Archaeology and politics are often uncomfortable bedfellows, perhaps more so than many archaeologists like to admit. This, it is fair to say, is especially the case when dealing with the issue of human remains in either prehistoric or historical instances. However archaeological sites are never ‘static’ shots of one particular time, but rather often act as an accumulation of an extended period of time, compacted into the earth for the archaeologist to decipher. They neither belong fully to the past, nor fully to the present. Further to this we (the archaeologists) don’t just view and interpret an archaeological site from a historical (or prehistorical) vantage point, we necessarily (and often subconsciously) filter the evidence present through our own life experiences, professional knowledge and socio-cultural factors. Whilst this post could go off on a theoretical tangent here, I will keep it cogent to this point alone: human bodily and skeletal remains are an emotive subject, especially when archaeology and politics mix. So bearing this in mind, here are several examples where politics meets the trowels edge, often resulting in friction between the two.
The Spitalfields cemetery (possible one of the largest excavated in the world) will long be remembered in the human osteological circles of Britain as an exceptional excavation. It is site of such osteological richness and social historical wealth that it has to be one of the cemetery excavations carried out in Britain, if not the world for its richness of remains and evidence for the social context that the individuals inhabited (Pethen 2010). A report on the archaeological and historical background of the area can be read here, detailing the wealth of Roman, Medieval and Early Modern archaeological finds and cemetery sites (Elders et al. 2010). The Spitalfields area itself is a site of beauty, a breath of fresh air in a crowded city, with the beautiful baroque Christ Church dominating the area near its centre.
In a letter in the recent edition of Private Eye (Issue 1345) a reader has wrote of the proposed school extension of the Christ Church primary school onto the Spitalfields graveyard. This is due to a severe over-crowding of the school in an area where local council authorities have been banned from opening new state schools, unless they are to be built as an academy. Academies are another feature of the unpopular UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s educational reforms, which operate from central government funds and dictate their own curriculum, although they (and Gove’s other reform ideas) have come under sustained attack from numerous teaching unions and local authorities for distorting choice, spoiling funds and promoting the teaching of creationism. A campaign to stop the school development can be found here, but I would caution that the school may have little choice in the matter.
Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, the ruling party Zanu-PF have likely won again following recent 2013 elections (1). The incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, has remained in power following 30 years of rule despite continued disputed election results in recent years and statistically dubious polls, with a large number of deceased individuals being named as voters on the recent polling lists. Zanu-PF have often used underhand methods to maintain power before in the country, which is still currently edging out of a deep recession which had seen currency hyperinflation, including voter intimidation, forced removal and sustained campaigns of violence. Yet in 2008 a power brokerage deal was agreed with the opposition party, the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, who has joined the government as Zimbabwe’s prime minister.
Grisly news articles broke in early 2011 when it was reported that over 600 human bodies (possibly thousands) in various states of decay had been found in various mine shafts at Chimbondo, near Mount Darwin, in northern Zimbabwe. A large portion of the bodies found have been removed from context and buried elsewhere, but others remain in-situ. Claims abound from sources inside Zimbabwe that they represent victims of the colonial period (from Zimbabwe’s War of Independence), whilst other governments and opposition parties have questioned whether they are instead the victims of Zanu-PF’s sustained campaigns of intimidation and violence. Various news reports have suggested that the bodies have been known about for a number of years, and that individuals still had bodily fluids or soft flesh attached, or leaking from, their bodies. Amnesty International have called for forensic experts to have access to the mass graves to carry out detailed forensic investigative tests to assess the demography of the mass graves, age and sex the bodies and positively ID individuals, by carrying out DNA studies, if possible (Jurmain et al. 2011: 22).
Yet despite repeated calls for access from Amnesty International and other organisations and governments from around the world, none is forthcoming or has been granted from the Zanu-PF led government of Zimbabwe (Amnesty International 2011). The victims remain potent symbols of political propaganda, whilst their individual identities themselves are being disregarded. By refusing to identify individuals and profile the dead, the authorities in Zimbabwe are helping to undermine the individuals themselves and the families who have lost loved ones, regardless of whether they died in the independence war or as a result of the discord and violence post-independence. This makes the political parties implicit with guilt.
In Florida, in the USA, there has been recent upset and outrage over the refusal (still as of early August 2013) for permission to be granted to a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida to excavate and help identify suspected abuse victims from a 1930’s reform school in Mariana, northern Florida. This is despite the results of ground penetrating radar surveys conducted on a suspected cemetery site at the Mariana campus of the Dozier School For Boys, which reportedly found evidence for 50 suspected graves, a far larger percentage then previously thought or suspected (Hennig 2012). Rick Scott, the current Florida Governor, has disagreed with the forensic anthropologists over the exhumation of the graves, citing that the University team do not have the legal requirements to excavate the remains. This has been met with outrage from families and survivors of the reform school, with one predominant group nicknamed the White House Boys who urgently want answers on how many people died at the school through abuse. Outrage has also been picked up on a larger scale across the US, with Senator Bill Nelson decrying the ridiculous stance the state of Florida has taken on the issue.
The US has fairly tough laws on the excavation of human remains, be they historical or prehistoric, with tough guidelines and stringent checks enforced through the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) laws. However, even allowing for the complexities of US legal requirements for the exhumation of human remains, the reform school investigation and associated problems in excavating possible abuse victims seems especially convoluted, with state departments blaming each other for the confusion. Rick Scott does has form for his distaste for all things anthropological, stating that anthropology is not needed in Florida. Somewhat of an oversight when the state is home to many important archaeological sites and osteological collections (Windover, for instance). News is to follow as to whether Rick Scott will give in to the families and researchers demands to let the forensic anthropologists to exhume the remains, with a vote set for Tuesday (13th August 2013) (2) (3) (4).
Upon reading this entry you may think that politics and archaeology are at best awkward partners paired up only when necessary, but the great thing about archaeology and anthropology is that they implicitly depend on inter-disciplinary research projects across national borders, continents and cultures. There are success stories of how well archaeology has been implemented in national and political guidelines (the UK for instance has a strict and often well observed set of heritage and archaeological guidelines for developers) but, for this post at least, it is necessary to highlight how government obstructions and human remains are often used as political weapons in modern contexts.
(1) 04/08/13 update: Latest news reveal Mugabe and Zanu-PF have indeed won the election.
(2) 07/08/13 update: According to the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida Cabinet has agreed to let USF researchers exhume the individuals at the Dozier reform school. This will mean that living families and relatives of individuals who died at the school could finally get some answers and evidence on individuals who were buried at the school. Excavations will start later this month.
(3) 01/09/13 update: The Guardian and other news sources have reported the first details of the excavation at the Dozier reform school, with finds already including funerary artefacts such as coffin fittings and human skeletal material.
(4) 07/08/14 update: Positive identification of some of the victims of the Dozier reform school in Florida has now been announced. Strange Remains have an update detailing the use of DNA from victims families in the positive identification of skeletons that have been excavated from clandestine burials dating to the 1940’s. Distressingly there may be further burials located within the Dozier reform school grounds.
Amnesty International. 2011. Zimbabwe: Mass Graves Must Be Exhumed by Forensic Experts. Amnesty International Press Release.
Elders, J. et al. 2010. Archaeology and Burial Vaults: Guidance Notes for Churches. Council for British Archaeology: York.
Hennig, K. 2012. Searching For Answers. University of Southern Florida: Tampa.
Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W. 2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.
Pethen, H. 2010. Christchurch Spitalfields CE Primary School, Commercial Street, London E1: Historic Environment Assessment. Museum of London Archaeology: London.