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Relational Identities and Other-than-Human Agency in Archaeology

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Contents
An Introduction to Relational Personhood and
Other-than-Human Agency in Archaeology
Eleanor Harrison-Buck
and Julia A. Hendon 3
Personhood and Agency in Eskimo
Interactions with the Other-than-Human
Erica Hill 29
Dead Kettles and Indigenous Afterworlds in
Early Colonial Encounters in the Maritimes
Meghan C. L. Howey 51
Water and Shells in Bodies and Pots:
Mississippian Rhizome, Cahokian Poiesis
Timothy R. Pauketat
and Susan M. Alt 72
e Inalienable-Commodity Continuum
in the Circulation of Birds on the North
American Plains
María Nieves Zedeño,
Wendi Field Murray,
and Kaitlyn Chandler 100
Objects with Voices among the Ancient Maya
Matthew Looper 126
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CONTENTS
vi
Can Tools Have Souls? Maya Views on the
Relations between Human and Other-than-
Human Persons
Julia A. Hendon 147
Torres Strait Canoes as Social and Predatory
Object-Beings
Ian J. McNiven 167
Ecacious Objects and Techniques of the
Subject: “Ornaments” and eir Depositional
Contexts in Banda, Ghana
Ann B. Stahl 197
 Finding Objects, Making Persons: Fossils in
British Early Bronze Age Burials
Joanna Brück and
Andrew Meirion Jones 237
 Relational Matters of Being: Personhood and
Agency in Archaeology
Eleanor Harrison-Buck 263
Contributors 283
Index 285
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3
DOI: 10.5876/9781607327479.c001
1
An Introduction to
Relational Personhood
and Other-than-Human
Agency in Archaeology
E H-B
 J A. H
Archaeologists who engage in relational personhood
and other-than-human agency, often characterized as
a relational or ontological archaeology (Alberti ;
Watts a), variously identify as post-humanist,
(neo-)materialist, non-representationalist, or realist,
among other labels. Bruno Latour’s (, ) work
has been hugely inuential among this diverse body of
scholarship, recently labeled the “new ontological real-
ism” (Gabriel ) or, alternatively, the “new materialist”
archaeology (omas ). Generally speaking, these
scholars reject the classic “humanist” divides, such as
culture-nature, human-animal, and animate-inanimate
(Watts b:). In studies of relational personhood,
this so-called post-humanist approach is not anti-
human but rather considers personhood more broadly
to include both human and other-than-human beings,
such as animals, plants, spirits, and inanimate things
(omas ; Fowler , ).
Some of the most prominent “problem domains”
in studies of ontological archaeology involve agency
and personhood. ere is a long history of attention
given to studies of relational personhood in archae-
ology (Brück ; Fowler , ; omas ;
Gillespie ; Wilkinson , , among others)
and in recent years a burgeoning of literature focused
specically on object-based agencies, biographies, and
itineraries (Gosden and Marshall ; Hodder ;
Joyce and Gillespie b; Knappett and Malafouris
; Mills and Walker ; Olsen ; Webmoor
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4ELEANOR HARRISONBUCK AND JULIA A. HENDON
and Witmore , among others). is volume provides a global perspective
on these two interrelated “problem domains”—agency and personhood—and
adds to a growing body of archaeological literature that explores the regional
variability and intricacies of agency and how this ontological status informs
relational personhood (for other recent contributions, see Buchanan and
Skousen ; Watts a).
Agency is closely related to animacy—“an ontology in which objects and
other nonhuman beings possess souls, life-force and qualities of personhood”
(Brown and Walker :). Here we note the important point that agency
and personhood (and therefore animacy) are not synonymous. In other words,
while all things have the potential for agency, not all agents (including humans)
are necessarily persons. As Hill (this volume) notes, while many things have
agency—the ability to act—not all of them possess the capacity for reciproc-
ity where social identity is a mutually constituted relationship, which denes
personhood in many societies (Ingold ; see also Pauketat and Alt, this vol-
ume). While some gloss agency and animacy as the same, the studies presented
here and elsewhere highlight important distinctions between these two terms
that are not just semantic (Ingold :; Zedeño :). Timothy Ingold
(:) suggests that agency and animacy “pull in opposite directions,” with
the former referencing the intention of humans and nonhumans and the lat-
ter involving attention, vitalism, growth, and becoming. Ingold (:) con-
cludes that the term “agency” is tied to cognitivism and should be replaced with
animacy, which he denes as non-discursive or bodily experienced knowledge
(cf. Budden and Sofaer ; Harrison-Buck, this volume). While many of the
contributions in this volume deal explicitly with animacy, the term strictly refer-
ences a being with a life force—a quality associated with personhood—and is
not applicable to every agent, namely non-persons. In this volume we maintain
the term “agency” because it allows contributors to appropriately characterize a
broader array of actors, not just social beings but also the asocial entities.
e terms “other-than-human” and “nonhuman” are used interchangeably in
the literature and in this volume to refer to relational (social) beings, such as
animals, plants, objects, and spirits. Terms like “other-than-human” or “non-
human” distinguish between biologically human beings and other beings. We
recognize that in many ways such terms are problematic in that they perpetuate
a false subject-object divide that does not accurately portray the shared onto-
logical status between human and nonhuman beings (sensu Ingold :).
Some, like Benjamin Alberti and Yvonne Marshall, question whether we can
overcome this and other forms of “hypocrisy” in our theorizing of relational
ontologies (Alberti and Marshall ), echoing the sentiments of Eduardo
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Viveiros de Castro () who suggests that “other peoples’ ontological com-
mitments (their worlds) have been converted by anthropology into epistemolo-
gies (worldviews)” (Alberti and Marshall :). While the contributors of
this volume are encouraged to explore ontological dierence in their case stud-
ies, they also recognize the interpretative challenges and acknowledge that our
modes of inquiry in archaeological anthropology are deeply rooted in Western
ontologies and epistemologies. Despite these limitations, the wealth of ethno-
graphic data on Amerindian and North Eurasian ontologies demonstrates the
need for more expansive (sensu Hviding ) and non- anthropocentric views
of who (or what) is a socially recognized person. Such studies emphasize to
archaeologists working in these and other areas of the world the importance
of considering the ontological status of nonhuman agency and personhood in
our archaeological reconstructions of past societies, regardless of whether they
are considered “animistic.”
