The Archaeofilm Strategy:

Representing Excavation, Excavating Representation

 Corpus Delicti 

(the body of the crime)


The problem of the flesh is a practical concern of human beings. Mortuary practices, film documentation and scientific inquiry mediate the body and the traces left by it as it passes from being into nothingness. The embodied actor’s agency undergoes two postmortem stages: from an icon of sociality to an ideogram of science. Burial acts and memory, in one context, illustrate the same living-to-dead interferences as do camera and trowel in another.

There are two cinematic situations at present in which the Center for Landscape & Artefact takes an interest: a newsreel advertisement containing images of burial site excavations made by the Ford Motor Company in 1937 and the filmed exhumation of over 1300 Native American graves by the Ball & Dodd Mortuary Co. from the Columbia Plateau in 1939. Through an analysis of these films, the contemporary politics of human remains, and early American scientific burial excavations, we will write a sociology of the documentary and scientific representations of the body. We will critique the material culture of film production and the role of cinema in early American archaeology (and vice-versa).

Two themes are central to our argument. One, the practice of archaeological science is parallel mode to that of the documentary film. Both archaeological science and early documentary film commodify replicas of origins. Secondly, through (sometimes filmed) exhumations and ethnovideography, archaeology and early documentary film write the Native American body. These analyses serve to critique the ontogenesis of the science of the body.

We will follow the historical tradition of the science of the Native American body through an analysis of the film, photography and politics of burial studies specific to the archaeofilmed geographies: the Columbia River Plateau and the American Southwest.  In the Columbia River Plateau we will illustrate the agency of the remaining Native American Body, and investigate the politics and representations of Kennewick Man, the actions of NAGPRA, local forensic anthropologists, and the mass media. In the American Southwest, in addition to an analysis of the Ford newsreel, we will look at the politics and semiotics of “still” archaeological photographic representations of burials (and their critics) throughout history to the present.  Also, we will graph Native American embodiment through an appreciation of the fecund  indigenous iconography represented in pictographs and figurines.

The validity of scientific exhumations of Native American graves and the propaganda of the archaeologist as liberator of meaning in previously empty spaces have been exploded. The Center is devoted to realigning perspectives on space and thereby illuminating the ways in which stereotypes from the dawn of American archaeology persist in the present-day conceptualization of these spaces and social bodies. The importance of these events and the propaganda surrounding them continue to inform contemporary conceptualizations of space and place in the American West.

  Our text/film work, in theory, method and form, represents the irresolute, challenging relationship - sometimes discordant, often sublime - between social being, time and memory. All available techniques must be utilized to network this multiplicity. Corpus Delicti packages fragmented gestures and gazes in a manner reflective of the dynamic holism which often follows the atomizing influence of (post-)structuralist theory. 


The body and its representation is our focus.  In Corpus Delicti we confound archaeology and film in order to irritate and confuse author-powers. It functions as a sociology of the tendency of archaeology and ethnographic film to write the Native American body, as an exploration into the role of cinema in early American archaeology (and vice-versa) and the potentials of Nowist production: new media in social art/theory.

Corpus Delicti is an admixture of the chemical frictions and allegiances between two associated archaeofilmic artefacts and methods. Dating circa 1935 AD, the artifacts consist of a newsreel advertisement containing images of burial site excavations made by the Ford Motor Company in 1934 and the filmed exhumation of 1388 Native American graves by the Ball & Dodd Mortuary Co. from the Columbia Plateau in 1939.

The Ford film is staged between documentary and advertisement, in which Ford automobiles transport a crew of archaeologists where they exhume, speculate, survey and vacate. Their macabre and scopophilic adventure was legitimated by pure science and shown to audiences before an early Hollywood film. The Ball & Dodd Mortuary Company was contracted to dig up over 40 burial grounds along the Columbia River during the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam and the creation of Roosevelt Reservoir. Mr. Ball brought a camera and showed the footage in a road tour show. Dead, absent plazas, vacant tombs. Dis- possessed, -articulated, -torted bones. Working men, superstitious Indians and women, mesas and rivers. Silver shovels, pine boxes, whisks and brooms, pictographs and a flintlock.  Light, celluloid, projectors. Audiences, actors, dances. Bodies are at the interstices of the science and art of Corpus Delicti. 

Through the magnifying powers of juxtaposition, we situate the artefacts’ claims to knowledge about indigenous mortuary practices, architecture, art, religion, trade, and gender. This practice is informed by the audio transhuman, the DJ, environmental symphonies of John Cage, ecologies of experimental film, traditional oral myth performance. Graphs, technologic prosthetics, moving image cameras and GPS systems, like regimented survey and orchestral arrangements, situate the sixth sense between the landscape and the body.  

Corpus Delicti is a confusion of linear, hierarchical and vertical spaces. The stratigraphy of archaeology is an equally confounding solution. It is the piling-up of geological time upon human or ‘perceived’ time, the chronological omniscience of the artifact-in-landscape as it emits to both the pictorial imagination and the body-experiencing-time. Corpus Delicti, much like stratigraphy, is data: a diffuse and ambiguous matrix containing traces of the material patterns of social acts.

What is at issue here is not archaeology, the documentation and arresting of the body dissolving into the stratigraphy, but the emission of the body-in solution, whether it be the solution of the matrices of the archaeological unit or the soluble and mobile filmic images-in-time. Film translates bodies in ways that photography and text do not. To discuss the body-to-film relationship, it is necessary to analogize film to archaeological practice.  Multiple layers of soil, sound and socio-individual intention are redeposited in film as it plots the search for the original event. Bodies, once excavated, begin a performance in which the disinterring archaeologist is both producer and opening-night audience.  

The 60-minute version of Corpus Delecti will be completed by 2005 and the audio-only soundtrack (forthcoming 03/04) will include an evocative collage of traditional oral mythologies in their original languages narrated in situ; interpretive archaeology and linguistic theory voice-over; sound artifacts and accidents culled from both the original films and the moments of revisitation; and American and Native American rhythms. Three texts and one book await publication.  

In the contemporary contended politics of embodiment, Corpus Delicti attempts remediation of a disastrous history. As such, Corpus Delicti is a Nowist artwork: an aware, ludic, reflexive, multi-temporal metamedia.

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