In 2004, the remains of two First World War US soldiers from France were delivered to the US Government for identification and burial. One set of remains was identified and buried, and the other went into a cold-case status. In 2019, the second individual was identified using multiple lines of evidence. The possible individuals that could be associated with the remains were reduced based on material evidence recovered with the remains and the spatiotemporal historical context of the remains. The First World War personnel records then offered sufficient biometric criteria to narrow the possible individuals associated with the second recovered individual to one person, Pfc. Charles McAllister. A family reference DNA sample from a direct matrilineal descendant of the individual added statistical weight to the identification, although the mtDNA was not a decisive or necessary factor in the identification. Due to bureaucratic reasons, the legal identification of Pfc. Charles McAllister is still pending.
The extremely high death rates in northern Italy during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic called for exceptional rules and suspension of funeral practices and burial rites. Additionally, forms of collective burial, typical of a wartime scenario, and mechanical methods and timing were reintroduced into the handling of corpses. Although several academic studies have highlighted how the absence of funeral ceremonies and ‘dignified burials’ has caused prolonged and deep suffering for the mourners and for many of the caregivers and health workers, few have so far focused on funeral workers. This article focuses on the intimate, emotional and ethical experiences of a group of funeral workers in northern Italy who handled COVID corpses and had to take the place of the mourners at the time of burial. Through an anthropological analysis of their oral memories, this work attempts to analyse their expressions of discomfort, frustration, fear and suffering.
Since the sixteenth century, artistic anatomy – a branch of medical science subordinated to the Fine Arts – has understood itself as a comparative investigation halfway between forensic dissection and the analysis of classical art and live bodies. Its teaching was first instituted in Italy by the 1802 curriculum of the national Fine Arts academies, but underwent a drastic transformation at the turn of the century, as the rise of photography brought about both a new aesthetics of vision and an increase in the precision of iconographic documentation. In this article I will attempt to provide a history of the teaching of this discipline at the close of the nineteenth century within the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, with a focus on its ties to contemporary French practices. Drawing on archival materials including lesson plans, letters and notes from the classes of the three medical doctors who subsequently held the chair (Gaetano Strambio, Alessandro Lanzillotti-Buonsanti and Carlo Biaggi), I will argue that the deep connections between their teaching of the discipline and their work at the city hospital reveal a hybrid approach, with the modern drive towards live-body study unable to wholly supplant the central role still granted to corpses in the grammar of the visual arts.
Osteological collections are key sources of information in providing crucial insight into the lifestyles of past populations. In this article, we conduct an osteobiographical assessment of the human remains of fourteen Selk'nam individuals, which are now housed in the Department of Anthropology, Natural History Museum Vienna, Austria. The aim is to bring these individuals closer to their communities of origin by using non-invasive methods aimed at rebuilding their biological profiles (i.e., age-at-death, biological sex and health status), adding to these with results from provenance research. This way, the human remains were assigned a new identity closer to their original one, through a process that we call ‘re-individualisation’. This is especially significant since it must be assumed that the individuals were exhumed against their cultural belief system. We conclude that building strong and long-lasting collaborations between Indigenous representatives and biological anthropologists has a pivotal role in research for reappraising Indigenous history.
Museums are places characterised by collecting objects, displaying them for public education and also subjecting their collections to research. Yet knowledge can not only be created by using the collection for research. The history of a collection can also be reconstructed, albeit mostly in a fragmentary way. This is important when there is evidence that the collection was acquired in a colonial context, when the collection contains human remains and more so if these were taken from Indigenous peoples. Reconstructing the history of a collection can assist source communities in strengthening their identities and help to regain lost knowledge about their ancestors. This study analyses the provenance of fourteen crania and calvaria of the Selk’nam people from Tierra del Fuego, stored at the Department of Anthropology, Natural History Museum Vienna. Additionally, the significance of these results and their meaning for today’s Selk’nam community Covadonga Ona will be contextualised within the framework of colonial history and museum systems.
There are many factors at work in the iconography of human remains. Some of those frequently discussed are aesthetic criteria, iconographic traditions and specific contingencies, whether political (for example in war paintings), symbolic (essential for transi images) or cultural. There is, however, one factor that is rarely mentioned, despite its centrality: the regime of value associated with corpses. Christ’s body is not painted in the same way as that of a departed relative or that used in a human dissection. Artists choose a suitable iconography depending on how the remains are perceived. This criterion became absolutely crucial in contexts such as nineteenth-century France, when attitudes to corpses underwent major changes.
This edited transcript of conversations between an Apache cultural heritage professional, Vernelda Grant, and researcher Bridget Conley explores the knowledge that should guide the repatriation of human remains in the colonial context of repatriating Apache sacred, cultural and patrimonial items – including human remains – from museum collections in the United States. Grant provides a historical overview of the how Apache elders first grappled with this problem, following the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) in the US Congress. She explains how and why community leaders made decisions about what items they would prioritise for repatriation. Central to her discussion is an Apache knowledge ecology grounded in recognition that the meaning of discrete items cannot be divorced from the larger religious and cultural context from which they come.
Both historical and contemporary records of mass contagion provide occasions for visibility to persons who otherwise remain little recognised and even less studied: those who bury the dead. While global reports attest to self-advocacy among cemetery workers in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the psychological complexities of their labour go virtually unseen. Findings on the experiences of those doing such work reveal a striking contrast. While societal disavowal often renders their task as abject and forgettable, those who inter the remains frequently report affective connections to the dead that powerfully, and poignantly, undermine this erasure. Acknowledging such empathic relationality allows us to look at this profession in areas where it has never been considered, such as psychoanalytic work on ‘mentalisation’ or in contemporary ethics. The article concludes with an example from the accounts of those who have buried the dead in the massed graves on New York’s Hart Island.