The Bone Trade Project

There is a thriving online trade in anatomical, ethnographic and archaeological human remains that makes ready use of new social media such as Instagram, Facebook, Etsy, and until recently, eBay. The “fetishization” of the ‘exotic’ dead that underpins this trade by its very nature transforms pieces of the body into material culture: curios, commodities or objets d’art. This practice has deep Colonial-era roots, but today’s e-commerce and social media platforms have only expanded collectors’ reach and made participation open to anyone with interest and spare finances. The sheer volume of materials being produced, shared, and sold can be overwhelming for a small team to study. The market moves so fast.

Can we teach machines to identify from photographs alone patterns in the ‘visual rhetoric’ that signal materials for sale? Can ‘licit’ materials be discerned from ‘illicit’? Are there geographical patterns? Can we trace materials back to a source?

The Bonetrade Project is a SSHRC-funded project led by Dr. Graham and Dr. Huffer. Your connection with this project will become most evident in the second term of the course. My hope is that your research project will either take the technologies we are exploring (or the code that we are writing) and apply it to another domain of ‘bad archaeology’, or will contribute meaningfully to our primary research. There’s a lot of work to do, so all contributions will be welcome.

For more on the Bonetrade project, please see the project website.