Studies in Forensic Biohistory. Anthropological Perspectives. Edited by Christopher M. Stojanowski and William N. Duncan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Hardback, 350 pp. 76 b/w illus., 7 tables. ISBN 978-1-107-07354-8.

‘Dead people come with a curriculum vitae or resume’ (Katherine Verdery)

Why should we care if “Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome” or “all the Romanovs were indeed interred in a mass grave near Ekaterinburg” (292), and what should we do when stumbling upon a “Christmas lights skull” in an online auction? A quick browse through media titles from the last couple of years shows that the public and scientists alike do seem to care, so the authors in this edited volume ask back: in what ways do we do that? The famous dead “come with a resume”, as Katherine Verdery is quoted as saying in one chapter from the volume, and indeed even in death not all bodies are equal: some, such as the bodies of famous or contentious figures bear strong postmortem agency, finding themselves in midst of legal, historical or political narratives, and capturing the popular imagination, while others are part of the realm of the many and voiceless dead. This distinction makes the editors of this volume, professors Christopher M. Stojanowski from Arizona State University and William N. Duncan from East Tennessee University, propose a distinct field of inquiry: that of biohistory. The book is an effort to theorise what the authors recognise as an undertheorised field, marked by little cross-citation, but of great importance to scientists and communities alike. The result is an entertaining, and, most importantly, a good piece of academic scholarship, in which the reader is taken from a medico-legal laboratory to a Shakespearean “docu-drama”; from Smithsonian scientists looking into a colleague’s iron coffin to the (literal) ghosts of the American West. In this respect, the book is part of a number of recent volumes focused on the conditions of forensic knowledge production (Crossland and Joyce 2015; Aronson 2016), which aim to dismantle the illusion that this knowledge is a straightforward matter. Instead, they treat it as a cultural phenomenon in its own right, entangled with anthropological and socio-political issues. Such perspectives are not only thought-provoking, but critically and explicitly engage with the causes and consequences of body identification research; this marks an interdisciplinary approach which should gain momentum in the field of human remains research, as it challenges specialists to understand their expertise as part of wider societal networks.

Read like complementary pieces, each of the 14 chapters problematises a specific research question. The reader is taken on a tour from classic laboratory analysis (Chapter 2), and methodological accounts (Chapters 9, 10) dealing with the latest scientific techniques of identification (DNA, chemical analysis, statistical modelling, facial reconstructions), to trans-disciplinary studies (Chapters 3, 8, 11, 12), and theoretical pieces (Chapters 1, 13, 14) tackling ethics, law and necropolitics of the past. This seems to reflect the multi-faceted nature of biohistorical inquiry.

The editors set the scene in the first chapter by delineating the field and arguing for the importance of doing so. Building on the 2008 work by Debra Komar and Jane Buikstra, and following studies which can be traced back to Clyde Snow’s identification of Josif Mengele’s skull in 1985, they define biohistory as a subdiscipline of forensic anthropology. It focuses on “scientific methods applied to materials of biological origin in the analysis of historical personages […] with pre-existing connections to public consciousness or historical imaginations” (3–6), may these be political figures, criminals, outlaws, artists/scientific luminaries or local heroes (6–7). According to the editors, what makes biohistory distinct from forensic anthropology or bioanthropology (and thus justifying its existence as a separate subdiscipline) is that it does not have the legal implications of medico-legal contexts, or the anonymous dead of the latter, being practiced for academic or personal curiosity. However, in practice the boundaries seem to blur. But if one follows the trail of bodies and narratives constructed by scientists in this book, this theoretical subfield emerges in its full glory; at its centre one finds bodies-as-“boundary objects” (to follow Star and Griesemer 1989, the editors, and also Moon in the volume), which “inhabit multiple social worlds”. There seem to be three main directions of research, according to the editors: identifying bodies of famous dead, validating or falsifying rumours or innuendos about them and research into historical events that can be understood through the analysis of bodies (10).

So let us quickly see how various chapters engage with these directions, by following the chain of arguments, rather than a chronological summary. In Chapter 2, Philippe Charlier presents three of his (already published) “autopsies” of historically famous rulers: Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart), Henri IV of France and Maximilien de Robespierre, three typical biohistorical analyses. The highlight of his rather descriptive, more medically inclined analysis (and puzzling conclusion) is a short discussion on the limitations of combining genetic and genealogic data of a family in the process of identification. This is a point which would have been worth expanding, given that similar methods have been used for the alleged identification of many historical figures, and such discussions highlight the limitations of seemingly objective DNA analysis. In Chapter 10, Lyle W. Konigsberg and Lee Meadows Jantz give an interesting replica, critically evaluating the probabilistic basis for identifying individuals in biohistorical research. By looking at likelihood ratio estimates used in DNA evidence (among others), the authors detail the statistical reasoning behind it, ultimately highlighting the importance of historical information. Chapter 9, by Laura Buti, Giorgio Gruppioni and Stefano Benazzi, is another methodological analysis, this time tackling facial reconstructions of famous historical figures and reflecting on “what a face actually is”. The circle is closed, so to speak, by Richard Toon, museum studies specialist, and Laurie Stone (Chapter 3), with a delightful investigative piece on the Richard III case which takes us “behind the scenes” of the research into kings’ bodies. Moving from eye rolls to podium speeches and Shakespearean passions, the authors implicitly tackle the issue of what kinds of human remains are deemed important and in what ways, from “scientific value” to “media marketing” (51).

