Human remains: good news for archaeologists, maybe

The slow-moving debate about how archaeologists working in Britain should be monitored and controlled when excavating or handling ancient human remains has at last reached its key stage: in May the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) issued a new application form.

British Archaeology covered the issues, and asked that archaeologists, not the ministry, be allowed to choose whether remains are retained for scientific study. We have been given this choice, which of course I applaud. We have also been given a long form to complete, and how it works out in practice will emerge over the coming several months. Some of the form’s wording might suggest the battle is not yet over.

Consideration of applications “to excavate human remains for archaeological purposes”, says the form, will “balance”, amongst other things, “the case for the removal, examination and retention of the remains in the interests of archaeological research against any countervailing factors, such as any public known concerns about the proposals or any risk to public confidence in the decent and respectful treatment of human remains”. Clearly the critical point will be how that is interpreted. One thing is clear: the time spent on paperwork will go up.

My main posts on this subject, which contain many links, are here (in chronological order):

Listening to Pagans

(“Here are two photos of Pagans thinking about prehistoric human remains, under rather different circumstances,…”

Why do archaeologists worry about human remains?

(“We launched our campaign this week to persuade the Ministry of Justice to take a sensible approach to administering the law…”)

Update on excavating human remains

(“Debate about this issue has increased since my last post…”)

Why reburial is not a Pagan issue (this time)

(“Discussion continues. Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly MP wrote to the Guardian to say our concerns are “wide of the mark”…”)

Sense prevails at Stonehenge, again

(“It was good yesterday to see Arthur Pendragon’s request for a judicial review about the Stonehenge burials thrown out…”)

The student-run, peer-reviewed Papers from the Institute of Archaeology (PIA) recently published a useful article on this subject by Mike Parker Pearson, Tim Schadla-Hall & Gabe Moshenska, “Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology”. The whole text is online, along with comments from various people including me.

And here is the form:




2 thoughts on “Human remains: good news for archaeologists, maybe

  1. If you can answer these questions you hardly need to dig, do you?

    “Yes, I’m going to find six individuals from AD 243 (early summer). They’re going to be in a crypt somewhere and will all be cremated.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s