Archaeology or anthropology? Artist to show bones from animals' point of view in residency

By Ben Miller | 03 February 2015

Artist to recreate reliquary boxes used by medieval Christians to hold bones of Saints

A photo of a set of animal bones on a table
Artist Jo Dacombe says she understands why people once used bones as amulets or charms© Jo Dacombe
Jo Dacombe, an artist with a knack for site-specifics and a new position in residence at the University of Leicester’s Bone Laboratory, will take her cues from more than 650 modern animal skeletons in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, creating a new artwork next year examining the value of bones recovered from archaeological sites and relics retrieved from rubbish.

An associate artist of Nottingham Contemporary, Dacombe is calling her research the Reliquary Project, and hints at the often-emotive nature of displaying remains, describing herself as a “bone picker” during her rummage through boxes, looking for “something useful” and intrigued by “the curious interior shapes of all sorts of creatures.”

“In my reading, I came across a number of interesting articles and books about archaeology and art, materiality and how we perceive objects,” she says.

“It was all very interesting, but one thing struck me – in all my reading, animal bones were always considered in the same vein as other archaeological artefacts; bones appeared in lists of finds amongst things like pottery, tools or items of jewellery without any acknowledgement of their difference.

“For me, bones are different. They are not artefacts in that they have not been crafted by humans.

“Animal bones have had a former life, possibly untouched by humans for all or some part of it.

“The animal itself had agency. It had its own biography. It had relations and an origin.

“Interestingly, the field of archaeology is, in the USA, considered a branch of anthropology.

“Archaeology is the study of human lives through the discovery and interpretation of remains.

“Animal bones have come to be seen through the lens of the study of human culture, and have been thought of and written about as just another kind of object in the human story.

“What happens if we look at the story from the point of view of the animal?”

Local schools and groups are being invited to take part in workshops and sessions based around Dacombe’s ideas, sparked when she started picking up bones while out walking.

A photo of a woman sketching bones inside an archaeological laboratory
Sketching the bones is a vital part of the artist's research© Courtesy University of Leicester
“It seemed to me that every bone told a story.

"This made me think about how archaeology is the discovery of stories through finding objects.

“I’m interested in animal bones because I’m interested in how we connect with the natural world.

"The stories behind bones reflect some of the ways we as humans think about animals and how our value of them changes depending on their context.

“The idea for the Reliquary Project is to consider how the value of these objects might change depending on how we display them.”

“I'm thinking of this more as a whole exhibition of different things that work together as a collection to look at an idea in different ways.”

National Lottery funding, created through the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts programme, has helped Dacombe, who is working with zooarchaeology expert Dr Richard Thomas and some of the researchers who pass through the laboratory.

“Medieval Christians used to make special containers, called reliquaries, to hold the bones or relics of Saints, which people used to visit and pay respect to,” she explains.

“By making reliquaries for animal bones, I’m questioning how we respect and value animals.

“I have decided to keep away from skulls for now.

“Skulls are already quite a fetishised object and perhaps too evocative; they appear too frequently in scenes of superstitious devilry or as gothic emblems or heavy metal t-shirts.

“For now I prefer the more abstract-shaped bones, the ones that I’m not sure which part of a body they might be from, the ones that make me marvel at how they evolved and how alien some of the species of this planet are to me. I will start by just getting to know them.”

The project will culminate in an exhibition at Embrace Arts in Spring 2016.


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