Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bones About It

I found an interesting statue carved from real bone at the local Good Sammies the other day, and thought it worth mentioning here.

The detail is quite lovely, with lots of different textures and patterns, and a meditating figure sitting cross-legged at the top.

It's likely that this statue originated in Bali, a place many Australians like to visit each year. Supporting this theory, I found another example of Balinese carving which looks similar. Apparently today's carvers use cow bones rather than ivory, which is a relief. (Would you hunt this? Surely not...)

My discovery got me thinking about bones and their potential for postmortem 'life.' Bones are the only components of the living body that remain whole long after the flesh has fallen away. I quite like the idea of reusing them, especially if the creature concerned has died a natural death. But what about human bones? Would you want yours on display?


In her essay "Articulating Bones: An Epilogue" (in Journal of Material Culture, Dec 2010, 15.4: 465-492), Elizabeth Hallam explains that:

“Human bones have been powerfully emotive in practices of burial, mourning and remembrance entailing separations and joinings. But this capacity to move, in an emotional sense, is not inherent – it is variously generated in practice, as becomes evident, for example, in contexts of anatomical work with bones” (p.478).

Historically, human bones have often been worked on and presented for display. Sometimes they are arranged and linked together as articulated skeletons; mirroring their original organisation within the living body. In other contexts, however, bones are used to create new shapes and fantastical effects. A famous example is the Sedlec ossuary or 'Church of Bones' in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic.

[Unless otherwise noted, all pics are by Paul Duncan (2009).]

Jan Uhde explains that:

"The Sedlec Ossuary contains the bones of some 50 to 70 thousand people buried there since the Middle Ages. Over a period of a decade, they were fashioned by the Czech artist František Rint with his wife and two children into fascinating displays of shapes and objects, including skull pyramids, crosses, a monstrance and a chandelier containing every bone of the human body. Their work was completed in 1870, and these artifacts have been placed in the crypt of the Cistercian chapel as a memento mori for the contemplation of visitors."

Try explaining that at a diner party. "So what do you do?" "I'm a lawyer, how about you?" "Well, I spend my days with my family, arranging the bones of 50,000 dead people into weird guitar shapes and hanging them off the roof of a church."

Hard core eccentricity, even in ye olden times.

"Sometimes I pop a few cherubs in there, to keep things cheerful."

But what does it mean when everyone's bones are all mixed in together like this? Nothing is labelled or marked, nobody knows who each piece belonged to, or what individual faces once graced the multitude of skulls. You wouldn't call this a memorial, in the traditional sense, surely?


Elizabeth Hallam also ponders this question, in relation to ossuaries:

“Assemblages of myriad bones, some so densely packed that they seem to form sections of wall, gathered the singular into the plural, the combined mass erasing each distinct individual. For the bones of particular persons lose their previous identity when incorporated into such ensembles of repeated motifs. In ossuary compositions, the empty eye sockets of skulls multiply and bones develop an apparent uniformity. It is difficult for the viewer to focus on single details as the eye is constantly referred on to the next component in attempts to take in the ossuary’s complex totality, these viewing rhythms suggested, if not elicited, by the regularized bony patterns” (pp.475-476).

Here it is the cumulative mass, rather than the individual, that is memorialised. No one person is foregrounded over the others. Perhaps this is ego talking, but I don't think I would like my bones to be absorbed so seamlessly. I'm not the only one. Hallam says that:

"Although the relation of person to bodily remains is dissolved in some ossuaries, in others it has been preserved so that some 19th-century ossuaries, in Brittany, Austria and Greece, facilitated the memorializing of particular persons. Skulls were painted with the deceased’s name and date of death, as well as images of flowers, leaves and crosses, thus affording them a distinctive identity and facilitating their function as memorials for that person. For example, the Chapel of Saint Michael of Hallstatt in Austria housed many painted skulls, each with the memorial inscription of a name. These included one woman’s skull that was painted white and decorated with a red flower at the forehead and green leaves circling the head. Framed by this flora was her name, Maria Domin – the keeper of the ossuary, together with the date of her death, 20 January 1823 at the age of 82, and an explanation that the skull was painted by her daughter, Anna Huber, who inherited her duties at the ossuary ... Guarding against anonymity, practices of inscribing and painting amplified the capacity of bones to retain the presence of departed persons" (p.476).

This is more like it. Although I'm not sure I would want my relatives painting on my skull. You never know what they might put on there.

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