NONHUMAN AGENCY IN ARCHAEOLOGY
Nonhuman agency in the context of relational personhood is not a human
projection of imagination onto things but rather a condition of being alive in
the world (Ingold :). In its simplest form, agency is the capacity to act
(Hill, this volume; Robb :), but denitions of agency vary considerably
in a range of contexts (see Dobres and Robb  for examples). In recent
years the focus has turned to object-based agency, and in such cases agency
“denotes the power of objects to shape human behavior and inuence change”
(Zedeño :; see also Brown and Walker :; Pauketat :).
Studying the agency of nonhumans has also gained recent scholarly atten-
tion, expanding on material agency to include animals, organisms, and other
tangible and intangible phenomena (Buchanan and Skousen ; Pauketat
; Watts a). By expanding our understanding of agency to include non-
human social actors, some advocate a symmetrical process in the construction
of personhood (Malafouris ; Witmore ). e “principle of symmetry”
suggests that personhood is not necessarily restricted to one type of entity (i.e.,
living biological human beings), and nonhumans “should not be regarded as
ontologically distinct [from humans], as detached and separated entities, a
priori” (Witmore :).
Current theoretical approaches to nonhuman agency in archaeology have
been inspired by the writings of numerous scholars, including Bruno Latour
() and Karen Barad (), who consider all phenomena relational because
in their studies of science and metaphysics “there is no a priori distinction
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6ELEANOR HARRISONBUCK AND JULIA A. HENDON
to be made between social and natural-biological relations in the rst place”
(Wilkinson :; for further discussion, see also Martin  and con-
tributions in Descola and Pálsson ). Although interest in understanding
relations between all sorts of social actors has increased in recent decades, an
anthropological recognition of nonhuman social actors can be traced back to
the pioneering works of A. Irving Hallowell. Hallowell () coined the term
“other-than-human persons” to more accurately capture the scope and tex-
ture of Ojibwa ontology and worldview. In more recent scholarship, Timothy
Ingold’s (, , , ) ecological phenomenology and his character-
izations of an animic ontology (Ingold , ), Morten Pedersen’s ()
studies of North Asian indigenous ontologies, as well as Philippe Descola’s
() socialized naturalism and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s (, )
perspectivism among Amerindian (Amazonian) groups have been inuential
in bringing the question of the ontological status of nonhuman agents as per-
sons to the forefront of anthropological debate.
is volume explores the benets and consequences for both archaeological
theorizing and interpretation when we consider other-than-human agents as
social actors who possess a life force—animacy—and qualities of personhood
capable of producing change in the world (Alberti and Bray ; Brown
and Walker ; Fowler ; Harrison-Buck , ; Hendon , ;
Skousen and Buchanan ; Swenson ; Watts b). To avoid homoge-
nizing nonhuman agency and personhood as an identity formation, contribu-
tors in this volume examine these processes through a series of case studies in
dierent temporal, geographic, and cultural contexts. Most of the studies pre-
sented in this volume deal with societies that are traditionally characterized as
“animistic” or “totemic”; however, nonhuman agency and relational personhood
are also invoked in modern contexts and are not necessarily restricted to any
one type of society (see further discussion below on “Relational Personhood”).
NARROWING THE DIVIDE: RELATIONAL OBJECT-
BEINGS AND THE SPACES IN BETWEEN
Among the many other-than-human persons that exist in the world, objects
and their roles as social actors are perhaps of greatest interest to archaeologists.
While the archaeological contexts presented in this volume vary substan-
tially, these studies all share the fundamental premise that “intentionality and
reflexive consciousness are not exclusive attributes of humanity but potentially
available to all beings of the cosmos” (Fausto :; for further discussion
and critique of humanism in archaeology, see omas ). Although for
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many of us it might be dicult to envision objects as animate subjects, a num-
ber of anthropologists have led the way in rmly defending their “personhood”
(Hodder ; Miller ; Olsen , ; Webmoor and Witmore ).
Shifting our focus to objects has narrowed the perceived divide between
humans (subjects) and nonhumans (objects). Severin Fowles (:) worries
that in our eorts to narrow the subject-object divide, we risk overlooking
the “more complicated world of relations in which, packed between the mul-
titudes of self-evident things, are crowds of non-things, negative spaces, lost
or forsaken objects, voids or gaps—absences, in other words, that also stand
before us as entity-like presences with which we must contend.” Similarly,
Marisa Lazzari (, ) notes that archaeologists’ desire to make things
visible and our quest to uncover the “real” meaning behind the symbolic or
metaphorical thing is linked with the Western tendency to divide subjects and
objects. is perspective echoes a broader postmodernist critique of the inter-
pretative (representationalist) approach to personhood that dominated the
post-processual movement, where the human body and the individual were
given primacy (Skousen and Buchanan :). Lazzari () and others
advocate an alternative ontology that considers both the seen and the unseen
in knowledge building and emphasizes “the relational nature and mutual con-
stituency of both the subject and the object” (Lazzari :).
Studies of personhood by social psychologists and anthropologists lead us
to suggest that Fowles’s “non-things,” much like Lazzari’s “unseeable” domains,
are not voids or empty spaces but are lled with the relational dialogues and
intersubjective experiences that are central to how humans come to consider
nonhumans as persons (Brill de Ramírez ; Gillespie and Cornish ;
Hendon ; Miller ; Robb ). To explore the dialogic and intersubjec-
tive nature of this space, some insist we must adopt “an interpretive approach
that can address communications and relationships that are not constrained
by the articulation of human language and reason (Brill de Ramírez :).
