Why do archaeologists worry about human remains?

Archaeologists about to dig up human remains at Stonehenge

We launched our campaign this week to persuade the Ministry of Justice to take a sensible approach to administering the law regarding the archaeological excavation of human remains in England and Wales. Essentially this means dropping the need to rebury all such remains (within a standard two years, or after a limited extension on this period if granted on request) – a requirement introduced in 2008 – and also the need to screen from view excavations where human remains are present.

The most important part of this initiative was writing on Wednesday (February 2) to the Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. We explained our case in a letter signed by 40 senior archaeology professors and two other archaeologists (that is, me and Duncan Sayers), and enclosed some briefing information.

We also wrote to the Guardian, which printed our letter on Friday; Ian Sample expanded on this in a strong piece in the paper (both are still among the website’s top 5 science stories as I write, and Sample’s article has been shared 1,200 times on Facebook); and the Mail online picked up the story (with interesting comments: the ratings are much better for those that favour our point of view, one that says “Archaeologist = Grave robber” has a negative rating of 56 votes). The campaign was described on the Radio 4 Today programme, and we gave interviews to the Radio 4 PM programme (about 26 minutes in), Europe Today on the BBC World Service (Duncan Sayer explains it all very well, at 48.55 mins) and As It Happens on Canada’s CBC (also well worth a listen, Martin Bell, part 3 at 6 mins).

It’s been hard work getting to this stage, but the next one now begins: hammering home the point. When I spoke to Eddie Mair last night on PM, a new statement was read out from the Ministry of Justice. It simply repeated what has been said before: we have nothing to worry about, said the MoJ; if we need more time to study ancient remains, we can ask for an extension. We had answered that one before, and we answer it in the letter to Ken Clarke. I quote: “Particularly for periods before written records, human remains are among the most important forms of evidence about our past. Archaeologists have been excavating and curating such remains for centuries, and they continue to be studied as scientific techniques develop and questions change. Such research can never be ‘completed’.”

The word “completed” was in a letter Clarke sent to Andrew Miller, Chair of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, last November. That correspondence came on the back of the short feature on this issue I wrote with Duncan Sayer for British Archaeology Nov/Dec 2010. He had not, wrote Clarke to Miller, received any formal representations against the implementation of the current licensing scheme, and professional archaeologists had advised that the arrangements had given rise to no particular difficulties. Hence the renewed campaign.

Why is the MoJ apparently so unmoving? Does it really believe we are all fantasists and there is no problem? (It has itself been saying for two years that it recognises there is a problem, and will get around to sorting it out when it can.) Is it civil service inertia? (Does the ministry not have better things to do than run a system requiring frequent, constant but unnecessary license renewals – certainly, archaeologists and museums do?). Or is there a hidden agenda?

As for the latter, of course not. But we do have the curious case of the Stonehenge Aubrey Hole burials to make the suspicious wonder. We were granted an extension beyond the two years in the licence to “complete” the study of these remains, which we (re-)excavated in 2008. Unknown to us, however – until a colleague of the recipient decided to post the letter online – the MoJ also wrote to someone who had nothing to do with the excavation beyond being an interested observer.

It told him that these remains of international cultural and scientific importance – embodying most of the information we are ever likely to have about the people for whom Stonehenge was built – will be reburied, something it had not told us (and note that “reburial” effectively means “destruction”). “…it is proposed that once the work has been completed”, read the letter (that word “completed” again), “the religious views of the Pagans and Druids will be respected and the remains reinterred”. Perhaps that was just unfortunate phrasing, but taken at face value, the Ministry of Justice has already decided the ultimate fate of these remains. It cannot of course value the views of a minority religious group (those seeking reburial of the Stonehenge remains are not even representative of all Pagans) over those of scientists. But it needs to be more careful about how it appears to reveal its priorities.

The full letter to Ken Clarke, with all signatories, is printed in the new British Archaeology, out on Friday, along with other material on this issue. Watch out for further web activity.

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