Cassandra McKenney is an MA student in the Department of History

‘Hobbit Applause’ meme sourced from Know Your Memes

Part of Xlab’s work is concerned with how people engage with cultural heritage artifacts and ideas in digital environments. This led us to a collaborative study of memes related to human remains trading, or the “Bone Trade” on Instagram, including the accounts who create and post them and the role they play in the formation of digital cultures and personas.

The first step of our research was to gather memes. We did this by creating a new Instagram account, exploring relevant tags such as #humanbones and #oddities, and selecting 114 relevant and unique memes created between 2016 and 2022. We then examined them to identify patterns in exposed beliefs, traced distribution trends and networks, and highlighted the narratives created when the memes are understood as in conversation with one another. Much of this categorization relied on “excavating” individual memes into form, content, and structure, and then determining both what informed these individual components and how their use creates dialogue with other memes.

Using this approach we catalogued the memes into eight thematic categories:

  •         Art & Décor,
  •         Pro-bone collector
  •         Anti-bone collector
  •         Environmentally conscious
  •         Everyone is the same except a specified group
  •         Ethics
  •         Bone collectors are different
  •         Skeletons are “just like us!”

And four meme format categories:

We identified two digital personas by analyzing these groupings, the overlaps between them, and the similarities between posters and creators within specific categories. These personas are not indicative of the offline identities of users, but rather act to highlight sets of characteristics that memes attribute to the “average” bone collector, which are selectively and inconsistently posited to define informal community membership. The first persona, “The Bone Collecting Witch,” is most often presented as a millennial white woman, is associated with macabre and goth aesthetics, and draws heavily from earlier witch communities on Tumblr. The second, “The Antiquarian Pseudo-Gentleman” is most often presented as a white man, is characterized as a rugged antiquarian adventurer, and evokes the aesthetic of smoking in a gentleman’s club surrounded by cabinets of curios. Together, these personas not only demonstrate how informal communities can form around cultural heritage memes, but also how membership is electively defined according to an unspoken set of constantly evolving attributes.

This project was a fascinating opportunity to explore engagement with cultural heritage in what can be considered a non-traditional space that exists outside of museums, academia, and physical communities. This process has challenged my own assumptions about public interactions with cultural heritage by both demonstrating how memes are used as a method of engagement and highlighting the existence of informal social media communities and personas based in differing cultural and ethical perceptions. The result of this study has been written up and submitted as a chapter for an edited volume on social media and archaeology; it’s been through peer review so we hope it’ll eventually come out in 2023.

Want to learn more about our methods and findings? Follow the Xlab for more posts about our work and details on future publications!