Case studies presented in this volume advocate such an approach, whereby
intersubjectivity does not reside solely in the mind and dialogic activity is not
restricted to language. Craft making, bundling, censing, hunting, divination,
dreaming, trance states—these are among the many forms of dialogic, inter-
subjective experience that simultaneously engages bodily experience and an
embodied mind. Such activities produce a range of identities and “conversive”
relationships (sensu Brill de Ramírez ), which seek connections between
(human and nonhuman) persons and the cosmos, as opposed to a strictly dis-
cursive perspective, which tends to divide and categorize aspects of the world
(see also Budden and Sofaer ).
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8ELEANOR HARRISONBUCK AND JULIA A. HENDON
Such conversive relations are similar to non-discursive experiences, involv-
ing repeated, intimate engagements with tools, materials, objects, and places
that create opportunities for more materially mediated interactions (see
Budden and Sofaer ). Yet conversive relations go beyond simply a non-
discursive, bodily performed experience; they are generative actions that bind
intangible relational beings, create personhood, and produce an animate onto-
logical status in an object-body. It is the co-creative (re)productive process
that is crucial for generating the movement and life force in a relational being
(see Harrison-Buck, this volume). Intersubjectivity captures important aspects
of the relationships, identities, and interdependencies that are continually
formed through this conversive relationship (Harrison-Buck ; Hendon
). rough the interplay of subject and object, body and mind, both con-
versive “dialogue” and intersubjectivity create a web of shared signicance
and meanings (Jackson ) that are “constituted and reconstituted through
historical action” (Hendon :). Elsewhere, Julia Hendon (:–)
describes this “web of human sociality” as “communities of practice in which
learning takes place and knowledge is constructed.” Lynn Meskell (:–)
refers to this interplay of cultural construction, praxis, and object biographies
as “material habitus.”
Ian Hodder () suggests that human-object relationships gradually
develop into intentional congurations that are actively negotiated and, as
such, are inherently unstable. is idea of instability and ongoing change is
a central component of Ingold’s () idea of meshwork where relation-
ships, whether human or nonhuman, are in a constant state of ux and ongo-
ing movement. More recent studies of movement (for objects, specically)
describe this circulation as an itinerary—the string of places and the nodes
where these object-bodies come to rest before moving on (Joyce and Gillespie
b). is itinerant meshwork involves objects as well as persons, places, ani-
mals, and other nonhuman agents, which together form groupings that are
variously referred to as nodes (Joyce and Gillespie a), knots (Ingold ),
bundles (Pauketat ; Zedeño ), or assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari
; Harris ; Jones ; Jones and Alberti ). ese entangled mesh-
works and bundled assemblages form a relational eld that is “constantly mov-
ing, gaining and losing parts, and becoming articulated with other assemblages”
(Skousen and Buchanan :). ere are many physical expressions of this
ontological meshwork in which bundles of knowledge are learned and passed
on. Storytelling is one example, and another involves the bundling and transfer
of sacred objects—a widely shared practice found throughout the Americas
(Pauketat ; Zedeño ). ese and other examples are presented in this
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volume and shed light on how the numinous comes to reside in an object-
body, its movement through the world, and the nature of its agency as a rela-
tional person.
RELATIONAL PERSONHOOD
Personhood—“a state of being a person (Fowler :)—is often described
as relational (Brück , ; Fowler , , , ; Hutson ).
In this denition of personhood, identity is partible, permeable, or both, what
Marilyn Strathern () coined the “dividual” who, as opposed to the indi-
vidual, is not tied to a single human body. Rather, the dividual is composed
of fractal or divisible parts that are contextual and shifting in nature (Fowler
:; see also Fowler , ; omas ). Chris Fowler (:–)
keenly observed that “dividuals” are not without self-awareness or individual-
ity; these aspects simply represent less important elements of the relational self.
In a more recent publication, Fowler () reiterated this message, cautioning
scholars to resist polarizing relational versus bounded types of persons, as this
creates a “closed” and universalized ontology and paints groups as internally
consistent and without contradiction, often falsely dichotomizing Western
and non-Western cultures (see also recent discussions by Fowles ; Harris
and Robb ; Harrison-Buck, this volume; Wilkinson ).
Cognitive scientists argue that we are all relationally constituted at birth
(Pina-Cabral ). Human beings are inherently social and their personhood
is shaped by intersubjective bodily experience, making the opposition between
Western individual and non-Western dividual a moot point (see Harrison-
Buck, this volume). Yet despite what cognitive science and cultural anthropol-
ogy say about relational personhood, Marshall Sahlins (:) argues that
most scholars base their studies on the singular individual rather than plac-
ing the emphasis on the intersubjective (inherently social) being as a site of
analysis. In this volume contributors recognize that intersubjectivity is a fun-
damental and indispensable condition of all personhood and that it is from
here that we discover our individual selves and learn appropriate ways of being
in the world in which we live and move about. In any society, personhood is
not a static or xed category but an ongoing engagement—conversive—and
mutually constituted.
e diverse set of case studies presented in this volume covers a range of cul-
tural, geographical, and historical contexts. Yet they all address how mutually
constitutive conversive relations involve generative acts that together produce
things in the world, which include both human and nonhuman entities (for
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10 ELEANOR HARRISONBUCK AND JULIA A. HENDON
further discussion of these shared aspects, see Harrison-Buck, this volume).
As inherently co-creative and conversively responsive, the status of relational
persons is contingent on both ongoing movement (agency) and recipro-
cal engagements (mutual constitution) with other relational entities (Hill
:; Ingold :). For the Pueblo in the American Southwest, Severin
Fowles (:) describes this relationship as a complex interdependency
rather than a simple “cause-and-eect” relationship—“a nonmodern cosmol-
ogy . . . in which human doings and the cosmos are consistently read in light of
one another.” In this and other instances, humans, plants, spirits, animals, and
objects are all potentially persons and are among the many receptacle-bodies
where the numinous comes to reside, sometimes remaining dormant until an
interaction occurs with another relational being, bringing it to life.
