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‘Removing Bodies From Display Is Nonsense’ New Scientist Article By Søren Holm 16/04/11.

19 Mar

Here is the link to the article in the New Scientist magazine regarding the display of human remains in museums, and as used for scientific study.  I discussed the matter from a British archaeological perspective in an earlier blog , but as this is the first article outside of a dedicated archaeological magazine that I have come across, I copy and paste the article in full below:

Removing Bodies From Display is Nonsense’ By Søren Holm

The removal of long-dead human bodies from view in museums for reburial is based on a warped notion of respect

WHEN I was 10 years old I saw the mummified body of the 4th Earl of Bothwell, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, on display in a church in Fårevejle, Denmark, during a school trip. I still have a clear memory of that day as it kick-started my interest in Scottish history. Some years later the body was removed from public display at the request of Bothwell’s descendants, and recently there have been calls for its repatriation to Scotland.

The Earl of Bothwell’s body isn’t the only troublesome human body around. There is increasing pressure in many countries to remove bodies from public displays in museums or from archaeological laboratories in order to repatriate them to their place of origin for reburial.

In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) gave tribes extensive rights to demand repatriation of human remains that were culturally affiliated to their group. A 2010 amendment to the NAGPRA regulations extended these rights to culturally unaffiliated remains as long as these were found on tribal lands or areas of aboriginal occupation. US museums will now have to relinquish control of many more scientifically important human remains to tribal groups.

In the UK, the Ministry of Justice issued a statement in 2008 stating that human remains exhumed during archaeological excavations must be reburied within two years. Archaeologists can apply for the time limit to be extended, but nevertheless there is an expectation that all human remains found by archaeologists will eventually be reburied, thus ending any scientific use.

Does all of this official concern for long-dead bodies make ethical sense?

No one disputes that the bodies of the dead should be treated with respect and in a dignified manner. And no one disputes that bodies of indigenous people have often been removed from their place of burial in ways that resemble theft.

If a body is identified, like that of the Earl of Bothwell, there is no question of whether it should be treated with respect and dignity. What we do to Bothwell’s body can affect his reputation, and if we treat it in an undignified manner it may also harm his living descendants.

But most bodies of interest to archaeology are anonymous. If they become identified it is only through the hard work of archaeologists. This means that there is no reputation to affect and no descendants to harm. Issues of respect and dignity do not disappear, but they take on a different meaning.

For a body that was not stolen from an indigenous group the relevant question becomes: “Are any of the things we are doing to this body showing a lack of respect?” We can only answer this question based on our own understanding of respect. It is easy to come up with examples of actions that show a lack of respect, such as playing football with a skull. But none of these examples relate even remotely to the kinds of scientific exploration archaeologists perform, or to what goes on in modern museums.

It is not in any obvious sense disrespectful to display a skeleton of someone long dead, if the display has a valid purpose. After all, in Catholic countries the display of relics, often said to be bones of the saints, is still commonplace.

In this context it is important to note that the issue of consent is largely irrelevant. The long dead cannot consent to be excavated, studied and displayed, but neither can they consent to be removed from their graves to make room for roads and houses. If we relied on their consent we would be living in a static society.

What, then, about a stolen indigenous body? Here we again need to distinguish between identified and anonymous bodies. Descendants may have a strong claim to have their “grandmother” repatriated, but it is much less obvious that a culturally affiliated group’s claim for repatriation of an anonymous body is of the same strength.

What’s more, the anonymous body is part of many histories, not just the history of the group it originally belonged to. In 2009, the decapitated skeletons of 51 young Viking men were discovered in a mass grave near Weymouth, UK, during road works. They are part of both British and Scandinavian history. Even if we could determine exactly where in Scandinavia they came from 1000 years ago, a claim to have them repatriated seems without foundation.

The ethical argument becomes even more problematic when we are discussing the removal of a body from scientific exploration, whether for reburial or otherwise. The production of scientific knowledge is a very significant social good and our understanding of the past relies on the ability to analyse and re-analyse a number of different archaeological remains. The range of techniques for analysis change continually and re-analysis of old remains can often lead to significant changes in the way we understand history.

Removing the possibility of re-analysis by reburial or other means therefore has very significant and real costs. Unless it can be shown that reburial is necessary in order to prevent even greater harm or loss, or perhaps to rectify some great historical wrong, reburial cannot be justified. This means that reburial is only very rarely justified, and that it is undoubtedly unjustified in cases where archaeologists excavate long-dead, anonymous bodies.

Just as our forebears drew religious comfort from the bones of the saints, without these saints ever having consented to this use of their bones, we can legitimately draw scientific knowledge from the bones of our forebears.

Søren Holm is a professor of bioethics and director of the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, UK. He is also a part-time professor of medical ethics at the Centre for Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Norway.

The comments section is quite revealing towards modern attitudes to views about the modern body.  A recent book detailing recent changes and reviews towards human displays in public is also enlightening (Short review here).  The book, from Dr Tiffany Jenkins from the LSE, is very revealing regarding the current state of human remains in British museums:

“Dr Jenkins commented: ‘The profession is over-reacting to the claims of small minority groups – such as the Pagan organization Honoring the Ancient Dead. Curiously, the profession do not take into account the feelings of other Pagan groups who advocate the use of human remains in research and display, such as Pagans for Archaeology. This reflects the unease within the sector with researching and displaying human remains.

‘Most remarkable of all is that human remains of all ages, and which are not the subject of claims-making by any community group, have become subject to concerns about their handling, display and storage, expressed by influential members of the museum profession.

‘This is not driven by public demand, but professional insecurity. Unfortunately it will penalise the millions of people who enjoy learning from the display of human remains. It will also impact detrimentally on the research environment, making it more difficult to study this important material.”

What are your thoughts about the displays of human archaeological material being displayed to the public?  Is there much difference between that and the display of the ‘plastinated’ bodies of Body Worlds so championed by Gunther Von Hagens?  Shouldn’t there be a place in the world for education about human anatomy and biology which can engage with the public?  This is an emotional debate, one which has had many legal rammifcations throughout various countries in the dealing with and public viewing of the dead; both from archaeological samples and mummified remains (the most famous example being Vladimir Lenin).  The French historian Philippe Arés (a summary of his work is written here), in particular, invigorated the study of death from an historical viewpoint.  His book, Western Attitudes Towards Death, has highlighted trends in attitudes towards death from the early mediveal period.  It is a good starting point in trying to understand how we have arrived at where we are today.

I shall leave it here for now, but a later post will deal with anthropological investigations and changing cultural viewpoints of the dying and the dead.  I will also dicuss viewpoints from various cultures about how a body is used after death.

I reiterate that the above article, copied in full, is from the current New Scientist magazine, and as such the author (Søren Holm) should be recognised as the writer of the piece, and quoted as such.


Professor Søren Holm’s article is located here:

The review about Dr Tiffany Jenkins’ book is here: