Accepted paper:

Bones, buttons and photographs: objects for remembrance in the exhumation of mass graves of the Spanish civil war


Aitzpea Leizaola (University of the Basque Country)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing from fieldwork conducted in exhumations of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), this paper explores recent debates on memory and oblivion, focusing on the objects found with the corpses as well as on different artefacts (photographs, documents, flags…) brought to the exhumation sites.

Paper long abstract:

In 2000, the exhumation of mass graves of people executed during the Spanish civil war (1936-39) opened up an intense debate in Spain on the memory of the civil war and Franco's dictatorship, bringing to the public arena questions that had been silenced for over seventy years. Since then, the Spanish civil war has been at the centre of public debates in the political arena. For the first time, the pact of silence on the war and its aftermath was broken. Sealed at the end of the dictatorship that gave way to the democratic transition and considered to be one of its main pillars, the pact of silence was instituted as an officialized amnesia, preventing any debate, review or legal claim over past events. Indeed, the Spanish case served as a precedent and an example for the so called "full stop laws" (ley de punto final) enforced in Latin American dictatorships. Leaded by families later constituted in associations, the efforts to localize and give the corpses of their kin a 'decent burial' opened up unprecedented discussions on remembrance, oblivion and political responsibility regarding past events. Digging up common graves has a healing effect on those looking for their beloved ones. Many did not dare to undertake such an action for decades. Many of them have died without being able to trace and recover the corpses of their beloved ones. The issue is far from being simple, though. The debate over the convenience of opening up the graves or leaving them as they are for future generations to remember what happened is still open, underlining the existence of different points of view over the role of such locations as sites of memory and places for remembrance. All of these underline the need to give a material shape to memory in the form of memorials, communal or individual tombs. However, the exhumations constitute a unique moment to observe these debates in action. The materiality of corpses, together with personal items found in these graves have a strong impact on all those attending the exhumation, from archaeologists to families and members of the associations working for what has been called the "recovery of historic memory". Ordinary objects, such as buttons, shoes, pencils or glasses found in mass graves acquire thus a huge importance: they may be central for the identification of the bodies and/or they may become the very materialization of remembrance in the hands of the families. Drawing from a four year fieldwork conducted in different exhumations all through Spain, this paper intends to explore the links between memory and material culture, focusing on the objects found in mass graves of the civil war as well as on different artefacts (photographs, documents, flags, flowers) brought to the exhumations.

panel W096
Memory and material culture in post-conflict societies