PRACTICING PERSONHOOD: RESPONSIVE
RELATEDNESS AND EMBODIED EXPERIENCE
Relational personhood is a condition of being alive in a world that, as
Graham Harvey (:) notes, is “a community of persons not all of whom
are human.” is results in a distinct way of knowing the world that empha-
sizes one’s reciprocal relationship with it. Nurit Bird-David (:S–S)
has described this as a two-way conversation of “responsive relatedness”—per-
ceived as “mutually responsive changes in things in-the-world and at the same
time in themselves” (see also Alberti and Bray ; Harvey ; Ingold
). For instance, in some societies hunters regard animals as other-than-
human persons and view their success in the hunt as an animal’s willing-
ness to sacrice itself, contingent on their close relationship with the animal
being hunted (Hill  and this volume; see also Brown and Emery ;
Fausto ; Ingold , ; McNiven , ; Pedersen ). In these
instances, hunters often follow specic protocols for killing and eating ani-
mals that are associated with rituals of self-sacrice.
A two-way relationship between humans and animal persons that requires
special attention resembles Bird-David’s () “responsive relatedness,” dis-
cussed above. is kind of empathetic concern for another sentient being
(human, animal, or otherwise) is directly related to an intersubjective rela-
tional ontology as an embodied experience and is akin to Fowles’s (:)
notion of sympathy, where “ecology and morality meet.” Centered on bodily
feelings, a relational ontology involves a conscious awareness of one’s position-
ing and activity in the world as a reciprocal and relational being. It is heavily
reliant on human physiology and bodily sensation (Furst ; Harrison-Buck
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; Houston and Taube ; Houston et al. ; Ingold , ; López
Austin ; Pauketat ). People enmeshed in a relational ontology “turned,
not to theological pronouncements and speculations to verify their ideas,
but to experience—to what can be seen, touched, heard, and smelled” (Furst
:–). Many studies have characterized these distinct ways of knowing the
world as physical aspects of spirituality and ritual practice traditionally asso-
ciated with animistic and totemic societies (Bird-David ; Houston and
Taube ; Houston et al. ; Insoll ; López Austin ; McNiven
; Molesky-Poz ; Pauketat ; Pedersen ; Stross ; Tedlock
). Rather than a set of religious beliefs, Jean Molesky-Poz (:–)
describes this as a “theology of experience” and as ways of living [one’s] beliefs”
(Molesky-Poz :)—a shared embodied experience that engages both the
body and the mind.
Lynn Meskell () notes that the lived experience both shapes the mate-
rial world and is shaped by materiality (see also Malafouris ). Yet she
also emphasizes the role of immateriality and its specic relationship with
“embodied practices in the spheres of magic and making” (Meskell :).
As an embodied practice, material agency is more than just about enchant-
ing objects and animating the inanimate. Alfred Gell (:) suggests that
the enchantment of objects is a technical process whereby “magic” serves as
a dialectical method for dealing with uncertainty and is inherently linked to
the notion of knowledge and rational technical solutions. Although Gell’s
approach has been critiqued for oering a “coolly detached formalism [to]
enchantment” (Fowles :), one could argue that this kind of dialectical
reasoning is present when groups look to sacred materials, such as bundles,
for help in solving a problem. Among the Blackfoot tribes in native North
America, Maria Nieves Zedeño (:) notes: “[e most powerful bun-
dles] are generally attributed to actions of the supreme beings who transferred
a bundle to a human . . . [and when] called upon by the bundle holder for help
on a particular matter, [the object-persons] act in concert to concede what is
being asked of them. In this process, object-persons transfer their power to
one another and to the bundle holder, who can in turn complete the ritual.
Instructions for how bundles are to be assembled, used, or transferred to
other humans often are delivered through visions or dreams. e dialectical
methods used to obtain answerability in the world can vary considerably. In
some cases, ritual practitioners seek knowledge by “listening to the move-
ments in their bodies,” often in the blood and breath, or by casting seeds, by
reading re, or through music and dance (Molesky-Poz :–; Tedlock
:). ese are not one-way pronouncements of systematized doctrine but
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12 ELEANOR HARRISONBUCK AND JULIA A. HENDON
two-way meta-sensory communication that is constituted through ongoing
movement with mindful and bodily attentiveness. Being a part of this com-
munication signals personhood—a constitution of being in a relational eld
that fuels movement in a “world of perpetual ux” (Ingold :).
While the material and cosmic levels may appear as a stark dichotomy, it is
precisely between these two planes that relational beings stand (e.g., Molesky-
Poz :). Timothy Pauketat (:–) describes this liminal space
between structure and agency (mind and body) as the “phenomenal relation-
ships between things, substances, and other intangible qualities . . . that engage
the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—in ways that lend them
agentic or transformative power.” In many studies of material agency, the sen-
suous qualities of the fetishized object or substance are highlighted. While
these qualities should certainly not be ignored, equally important as the object
(or body) itself is its embodied (mind-body) participation in an “unfolding
dialogue” with other relational beings (sensu Jordan :). e intersub-
jective relationships of this embodied experience impart animacy and are an
unfolding dialogue in that they are always in a process of being made, spawn-
ing life and energizing potent forces to move about the universe (see Ingold
, , ). According to Susan Berry Brill de Ramírez (:), “Such
intersubjective communications between diverse persons (be they animate or
inanimate—human, animal, plant, rock, star, etc.) occurs [sic] in relationally
based interactions that are neither discursively nor dialogically oppositional,
but conversively co-creative.” In other words, the interdependent nature of
these “doings” (sensu Fowles ) forms ongoing conversive relationships that
not only bring one another into existence but then require “a mutual promise
to care for one another” throughout life (Molesky-Poz :, discussing the
relationship between Maya Daykeepers and their sacred bundles).
In a system of relational personhood, conversive relationships are a uid
“meshwork (sensu Ingold ). ese ever-changing identities are partible,
permeable, or both and not necessarily xed to a particular object- or human-
body (Fowler ). In this way, there may be many receptacles or thresholds
where the numinous comes to reside and interact with other human and non-
human persons. e spirit thing is irreducible to a specic object or particular
place but provides them with a special “interior quality” (Pedersen :).
is is not a tangible thing but a (sympathetic) feeling or concern that draws
a person to a particular thing and marks the beginning of an unfolding con-
versive relationship between subject and object—perhaps something approxi-
mating what “thing theorist” Bill Brown (:) describes as the object/
thing dialectic where “the thing really names less an object than a particular
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subject-object relation.” It is this subject-object relationship that distinguishes
the special things from the countless other things that go unnoticed.
