Skeletal Series Part 2: Ethics In Human Osteology

18 Apr

Ethics, as defined by White & Folkens (2005), is the study of standards of conduct and of moral judgement. In this case various institutions and organisations that deal with human skeletal material from archaeological sites often have their own well-defined conditions and standards when dealing with skeletal material.  There are many applications for human remains in archaeological contexts.  They are used for teaching, research, in the application of new scientific techniques, demonstration purposes, alongside the long-term storage of such remains for future studies.  The multidisciplinary use of human bone use in archaeology is discussed below).  It is key to the user of such sensitive material that there are guidelines to be followed with respects to the remains.  As with all biological material, human bone is fragile and should be carefully handled, stored and sensitively managed.  It must be always bore in mind that they are the physical remains of a person who had once lived, and a key aspect is to always treat the remains with dignity and respect (BABAO guidelines).

As it has already been noted in previous posts, with relation to possible reburial of human remains in Britain and the removal of bodies from display in museums, alongside the American act of repatriation (NAGPRA); ethics in archaeological conditions and the use of human remains have become ‘complex, fluid, ambiguous, politicised and confusing’ (White & Folkens 2005: 24).

As Mays (1999: xii) remarks that ‘archaeology is about people and how they lived in the past (that) the study of physical remains of those people should therefore be a central component of archaeological enquiry’.  It is important we keep in mind the often vast temporal, cultural and sometimes geographic distances between ourselves, the investigators, and to those we uncover.  Human skeletal remains from archaeological sites are a finite resource.  it is only through the continued study, and application of scientific investigations of remains, that we can find out about how we came to be the way we are today.

Skeletal remains offer an important resource on human variation; both genetically and from there differing geographic locations (Larsen 1997).  More and more skeletal remains are used in historical studies, in economics, in the study of disease, and in nutritional studies.  It is the science behind human evolution as whole that helps to understand the modern-day population of Homo sapiens.  An interesting case, for instance, is the prevalence of sickle-cell anemia and the relationship to malarial infection in Western and Central Africa as an evolutionary effect from genetic drift (Jurmain et al 2010: 87-88).  It is from a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, our comparative and hominid evolutionary history, alongside the studies of bioculture that we can being to understand ourselves.  From afflictions that affect us today such as understanding osteoarthritis, osteomalacia, and rickets (Marshland & Kapoor 2008) to understanding the society and burial rituals of  Iron Age Arras Culture in East Yorkshire (Hope in Jupp & Gittings 1999:43).

As White & Folkens (2005) point out, we must also learn to re-evaluate ourselves, our own methods and practices.  Rampart development in various parts of the world (such as America and Australia) have led to many sites being poorly excavated without proper guidelines and frameworks for research and future study.  It is by combination of scientific community and native groups, that the ‘need to redirect their energies in a concerted effort to save and protect the heritage of the past before it disappears’ is valued and promoted more than ever (White & Folkens 2005: 29).

However, before we become carried away it is vitally important that an ethical and standards framework is insinuated into the very heart of archaeological practice.  As such, I shall end this post here with a selection of key points from the BABAO Code of Ethics and Code of Standards have been reproduced below:

  • ‘Facilities that hold biological remains should maintain archival quality copies of all records (e.g., written records, maps, raw data, results of analyses, all type of illustration ( i.e. pictures or drawings), film, tape records, or digital images).
  • Recognise that human remains can be viewed differently in other countries at local, regional or national levels.
  •  Biological remains, particularly human remains, of any age or provenance must be treated with care and dignity.
  • Biological remains should only be studied or viewed for legitimate purposes, e.g. the production of human bone reports by commercial units, analysis and research in institutions.
  • Biological remains should not be considered as private property.
  • All applicable laws and regulations within institutions and countries regarding biological remains should be followed, and relevant guidance considered.
  • All results of scientific value should be published, ideally in peer-reviewed publications as well as publicly accessible media (e.g., museum exhibits, non-specialized publications, and/or internet) within a reasonable time. In sensitive cases, where biological material can be demonstrated to be connected to genealogical descendants or affiliated cultural communities, these groups should be informed of the results prior to publication, if feasible.

Finally, another last quote from White & Folkens which perfectly highlights what the osteologist must also do:

It is essential for osteologists interested in conducting laboratory and field research in foreign countries to make early and open contact with the governmental administrators and local scholars in any country in which they intend to work.  Research must go hand-in-hand with development in these situations, ensuring meaningful, uninterrupted progress and productive science‘ (2005: 30).


BABAO Codes of Ethics and Standards in Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (see download for full document).

Jupp, P. C. & Gittings, C. 1999. Death in England: An Illustrated History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jurmain, R. Kilgore, L. & Trevathan, W.  2011. Essentials of Physical Anthropology International Edition. London: Wadworth.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marshland, D. & Kapoor, S. 2008. Rheumatology and Orthopaedics. London: Mosby Elsevier.

Mays, S. 1999. The Archaeology of Human Bones. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd.

White, T. & Folkens, P. 2005. The Human Bone Manual. London: Elsevier Academic Press.

2 Responses to “Skeletal Series Part 2: Ethics In Human Osteology”


  1. Skeletal Series Part 3: The Human Skull « These Bones Of Mine - April 22, 2011

    […] and how to handle a skull.  Alongside the earlier blog on variations in human skeleton and the ethics that should be considered, this should prepare the user for interaction and identification of […]

  2. Quick Takes: Recasting Pompeii | The Library of Antiquity - May 21, 2015

    […] of the ethics of human remains are often less pressing in classical archaeology, because we are so distanced from that past. Some […]

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