In his paper, titled “Fresh scars on the body of archaeology: excavating mass- graves at Batajnica, Serbia,” Slobodan Mitrovic writes that “bodies… carry great potential to perpetrate their historicity and extend it well beyond any understanding.” This act of extending their history gives bodies a kind of agency over the living. Bodies are powerful because they are simultaneously “us” and “not us,” resembling our exteriors while belonging to a world quite apart from our own. Bodies are indexical, serving as a material reminder of a loved one. They are often iconic, representing the casualties of war, preserving a record of political change, reminding us of the power of ideas. In this context, the bodies Mitrovic encountered were read as evidence of the cruel and untimely deaths of the people that once resided in them.
In late 2001, Slobodan Mitrovic, a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center participated in an excavation of a series of mass graves on the outskirts of Batajnica, Serbia in cooperation with the International Committee on Missing People, the Belgrade District Court, and the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Belgrade. He came to speak with us about his experiences as a part of the ‘Ontologies of Exhumation’ speaker series at Columbia University, sponsored by the Council for Graduate Schools Project for Scholarly Integrity, the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Archaeology, and in conjunction with the ‘Archaeologies of Contemporary Conflict’ graduate seminar.
The purpose of his excavation in Batajnica was to exhume the bodies of hundreds of Albanians massacred by Serbian militants during the Kosovo conflict and gather evidence of war crimes to present to the Hague Tribunal. His talk on his experiences in Batajnica and the discussion that followed raised important issues in modern forensic archaeology, most notably: the power and agency that a dead body possesses over the living, the power the living have over the meaning of the dead, and the role of affect and emotion in the excavation process.
The bodies Mitrovic excavated exerted their agency upon him through creating emotions and memories. A question posed to Mitrovic was whether he had a different reaction to disarticulated parts rather than a whole body. At first, he described the experience as jarring, but later it became just another part of his life at the excavation site. He did say however, that there would occasionally be a body with a defining feature that would throw him back into the tragic and human elements of the excavation. He gave the example of a red women’s shirt that retained its color after all of those years buried underground. He also showed us a picture of a wristwatch on a hand burned beyond all recognition. This image was particularly haunting, bringing to mind the stark image of a ticking clock buried so many feet under the earth amid disarticulated flesh, slowly silencing with no one to wind it. The bodies would later haunt Mitrovic. He would see objects in the “real world” that would bring him back to the grave.
At the end of the day, however, his role was that of an archeologist. He found the evidence that he was looking for, but not unmixed with a wave of “unusual insanity.” He would vainly try to justify, to understand what was done with these people, intermixing these justifications with thoughts of how the murderers messed up, how they could have been killed better. At the core of Mitrovic’s testimony was the idea that though archaeological theory and scientific objectivity are undoubtedly important, and are unarguably things we spend so much energy and time learning and developing; they are, ultimately, inadequate. They fall apart when faced with the undeniable evidence of human suffering. Mitrovic believes that bodies cannot ever fully belong to archaeology, because of their “connection to the visceral.”
Though the power of the corpse over the living is distinct, it does not have hegemony in the archaeological context. Instead, Forensics is a dialectical relationship between the two parties, the scientist and the corpse. By interacting with the remains, Mitrovic acted upon them just as they were acting upon him. Mitrovic’s authority as a professional archaeologist and as one of the few people who were granted permission to see these remains put him in a uniquely powerful position to exert his agency upon the dead.
As an interpreter of the events of Batajnica, he said that he felt a responsibility to bear witness to the world about what he saw. He said that though his contributions to the outcomes of the Hague Tribunal were limited, the paper he wrote was his act of bearing witness, and in turn his act of commemoration for those lost in the Kosovo conflict. He described the excavation as a process with multiple closures, and his attempts to identify the bodies as a way to bring them to life, to celebrate the difficult lives they were given.
The talk ended with an open question, directed to those in the room who had also excavated human remains. From these questions, one archaeologist described feeling that the bodies would haunt him, just as they did Mitrovic- and that they also helped him connect with his own corporeality. Another said that it surprised her, how industrial and factory- like the environment seemed. She catalogued remains that were in bags for 4 or 5 years before being returned to their burial places. These however, were dried bones- much easier to mistake for objects rather than human begins. In all accounts there was an underlying consensus that there is an ongoing conversation between the archaeologist and the material body, and in our profession it is essential to acknowledge this discourse and integrate this understanding into our practice of bearing witness to the past.