Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Human Remains in Archaeology - Ethics

Archaeologists ‘Do the Right Thing’ with Human Remains

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Archaeologists who uncovered the remains of individuals in 15 ancient burials at Polesworth Abbey in Warwickshire will be reburying the Saxon remains in a church service once samples have been taken for radiocarbon dating. Father Philip Wells, who is conducting the service, said it was not clear yet if the remains were those of nuns from the original abbey.

"These Christian ancestors will be honoured at the service and then those who have been involved with the dig will help to rebury them in a specially designated part of the present-day churchyard,” said Father Wells.

The decision to rebury the individuals in a special service is a credit to the discipline of archaeology in which ethics and the desire for knowledge have come into numerous collisions, especially with regards to the custody and handling of excavated human remains.

The ethical arguments over the treatment of human remains, the ownership of artefacts and responsibility to future generations, all stem in part from archaeology's new-found scientific authority; but it was not always this way. 

The modern discipline traces its roots back to the amateur explorers of the early 19th century, who brought statues, columns, mummies and trinkets back as souvenirs from their travels. The remains of native people and their artefacts were literally torn from their locations and displayed in foreign museums or sole to high-bidding collectors with little thought for the living descendants. Subsequent generations of archaeologists have tended to regard men such as Giovanni Belzoni— who shipped Egyptian antiquities back to the British Museum in London—as little better than tomb-robbers.

Archaeologists' most public conflicts have been with indigenous peoples over the appropriate treatment of human remains. The most infamous example is that of Kennewick Man, a 9,300-year-old skeleton found in 1996 in a riverbank in Washington state. Intriguingly, its skeletal characteristics are very different from those of modern Native Americans, making Kennewick Man of particular interest to archaeologists trying to understand the peopling of the Americas. However, five Native American tribes claim Kennewick Man as an ancestor under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a law passed in 1990 to allow Native Americans to remove ancestors' bones, and objects associated with burials and religious practice, from museum collections. A legal battle has rumbled ever since. Granting the remains of Kennewick Man to the Native Americans would deny archaeologists access to an important source of information; but granting them to the scientists would amount to a direct repudiation of the Native Americans' oral history, which is thought to go back 10,000 years.

The NAGPRA forced archaeologists to acknowledge that they do not operate in a vacuum, and must take the values of others into account. As Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage stated:

“Human remains are a focus of religious beliefs and notions of decency and respect for the dead, as well as arousing great public interest. The challenge for those involved in working with ancient human remains is to attempt to balance these considerations.”

“We went through a period when we thought ‘Hey, we're scientists, we should be the number one priority here',” says William Lipe, an archaeologist at Washington State University in Pullman. “But most of us have now come to see it differently.”

By the early 20th century, archaeologists started to adopt the methodology of science. Increasing emphasis was placed on the accurate measurement and description of sites and publication of results in archaeological journals. Technological advances—such as the advent of radiocarbon dating—led to further refinements and archaeology has seen a transformation from tomb-robbing amateurs into a coherent scientific discipline.

Many institutions have now agreed, reluctantly or otherwise, to the return of human remains to their countries of origin and to their ethnic and cultural communities, frequently for re-burial. However, many ethical issues are still hotly debated, often between the discipline of archaeology and the views of the public.

For example, at what point is scientific interest considered important enough to justify disturbing a grave? Certainly many would argue that the recent case of digging up numerous bodies in search for the woman painted in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa does not constitute a significant enough reason to disinter the human remains. 

And where do the acceptable limits lie in terms of the treatment of historic or archaeological human remains?  Is DNA sampling considered acceptable? What about dissecting a corpse to discover cause of death? Is it acceptable to display human remains in a museum if they are significant from an educational point of view? What if this goes against the religious beliefs of the culture that individual once belonged to?

Sadly, even the most ethical archaeologists who believe that all human remains should be treated with dignity, sensitivity and respect, cannot contend against the power of state governments. Archaeological morality often suffers at the hand of economic development or national ideologies. A recent example involved excavations that took place to complete the London rail link for the Channel Tunnel in the UK.  More than 20,000 human remains at St Pancras cemetery were hastily dug up and mistreated in order to maintain the schedule of the infrastructure project.

The same governments who pass laws that archaeologists must abide by, such as the code of ethics set out by the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, have no hesitation in breaking these codes when it comes to their own interests.

By April Holloway

aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

Joanna... Read More

Next article