by Miriam Edlich-Muth
21st century excavations of dead bodies usually only impinge on the public consciousness in the context of violent crime or atrocities.
My area of the DEEPDEAD project will be dealing in part with the ways in which narratives of violence have been attached to human remains in the description of medieval relics. In this context, a recent Mosaic report, (which was also re-printed on the BBC Future website and featured as a Guardian ‘Long Read’ article) caught my eye. The article describes the mass graves that are now being exhumed in Bosnia and the genocide and grave-robbing the re-assembled bodies bear witness to. “Who were these people?” asks the author, Ed Vulliamy, describing how the clothes and possessions the bodies have been matched with have been laid at the foot of each set of bones.
One photograph that accompanies the report is initially jarring: the rows of human skeletons shown seem familiar, but the cheap trestle tables on which they are arranged present an incongruous setting for human remains. In the picture at the top of the Guardian article, the setting has been blacked out so that we see only one disjointed skeleton, lying as if in darkness or inside the earth itself. The result is a universally recognisable image of death – broadly reminiscent of the figures that dance across the foreground in medieval images of the danse macabre.
The difference is that these are not complete, animated skeletons imagined in some riotous dance. They are not abstract images of death, but the remains of real bodies, whose violent deaths become visible in the incompleteness of the skeletons. And yet, the details of the report show that these assemblages of bones are themselves as much implicated in processes of storytelling as the animated skeletons of the dance macabre.
As the article describes, the skeletons that have been recovered in Bosnia were not all found intact, rather, many of them have been reassembled on the basis of DNA evidence. They bear the traces of having been buried in mass graves and then re-buried in new mass graves, whose location closer to areas of military conflict was apparently intended to cover up the implication of genocide. It seems that the very location of the bones has been instrumentalised by one group involved in the Bosnian conflict to tell a misleading story about how the people buried in these mass graves met their death. Yet, the implied narrative was not believed and the bones have been exhumed to allow them to tell another story on the basis of DNA samples and the evidence offered by the possessions found nearby. Clearly the hope for survivors and relatives is that this story will be a more ‘authentic’ one and will identify the bodies of the dead sufficiently to bury them and bring about a sense of closure.
As this case suggests, the ‘voices’ of the dead are particularly loud and contradictory, where the official version of the history in which they play a part has not yet been settled to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders still living.
The bodies being exhumed in Bosnia, like the increasing number of relics circulating in thirteenth–century France, have been contextualized in ways that offer cause for doubt or even anxiety to those invested in truly identifying the remains they are confronted with. In the case of the Balkan war, the people who re-buried the bodies in new mass graves were attempting to re-write recent history and the part they may have played in it. It strikes me that Christians who believed in salvation history must also have felt that the moral battles in which their saints took part were still unfolding, making them stakeholders with similarly acute anxieties and desires concerning the authenticity of the relics they had access to and the stories with which they were associated.