This blog is quite serious (for a change), and discusses the reburial of human remains.
Pretty much what it says on the tin: Human remains are almost always bones, but as far as I’m aware the law also covers bog bodies and similar exceptional finds. It is unclear whether the current law would cover non-burial finds, such as a small bone scatter across a site. Obviously, they were once people, and so should be afforded more respect than animal bone or broken pottery.
However, there have been a lot of people who lived on this island at one time or another, and (leaving aside the Bronze and Iron Ages, where there simply aren’t enough bodies), there’s a corresponding large amount of human remains. They’re everywhere, and they crop up in all kinds of archaeological work, from the smallest watching brief- where an archaeologist watches the diggers on a building site, looking for anything unusual or noteworthy- to the largest open site academic excavation. Clearly, there needs to be some kind of protocol, but what?
What’s the current law?
The 1857 Burial Act was designed to protect the Victorian public from exposure to recent corpses, grave-robbing and clearance of recent graves, during the expansion of the cities, but it also covered archaeology. The law was never updated when developer-funded archaeology came along, and covered all archaeological excavations. This led to all kinds of contradictions: uncovered burials on sites had to be screened off, but could be broadcast by things like Time Team. You can watch a skeleton being excavated on TV, but not in real life.
Until 2008, an archaeological unit could apply to the home office for a licence to archaeologically excavate human remains. Curation in museums for items of scientific interest (including human bones) was considered an acceptable option. For the most part, this system worked quite well. Bones of interest were retained unless a particular ethnic interest group (like the Aborigines, or Native Americans, though obviously not these examples in the UK) could be identified and asked for reburial.
However, in 2008, jurisdiction moved to the Ministry of Justice, who began issuing licences with the requirement of reburial within two years. Curation was no longer acceptable.
In 2009, the MoJ admitted that the law needed to be revised, but before they could get around to it, a General Election intervened. It now looks set to stay.
So what’s the problem? And who cares?
The two major interest groups are archaeologists and druids. We haven’t really mentioned the druids yet, so I’ll say a few words about them.
As far as I can tell, they consider themselves to be the spiritual (though not always physical) descendants of the people who built Stonehenge and other, similar monuments like Avebury. Some also consider their rites and beliefs to be the continuation of the beliefs of those monument builders. Ancestor veneration is very important to the Druids, so they take the issue of human remains very seriously indeed. To read the official statement of the Council of British Druid Orders on human remains, click here. For an article by a Druid priest on the subject, click here.
Archaeologists, obviously, study the past by digging it up (among other things), and that includes human bones. For an opinion by a leading archaeologist, click here.
Druids and archaeologists often get on, and most modern Druids are interested in what archaeological research can tell them about their spiritual ancestors.
Unfortunately, we and they often don’t see eye to eye on the subject of human remains. Everyone thinks we should be ‘showing respect’ to them, but we can’t seem to agree on what that respect should entail. Druids would like the bones to be reburied, as the people who actually buried them wanted that to happen. They’re often quite distressed by the idea of ‘hundreds of bodies being kept in cardboard boxes beneath museums, never being looked at’. To them, this is disrespectful. However, many archaeologists would contend that these need to be kept for research at a later time, as new tests are developed, which could tell us more about the people we were studying. We need a sample, and as much of our work requires population data, it needs to be a big sample. Many archaeologists do not view this retention of bones as disrespectful, though some considerations are taken. Site numbers are not inscribed on human bone, though they are on animal bone.
(Of course, there are other interest groups, but I have decided to leave them for now. It's something that everyone is entitled to a say on, and if I listed everyone, we'd be here for a really long time)
What are the problems with the current system?
The real problem is that there is no system. No-one is regulating whether the bodies are reburied or not. Even archaeologists who favour reburial think that two years is nowhere near enough time to complete their research. The wheels of archaeology grind slowly.
In my opinion, reburial could be an option in some situations, as where we have a large number of bodies from a site, and have completed the relevant tests, and there are many other available sample bodies from that time period. This may solve problems of storage space, and may go some way to appeasing druids and other reburial advocates. However, I think a blanket policy of reburial is short-sighted, likely to stunt archaeological work and frankly stupid. Assessment on a case-by-case basis might work for remains dug up from now on, but there would be conflict surrounding any criteria that were chosen, and going back through the archives would be unbelievably time-consuming and expensive.
But more importantly: what do you think?
I’m planning on using responses from this particular blog post in an essay discussion of this topic, so please keep it clean, and to the point. I’d prefer it if you leave your ideas here, rather than on the link comments section on Facebook, as they’d be much easier to archive that way.