Monday, October 22, 2012

En El País De Nomeacuerdo: Forensic Archaeology and Memory in San Vicente Cemetery, Argentina

La Historia Oficial
The song “El País de Nomeacuerdo,” or, “The Country of I-Don’t-Remember,” by Mary Elena Walsh serves as the theme and a central symbol of La Historia Oficial (The Official History), a fictive historical drama depicting the environment in Argentina immediately after the military dictatorship was overthrown in 1983. This film serves as a representation of the ethnography and experience of the disappeared victims, and the families who mourn them. It also raises essential questions about culpability and evidence, and how citizens can go about gaining closure when the truth was intentionally and systematically buried.

The military coup d’etat on March 24, 1976, and the subsequent eight years of martial rule in Argentina was the culmination of a series of interventions that took place throughout the twentieth century. These previous coups developed and legitimized techniques of social discipline and order through restrictive laws, legal violence towards citizens, and “disappearance.” While the efforts of the subsequent democratic government in 1983 repealed the oppressive laws and halted the violence, making the disappeared visible again was considerably more difficult. Over the past thirty years, forensic archaeology, with the support of a national Truth Commission (CONADEP), has been employed to identify victims of the regime, primarily focusing on the mass graves associated with the Clandestine Detention Centers (CDCs) across the country.

While under military rule, Argentina was divided into five zones, each maintained by a different army corps. Zone III, controlled by the Third Army Corps, established a territory consisting of central, west, and northwest Argentina, with Córdoba as their operations center. One of its main CDCs, La Perla, assisted in the disappearance, imprisonment, and often “transfer” (assassination), of over 2,200 Argentinians between 1976 and 1979. Many of the people detained at La Perla are believed to be interred within San Vicente Cemetery in Córdoba. In 1984, one of the mass graves at this site was excavated under the orders of the Federal Judiciary, but was completed unscientifically, destroying an undetermined number of skeletons, which were then cremated.

Excavation of mass grave at San Vicente Cemetery;
After this disaster, excavation was halted until 2002, when the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) was given control over the investigation. Using the testimony of morgue workers and witnesses in the 1970s, EAAF with the aid of the School of the Humanities of Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, was able to identify and begin excavation of the cemetery. From 2003 to 2005, EAAF exhumed three different mass graves in two locations within the cemetery, yielding the remains of over 200 people. Using morphological analysis, the radiographic, graphic, and photographic records of people reported missing from the area in the ‘70s, and DNA analysis, several individuals have been identified and repatriated to their families, with more hopefully to come in the future.

This brief exploration, while in no means comprehensive, illustrates one example in which ethnography and archaeology can be intertwined to discover the truth and provide closure for victims of systematic state terrorism. While serving to answer questions, these events, in particular the circumstances surrounding San Vicente cemetery, raise further inquiries into the role of forensic archaeology and ethnography in uncovering evidence, both for truth commissions, and for prosecution of the individuals responsible. 

Bisso C, et. al. A mass grave in Argentina: the San Vicente Cemetery in Córdoba.
2005. EAAF Annual Report 2005. Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense.
Soledad Catoggio M. 2010. The last military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983): the mechanism of state terrorism. Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Undead, Alive in the Archaeological Record: Vampires

                               The Undead, Alive in the Archaeological Record: Vampires
One of the two "Vampire" skeletons found in Sozopol, Bulgaria. Source 

Vampire folklore, and generally fear of the dying and of the dead is among the oldest of anxieties and phobias. Current theory surrounding vampires that have been found in archaeological sites, particularly in Europe, is that these individuals were deviants, criminals, terminally ill  or deformed during their lives.  Illness demonization may have resulted from a lack of medical or scientific knowledge, though most likely a combination of them both.  The cultural response, both modern and historic,  to the unknown seems to be fear and violence towards the accused, behaviors or appearances that differed were cast as "other" and, thus, "bad". "Othering" reflects the exclusion or subordination of an individual. Within "vampire" burials, it is reflected in atypical burial practices or physical trauma.
Sorry, Edward. You're more accurately a revenant.

