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The Recent British Reburial Debate

7 Mar

For those of you interested in the excavation and study of archaeological human remains in the British Isles, there has been a recent upheaval…

(Here is the pre-requisite back ground information)

Following a report in the magazine British Archaeology regarding the excavation and treatment of human remains, the archaeology community has rose up in anger over the legislation currently in place.  The crux of the matter is that since 2008, any human skeletal remains that have been dug up have to be returned (via either re burial or other internment) within a stated period of time, often within a two-year exhumation order.

As a member of BABAO, I received this email from Mike Parker Pearson, Mike Pitts and Duncan Sayer.  All reputable experts in the knowledge of archaeology and human osteology.  The following is the full email.

Dear Colleagues:

In 2008 the Ministry of Justice took over the administration of the 1857 Burial Act. Since then, licences for the archaeological excavation of human remains in England and Wales have required the eventual reburial of ALL remains and screening off of ALL sites of ALL periods, no matter what their value to scientific research, public outreach and the advancement of knowledge.

In the Nov/Dec issue of British Archaeology Duncan Sayer and Mike Pitts brought this issue to public attention and on 14th of October 2010 they were interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s science show Material World

In response to this, Andrew Miller MP, chair of the select committee for science and technology, wrote to Kenneth Clarke MP, Secretary of State. In his reply, Clarke indicated that there had been no formal complaints from the heritage profession.

On 2nd February 2011, forty of the UK’s leading professors of archaeology wrote to Kenneth Clarke expressing their concern about this situation. We have published the professors’ letter in British Archaeology. Alongside it, we have published letters from school children describing their fascination for science and history when visiting the archaeological excavation of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

The professors’ letter, a background document, and a letter to the archaeological profession asking them to act now can all be found below. We have also included a template for a letter to Kenneth Clarke so you or your organization can let him know your concerns; the address can be found in the letter to archaeologists.

This is an important opportunity to act and we hope that you will add your voice as soon as you can.

Yours sincerely
Duncan Sayer, Mike Pitts and Mike Parker Pearson.

This is a matter currently affecting archaeology in the UK and these are the views of a number of people working in the heritage profession, not those of ASDS who have kindly agreed to host this material. A forum for open discussion by members of the ASDS may be found inside the members’ area.”

Here are the links to the directed webpage, on which is the information and template letters for the MP Kenneth Clarke who deals with the Ministry of Justice.  There is still time to sign a letter, add your own thoughts and worries, and send it to ministers who represent you.

As anyone who knows the amount of knowledge locked inside human remains, how the bones of our ancestors can be used for various research proposals and investigations, and just how fast our field is changing with various new scientific multidisciplinary techniques; knows that  to have to specifically re-bury recently unearthed  human remains is tantamount to destroying the bones themselves.  It is to wipe these people off the face of the earth, and to never have the chance to tell the unique stories that can be gleaned from the remains.

Let us not kid ourselves that the people who we unearth are not people we can ever  fully understand due to the cultural & temporal differences.  But to re-bury these people, to not have the chance to study their remains for clues about our shared past, to bury them in ground that may be offensive to them (Viking persons reburied in Church ground for example), would be a mistake indeed.

The study of Human Osteology has always been cross disciplinary from the range of medical anthropology, genetics, palaeoanthropology, archaeology & historical sources and investigations, human osteology has enveloped all of these.   

I know this post is late, but I urge you, as an interested member of the public, to contact and send out this information to Westminster, for them to hear our voice as one.

I sent my letter off two weeks ago.  I received a reply on the 3rd of March 2011, not from Kenneth Clarke, but from an unidentified person working in the Coroners & Burial Division.  It states that the MoJ has long noted and have been aware that the Burial Act of 1857 is not well suited to the need of archaeologists.  Although it has not been possible to find a way to amend the 1857 Act without recourse to the Primary legislation, the writer states that there is room to apply for provisions and flexibility.  The letter mentions that an opportunity to amend the legislation is not expected to be available in the short to medium term.

Is this good enough for you? What in the meantime will be lost?  Can you put a value on human remains?  Is anyone keeping a note on the number of reburials currently taking place across the country?  We shall see what happens.  In the meantime, I encourage you to write to your MP, to the MoJ, and stand as one to make your voice heard in the Houses of our representatives.