Without a Trace? Rethinking the Place of the Dead in Historical Accounts of the Past

In Madagascar today, and in the recent past, the dead are understood to inhabit the world alongside the living.  Accounts of the 19th century tell of people possessed by the dead, of ghosts roaming abroad, and of the care that must be taken around them.  How can archaeologists and anthropologists provide space in historical narrative for entities that we might consider to be imaginary or nonexistent?  How do we acknowledge the agency of the dead for people in the past?  For Columbia University’s Dr. Zoë Crossland, this means attending to the material signs of the dead – whether tombs and standing stones, or the patterns of inhabitation that people left behind in the landscape.  Archaeology is often called the discipline of things, but Dr. Crossland argues that our work is semiotic in nature – that is, it is primarily concerned with material signs, and with the interpretation of those signs.  Archaeology is a fascinating discipline for the way in which it pulls together empirical data with the enlivening interpretation through which it becomes meaningful, but we’ve tended to think about interpretation as something that happens in people’s heads.  Join us tonight and learn how Dr. Crossland draws upon the semiotic philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce in her forthcoming book to rethink how we approach the signs of the dead and their interpretation.

ZoeZoë Crossland is based in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. Her interests lie in semiotic archaeology, and archaeologies of death and the body. She writes on Madagascar, forensics, and historic burial practices in the United Kingdom, with a focus on the archaeology of the last 500 years and of the contemporary world.  Crossland examines situations where new beliefs and practices are introduced, and the conflicts and negotiations that are prompted by their introduction. She works through a variety of case studies, including the archaeology of mission, and forensic exhumation to understand the material-semiotic formations through which apparently incompatible attitudes and practices may be negotiated and transformed.

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