Transforming the Dead i
s a collection of essays that examines culturally modified human bones and their roles as “cultural and ritual objects” among prehistoric Eastern Woodland cultures. Previous scholarship has explored the role of human body parts in Native American cultures as trophies of war and revered ancestors. This collection discusses new evidence that human elements were also important components of daily and ritual activities across the Eastern Woodlands. The contributors to this volume discuss each case study within the unique regional and temporal contexts of the material, rather than seeking universal answers to how these objects were used.
Most research addressing modified human bone has focused on cut marks and trauma associated with warfare, trophy taking, and burial practices. The editors and contributors of Transforming the Dead
document the varied and often overlooked ways that human bone was intentionally modified through drilling, incising, cutting, and polishing for utilitarian, ornamental, spiritual, or ritual use. Examples include bracelets and gorgets to be worn, as well as musical rasps, pipe stems, masks, and protective talismans. The form and function of these objects are not unusual; their construction from the remains of “another” sets them apart.
Through a flexible but systematic analysis of the archaeological record, the contributors bring into focus how the careful selection, modification, and retention of particular bones or body parts of an individual after death offer insights into concepts of personhood, the body, life, and death among the prehistoric Native Americans in the Midwest.