Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Potter’s Field and the Thanatofield

Graham Denyer Willis
Cambridge University
Date and Time: 
Monday, April 24, 2017 - 15:30

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


In this work I unpack the ‘potter’s field’ –indigent cemetery, pauper’s burial ground, pit grave- as a signifier, especially as it operates in the material treatment of bodies as a mirror of life. I consider the historical evolution of this space and logic, in part, via the ways that its very specter has driven forms of sociality. From the potter’s fields of São Paulo, Brazil, I consider how these mundane mass graves are politically useful as a means to obscure important bodies alongside those who are, in an ‘age of rights’, the subjects of state terror. I then ask how the rise of the unconsecrated cemetery -the thanatofield- is inseparable from recent historical and contemporary conditions of abandonment. The thanatofield is made necessary by a politics of abandonment, becoming useful to the state as a material invocation of responsibility, interred elsewhere, while nonetheless advancing a larger logic of governance and political will in our times. 


Graham Denyer Willis is University Lecturer in Development and Latin American Studies at Cambridge University and Fellow and Director of Studies in Geography at Queens’ College, Cambridge. His first book, The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil (California 2015), is based on a multi-year study of homicide and other detectives in São Paulo, Brazil. He has published in the Journal of Latin American Studies, Latin American Research Review and World Development, as well as in the New York Times and the Boston Review. He has a PhD from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.