Death of the Object; or, The “Inherent Corruption” of a Peruvian Mummy and the Microhistory of Things

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 11:10 AM
Maryland Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Christopher H. Heaney, Penn State University
The numinous materiality of the dead blurs distinctions between the social lives of subjects and the social lives of objects. But as human remains move between cultures, that affective potential is harder to mark; histories of ethnological and anthropological collections in Europe and the Americas sometimes presume a rising sun of Christian rationalism and racial nationalism that boiled away the non-European dead’s leakier appeal.

This paper takes the 1899 transit of a Peruvian mummy between a grave in South America and a grave in Belgium, and the British legal interventions that transit provoked, as opportunity to explore how the mutability of human remains complicates histories that privilege the victory of the ownable object over the lastingly numinous and possibly self-sovereign subject. Annie Aitken, the Englishwoman who collected this particular Peruvian mummy, presumed that it had a stability of scientific meaning and property that could be transferred to a museum in Melle. On the way, however, the mummy’s human presence reasserted itself when a railway lost its invoice, opened its box, and held a Coroner’s inquest in London to establish cause of death. Cleared of foul play, the mummy traveled on, but was so “broken” and decayed that Belgian police ordered its burial in Melle’s cemetery. Aitken sued the railway company for damaging the mummy – her property – but the company defended itself by asserting the mummy’s “inherent corruption”: its inevitable decomposition into a corpse, which could not be owned and, in the eyes of the Belgium police, had to be buried in sacred earth. This microhistory explores decay as a liberation from objecthood—a reassertion of the historical subject that, in this case, forced an English courtroom to engage with Andean notions of mortuary permanence and their loss in translation.

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