And what of the things that do not seem to house any animate life or prac-
tice any personhood? ese are the things that go unnoticed, or what Morten
Pedersen (:–) calls the “asocial entities”—“the small grey stone and
a piece of peeled wild onion” that, for some unexplained reason, are devoid
of any “mutual animistic relations.” ese asocial entities might sit right next
to the more remarkable things one is drawn to. Clearly, these are no ordinary
things. Yet like humans, not all things or, rather, relations are created equal.
To be sure, some things are more powerful than other things. e notion of
hierarchy applies to the chosen things assembled in cache oerings and also
in sacred bundles. For instance, among the Blackfoot tribe, Zedeño (:)
observes a clear hierarchy in which “a bundle’s relative power stems from its
specic origin or ‘pedigree.’ e same might be said for a valued heirloom
piece that is curated and later placed as a central component of a dedicatory
cache—a social practice that constitutes a hierarchy of selective memories that
bind people and things through time and space (for some examples, see Joyce
; Joyce and Gillespie b; Mills and Walker ).
CAN NONHUMANS BECKON AN EVENT?
While studies of nonhuman agency have elevated objects to the status of
social actors, they are often still treated as “pre-discursive matter dressed over
with meaning” (Nanoglou :; see also Butler ). As Bjørnar Olsen
(:) observes, “ings may be social, even actors, but [they] are rarely
assigned more challenging roles than to provide society with a substantial
medium where it can inscribe, embody and mirror itself.” For instance, Gell’s
() semiotic theory of personhood has been criticized for placing objects
in a subordinate role to humans. As Holbraad notes, Gell “[treats] objects
as if they were persons” and masks the “irreducible sense [that] objects just
are people” (Holbraad :, emphasis in original; see also Alberti and
Marshall ). Julia Hendon () has noted that Gell’s distinctions repre-
sent an unwillingness on his part to take his ideas to their logical conclusion.
Similarly, Ingold (:) concludes that the positioning of objects in the
relational eld is what imbues them with power, but humans are often at the
foci of that power.
So, how autonomous are objects? Can they operate as relational beings inde-
pendent of humans? Or is this simply a human projection of imagination onto
“things”? It is dicult for most Western thinkers to accept that consciousness
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is not universally exclusive to human beings and that the notion of person-
hood—the reciprocal qualities of relational beings—can be bestowed on ani-
mals, plants, spirits, and objects. Yet as we will see in the chapters presented
in this volume, seals required that their bodily remains be treated in specic
ways by human hunters (Hill, this volume) and objects like jade plaques held
the capacity to speak and do “lively” things (Looper, this volume), while imple-
ments like grinding tools could potentially cause sickness to those who mis-
treated them (Hendon, this volume). It seems clear that agency is not neces-
sarily initiated or directed by humans but that nonhumans can also beckon
an event. is invariably leads to an interdependent relationship that requires
an appropriate form of reciprocal engagement, which in some cases can leave
material traces detectable in the archaeological record.
THE RELATIONAL MATTERS OF BEING AT HAND
e above introduction situates personhood and nonhuman agency in
archaeological theory and practice, but we leave it to the contributors of this
volume, through their case studies, to more fully cross-examine these ideas
regarding agency and materiality in various cultural contexts. Each chapter
in this volume examines material culture and particular sets of relationships,
practices, actions, materialities, epistemologies, and ontologies of other-than-
human agency and personhood that create, embody, and enact complex social
worlds. We examine these diverse processes through a series of case studies in
dierent temporal and cultural contexts that cover a wide geographic range,
including Australia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. While the cultures and
archaeological contexts presented in this volume vary substantially, these stud-
ies all consider other-than-human agency and personhood in the archaeologi-
cal record and the potential impacts of these social actors.
Erica Hill (chapter ) examines other-than-human social actors among
the proto- and early historic Yup’ik and Inupiaq Eskimo of Alaska and the
coastal region of the Bering Sea, where a variety of creatures possessed per-
sonhood, lived socially, and acted as agents in these enculturated landscapes.
Using zooarchaeological evidence and oral narratives, Hill explores the inter-
section of agency and personhood in Eskimo relations with animals and some
of the other-than-human beings that inhabited this complex social world.
Importantly, the Eskimo dierentiated between agency and personhood, and
those dierences had implications for human behavior in the course of hunt-
ing, traveling, and foraging. Knowledge and practice of these “ritual” behaviors
was part of everyday life, and engagement with other-than-human entities
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was not limited to shamans—all persons conversively engaged in this unfold-
ing and reciprocal relationship.
Meghan Howey in chapter  also focuses on the proto- and early historic
Contact period in the Americas, examining European-derived kettles that
were interred in the burials of the Mi’kmaq of northeastern North America.
is practice emerged in the Maritimes during a liminal stage of social alterity,
which occurred in the midst of the early colonial encounters of the sixteenth
and early seventeenth centuries. Europeans frowned on the “senseless” burial of
copper kettles, but to the Mi’kmaq these materials were more than functional
utilitarian objects. Howey concludes that copper kettles had unique sensory
qualities and were selectively included as grave goods because they held an
animating spirit the Mi’kmaq referred to as mntu, which existed throughout
the universe. Animated with mntu, European-origin kettles were referred to as
“relatives” who embodied conditions of personhood. Howey explores the com-
plexities of the colonial encounter in the Maritimes using a combination of eth-
nohistoric and archaeological data and concludes that this European object was
turned into a Mi’kmaq relation as a crucial means for navigating the afterworld
during a time of devastatingly high death rates as a result of the introduction
of European disease. ese powerful other-than-human agents empowered the
Mi’kmaq when they returned to a world of their own in the afterlife.
