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At the Crossroads of Love, Ritual, and Archaeology: The Exhumation of Mass Graves in Contemporary Spain


Based on 17 months of ethnographic field work on the current exhumation of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and subsequent Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939-1975), the dissertation examines the practice of exhuming as a death ritual animated by emotions. A large wealth of literature on the anthropology of death centers on funerary rituals as a way to reveal a people's social structures and cultural meanings. Yet what happens when the living are denied from performing the rituals surrounding death? What happens to those dead, such as Spanish Republicans killed and left in mass graves, who escape the boundaries of ritual? Never before have Republicans been recognized as victims worthy of reburial until 2000 when a team of experts conducted the first professional exhumation of a Republican mass grave. While the rituals associated with exhuming have had an important impact on Spanish society in that it promises recognition and reburial to Republicans, the Spanish exhumations also project a perspective of the recent past as being resolved through the creation of Republican victims. Underlying the exhumations is the use of the dead body to narrate a particular version of the Spanish past through exhumation practice and ritual. The conditions under which exhuming produces new hierarchies of knowledge via its evaluation of the dead is driven not just by practice, but also emotion. Such feelings of love and loss ultimately determine which remains are excavated (i.e., Republicans), and which are not (i.e., Moroccans and Nationalists). In my ethnography on the Spanish experience of death rituals and emotions, I examine the microcosm of exhumations in relation to a larger framework that situates: (1) exhumation practice as a tool to provide meaning of the violent past in post-dictatorship Spain, and (2) the use of such practices to create knowledge in the aftermath of conflict worldwide. The dissertation concludes with possibilities for understanding how emotions and interests drive the production of knowledge that is more open to personal ways of knowing--an invitation for a critical medical anthropology and science studies approach to exhumation practices.

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