The people of the past: part 1

If you are sensitive or having a bad day, you may wish to look away now, because this post will deal with death. Specifically, with human bodies after death, which is a difficult subject. Which is why I wanted to write this post, but also why I have been hesitant to write it.

Firstly, I am not a scientist (just in case you hadn’t guessed from my preoccupation with history yet.) I do not study, analyse, or use human remains in my research.

Secondly, I am not an archaeologist. I have never broken through my own ingrained squeamish fear of human remains in order to excavate and conserve human remains found on a site which is of importance to our understanding of the past, or which is at risk of destruction from development. I have no objection to either of these interactions with human remains, and have great respect for the highly skilled people who undertake such work.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that science is not – and can never be – apolitical. It does not exist in a vacuum, and there may be unintended and potentially damaging consequences of research into, for example, historical DNA. Moreover, anthropology and archaeology as a discipline originated in colonial contexts. Despite much admirable work done to develop more equitable and responsible approaches, there is a risk that what is found by archaeologists is claimed as the ‘property’ of the discipline, detaching it from the social and cultural contexts in which it was created or had remained pre-‘discovery’. Fraught questions of ownership arise in many situations, including with regard to objects looted or ‘given’ under duress during colonial regimes, but are particularly sensitive when it comes to the treatment and possession of human remains.

There was recently controversy over an archaeological project in Egypt which attempted to crowdfund by offering to let donors “adopt a tomb”. The ‘adoption’ fundraising strategy has been widely used in the heritage sector – usually allowing members of the public to adopt architectural elements of a repair or project design, often allowing their names to be featured as part of the work – and by animal and wildlife charities, with particular success, since their “adoption” programs can actually assign individual creatures to their donors and allow them to form an emotional connection. When applied to human graves, however, the archaeologists’ presumption not merely of ownership but of the right to symbolically sell off sites to others is redolent of colonialism, a wilful ignorance of the rights and wishes of local descendent communities, and a complete failure to understand the ethical complexities around human remains, as archaeologist and death scholar Robyn Lacy explains here. The GoFundMe page set up by the project since appears to have disappeared in the wake of online criticism.

In recent years, there has been an increasing pushback against the institutional claims of ownership over human remains which were taken from indigenous groups as scientific “specimens”, although for the originators they had emotional and potentially religious significance. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has given some measure of redress to indigenous peoples who wished to reclaim the bodies of their ancestors, though its implementation has not been entirely unproblematic. In the UK, despite a pledge made by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2000 to increase repatriation to Australian indigenous communities, it was not in fact legal for national museums (those funded by the government) to decide give up their curation of any artefacts in their care, unless they were a duplicate or of no interest to experts, until 2004. The passage of the Human Tissue Act allowed museums to deaccession human remains less than 1000 years old, “if it appears to them to be appropriate to do so for any reason”. Now, cases are being considered individually by institutions. Although there have been some high profile repatriations, these are still exceptions rather than the rule. The fine detail of last week’s BBC news article on the repatriation by Manchester Museum of sacred artefacts to indigenous Australian communities demonstrates the tension aptly:

“A Freedom of Information request by the BBC found that, as of June, Manchester Museum had received four repatriation requests during the last 10 years.

  • A skull from Hawaii which an Indigenous group asked to be returned in 2010. This will remain at the museum until a clearer provenance can be determined.
  • A fan, also from Hawaii, made of woven grass with human hair used to stiffen the ribs. When the request was made by an Indigenous group in 2011, it was decided it would remain at the museum until suitable storage could be identified.
  • An Indigenous group from Canada asked for the return of several human remains in 2012. An archaeologist acting on behalf of the group concluded that there was insufficient human remains to make a claim.
  • The Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa – asked for a Moriori jawbone to be returned in 2016. It was sent back a year later.”

The struggle is not only over the legitimacy of ownership of these remains, whether they were stolen, sold under duress or freely given but without the permission to use them as a scientific resource. It is about what these artefacts are: treasured memory or scientific resource; living tradition or archaeological relic; person or object.

As artefacts, curators have a professional obligation to ensure their preservation, physically intact, for future generations, even though that preservation may remove them from their social contexts: in some cases, sacred artefacts have even been treated with chemicals that render them too dangerous to be used for their intended purpose, thus effectively separating them from the context which gives them meaning. Most emotive is the physical guardianship of human remains, as the bodies of people with whom living communities may have personal, spiritual and emotional connections. There is an ethical imperative to treat human remains with respect, and observe the wishes and beliefs of those among the living who have the most knowledge of how the person would have wished to be treated after death.

There is no doubt that knowledge can be gained from the scientific study of human remains. Yet the question remains, for me, of whether this future potential knowledge is worth the current harm that is done by keeping such powerful pieces of the past away from those who would value them for other reasons. What would be gained if the situation were reversed and human remains were returned to the guardianship of these communities, and those who wish to study them are granted access, provide they meet certain conditions?

This topic is knotty and complex, and generalisations can never apply in every situation, but I believe that acknowledging that archaeological resources are not always only, or even primarily, of scientific interest is an important step towards contextualising and addressing the inherent power dynamics of the discipline. In my next post, I will try to address the complexities of interpretation and display of human remains, balancing the rights of the individual with the education of others.

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