In chapter , Timothy Pauketat and Susan Alt examine other-than-
human agency in the process of Mississippianization in and around the great
American city of Cahokia between ca. AD –. eir analysis takes a
genealogical approach to reconstructing the Cahokian way of life in which
maize agriculture, pottery production, and mound building were not merely
technological developments or material consequences of Mississippianization
but rather entangled “rhizomes”—active and enmeshed agents in the
Mississippianization of people. ese “agentive” raw materials, through their
engagement with other organisms, substances, and phenomena such as water
and re, “territorialized” people (sensu Deleuze and Guattari ). Pauketat
and Alt conclude that the Mississippianization process and Cahokia’s rapid
transformation from a large village into a planned city was not the result of
a singular development but constituted a “poiesis”—an entanglement of rela-
tional nodes that involved “ongoing co-mediation between human and other-
than-human organisms, substances, and phenomena.”
In chapter , Maria Nieves Zedeño, Wendi Field Murray, and Kaitlyn
Chandler discuss the agency of birds as other-than-human persons and sug-
gest that the exchange of bird feathers was part of an inalienable-commodity–
inalienable continuum among native groups in the North American Plains
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16 ELEANOR HARRISONBUCK AND JULIA A. HENDON
region. In aboriginal value systems across the Plains, certain feathers from
birds such as eagles, woodpeckers, meadowlarks, and waterfowl were highly
prized for their magical and cosmological power and were often included as
elements in sacred bundles. Likewise, both native and European dyes were
prized for their brilliant colors and were considered holy and transforma-
tive in their use as paint on feathers and quills, all of which were included
in bundles. Similar to the copper kettles discussed by Howey (this volume),
European dyes came to be highly valued for their spiritual power and sought
after by native groups in trading activities with Europeans at the time of con-
tact. ese and other examples presented by Zedeño and colleagues exemplify
what they describe as the inalienable-commodity–inalienable continuum, in
which certain objects, such as European dyes, could easily transition from one
to the other throughout their route of circulation or what some might refer to
as the object’s biography or “itinerary” (see Joyce and Gillespie b).
Chapters  (Looper) and  (Hendon) deal specically with native notions
of object-based agency and personhood in ancient Mesoamerica. In chapter ,
Matthew Looper explores the interrelated visual communication systems of
Maya hieroglyphic writing and pictorial art as a means of accessing these per-
spectives. He presents a detailed analysis of the iconography as well as the text/
image relationships of an incised shell plaque from the western Maya region
to illustrate the very complex manner in which the textual and pictorial record
communicates agency. His analysis suggests that for the ancient Maya, the
mechanism through which the agency of these objects is activated is intimately
connected to the acts of writing and reading as well as to the associations of
vital breath with speech. Looper observes that the Maya ascribed agency not
only to breath and speech but also to the medium of wind and sound, such
as the thunderous roar of a human breath or a gust of wind blown through a
conch shell trumpet. A broader implication of Looper’s study is the recogni-
tion that agency depends upon both discourse and materiality to achieve its
social eects and that this can take place independent of the human body (for
a related example, see Harrison-Buck :–).
Looper’s study indicates that, as in many other cultures, a nonhuman appear-
ance did not disqualify an object, organism, or substance from being an agent
in ancient Mesoamerica. Hendon (chapter ) comes to a similar conclusion in
her study of tools as other-than-human agents. Implements, such as spindle
whorls used for weaving and groundstone used for grinding activities, tend to
be understood strictly in terms of their functionality (textile and food produc-
tion, respectively). Hendon explores a robust ethnographic data set, as well as
visual scenes in Postclassic and Contact period codices, to re-conceptualize
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tools not strictly in terms of functional technology but as sets of relationships
between tools and people that embody a relational ontology and fundamental
core of Mesoamerican personhood. As extensions of the self, tools embody
extra-somatic essences or “soul” parts of those who use them and are persons
themselves in that they recursively shape the personhood of those who use
them. Hendon concludes, therefore, that tools are both agents and persons
because they act back or reciprocate through the kinds of actions they are
repeatedly engaged in over time, and those actions contribute to social mem-
ory (see also Hendon , ).
In chapter , Ian McNiven examines the agency and personhood of marine
transport canoes among the Torres Strait Islanders. e status of canoes as
object-beings began with the felling of the trees that produced these ves-
sels and was elaborated through the use of decorative elements, such as paint,
shells, streamers, and feather adornments, and through “magical” acts, such as
the beating of a canoe with bunches of grasses. According to McNiven, the
material and conceptual elaboration of canoes constituted an animic process
of socialization that expresses four interdependent constituents—anthropo-
morphism, zoomorphism, intentionization, and predatorization. He con-
cludes that by transforming the tree (associated with land, anchoring, and
heaviness) into a canoe hull (associated with the sea, mobility, and lightness),
the canoe was deemed a domesticated or socialized (versus wild) entity. ese
acts embody the canoe with elements, namely, lightness and speed, deemed
successful among persons (human or otherwise).
Ann Stahl, in chapter , explores personhood and the agency of objects in
the Banda area of west-central Ghana. She examines African villages that date
between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing on the remains
of bangles, rings, beads, and other objects typically classied as “ornaments.”
Stahl argues that this label masks the agency of these ecacious objects and
interprets design elements not just in terms of their visual or “symbolic” mean-
ing but also as cues that prompted ecacious action. During the course of
their circulation or “object itinerary (sensu Joyce and Gillespie a), such
ornaments congured well-being as forms of protection and healing through
their actions on bodies and as bundled oerings at shrines. Stahl concludes
that ornamenting a human or nonhuman body (such as a shrine context)
was not merely a representational act “but an ontologically signicant prac-
tice” that produced subjects (infants, children, emerging adults, and so on)
and formed personhood through techniques of the subject as “marked” and
“bundled assemblages (sensu Keane ). Stahl’s detailed analysis is couched
in the broader changing historical context of West Africa that impacted
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18 ELEANOR HARRISONBUCK AND JULIA A. HENDON
African ornamentation as “technologies of personhood” as a result of centuries
of Saharan and later Atlantic trade involving intercontinental entanglements
with Europeans.
