School of Social and Political Science

Research project type

Bones Collective



Exploring the affective materiality and emotive presence of human remains

The Bones Collective is an interdisciplinary research network of anthropologists, archaeologists, artists based at the University of Edinburgh who share an interest in human bones.

We have hosted various events including a seminar series, workshop and conference panel, and numerous less formal conversations through which we have explored the affective presence and emotive materiality of human bones.

We are keen to forge creative and constructive links with scholars elsewhere who share these interests and are working on related themes.

Statement of interests

Human bones matter to people. Not all bones, to all people, all the time, but cross-culturally, bones, as the hardest and most lasting remnants of the body, do matter. How they matter varies widely. For many, they matter as part of the people they once were, or indeed may still be. So it is that bones are often central to rituals of mourning and remembrance, for in handling bones and situating them purposefully in the landscape, the living relate with the dead who can achieve a quality of enduring presence, in the very materiality of their remains and their communion with the land, that transcends the work of time (cf. Bloch 1988). For others, bones matter as trophies or curiosities, objects whose handling and display is less about relating to the dead and more about affirming the identity of the owner or collector (cf. Harrison 2006). For yet others bones (it does not really matter whose bones) held in baskets and scattered on the ground, are a way of divining the future. Whatever the case, bones matter. They do stuff, make things happen, change things, enable us to remember the past and reveal the future, and so we care and feel about bones.

Social scientists have long taken an interest in human bones. They have done so in a variety of ways. Archaeologists and forensic/physical anthropologists have been interested in the form and materiality of bones: their composition, the marks upon them and their emplacement in the earth. Past lives somehow dwell in the substance of these bones and, if they are properly studied, these past lives may become known, right down to the details how people looked, what they ate, what diseases they suffered and injuries they sustained, and even how they, themselves, related to their dead. Social and cultural anthropologists, in contrast, have been more interested the significance that different peoples give to bones and how the significance of the dead relates to the meaningful existence of the living. In this case, the substance of the bones, beyond the mere fact of their material presence (and perhaps not even that), is less important. What is important is how we, the living, interact with, and so give meaning to, the remains of the dead.

In developing our shared research agenda under the name ‘What Lies Beneath’, we are interested in the meaning of bones and how this meaning varies cross-culturally and through time. Yet in saying this, we also acknowledge that human bones are, indeed, things-in-themselves, and any study of the social and cultural significance of bones must encompass their physical being, their affective quality of presence and their emotive materiality. In other words, if the bones of the dead are “"richly filled with meaning”" (Weingrod 1995: 12), this meaning is not simply bestowed upon them, but also relates intricately to something that inheres in them, and exists, therefore, in the relationship between bones and those who handle, talk or write about them. In recognising bones, and the significance of the materiality of bones, we highlight that they possess a curious quality of presence, for they are, as Howard Williams argues, “"intrinsically situated as being both ‘person’ and ‘object’”"(2004: 264). So, even as we consider bones as things that have meaning only as they are caught up in human transactions and endeavours, this consideration is haunted by the animate personhood, which is imminent within the thing, held in its very form and substance.

In recommending this approach, we are arguing for a study of, with a nod to Igor Kopytoff (1986), “the cultural biography of bones”. This study would follow the movement of the bones themselves through space and time, and map the unfolding networks of relationships of which bones are a part. Such a study rests on the recognition of the ‘agency’ of bones; an agency which, as Roger Sansi-Roca develops from the work of Alfred Gell, "“does not derive from the ‘abduction’ of the mind, the attribution of thought, but comes from the evidence of their physical presence and [their] dialectical relationship to the human body"” (2005: 150). In the case of bones this relationship is peculiar, in as much as they are, at once, both of the body, bearing the traces of their embodied being, and yet also objects external to and abstracted from it.


School of Social and Political Science

School of History, Classics and Archeology 

Edinburgh College of Art

University of Aberdeen

  • Elizabeth Hodson





John Harries. "A Beothuck Indian Skeleton (not) in a Glass Case: Rumours of Bones and the Remembrance of an Exterminated People in Newfoundland." Human Remains in Society (2016)

Laura Major. "Unearthing, untangling and re-articulating genocide corpses in Rwanda." Critical African Studies 7, no. 2 (2015): 164-181.

Word of Mouth, a digitally-endabled exhibiton created in a colloboration between Surgeon's Hall Museum, Craigmiller Arts Centre and the Bones Collective at the University of Edinburgh, August - March, 2014-15.

The Bones Beneath the Face, an interactive installation curated as a fringe event of the 2014 meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) at the University of Edinburgh.

Joost Fontein. "Remaking the Dead, Uncertainty and the Torque of Human Materials in Northern Zimbabwe." Governing the Dead: Sovereignty and the Politics of Dead Bodies (2014): 114-142.

Joost Fontein and John Harries (eds). "The Vitality and Efficacy of Human Substances", SPECIAL ISSUE of Critical African Studies 5, no. 3 (2013)

  • Joost Fontein and John Harries, "The vitality and efficancy of human substances"
  • Isak Niehaus, "Averting danger: taboos and bodily substances in the South African lowveld"
  • Henrietta Nyamnjoh & Michael Rowlands, "Do you each Achu here? Nurturing as a way of life in a Cameroon diaspora
  • Mattieu Salpeteur & Jean-Pierre Warnier, "Looking for the affects of bodiy organs and substances through vernacular public autopsy in Cameroon"
  • Florence Bernault, "Carnal technologies and the double life of the body in Gabon"
  • Diana Espirito Santo, Katerina Kerestetzi & Anastasios Panagiotopoulos, "Human substances and onotological transformations in the African-inspired ritual complex of Palo Monte in Cuba"

Paola Filippucci, Joost Fontein, John Harries, and Cara Krmpotich. "Encountering the past: unearthing remnants of humans in archaeology and anthropology." Archaeology and anthropology: past, present and future (2012): 197-218.

Joost Fontein. "Graves, ruins, and belonging: towards an anthropology of proximity." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17.4 (2011): 706-727.

Smugglerius Unveiled, an installation created by Joan Smith and Jeanne Canizzo and exhibited at the Talbort Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, centring on the cast of a flayed man known as ‘Smugglerius’ found in the collections of Edinburgh College of Art and exploring issues of identity and mortality, January 2010.

Cara Krmpotich, Joost Fontein, and John Harries (eds). "The substance of bones: the emotive materiality and affective presence of human remains", SPECIAL ISSUE of the Journal of Material Culture 15, no. 4 (2010).

  • Cara Krmpotich, Joost Fontein & John Harries, "Introduction: The substance of bones: the emotive materiality and affective presence of human remains"
  • Joost Fontein, "Between tortured bodies and resurfacing bones: the politics of the dead in Zimbabwe"
  • John Harries, "Of bleeding skulls and the postcolonial uncanny: bones and the presence of Nonosabasut and Demasduit"
  • Simon Harrison, "Bones in the rebel lady's boudoir: ethnology, race and trophy-hunting in the American Civil War"
  • Layla Renshaw, "The scientific and affective identification or republican civilian victims from the Spanish Civil War"
  • Elizabeth Hallam, "Articulating bones: an epilogue"
Please check back for details of upcoming events.