Review of ‘Exhuming Loss: Memory, Materiality and Mass Graves of the Spanish Civil War’ by Layla Renshaw

01st June 2012

Review by Jon Prangnell

Until recently I was the Book Review Editor for Australian Archaeology and whenever books concerning the exhumation of mass graves came in for review I tended to send them to forensic archaeologists such as Richard Wright or Glenys McGowan, but even a cursory glance at this book showed me that it was of a different caste. Certainly there are the obligatory photographs of mass graves and gunshot wounds, and evocative images of material culture, such as spectacles and wedding rings, but there are not many of these and they are not the subject matter of the book. The book is about the political and power relationships enacted between the deceased, the expert investigators, the community members and the relatives of the deceased.

The preamble sets the tone for the book and contains an excellent literature review of recent exhumation projects of mass graves and genocide, and discusses issues related to post-conflict memory, judicial structures, representation, graves as sites of protest, the symbolism of exhumation and the different perceptions of the process for the forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, relatives of the dead, and members of the ‘Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory’, a lead organisation in the Republican memory campaign.

The focus of the book is on exhumations of two mass grave sites from the Spanish Civil War. This war was fought between 1936 and 1939 between Franco’s Nationalists and the Republican (Popular Front) government (although, as Renshaw makes clear, the political reality was never as neat as that, with many right and left wing factions based on class, geography and ideology). Renshaw’s first field site at Villavieja was the scene of a 1936 killing of 22 local men who were members of the village council and the working men’s club (i.e. politically active working class men). The second field site at Las Campanans saw the execution of 46 men and their burial in a single mass grave in September 1936. Once again these men were politically active working class or liberal middle class villagers. It is not just the dead, though, who were the victims: female relatives were targets for specific, gendered forms of structured violence. There also was a concerted effort by the regime to impose an official memory of the war, resulting in a silence within republican families and the loss, or altering, of memory.

Exhuming Loss is an ethnography of the process of exhumation, identification and reburial at these two sites and presents the complexity of issues related to collective versus individual memory across a vast range of participants. Chapter 5 on the ‘Reburial and Enduring Materialisations of the Dead’ is probably the most fascinating part of the book, as Renshaw does an exemplary job of disentangling the multiple contestations surrounding debates concerning individual reinterment or collective burial and the memory politics to which the reburial ceremonies would be put. I particularly like Renshaw’s analysis of post-memory and the role of the archaeologists in the reburial ceremonies as they dramatically unveiled the scientific evidence that led to the identification of individuals, almost as a replacement for the eulogies of a standard burial ceremony. These issues are explored, along with the agency of the archaeologist, the agency of the deceased, the multiple remembered pasts and the creation of memory. Archaeologists should always be conscious of the role they play in memory making.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, please click here to be taken to the publisher’s website.

Jon Prangnell
Review of ‘Exhuming Loss: Memory, Materiality and Mass Graves of the Spanish Civil War’ by Layla Renshaw
June 2012
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