Speaking to the Dead: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

3 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication, which was released in 2013.  It is a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including the present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book in a blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for sustained periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1985 volume The Unwomanly Face of War (У войны не женское лицо), recently translated into English and republished, which uncovers the role of USSR females in the Second World War and the subsequent silence of their contributions, alongside 1997’s Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва),  a volume which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  That book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) was due to be published in 2017; the volume looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless, there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field.  It is one I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends describing their experiences of encountering human skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and how it inspires them – into careers, into dreams, into labours of love and worry.

A two-part previous edition of this series focusing on the life and thoughts of archaeologists can be read here and here.


The author’s monologue

– Buried and cremated, dismembered and decapitated, axial and axis, perimortem and postmortem.  The language we use to describe the dead can seem cold and clinical, a hidden distance in our lexical choices to keep the emotive at bay.  If we think of the skeletonized dead as people, with their own lives, thoughts and memories, instead of objects taking up space on the finds shelves or boxed silently away, it is perhaps then we remember that the past is not so different, not so foreign to the present.

Fragments of crania, rolled across my open palm for tactile inspection, used to remind me of the intangible border of death.  Reminded me that I too would die.  Bone, that wonderous structure of both flesh and stone, reminded me so vividly of what it is to live.  Having broken many of the elements within my own skeleton, I could feel kindred to those naturally fractured fragments before me, couldn’t I?

That decisive snap, the innervation of electric pain that contorts to dull throbs . . .  What I thought I knew, I desired to know in more depth.  My own experiences of skeletal breakages and repeated surgical interventions, my own handling of the blade cutting into flesh to show bone the sordid light of the dissection room.  The smell of my anatomical guide – the paper protected by clear plastic wallets, but the pages of which had nevertheless become permeated by the chemical smells of preservation.  These were the experiences that pushed me on.

From excavation to analysis, pulled from birth to death anew.  A whole new context of meaning imbued by the discipline of archaeology . . .  These were my dreams, the dull and long-drawn out thoughts that lay behind daily concerns and speculations.

What do others think, how do others interact with the skeletal material that represents an individual, a population, a species?


The illusion of mortality and the fickle nature of finality

Gabriela H.  Late twenties.  Post-doctoral researcher.

– I don’t know what drew me into studying skeletons – it was not the morbid aspect for sure.  I have never been to a funeral, and I don’t feel a pang for skull-themed aromatic candles spread around the house.  I might be ‘in search for a stable ground to step on’, as a psychologist once told me . . .  I don’t know if that is true, it might be, but it might as well have something to do with people.  I like people, and have always been interested in watching them, in understanding their passions, actions and thoughts.  But I should probably bear in mind that these are dead people.  Most of the time I try to ignore this though . . .  The image of a crime movie in which body parts are stacked in jars on shelves comes vividly to mind, and the comparison is rather worrying to be frank.

However, aren’t we (those studying the dead) caught in this eternal (no pun intended) puzzle?  Between having to acknowledge that these are dead people – that on the lab table and on the museum shelf it is death and mortality looking back at us, confronting our own fear of death.  Or seeing them as mere bones, objects that are there waiting for us to turn them into ‘high-impact’ articles?  Boundaries, and absences are unsettling: someone has forever disappeared, though some part of them has been left behind.

‘It is the living who expect insights from the dead’ a friend once told me, and he couldn’t have been more right (as you see I am trying to avoid saying ‘dead right’).  As a ‘dead bodies’ practitioner I think this line cuts to the core of the whole challenge of writing narratives about them – what are we hoping to achieve?  I think most of the times we are unsure, but it is rather hard to be sure about something like death, isn’t it?


On the joy of working with the hands and the truth concealed

Abigail L.  Mid-twenties.  PhD candidate.

– I often miss working with my hands.  The hours spent staring at a screen or trawling through journals are necessary for research, but they make me realise that the physicality of handling human remains, the engagement that comes with examining the material myself, is what really helps me to understand my subject best.  Carefully sorting through someone’s bones removes the abstraction of talking about statistics, trends and probabilities, and brings it back to the individual level, the only one that we can really identify with.  I gain satisfaction from the ordered and methodical work; the rest of my time is spent chaotically moving between tasks and failing to cross anything off my cluttered stacks of physical and digital to-do lists.  With the bones, I arrive early and skip lunch to give myself more time to work slowly and carefully.  I don’t feel the need for the extended walks around the park that my ‘office work’ prompts.  Almost everyone else smokes.

With long periods where I am kept in the office, the growing anticipation of these sparsely distributed tangible interactions with my subject sometimes leads to frustration.  Missing limbs (misplaced in the last decade; “I’m sure they were on display once”); a severe case of mould spreading through the axial skeleton; another “sorry it was lost in the war;” a set of misidentified and mis-catalogued remains that belong to some other site (which one, though?).

My recent osteological work has been characterised by dismay . . .  I’m concerned by the mishandling of human remains in museum and university contexts, but I can’t talk about it as I’m still relying on the goodwill of these institutions.