We then move to a different angle in Chapters 4 and 5, with the identification of two rather local, lesser-known historical figures: Don Francisco de Paula Marin and Smithsonian naturalist Robert Kennicott. The strength of both chapters, signed by larger multi-disciplinary teams, lies in the retracing of the history of bones through combined archaeological investigation, archival research and osteological/scientific analysis – this biography of bodies being all too often missed in similar endeavours.

In Chapter 6, Ryan M. Seidemann builds on his previous work on law and anthropology, and talks about the commodification of human remains in auction sales. In his case, the question “why care about the dead?” has the following immediate answer: because the law does. He traces the ways in which the law creates new biographies for confiscated and anonymous bones, translating them from morbid curiosities to human remains “deserving care”. Seidemann then takes a step towards analysing what lies behind this commerce: the importance of skulls (see also the cover of the volume), and the attraction of macabre displays in contemporary society. Chapter 7, by bioarchaeologist Kenneth C. Nystrom, is a biohistory of mummies, prompted by what he calls, quoting John Robb (2009), our need to “re-socialize dead bodies” through scientific methods and popular imagination: “If Otzi were alive today, had a Facebook account, and posted all the info that scientists have extracted from his body, he would most definitely be guilty of over-sharing” (154).

Following this, Chapters 8, 11 and 12 are three great interdisciplinary pieces of scholarship, tackling anthropological themes such as colonialism, violence and necropolitics. In Chapter 8, biocultural anthropologist Shannon A. Novak talks about the dead of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a case where ghosts, social memory, experts and local landscapes are all interwoven to provide “truth-making”, an endeavour which picks what stories to be told and what memories to be silenced. In Chapter 11, Sarah Wagner, social anthropologist, and Adam Rosenblatt, interdisciplinary scholar of human rights, look at how forensic science has enabled states to tell specific stories about those chosen as the iconic dead, in post-Vietnam war USA and post-conflict Chile. In the following chapter, sociologist of human rights Claire Moon proposes biohistory of atrocity as a separate domain. By grounding her theorising of this subfield in an evaluation of the historical contexts which produce it, Moon draws an illuminating taxonomy of claims of forensic anthropology when settling interpretation of past violence.

Jane E. Buikstra deals with the important topic of ethics in Chapter 13, looking at how the agency of the dead should impact science. One of the most interesting points in her chapter is a 21-questions protocol that should be followed before proceeding with a body analysis. Lastly, the editors close the volume with a text on the theoretical facets of biohistorical research, moving from the materiality and indexicality of the dead to the implications of the medical gaze.

All in all, this volume is an important read for forensic specialists, (bio)archaeologists and cultural anthropologists alike, through the breadth of issues pertaining to dead bodies research, the thought-provoking contributions and the humorous notes throughout. Death can become a passionate affair at times, and this volume is certainly one of the best volumes I have read dealing with the recent dead. The authors make a successful case for the delimitation of biohistory: regardless of how happy we are with this situation, certain kinds of human remains do seem to be more preeminent in the contemporary world, attracting media visibility, scientific expertise and the public’s passions. This makes biohistory a field of inquiry which speaks to the contemporary environment, a situation which in turn calls for a critical evaluation. Approaching the bodies of the “historical personages” as lieux de mémoire brings these two aspects together, unravelling the many threads of interests that shape the bodies’ postmortem identity. Furthermore, by engaging in a reflective way with their object of study, asking why scientists feel the urge to get involved with biohistorical investigations, the authors prove the added value of a more theoretically inclined approach, and it is here where the strength of the volume lies. This is a much needed and welcomed approach for the more biologically inclined disciplines of forensic science and bioarchaeology. Though it has long been acknowledged, there is a divide between scientific and cultural/embodied discourses on human remains in archaeology and forensic sciences, with few attempts to bridge it. This volume is a good step forward.

What is ultimately at stake is twofold: what is the relevance of this research, and what is our responsibility to past people through their material remains? On this note, it is worth mentioning that this question touching on ethics is a point that can be developed further in the future: is there enough justification for unearthing bodies and/or subjecting them to scientific procedures? I feel that certain case studies in the volume are in need of a better justification (e.g. the analysis of kings’ bodies or the case of Robert Kennicott), a situation which ultimately makes biohistorical research a good example that pushes other practitioners to question their own practices. On a different note, it was good to see several authors referring in a critical way to each other, and would have been interesting to see a more extended dialogue between them.

I will end this review by citing Toon and Stones’s entertaining metaphor (47). The difference between the approach of Philippa Langley (who was involved in the alleged discovery of Richard III’s body ) and the protagonists of Woody Allen’s Sleeper (a dystopian world where scientists are asked to clone a past leader from his nose, all that was left of him) is that in the latter case they did not believe the body would materialize. So what do we hope will materialise through our own investigations?


I am grateful to the editor for providing me with a review copy, and for the funding of my project which has made thinking about these issues possible (this project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 701230)


Aronson, J. D. 2016. Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Crossland, Z. and Joyce, R. A. (eds.) 2015. Disturbing Bodies Perspectives on Forensic Anthropology. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

Komar, D. A. and Buikstra, J. E. 2008. Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Star, S. L. and Griesemer. 1989. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-1939.” Social Studies of Science 19 (3): 387–420.

Alexandra Ion
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, (University of Cambridge) & Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’