In chapter , Joanna Brück and Andrew Jones examine the occurrence of
fossils in British Early Bronze Age burials and critique traditional assump-
tions of personhood that rely on grave goods as status indicators of the interred.
As neither prestige goods nor indices of status, fossils prompt a reconsidera-
tion of such Western-based models that, as Brück and Jones note, “presuppose
that the human self is set apart from (and is superior to) the natural world,
including inanimate objects.” Instead, they suggest that Bronze Age people
may have seen fossils as crafted objects from long ago rather than as simply
“natural” specimens. ey cite the presence of crafted fossil skeuomorphs (arti-
facts made to resemble fossils) that lends support to this idea. e material
response among Bronze Age inhabitants suggests a shared intersubjectivity
whereby fossils and crafted fossil skeuomorphs served as recursive indices of
once-living beings, perhaps in reference to cosmogonic origins. As relational
and cosmologically charged beings linked to earlier ancestral periods, these
“natural” and crafted objects were tting accompaniments for deceased ances-
tors. Brück and Jones conclude that the fossils and other various elements of
the grave assemblage constitute an expression of relational personhood that
conates the nature-culture divide and “[situates] the person in narratives of
belonging and genealogy.”
In the nal chapter of the volume (chapter ), Eleanor Harrison-Buck
examines contemporary theories of agency and personhood and the use of
relational perspectives in archaeology. In recent years, relational personhood
has replaced interpretative approaches that are aimed at decoding the “sym-
bolic” meaning of the object-body and their context(s). Grounded in Western
epistemology, such representational approaches are heavily focused on con-
text and the interpretative meaning of an object-body, which are problematic
because they tend to ignore other perspectives (Alberti et al. ; Skousen
and Buchanan ). Harrison-Buck reviews archaeological and ethnographic
case studies, including those presented in this volume, that demonstrate the
regional and contextual variability of agency and relational personhood world-
wide. One shared theme she explores is agency and personhood as a generative
and mutually constituted process, as opposed to xed or universal categories.
She addresses an overarching critique of the so-called new ontological real-
ism (Gabriel ; omas ), which generally rejects the classic “human-
ist” divides, such as culture-nature, human-animal, and animate-inanimate
(Watts b:). Despite attempts to eradicate Cartesian dualisms, she argues
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that the wholesale rejection of cognitivism has to some extent perpetuated a
mind/body split in current scholarship on relational ontology in archaeology.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Shifting our perspective of the world to a “meshwork” of intricate relational
elds (sensu Ingold ) provides archaeologists with an epistemic practice
that allows alternative ontologies to emerge in our theorizing but is only suc-
cessful when taken seriously. Elsewhere, Linda Brown and William Walker
note, “In using terms such as ‘ascribed,’ ‘beliefs,’ or ‘symbolic constructs’ to
describe the agency of nonhuman persons and things, we dismiss [these alter-
native] ontologies while running the risk of overlooking the ‘real’ material
implications of interactions with these active agents” (Brown and Walker
:–). Taking nonhuman agency and relational personhood seriously
means dening the ontological inconsistencies and variation and how these
social (or asocial) beings operationalize in the local landscape. By viewing
humans and other-than-humans as co-equal persons in the world, we recog-
nize a greater diversity of conversive participants and are forced to reconsider
our interpretive approaches to archaeology that are steeped in colonialist per-
ceptions of discursive forms of hegemonic communication, which have tradi-
tionally dominated the eld of anthropology (Brill de Ramírez :–).
In many of the chapters in this volume, the theoretical framework relies
on ethnographic data and addresses the relevance of local knowledge in our
archaeological interpretations. In this way, the volume elevates indigenous
theory to the level of other theoretical paradigms in the eld of anthropology.
at said, it remains questionable whether being on par with the scientic
community (and writing and publishing about one’s culture) is necessarily
an emancipatory ideal for the indigenous community (Kumoll :). As
anthropology can never be entirely extricated from its colonial roots and fully
escape its Western modes of inquiry, the hypocrisy and paradox of this eld
remains a problem that may never be resolved, particularly for indigenous
scholars (Alberti and Marshall ; Hereniko ; Nicholas ). In truth,
it is debatable whether destabilizing Western intellectual traditions in any
way directly benets indigenous communities (but see Lazzari and Korstanje
). However, most scholars, including the contributors to this volume,
would probably agree that listening to the indigenous communities and con-
sidering their ontological and epistemological frameworks has strengthened
their interpretations and benets anthropology. Without critical revision, we
risk perpetuating what Bird-David (:S) describes as a “twofold vicious
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20 ELEANOR HARRISONBUCK AND JULIA A. HENDON
cycle.” Anthropologists become guilty of trying to save indigenous peoples
from derogatory images of primitivity and, in turn, attempt to rehabilitate
popular views of these “non-Western” cultures by casting them in a new light
of economic and political complexity that is more sophisticated, at least by our
own standards. Postmodern epistemology has left us with a harsh dichotomy
that in some ways has only furthered the vast ontological divide between the
“West and the rest”—the very thing post-colonial scholars have been work-
ing so hard to dismantle. Skirting this divide and nding a “way out” is the
challenge the contributors of this volume take up in an eort to move the
ontological project forward in archaeology.
