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Body Parts and Bodies Whole: Changing Relations and Meanings

Body Parts and Bodies Whole: Changing Relations and Meanings

Edited by Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, Marie Louise Stig Sørensen, and Jessica Hughes. Pp. iv + 148, figs. 99, table 1. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2010. $60. ISBN 978-1-84217-402-9 (cloth).

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This edited volume stems from a Leverhulme-funded project entitled “Changing Beliefs of the Human Body” and a session at the European Association of Archaeologists held at Zadar, Croatia, in 2007. The book is really about changing beliefs about how bodies, or materials representing them, were possibly used to express social and biological relationships. Central to this argument are concepts of fragmentation and enchainment.

Bioarchaeologists and archaeologists have long puzzled over the incompleteness of the archaeological record and the often fragmentary nature of the material they do find. In earlier prehistoric periods, this fragmentary evidence is generally interpreted through the lens of site formation processes and taphonomy. In contrast, fragmentation studies are based on the premise that much of the fragmentary evidence from the past may be best explained as the result of deliberate human actions. The counter behavior—accumulation or hoarding—is clearly acknowledged to stem from human choice.

As most explicitly applied to archaeology by Chapman, a contributor to this volume (Fragmentation in Archaeology: People, Places and Broken Objects in the Prehistory of South Eastern Europe [London 2001])—and expanded in Chapman and Gaydarska (Parts and Wholes: Fragmentation in Prehistoric Context [Oxford 2007])—enchainment is the notion that humans use bodies or aspects of their material culture (or even animal remains) to represent connections of the past to the present and relationships among individuals. Viewed in this manner, enchainment encapsulates the pars pro toto concept—a component of fragmentation studies. Parts of human bodies, or fragments of an object, can be distributed over space and time to express social connections. This represents a different perspective on individuality and the person, namely “dividuality” and the “fractal person,” as developed by Strathern (The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia [Berkeley 1988]) in her ethnographic work on New Guinea groups.

The use of fragmentation analysis and enchainment theory has led to seductive explanations for some rather unusual discoveries. However, the combined application of these perspectives has been rightly critiqued by scholars who cite the limited attention to excavation precision, site formation, or taphonomic processes; the frequent lack of quantification; and the forced coupling of fragmentation and enchainment (D. Bailey, rev. of Chapman 2001, American Anthropologist 103 [2001] 1181–82; A. Whittle, rev. of Chapman 2001, AJA 105 [2001] 722–23; M. Brittain and O. Harris, “Enchaining Arguments and Fragmenting Assumptions: Reconsidering the Fragmentation Debate in Archaeology,” WorldArch 42 [2010] 581–94). As currently developed, fragmentation study incorporating enchainment theory is untestable, as it relies on interpretation of human intentions even when patterning of fragmentation is well documented. Thus, while the conclusions are compelling, they are no better, and perhaps worse, than other explanations of fragmentation in the archaeological record.

This is not to say that the study of fragmentation is without merit. It raises important questions and challenges traditional views about individuality. This is the strength of the volume under review. The 13 contributed papers are an eclectic mix of fragmentation studies from different time periods (from prehistoric to the 19th century) in Europe and the Mediterranean. The introduction provides a brief overview of fragmentation and the chapters that follow. Seven contributions discuss later prehistoric periods in Europe (Croucher, Lorentz, Chapman, Appleby, Sorenson, Rebay-Salisbury, Palincas), and three papers focus on the Iron Age (Rebay-Salisbury, Armit, Hedeager). Most of the authors focus on fragmentation of human bodies, interment, and mortuary analysis; other papers primarily discuss material culture and iconography (Armit, Palincas, Hughes, Hedeager). Chapters on human/animal hybrids from the Classical period (Hughes) and the Late Iron Age/Viking Age of Scandinavia (Hedeager) represent another fascinating focus of fragmentation studies.

An outstanding and thought-provoking contribution is Appleby’s examination of the aging body in the Late Bronze Age of lower Austria in light of fragmentation and decay. Another strong contribution is Rebay-Salisbury’s discussion of the adoption of cremation in the European Bronze Age.

The paper by Weiss-Krejci on heart burial in Medieval and early post-Medieval central Europe raises issues of bodies as expressions of power politics and legitimization. In the final chapter, Cherryson analyzes dissection and body use in 18th- and 19th-century Britain to bring fragmentation study into the near contemporary context.

There are a few technical shortcomings that detract from the overall high quality of the publication. The editing is uneven, and some papers suffer; the chapter by Sorensen lacks in-text references for most of the figures. The cover illustration of a sculpture by Christie Brown is a clever concept, but the poor quality of the image renders it less effective. I could not figure out what was depicted until I read the introductory paragraphs. Similarly, several of the chapter photographs of complex burials are difficult to evaluate; the use of arrows to indicate important features would have been helpful for readers.

Body Parts and Bodies Whole provides an expanded application of fragmentation. The chapters illustrate different ways to think about the incompleteness of the archaeological record and the ways humans use bodies and material culture. In preparing this review, I read about regions and time periods that I would not normally peruse—and I am glad I did. This volume would be an excellent book for stimulating discussion in a seminar, and it is an enjoyable read for skeletal biologists, specialists in mortuary analysis, and ceramicists.

Lynne A. Schepartz
Department of Anthropology
Florida State University
Tallahassee, Florida 32306-7772

Book Review of Body Parts and Bodies Whole: Changing Relations and Meanings, edited by Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, Marie Louise Stig Sørensen, and Jessica Hughes

Reviewed by Lynne A. Schepartz

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Schepartz

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