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Grave Matters: Archaeology & Politics

2 Aug

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 with just under 11,000 burials excavated) will long be remembered in the human osteological circles of Britain as an exceptional excavation.  It is site of such osteoarchaeological and social historical wealth that it has to be one of the most documented 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.


A section of the Medieval cemetery excavated at St Mary Spital burial ground highlighting the closeness of the buried individuals. In particular note the overlaying of the bodies, highlighting the fact that they had not been buried in coffins. This is not the Spitalfields site but reminiscent of similar burial traditions within medieval London (Source: Current Archaeology 2012).

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.

zimbabwe 2011massgrave

Unidentified individuals found in the 2011 mass graves in northern Zimbabwe. The conditions of the clothes and of the bodies, from this site and others, indicate the possibility that the victims were killed post-War of Independence. (Source: Daily Mail 2011).

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 onwards 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) (5).  Since the original writing of this post the decision was taken for anthropologists to investigate and exhume the bodies.  This continues currently, and has fruitfully positively identified a number of the young individuals who were tortured and buried at the location of the reform school.  Graves have also been found outside of the regular cemetery, suggesting that ad-hoc burials took place.

braziers school

The Doziers school for Boys were the abuse was alleged to have taken place. (Source: Daily Mail 2012).

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 has 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.

(5) 04/10/14 update: The positive identification of two further victims of the Dozier reform school, in the panhandle of Florida, have been announced.  Strange Remains has an update on the identification of two of the boys found in graves at school by anthropologists at the University of South Florida, highlighting the abuse and neglect that was unchecked at the reform school.

(6) 01/012/15 updated: I have mistakenly referred to the incorrect burial ground for Spitalfields, please see the informed comments from CH below.  The post will be updated shortly to reflect the correct London post-medieval burial ground discussed.


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.

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.