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... Interaction with the dead can take place 'face to face' or over long distances, mediated by tangible or intangible agents. As a consequence, the study of postmortem interaction is related to a vast field of interconnected research strands: dying, care, and death (Das & Han, 2016;Farman, 2020;Green, 2008;Laqueur, 2015;Robben, 2018;Troyer, 2020); memory and commemoration (Hallam & Hockey, 2001;Jones, 2007;Koselleck, 2002;Williams, 2006); postmortem agency (Crandall & Martin, 2014;Crossland, 2017;Harper, 2010); bodies and embodiment (Hamilakis et al., 2002;Houston et al., 2006;Scheper-Hughes & Lock, 1987;Sofaer, 2006); personhood, ontologies, and assemblages (Alberti, 2016;Carr, 2021;Fahlander, 2020;Fowler, 2004Fowler, , 2013Harrison-Buck & Hendon, 2018); emotion and politics (Ahmed, 2004;Mark, 2010;Stavrakopoulou, 2010;Tarlow, 2012;Verdery, 1999); formation processes, object biographies, and object networks (Appadurai, 1986;Knappett, 2011;Meskell, 2004;Schiffer, 2010;Walker, 1995); landscape and monuments (Bradley, 1998;Díaz-Guardamino et al., 2015;Holtorf, 1998;Tilley, 1994); the agency of objects and materials (DeMarrais et al., 2004;Dobres & Robb, 2000a;Fowler & Harris, 2015;Gell, 1998;Hodder, 2012;Jones & Boivin, 2010;Joyce & Gillespie, 2015;Knappett & Malafouris, 2008;Latour, 2005); digital postmortem identity and legacy on social media (Brubaker, 2015;Maciel & Pereira, 2013;Walter, 2019); and inquiries into multitemporality and non-linear chronology (Dinshaw, 2012;Harris, 2009;Koselleck, 2004;Nagel & Wood, 2010). Since many of the aforementioned themes and research strands are beyond the scope of this book, while others are mentioned only occasionally, in this section we would like to single out the most salient ones. ...
... Tung, 2014, p. 441). Recent studies focusing on agency, animacy, soul concepts, and personhood with respect to 'other-thanhuman persons' 7 from non-European perspectives have provided important contributions to this discussion, underscoring the historical and cultural contingency of these concepts (Carr, 2021;Harrison-Buck & Hendon, 2018). ...
... Ethnographic examples show that in numerous non-Western cultural contexts, dichotomies (e.g., humannon-human, mind-body, culture-nature) are not as we understand and live them today 143,148 120,123,130,134,[136][137][138][139][140][141]149 . Several studies even explore the possibility that modern Western dichotomies did not exist during prehistoric times. ...
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... Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all social identities are constituted by relationships. Social identities, in other words, depend on how individuals and groups are related to or interact with each other as well as with people, landscapes, places, things, other-than-human beings, inalienable goods, practices, substances, materials, memories, and more (Brück, 2004;Fowler, 2004;Gosden, 2004;Harrison-Buck and Hendon, 2018;Hutson, 2010;Ingold, 2000Ingold, , 2011Strathern, 1988;Voss, 2008). As a result, social identities are never inherent and always in the process of becoming. ...
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This chapter aims to embrace the ontological turn in examining the early history of Monte Alban beginning with the centuries prior to its founding at 500 BCE. Monte Alban in the Oaxaca Valley was one of the earliest cities in the Mexican Highlands. Monte Alban has been a focus of research and debate on the origins and development of Mesoamerican urbanism and social complexity. For many ancient and contemporary people in Mesoamerica existence was relational rather than Cartesian, constituted by relations among a far greater variety of animate beings than recognized in most modern, Western ontologies. The construction of the Main Plaza precinct was a massive project that far exceeded anything at San Jose Mogote. The data suggest, however, that without direct participation in relations centered at Monte Albán, especially on the Main Plaza, the affective and affiliative power of the sacred mountain diminished rapidly with distance.
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The thousands of ancestral Indigenous mounds and earthworks of Eastern North America have long been a source of intrigue for diverse audiences. And although explanations have come a long way from the days of the Mound Builder Myth, there are avenues of inquiry that remain under-investigated. Here, we seek to let Indigenous ontologies lead the way by employing an interpretive lens based on bundling, a significant practice across many North American Indigenous peoples. We expand the notion of bundling to the landscape scale and, drawing on ethnohistoric and contemporary understandings of Anishinaabeg and Ho-Chunk ontologies, suggest that Great Lakes earthworks were brought into being for/through the bundling together of relationships between humans, other-than-human persons, and the land. This lens sets the scene for novel geospatial and statistical analyses of a legacy archaeological dataset of Late Precontact (ca. CE 1200–1600) earthworks in the Great Lakes, most of which have been destroyed. This study reinvigorates a fragmentary legacy data set, a practice that – during a time of pandemic-related restrictions on travel and field work – should become more prominent in archaeological investigations. This study illustrates the value of blending quantitative approaches and Indigenous ontologies to studies of landscape-scale processes and meanings.
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The following chapters respond to a set of archaeological conversations about premodern religion that have been intensifying and show no sign of weakening in the years to come. Generally speaking, these conversations are themselves a collective response to a congeries of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century stimuli, some located within the narrow intellectual currents of archaeological debate, others impacting the discipline from the outside as archaeologists respond to changes in the weather of their wider political surroundings. © 2013 by the School for Advanced Research. All rights reserved.
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Agency is a key theme that cross-cuts a wide raft of disciplines in the humanities, social sciences and beyond; yet it is invariably discussed separately behind closed disciplinary doors. Within archaeology, agency has been characterized as a uniquely human attribute, and a means of incorporating individual intentionality into theoretical discourse. In other domains, however, notions of non-human and ‘material’ agency have been finding currency, and it is our aim to introduce some of these themes into archaeology and develop a non-anthropocentric approach to agency. It is anticipated that such a perspective will not only help us achieve more convincing interpretations of the past, giving a more active role to material culture, but also throw new light on the changing role of artifacts in the present and the future. This book is a groundbreaking attempt to address questions of non-human and material agency from a wide range of perspectives and disciplines: archaeology, anthropology, sociology, cognitive science, philosophy, and economics. The editors and authors demostrate that a distributed, relational approach to agency, incorporating both humans and artifacts, has important ramifications for how we understand material culture.
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What do archaeologists mean by the body? The body is most often discussed as a neutral template through which all people live, and have lived¹. This template is an agglomeration of a number of assumptions (social and cultural — which includes biological) as to what the body involves (cf. Yates 1993). Bodies are bounded, integral and solid; they can be ‘written on’ culturally, but remain a biological fundament of being. The body is also treated as distinct from the rest of the material world. Here I will suggest an alternative understanding of bodies in a British prehistoric context.