Anthropology Archaeology and the Body
Julie K. Wesp, Rosemary A. Joyce
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0255


The body has become a central focus of archaeological research as practitioners ask questions about the role of individual human beings, their engagement with things, and the effects of embodied actions in the past. The body can serve as a starting point for analyzing diversity in past populations in terms of sex, gender, status, ethnicity, ability, and other aspects of identity. Study of the human body allows practitioners to reconstruct how culture change affected portions of populations in different ways. Archaeologists draw on a wide range of social theories from allied disciplines that have explored gender, race, ability, and philosophical understandings of living in a body to explore how material remains of past populations can be used to provide temporal depth to questions about embodiment. Archaeologists employ a variety of materials to address embodiment, ranging from human skeletal remains, materials used as clothing and adornment, tools employed as extensions of the body, and objects and immobile features that structure embodied experiences. This diversity of materials facilitates examination of similarly diverse research questions, including phenomenological understandings of how the world is experienced through the body and the senses; how cultural practices modified bodies; how visual culture, including representations of bodies, create and change body ideologies; and how skeletal remains were shaped by daily life in the past. In recent years, archaeologists have begun to reflect on the ethical implications of archaeological research on human bodies and how this research can be conducted to include perspectives from descendant communities and the public regarding research questions and the presentation of results. Archaeologists also consider how their own experiences are shaped by working with human remains.

General Overview

Hamilakis, et al. 2002 brings together scholars to theorize how “thinking through the body” allows archaeologists to ask and answer very different kinds of questions about life in the past. The editors divide the volume into three sections that provide a rough overview of how scholars approach the body in different ways—as the source of personhood; as a tool for experiencing the world; or as a passive record, the material remains of people who lived in the past. Joyce 2005 provides an overview of work on archaeology of the body, arguing that ideas of the body as the site of lived experience, as a social construct, and a site of embodied agency replaced earlier notions of the body as a public, legible surface. Of particular note is the detailed focus on how broader social theory influences how archaeologists engage with questions of personhood and experience through the body. Both of these works draw on the earlier arguments of Meskell 1996, identifying two main theoretical currents: the body as scene of display and the body as artifact. The acknowledgement of the body as both the corporeal form of a subject, and as an object that is culturally and historically situated, is central to many of the archaeological studies of the body in subsequent years. Sofaer 2006 approaches the body as a material phenomenon through the specialized analyses of bioarchaeology.

  • Hamilakis, Yannis, Mark Pluciennik, and Sarah Tarlow, eds. 2002. Thinking through the body: Archaeologies of corporeality. New York: Kluwer Academic.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    One of the earliest volumes to have a specific focus on the body in archaeological research. Divided into three sections that focus on personhood and individuals, experience, and the material culture of bodies.

  • Joyce, Rosemary A. 2005. Archaeology of the body. Annual Review of Anthropology 34:139–158.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Review of how the body has been explored in archaeological research. Good source for expanded bibliography on specific topics of bodily research.

  • Meskell, Lynn. 1996. The somatization of archaeology: Institutions, discourses, corporeality. Norwegian Archaeological Review 29.1: 1–16.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A critical examination of the major approaches to the body in archaeology, arguing that two main approaches existed: the body as scene of display and the body as artifact, identifying the reliance of archaeologists on phenomenological theory and the work of Michel Foucault as key.

  • Sofaer, Joanna R. 2006. The body as material culture: A theoretical osteoarchaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Influential monograph that theorizes the use of human skeletal remains in archaeological research, arguing that the body, rather than being merely a natural material, is a product of cultural activity equivalent in its potential for analysis to traditionally recognized forms of material culture such as ceramics.

back to top

Your subscription doesn't include the subject of this book.