Rencontre autour du corps malade : prise en charge et traitement funéraire des individus souffrants à travers les siècles (the unhealthy body: the care for and funerary treatment of the ill and infirm across the ages)

Visible or imperceptible, acute or chronic, disabled or slightly impaired, illnesses have continuously affected past populations. Over the course of centuries and millennia, human groups have developed varied solutions–medical, religious or juridical–when faced with such occurrences. The ill were treated in a highly variable manner according to time and place, being socially included or excluded, cared for or neglected, invested with magical powers or viewed with ignominy. But how is this reflected in the place of burial, or the care of the corpse in past societies? By placing those who suffered from various afflictions from prehistory to the contemporary world at the centre of the debate, this is the subject addressed in the 10th annual meeting of the Anthropology and Funerary Archaeology Group (Gaaf).

To understand the treatment of the ill in the past from burial treatments and the spatial organisation of cemeteries comprises a real challenge for archaeological research. Indeed, until relatively recently, the individuals themselves and their remains have not been the focus of much attention in works dealing with the place of the ill within society. Up to the end of the 19th century, sufferers were only studied as part of historical treatments of charity written by researchers from the perspective of traditional Christian models. During the greater part of the 20th century, their status was principally viewed from the perspective of the history of European care institutions. It was not until the end of the century that the ill finally became true subjects of study as a result of developments in the social sciences. Since, the expansion of rescue archaeology and the development of human bioarchaeology have resulted in many more finds of individuals affected by illnesses, those who are today at the centre of scientific investigations, in the same way as care institutions and medical instruments from the past are. Drawing on the advances in this research area, the meeting will provide the occasion to formulate an outline of the evidence for the care of the ill but also to re-open discussion on the treatment of the bodies of the unwell from the perspective of funerary archaeology.

Through this international and multi-disciplinary call for papers, the conference organisers wish to provide a forum for exchange between researchers coming from diverse disciplinary backgrounds–by encouraging the participation of archaeologists and anthropologists working on varied geographical and chronological scales, as well as researchers from other social sciences and humanities disciplines, for example historians, sociologists, and ethnologists. If palaeopathological diagnosis is of great importance for addressing the relationship between human remains and the evidence for illness, this meeting will not solely have the goal of drawing together presentations principally directed at skeletal manifestations of illness. These may be addressed through particularly illustrative cases, but the social and funerary aspects will be given preference and placed at centre-stage in presentations. Oral presentations of synthetic treatments addressing the care and funerary treatment of the ill at site, regional, or national scales will be especially welcomed.

Scientific discussion have been organised around four general themes. The first three treated the place of burial of sufferers of ill health, the funerary treatment accorded to their remains and the symbolic, prophylactic or magico-religious activities surrounding their burials. The fourth and last theme addressed the contribution of archaeology to the understanding of past medical and surgical practices, as revealed through studies of human remains.

Theme 1 – Accommodation: the places catering for the burial of the ill

Theme 2 – Burial: treatment of the cadaver

Theme 3 – Accompaniments: objects, materials, and symbols

Theme 4 – To care for, to repair, and to dissect: human remains, testaments to ante- and post-mortem medical and surgical practices

The funeral ceremonies. Bones and tears: preparing the body, mourning and honoring the dead

The passing away of an individual from the group, that is, the death of a loved one, is a source of social disruption that can be experienced diversely, at both the individual and the broader family or societal level. Traditional societies have almost universally ritualized this event. The emotions that come along the loss of a dear one have led “those who remain” to take a series of actions, which may vary according to time, culture and social strata within a society. The funeral ceremony and the burial or cremation of the body are generally the culmination of this series of actions. Whatever their nature, the funerary behaviors can be interpreted as voluntary attitudes forming part of the social processes aimed at integrating the loss. This can be compared to the “work of mourning”, according to the Freud’s now classic expression, adapted to the collective scale.

The 12th Rencontre du Gaaf will be held in Chartres (France) during spring 2021 (dates to be confirmed). The conference will focus on funeral, in the broadest sense of the term, i.e. all the actions taken to allow the passage from the day of life to the darkness of death. This includes all the gestures carried on or around the body and the grave, before, during and after the deposition of the body, whether they are anecdotal or indicative of a chaîne opératoire. Not only the technical gestures that allow proper funeral will be considered, but also those with ritual purposes, those used to prepare the body and arrange the grave, and those related to commemorative activities.

Podium and poster presentations will focus on the three main phases of the funeral:

  • The preparation time: preparation and transportation of the body, digging of the grave, construction of the burial containers, graves goods, etc.
  • The moment of the funeral: management of the body, associated ceremonies, nature of the deposits, etc.
  • The various forms of memory: grave markers, post-ceremonial gestures, reopening of the graves, etc.
Rencontre autour des sépultures habillées (clothes in burials)

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Rencontres autour de la mort des tout-petits (the death of little ones)

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Rencontre autour du cadavre (the corpse)

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Rencontre autour de l’animal en contexte funéraire (the animal in a funerary context)

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Rencontre autour des paysages du cimetière médiéval et moderne (the landscapes of the medieval and postmedieval cemetery)

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Rencontre autour de nouvelles approches de l’archéologie funéraire (new approaches of funerary archaeology)

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Rencontre autour des enjeux de la fouille des grands ensembles sépulcraux médiévaux, modernes et contemporains (The issues of excavation of medieval, postmedieval and contemporary cemeteries)

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Rencontre autour de nos aïeux – La mort de plus en plus proche (our ancestors)

Six years after the Rencontre autour du cadavre (the corpse), the annual meeting of the Gaaf is back in Marseille, from may 25 to 27 2016, dealing with contemporary death and deads.

How is the archaeological study of recent deaths particular? In Marseille, archaeologists have just searched a cemetery of contemporary times; elsewhere in France and Europe, teams are called to work on recent sites such as the trenches of the First World War. However, the study of this chronological field is still marginal and for some useless, even disturbing, even though history or sociology have largely nourished it for decades.

Temporal closeness interrogates disciplines differently and if it raises ethical questions, it allows a rich approach of teachings that renews problems and methodologies, delivering new materials to research on death in the humanities and social sciences. The interest of this Rencontre will therefore be to highlight the heuristic potential of this research, by pointing out their contributions, their interest and the societal questions they raise. Different sources and objects will be confronted and put into perspective: soil archives, written and figurated archives, historical and cultural (even cultual) settings, not to mention law, ethical considerations, psychoanalysis…

How do reaserchers and the public confronted with these questions feel the scale of time, the close and the distant, when these discoveries refer to notions of identity, filiation, social belonging, religious, known or supposed? Although the search of a medieval or even modern cemetery no longer raises questions of legitimacy in France, the same does not always apply to the search of a more recent burial site. What about other cultural contexts of the Mediterranean and more broadly European area?

The organisers of the Rencontre, like the one around the corpse, wished an international and multidisciplinary meeting, combining archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, ethicists, jurists, doctors, professionals of funeral homes, psychoanalysts (…), in order to allow a real confrontation of ideas and practices. It will feed into reflections on a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to death and the relationship to it, here and elsewhere.