Update on excavating human remains

Debate about this issue has increased since my last post, and there is now a page of information and downloads on the Association for the Study of Death and Society website. As I have explained, archaeologists are asking the Ministry of Justice to cease attaching a condition to licences granted for the archaeological excavation of human remains, that stipulates that these remains should be reburied after study. The image above is the letter we sent to Ken Clarke, as it appears in the new British Archaeology magazine (within a larger feature), in the shops on Friday.

Other things worth looking at include:

British archaeologists call out UK government over reburial rules, a blog by Ewan Callaway on Nature.com

UK’s ancient secrets may be buried with old bones, by Stefano Ambrogi on Reuters.com

Academics claim reburial legislation is stifling archaeology, by Olivia Solon on Wired.co.uk

The Reuters piece quotes an interesting statement from the Ministry of Justice. The original review, it said, was undertaken in 2008 because the 1857 Burial Act lacked powers to authorise exhumation and retention for scientific purposes, citing health and decency laws. “Archaeologists”, said the MoJ, “are welcome to apply to extend the time limit for reburial. A number have already done so and no such applications have been refused.”

The phrase “extend the time limit for reburial” expresses clearly the MoJ’s belief that it is possible, given a little time, to complete a study of excavated remains, after which they will have no further scientific value. Unfortunately, this is based on a profound misunderstanding of the process of scientific research.

As we are saying, and have said before, we feel extending the stay of reburial is not the answer – if we did we would not be waging this campaign. The threat of reburial hanging over remains will have important repercussions for archaeologists’ ability to conduct research, affecting how grant-giving bodies will assess applications and how museums will consider accessioning material into their collections (would you wish to embark on an expensive three-year PhD in the knowledge that, when you start, there is a requirement that your subject of study has to be destroyed at the end of your second year? For that matter, would you wish to continue the research with an extension on reburial, knowing that when you had finished your degree, the remains would be destroyed, and that you would then be unable to do more research on the material, and that no one else would ever be able to confirm or refute your work?). Research conducted on newly excavated remains is often little more than a condition statement, a study to announce the recovery of material that future archaeologists will wish to examine. It is never conceived of as a “complete” analysis, as there can never be such a thing.

One reason for this is well expressed in a letter the archaeological trust Rescue has sent to Ken Clarke, which you can read on its website:

“The importance of studies of human remains in contributing to our understanding of human history and society has grown in recent years with the development of innovative scientific techniques including the analysis of ancient DNA and the development of methods to determine the geographical origin of individuals through the analysis of bone chemistry. Such work, scarcely imaginable a decade or more ago, highlights why it is necessary for archaeologists to be able to retain human remains under appropriate, environmentally controlled conditions where they will remain available to researchers working at the forefront of science and technology.”

I gave an interview about the issues to Swiss Public Radio’s science reporter Thomas Haeusler today, when he told me that he had also talked to a Swiss anthropologist, who was as surprised as everyone seems to be, and had offered his support to our cause.

One thought on “Update on excavating human remains

  1. The Stonehenge facilities are long overdue for redevelopment. When this redevelopment takes place, one plan is to decommission the roads near to the monument. A possible way forward that might satisfy both archaeological science and those people who want the bones reburied is to redevelop a section of the road as a long-term subterranean artefact store for the Stonehenge site (the subway under the road at least completely cuts through the archaeology; it is also likely that the building of the main road also disrupted all the archaeology there too, so redeveloping these areas wouldn’t be disturbing in-situ archaeology).

    Doing so you’d have a long-term store for bones which would not allow them to deteriorate, but which would be reasonably close to Stonehenge and the bones’ original resting place and underground; not burial as such but pretty close to it.

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