Included in this cultural response is the name "vampire" itself. The term was not popularized until the 19th century literature, namely Bram Stoker's Dracula. Instead, using "vampire" draws from the popular portrayal of vampires as sympathetic, dynamic, and heroic characters, as seen in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight
To avoid this, I propose that "revenant" is a more appropriate term as it describes any individual who returns from death, exits their grave, and terrorizes the living, while "vampire" denotes an individual who suck blood from their victims after exiting their grave. Etymology cannot be directly be derived from burial practices, and I would prefer the nomenclature of "revenant" as a more accurate term.  

To bury a vampire involved the removal of the cranium (making exiting physically challenging), placing stones in the oral cavity (preventing exiting by way of eating), or using objects such as rocks or stakes to pin down the corpse within its grave (more exiting restraint), or a combination of these.  Practices such as these that involved physical force and/or traumas, rather than acts that simply manipulated soft tissues. These practices can be investigated within the osteological remains.   Bone is preserved because of its collagen and hydroxyapatite composition, which form a strong bond that resists decomposition when conditions are favorable. Such is the case in dry, arid climate such as the Bulgarian landscape.

Close view of the iron stake, in the upper right torso area. Source

In the case of the Sozopol, Bulgarian vampire discoveries, two male individuals were found with a singular iron stake resting in the middle of the skeletonized remains. The burials date back to the 14th century, a time during which the plague ravaged most European countries.  Yet there are conflicting and contrsting reports by both National Geographic and the Sofia News Agency. While National Geographic refers to a singular man as a "corpse" and "skeleton", Sofia News Agency refers to both male "individuals". Simple manipulation and precision of language allows for these separate media outlets to construct very different identities for these "vampires". 

The presence of metal stakes in the male’s grave suggest that staking his deceased body would prevent his transformation into a vampire in order to protect the well-being of his family or community members.  Placing a sharp object in the grave was believed to puncture the body as it bloated, which was the how the deceased was thought to have transformed into a vampire. The sharp object also inhibited a vampire’s bodily movement, and prevented any possible escape from the grave. This evidence, found in the Bulgarian grave at Sozopol is indicative of a belief that this individual was different -- an "other"

By using the words of "skeleton", "vampire" and "corpse", media outlets are maintaining the deviant and monstrous identity under which the individual was buried, while additionally constructing the identity of a modern archaeological monstrous figure that exists for modern readers. 

The media has a responsibility not only to the archaeologist's work, their journalistic integrity, but also to the deceased about whom they are writing. Using the word "vampire" is itself sensational, as it draws upon the popularity of those creatures within popular culture to gain readership. Though, doing so risks dishonoring the memory of the individual in hopes of making a quick dollar. 

 Within the archaeological record these "vampire" remains, paired with revenant folklore, narrate a society's reaction to an illness, atypical behavior, or misunderstood postmortem processes. The creation of deviant burials serve to chronicle the process of "othering" during medieval Bulgaria. I take issue with the use of "vampire", "corpse" and "skeleton" by the media as there is a risk of further "othering" those accused of "vampirism" during their lives. The media risks their readership alienating those who were violently demonized. The Bulgarian cultural beliefs are not to be judged or evaluated by our modern audience. Rather, these cultural beliefs should be used, as a lens through which deviant burials can be understood. Additionally, our own popular cultural belief of vampires as sympathetic, dynamic characters should not be projected back onto the past. 

Kelsey Kephart


Further Reading:

Anastasia Tsaliki. "Vampires Beyond Legend: a Bioarchaeological Approach" Proceedings of the XIII European Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, Chieti, Italy, 18-23 Sept. 2000. Ed. M. La Verghetta and L. Capasso. Teramo: Edigrafital S.p.A, 2001. 295-300.

Anastasia Tsaliki. "Vampires, the media, and quality control in archaeology". Publishing Archaeology. March, 19, 2009.

Unrelated burials

Venice "Vampire", Plague Victim or Witch?

Vampire Skeletons Mystery by NatGeo

Great New England Vampire Panic