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Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination by Karin Sanders (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 235-238 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0028

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In the preface to Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imaginaion, Karin Sanders relates her first encounter with Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob’s Mosefolket (1965; The Bog People): it was one of those happy accidents that occur within the walls of libraries around the world in which a child not only finds a book that piques his or her interest, but also receives an indelible impression from the experience, such that the book and its subject matter remain with the reader throughout their childhood and beyond, resurfacing now and then, in one way or another. It was one such resurfacing that resulted in the present volume as Sanders decided to return to her previous interest in the bog bodies through the various aesthetic mediums in which the bog people have been re-presented. I, for one, am glad that this particular resurfacing was excavated, so to speak, for the resulting work is both fascinating and provocative, and well worth the pleasure of the read.

It is, perhaps, another happy accident that we in Scandinavian Studies have this work, presented to a broad though academically-oriented audience, from one of our own in part because the subject and its treatment inform and enrich historical, political, archaeological, and aesthetic approaches to Scandinavia in particulary useful ways. Although Sanders does not argue it explicitly as such, the bog bodies and their ability to simultaneously stand on both sides of complex binary relationships—as both human individuals and archaeological objects, as both of the past and in the present, as both material flesh and aesthetic representation—provide an intriguing space from which to engage similarly paradoxical concepts of Scandinavian identity: Scandinavia as both historically grounded and progressively modern or as a site of strong national identity and increased immigration, for example. The tensions between permanence and decay reach beyond the hidden depths of peat bogs and into contemporary criticism quite seamlessly, and as such the various chapters here would be useful in a seminar setting to provide new pathways into thought-provoking discussions of literature, art, politics, ethics, history, archaeology, and philosophy.

In the introduction, “Remarkable Remains,” Sanders introduces the Tollund Man in order to begin a discussion of who and what the bog bodies are, their historical reception, and their evocative nature before shifting to a discussion of the archaeological imagination as that which requires “‘a poetics of depth’” (16) for which bog bodies as paradoxical “anachronistic manifestations” (10) and “corporeal contact zones” for history (11) are uniquely situated to access. Chapter 1, “Nature’s Own Darkroom,” examines the bogs themselves as sites of preservation that record specific temporal moments, freezing flesh much as the camera lens captures and records material bodies, reinscribing them within the flatness of the photograph. The discussions of preservation lead naturally into questions of identity and ethics, themes to which the volume will return repeatedly.

“The Archaeological Uncanny,” chapter 2, utilizes both Freud and Jung in order to develop a more nuanced view of the bogs as sites that are uncanny in that they are unnavigable, unnatural, and ultimately spaces that reveal that which was intended to remain hidden. The uncanny as such, then, provides the theoretical structuring through which Sanders clears a contempory critical space for the bogs and their bodies. Chapter 3 is entitled “Uses and Abuses: Bog Body Politics.” Here, Sanders turns to questions of identity politics and the various political appropriations of the bog bodies, the most disturbing of which is found in Heinrich Himmler’s presentation of the bog bodies as historically deviant and as such “proof ” that the goals of Naziism for Aryan purity were continuing a historical tradition of racial and sexual purity. This chapter also contains a compelling reading of the work of Irish poet Seamus Heaney; Sanders is often at her best here during such readings.

The fourth chapter begins by relating the emergence of one particular bog body in 1835 that was (mistakenly) identified as that of Queen Gunhild. Queen Gunhild’s own dramatic life provided plenty of fodder for a multitude of eroticized readings of the body; Sanders utilizes this eroticization in order to develop a theory of “erotic digging” (a term that also serves...

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