I can discuss general access issues and curatorial ethics in my thesis, but I can’t refer to my personal disappointment over being prevented from doing something I enjoy.  Is it even okay for me to enjoy this work?  To enjoy sorting, measuring, and recording human remains?  We are supposed to be enthusiastic about our research: engagement, outreach, impact, et cetera.  But people don’t always want to hear the specifics.  I was recently asked (by a palaeoethnobotanist) what I do to ward off all the bad Juju I must be attracting . . .  Alongside my enjoyment, if that is allowed, I also feel a deep anxiety about getting something wrong that I don’t feel in relation to other areas of my work.  It doesn’t seem to go away with experience.  Another topic with no real home for discussion.

My main anxiety at the moment, though, is in relation to my future employment prospects.  While the practical work is what sustains my interest, I also know I need to develop other research interests, other skills, other areas of expertise, in order to compete for jobs.  Most of these keep me inside.  I am increasingly realising that I will soon have little choice in the matter.


The search for identity in a modern context

Richard Smith.  Late forties.  Recovering field archaeologist.

– I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that for many people outside of the profession, the chief occupation of an archaeologist is digging up skeletons (at least for those who don’t think we’re looking for dinosaurs).  To be honest, that aspect probably played into my own set of disjointed reasons for wanting to become an archaeologist . . .  There is something very reassuring about seeing archaeologists carefully excavating away soil from around a skeleton – you know you’re seeing some ‘proper’ archaeology!

And yet, I had worked for more than 20 years as a commercial field archaeologist before I got the opportunity to excavate a ‘classic’ laid out flat skeleton.  It’s not that I’d not been doing much, but every site I seemed to work on was composed of pits, ditches, post-holes, and the like . . .  It’s not like I didn’t encounter human death in those years, but it was invariably in the form of cremated remains, frequently having undergone heavy comminution.  Say what you like, but it’s hard to perceive the humanity in the occasional flecks of white in a black and grey soil.

All that changed for me when I ended up working on a 19th century urban graveyard that was being cleared to allow the church to rebuild, expand, and cater for its dwindling flock into the 21st century.  For someone only used to human remains in the form of gritty powder, coming face to face with a skeleton was nothing short of shocking.  After two decades in the profession, I thought I was well beyond romantic notions of imagining myself into the lives and situations of my ‘subjects’.

But here I was, carefully scraping around a rib, an eye socket, or a femur, wondering about who this person might have been or how they lived their lives.  Admittedly, this was rather short-lived as some of the burials contained their original coffin plates that had their names and dates . . .  Some we eventually were able to track down to published obituaries only to find that they were all wonderful people who were sorely missed by all who knew them.  I wonder where they buried the bad blighters that everyone was glad to see the back of?


The author rejoins

– An historical aside:  ‘Do not divide the dead!’  A Soviet saying dating from the Second World War.  The blurring of lines between the immensity of the Jewish loss of life, and the death wrought across nationalities and ethnicities, versus the continuing vulgarities of Soviet antisemitism post-war which culminated, but did not end, with the Doctor’s plot of 1952-53.

Dividing the dead into known and unknown, into memory and out of time.  The question we never really ask is how much do we need to know, what can we afford not to know?  The almost intangible nature of truth, hidden within the Haversian canals and housed in osteons, each containing a multitude of experiences.

Experiences for which the individual, partitioned by plastic context bags placed among kin, friend or foe, known or unknown, remain silent; they are ready instead to be analysed by the skeletal specialist.  The step by step motions of measurements and non-metric notes taken; occurrences of presence and absences discussed; the archaeological context pondered over.  Relationships are suggested and situations hypothesized, the motivations are almost always guessed at.

An archaeological aside:  ‘The dead do not bury themselves.’  The individual, either as a single outlier or as part of a larger assemblage, become detached from their lived context and are given over to the researcher with the status of temporary ownership.  The dead have already died and their active participation in life is now over, but still they speak to the living as arbiters of the present.

We are not just analysing ourselves when we look into the empty eye sockets of the dead, we are commenting on the past and the vast variations found therein.  There is no distance greater than between the living and the dead, yet there is no closer divide.  That is the juxtaposition lying in wait, entombed within the cortical and trabecular bone, trapped within the enamel and dentine, ready to surprise the unwary.

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3 Responses to “Speaking to the Dead: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich”

  1. Bodies and Academia January 4, 2018 at 10:23 pm #

    Reblogged this on Bodies and academia and commented:
    Some great reflexive pieces on bodies, mortality, and archaeology

  2. Jessica (Diverting Journeys) January 10, 2018 at 2:29 pm #

    Really interesting! I love reading about how people end up working in unusual fields (maybe because I still don’t really know what I want to do for a living!), and what that work entails.

    • These Bones Of Mine January 11, 2018 at 9:23 pm #

      Hey Jessica, thank you for your comment! Glad you keep finding this style of post interesting, I always enjoy compiling the entries and writing my part, really allows you to be creative and delve into a different area of thought than the usual! Ah I share your thoughts on what to do for a living – at the minute archaeology plays a tiny part in my professional life and I’m not entirely sure what I should be doing!

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