have an automatic revulsion to this, and while I can explain why, I'm not entirely comfortable with my reasons. 

On the one hand, if I were to learn that some hipster twit was going to turn my cranium into an "art object" after my death I would be annoyed...on the other hand, by the time it happened, I would be too busy being dead to care.  I have disintered bones, taken them from the ground, catalogued them, and placed them within a box for transport and/or storage.  This doesn't bother me.  I have had human bones in boxes near my desk for months at a time, waiting for the MLD*** to take them for permanent curation or internment.  This doesn't bother me.  In short, I am not creeped out by being near and even handling human remains.  It's something that absolutely does not bother me.

But this pinhole camera skull creeps me out, and really bothers me. 

I think that part of it is that I am making some assumptions about the creator.  I have met many an "extreme artist" in the past, and found that while some are trying to do legitimate work, many often go for shock value, capitalizing on prurient impulses in order to get publicity, while claiming that they are challenging taboos when, in fact, they are simply getting a kick out of trying to upset people.  I have no idea if that is what this guy is doing or not, but I have to admit that, lacking any evidence one way or another, that is my working assumption...and it is an assumption.  I have no good reason for thinking that this is the case.

Another reason this bothers me, I think, is that I know a bit about how skulls were often obtained during the 19th century.  Exhibitions such as Body Worlds use the bodies of volunteers, people who willingly donate their bodies to be made into art objects.  It seems remarkably unlikely that a 13-year old girl would have agreed to such a thing back in the mid-19th century.  So, I have to wonder where and how the skull was obtained, not only by the artist, but by those from whom the artist obtained it, on down the line until it was on the shoulders of a living teenage girl.  During the 19th century, and even up into the second half of the 20th century, there was a trade in the bodies of people who had the misfortune to die in the wrong place or under the wrong circumstances.  Many of these bodies were from criminals, but many others were from those who were poor, or kidnapping victims.  The bodies were usually sold to educational institutions for anatomy courses, though some were sold to individual scientists, and a few likely even ended up in the hands of colectors (the number of disturbing things that the allegedly upright Victorians collected is truly mind-blowing).  And that doesn't get into skulls taken by soldiers sent to the colonies, settlers who stole the body parts of Native Americans killed during the conflicts that accompanied the western expansion of the U.S., as well as the less common ways in which someone might illegally gain body parts.  So, there is a fair chance that the skull became available for a 21st-century collector because the girl to whom it belonged died in a manner that while undramatic likely caused grief to her family, or was killed violently, and the removal of the remains would have compounded her family's grief. 

Again, though, I don't know any of this.  It simply seems likely given what I do know about the history of the body trade.

And, of course, another thing that is making my skin crawl here is the fact that this is a deep-seated taboo, a fact that the creator of the camera is probably counting on.  It's the "ick" factor.  Admittedly, this is culturally constructed to a degree, but taboos against poor treatment of corpses (at least those from the in-group) are universal, and destruction, damage, or mutilation of bodies is universally a sign of both disrespect and anger/hatred towards the one to whom it is being done.  This is, admittedly, not rational - again, what happens after death doesn't impact the person when they're alive and able to notice - but it is something that is wired into human societies across the board (though, admittedly, what is construed as respectful or disrespectful treatment of the dead varies greatly across cultures...but I'm pretty sure that making a pinhole camera out of the skull isn't considered normal anywhere).

But this brings me back to what I do for a living.  There are those who would consider my work to be disrespectful towards the dead, and therefore "icky" or disturbing.  Although I do not remove human remains unless they are in danger of being destroyed otherwise, and I work as much as possible with the descendants of the deceased to ensure that everything is on the up-and-up, that doesn't change the fact that what I do with the remains, and the sort of research that I have supported in the past and will likely continue to support, is often not viewed with pleasure by a significant portion of the Native American community. Even when I am clearly working to save an endangered skeleton, there are those who would rather that it be left alone by me, even if that means it getting smashed by a bulldozer.

I will make this argument: the work I do is done to prevent harm to remains, and I do work to have them taken care of in such a way as the living descendents are not unnecessarily bothered.  I don't view the remains as mine to do with as I please, but rather as remains that belong rightfully to the people who descended from the person being exhumed.  The information that I gather is not sold, when possible I see it published, when not possible it at least gets into the "gray literature."  This, I believe, puts me into another camp entirely from an artist who decides to turn a child's skull into a camera. 

But, I have to admit that I have my days when I wonder if I am as different as I would like to think that I am.

* Interesting to note that our cultural views regarding these things are so steeped in supernaturalism that even in describing this, while I know that the body WAS the person (after all, our minds are a function of our brains which are a part of our bodies), I still use the langaueg of mind/body dualism and talk about the body "belonging" to someone.

** I would make one exception to B - when remains are likely to be destroyed, I think that it is acceptable to remove them from their current location in order to prevent their destruction.  However, in such cases, the work should be done discreetly and professionaly so as to prevent grief to the living.

***Most likely descendant, the person designated by the coroner to take care of the human remains based on a relationship to the deceased.  The politics of how this often works out within a Native American context is complex and worthy of an entire book.


Lynn said...

I agree with you... my husband wants his body given to the local medical school; fine with me. Long dead human remains don't bother me at all (recently dead is another story.

The pin home camera just reminds me of Nazi-era stuff in a way that, while perhaps totally illogical, creeps me out. It's either too, too practical (like saving Jewish hair for mattresses) or done simply for the shock value... in either case, I don't like it.

Anthroslug said...

Yeah, it seems like something that is either callous or unworthy or both.