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Agency, ‘Til Death Do Us Part? Inquiring about the Agency of Dead Bodies from the Ancient Andes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 November 2014

Tiffiny A. Tung*
Affiliation:
Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University, Garland Hall 124, Nashville, TN 37235, USA Email: t.tung@vanderbilt.edu

Abstract

This study argues that people and things, through their interactions with each other, embody different agential capacities and that scholars should evaluate how they are variably effective at structuring the actions of others and at shaping society. This is attempted here through a study of dismembered body parts that, as I argue, remained socially and politically active even in their dismembered state. As such, we can begin to analyse them as embodying a categorically different kind of agency — post-mortem or secondary agency — while remaining cautious of overzealous attempts to claim that everyone and everything has agency of equivalence. Definitions of agency are examined and its definition within this article is explicitly formulated, drawing especially on ideas from Gell (1998), Robb (2004), Sewell (2005) and Latour (2005). Through a case study from the Peruvian Andes in which approximately 240 individuals were dismembered, I suggest that the primary agency once embodied in those living persons was transformed into secondary agency (Gell 1998) as the person-cum-corpse was remade into smaller body parts. These body parts and their placement in a ritually significant locale, had profound effects on the living, particularly as it related to the ways that those dead-body objects extended social relations and social hierarchies, making them more durable.

Type
Special Section: The Bioarchaeology of Postmortem Agency
Copyright
Copyright © The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2014 

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