OSTEOBIOGRAPHIES

THE FORENSIC TURN

In recent decades, forensic exhumations of war victims have become a powerful historical, political, and legal resource. Starting in Argentina in the mid-1980s with efforts to identify the disappeared victims of the “dirty war” and provide evidence in the trials that followed the end of the juntas, the investigative work of forensic anthropology teams spread over subsequent decades to Chile, Spain, Guatemala, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, honduras, Iraqi Kurdistan, Cyprus, and elsewhere. Yet the turn to forensics did not produce a scenario in which the solid object provided a stable and fixed alternative to human uncertainties and ambiguities. Forensic findings were often inconclusive; they were subject, as is the case with science, to degrees of probability and margins of error—and the practice itself is invariably politicized. Conviction was contingent on the forces and techniques of presentation and demonstration, as well as on politics and rhetoric.
(with Thomas Keenan)

Forensic anthropologist William Haglund with an investigative team from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, at the Pilica Farm mass grave near Srebrenica, Bosnia, Fall 1996. Photo: Gilles Peress / Magnum Photos.

Forensic anthropologist William Haglund with an investigative team from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, at the Pilica Farm mass grave near Srebrenica, Bosnia, Fall 1996. Photo: Gilles Peress / Magnum Photos.

 

Related Projects

Exhumation of Leaders

It is not only the identification of anonymized victims in mass graves that has rewritten the space of contemporary politics. Recent years have seen a wave of symbolically charged exhumations of political leaders—mainly anticolonial or antifascist leaders—whose deaths have remained contested.

In Chile, former president Salvador Allende and poet Pablo Neruda were exhumed to ascertain whether their deaths had been the work of Pinochet’s troops. Simon Bolívar’s televised exhumation in 2010 was orchestrated by hugo Chávez, who wanted to prove that Colombian oligarchs had poisoned the liberator of Latin America. Yet these exhumations all failed to confirm that the subjects had been murdered. In Brazil, the body of João Goulart, the president top- pled in the US-backed coup of 1964, was exhumed in an attempt to establish if he had been poisoned while in exile in Argentina 1976. In Spain, exhumations have recently begun in order to find and identify the remains of the poet Federico García Lorca and others killed during the Spanish civil war.

That the heroes of the left are being dug up suggests that their politics might be in short supply among the living.

((VIDEO HERE))

The Exhumation of Simón Bolívar. Excerpts of footage captured in the National Pantheon, broadcast by VTV (Venezolana de Televisión), July 15, 2010. Godofredo Pereira, 2010. 7 minutes

Palestinian president Yasser Arafat was the most recent in this series to be exhumed, based on suspicions that his death had been caused by radioactive polonium-210, thereby implicating Israel (and its nuclear reactor). Like the relics of a medieval saint, sixty separate samples of his body are now scattered across Europe, the subject of an ongoing political and scientific battle in which the credibility and expertise of diverse forensic pathologists and toxicologists is regularly challenged.

Labeling and location of the collected specimens taken from Yasser Arafat’s body upon his exhumation on November 26, 2012. Source: “Swiss forensic report on Arafat’s death,” Al Jazeera, last updated November 6, 2013, Image: Courtesy of University Hospital of Lausanne (CHUV) and Al Jazeera.

Labeling and location of the collected specimens taken from Yasser Arafat’s body upon his exhumation on November 26, 2012. Source: “Swiss forensic report on Arafat’s death,” Al Jazeera, last updated November 6, 2013, Image: Courtesy of University Hospital of Lausanne (CHUV) and Al Jazeera.

Subject / Object

To the untrained eye, all bones look similar—skulls are devoid of the expression and the gestures of a human face. But bones are exposed to the myriad forces of life—labor, location, nutrition, habit, disease, and violence—in a manner similar to the exposure of photographic film to light. Like any photograph, the inscriptions imaged on bones are ever unequivocal. To be persuasive and effective they need interpretation. Whereas DNA analysis can lead to the positive identification of victims, the morphological process of bone analysis (referred to as osteobiography) searches for the way in which the entire process of life is recorded—or fossilized—in the form and texture of the skeleton. The “biography” of bones, just like their “testimony,” demonstrates the way in which the forensic combination of science and law can animate objects and treat them as if they were human subjects. Human remains are the hinge on which our forensic sensibility turns because the trace of the living subject cannot easily be erased from them; it lingers and haunts them.

Clyde Snow presents evidence gathered by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (here, a slide of the skull of Liliana Pereyra) during the trial of members of the Argentine junta, Buenos Aires, April 24, 1985. Photo: Daniel Muzio / AFP / Getty Images.

Clyde Snow presents evidence gathered by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (here, a slide of the skull of Liliana Pereyra) during the trial of members of the Argentine junta, Buenos Aires, April 24, 1985. Photo: Daniel Muzio / AFP / Getty Images.

Forensic archaeologists assemble and examine the skeletal remains of victims of the Guatemalan Civil War, Escuintla Forensic Laboratory (FAFG), Escuintla, Guatemala, 2011. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

Forensic archaeologists assemble and examine the skeletal remains of victims of the Guatemalan Civil War, Escuintla Forensic Laboratory (FAFG), Escuintla, Guatemala, 2011. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

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