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Archaeology and the Treatment of Human Remains

Updated on February 20, 2013

"All the world's a stage," is the phrase that begins a monologue from William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," but, to the archaeologist it should be: All the world is a graveyard. Imagine for a moment the area that makes up your own hometown. Think how many generations have lived and died, with those remains entombed in the earth in the time since it was first permanently inhabited. Many of these people lie in places that we can recognize: in cemeteries, churchyards, or even under prehistoric burial mounds. Many more lie unrecognized, in places that were special to those who buried them, but have now faded from memory. Many of these burials are rediscovered and excavated each year, either because sites need to be developed for roads, housing or quarries, or for research purposes, to help in our understanding of the past. In either case, the excavations are carried out by trained archaeologists, the remains treated with great respect, and the results of both excavation and scientific analysis made available through publications and museums.

Having been on a dig in the field, I can tell you first hand that finding human remains is especially exciting. Indeed, they can make historians, a rather stoic bunch, squeel with glee. Part of the reason is the sheer rarity of finding remains -- and the wealth of data just a few fragments can reveal. Yet, in many ways the most important (and time-consuming) part of the whole process is what happens after the excavation is over. This is where the 'detective story' begins, where the bones and other finds from the site are analysed to provide the clues that we need to build a picture of a person and their surroundings. The skeleton itself will provide the first clues. The question of whether the person is male or female can usually be answered by examining the pelvis and skull. Height can be calculated from the length of the femur (thigh bone) and age from teeth and other aspects of the skeleton's growth and degeneration.

Radiocarbon dating, the analysis of ancient DNA and of isotopes locked into bones and teeth are all part of the scientific armory that can be used to help build up a picture of our ancestors. Used together these techniques can tell us when a person died, their diet and family relationships and even their place of birth and subsequent travels.

Ethical Implications

Beyond radiocarbon dating, or techniques of extracting ancient DNA, there remains the idea that in spite of all the data bones can yeild, human remains should be dealt with in a manner that balances the necessary science and cultural considerations. These are drawn at least partially from the concept of stewardship in archaeology. The concept of stewardship has emerged in archaeology through the growth and development of cultural resource management and within the discipline of archaeology stewardship is the central concept from which all the other ethical principles are derived. Although many different people may contribute to the stewardship of the archaeological record, archaeologists are understood have have a special role in the effort to understand the record and preserve it for the benefit of future generations. The responsibilities of archaeologists within the stewardship concept are clearly geared toward encouraging careful and thoughtful treatment of the archaeological record, including in situ, or unexcavated, materials and the records and collections resulting from archaeological research.

However, this stewardship approach breaks down depending on which group the remains are drawn from. In Europe, the divide is often between Christian and non-Christian, with Christians more likely to be re-buried while prehistoric burials more often than not end up in museum storage. In the Americas, the remains of native peoples are given over to museums. With museum storage there is the advantage that these remains are available for subsequent study or for the application of new methods of analysis. However, there is the question: would they have wanted to end up in a museum? And the double-standard regarding remains is troubling.

An excavated Nubian grave site.
An excavated Nubian grave site.

Two schools of thought

The first is one I like to call the "academics" school of thought. It views the reburying of bones, or repatriation of remains, as the equivalent of a historian burning documents after he has studied them. Meaning, reburial is not just inconvenient, but makes it impossible for scientists to carry out a long term and extensive study. Moreover, even if it were true that bones, once examined, need never be studied again, the idea that they be reburied conflicts with scholarly requirements to preserve data. If research data are destroyed, there can be no basis on which to challenge honest but possibly erroneous conclusions. Most archaeologists are members of this first school of thought.

The second school of thought I refer to as "culturalists" and it begins with a premise that excavation procedures which violate cultural norms should immediately correct them. In most cases, this involves reburial of remains in as little time as possible. There are cultural and religious values, and even personal wishes to consider -- when these are known. Archaeologists and anthropologists often become advocates of the cultures they study and in this school they should also be activists in consulting with any community group that might be affected by their work. They shouldn't do it because it is required by law or is politically correct, but because the descendants of the communities they study also have a valid interest in the past, and working with them can contextualize any findings.

Legal Implications

I will point out that among American archaeological efforts at least, there is a legal implication to all of this. NAGPRA, or Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was a law passed in 1990 that does in fact dictate that certain human remains (along with artifacts considered sacred) are to be returned and repatriated to their respective tribes.

Quite a few archaeologists have pointed to this law as an example of political correctness gone too far, as no other religious or ethnic groups have been given these protections, even if many Native Americans no longer hold these beliefs. On the other hand, Native American activists consider NAGPRA a victory for their own cultural preservation.

What do you think?

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    • Weswiki profile image
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      Wes 4 years ago from USA

      Thanks for commenting case1worker! It was pretty exciting hearing the news of Richard III remains being recovered. I'm still personally a bit split over the news that they're reburying them, there's still such a wealth of data that could be locked within them. But as anthropologists we're trained to respect the cultures we study. It's a quandry.

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 4 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      This is especially interesting to me with the discovery of the remains of King Richard III in my home town of Leicester- luckily those in charge have said that the bones will be re-interred and given a christian burial in the cathedral- to leave them on exhibition would be vile- A good thought provoking hub.