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MA a happy resting place for ancient human remains

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Yesterday in the UK, the Guardian newspaper published a letter directed toward Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke on behalf of 41 angry archaeological professionals highlighting their discontent with recent changes to certain policies that necessitate the reburial of all excavated human remains from England and Wales.

Suggesting that the changes to the legislation are detrimental to the scientific study of the remains, the archaeologists argue that “the long-term retention of excavated ancient human remains is a fundamental principle of scientific research” and imply that short-term research misses the advantage of future analysis.

The archaeologists casually overlook the fact that skeletal remains are the physical remnants of human being and seemingly disregard any sort of respect for the solemnity of a burial site. Citing their pride, the writers pronounce that “Britain risks losing its leading role in archaeology” in such a way that insinuates that the flattery of their egos exceeds the importance of the respect for the deceased: “a decline that will be observed by a mystified international scientific community.”

While such a law would undoubtedly consolidate the amount of active sites and prevent researchers from taking on more than they could thoroughly research within a two year period, the scientists who composed the letter express a distinct curiosity about the reasoning for the changes enacted in 2008: “this requirement is not specified in the relevant act and Mr. Clarke has not explained his reasoning.”

Americans afford more protection and care for discovered remains in the respect that it offers excavated remains to those who can claim ancestral ties. Strict Federal laws and procedural guidelines protect ancient burial sites and human remains in the United States via the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which delineates a “Priority of Custody” for remains.

More specifically, when a burial site or remains are found, Massachusetts law enlists the help of the state archaeologist who “shall immediately notify the commission on Indian affairs” and takes the extra step beyond that of the aforementioned British archaeologists to respect and preserve the sanctity of a burial ground: “A town shall not alienate or appropriate to any other use than that of a burial ground, any tract of land which has been for more than one hundred years used as a burial place.” According to Massachusetts law, a burial place is defined as “remains of one or more American Indian”

Rest assured that rather than being surrendered to science indefinitely as the 41 British archaeologists prefer, any ancient bodily remnants found in the Boston area and throughout the Commonwealth are sure to be treated humanely and with proper respect for ancestral heritage and religious beliefs.

Comments

  • Profile picture of David Ringland
    David Ringland 3 years ago

    No one disputes the value of scientific research with regard to understanding more about the history of certain peoples and their relation to ancient and modern society. However, does a corpse have the God-given right to rest eternally or be mutilated and put on display against their wishes?

    What do you have to say about this?

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    I think you've started a good debate. Both sides have valid viewpoints; however, by honoring which values will the most beneficial outcome be produced?

  • D. Lawrence 3 years ago

    Using human remains to benefit science is hardly mutilation. Especially when you consider that those "arrogant" archaeologists treat them with the utmost respect during the actual handling of the remains. Archaeology is the only science that the public, for whatever reason, feels as though they have the right to dictate its direction. I'm sure there are public interest groups, including those with a religious background, that would like to stop many other sciences from proceeding but for the most part are scoffed at. Just because something is sacred to one individual or to a group of people does not mean that the world should stop to please them.

    And as for Massachusetts being a "happy" resting place for human remains: for Native American remains, perhaps. There are currently no laws governing the repatriation of the remains of European Americans from archaeological excavations. And the only reason the US has repatriation laws in the first place is to make amends to a population that has been terribly wronged and marginalized by our government in the past.

    The bottom line is that in order for science to continue on any front and in any field, it must not be dictated by the few squeaky wheels. Educated criticism is always welcome in any scientific discipline, but the wholesale cessation of one entire field of science is a travesty on the part of a global population that should know better by now.

  • Profile picture of David Ringland
    David Ringland 3 years ago

    Your points are vaild concerning the importance of scientific study - but the same is true on the other side of the fence: the squeaky wheels of the scientific community (those who pride themselves on taking all sides of the equation into consideration) likewise should comprehend that they should not deify themselves by presuming to understand and/or know that the corpse in question would have willingly submitted themselves to scientific study.

    The fact that the corpses/remains are ancient is not a reason to keep them unburied. In theory (ancient or modern human) all have the same intrinsic value.

  • Archeo. 3 years ago

    If the remains are repatriated (reburied), what then is the intrinsic value of the remains when they will no longer be available for study? The importance of keeping them available for scientific research is that the focus is always changing and technology improving. The value of knowledge garnered in the future hold intrinsic value for society as a whole, as well.

  • Archeo. 3 years ago

    If the remains are repatriated (reburied), what then is the intrinsic value of the remains when they will no longer be available for study? The importance of keeping them available for scientific research is that the focus is always changing and technology improving. The value of knowledge garnered in the future hold intrinsic value for society as a whole, as well.

  • Archeo. 3 years ago

    If the remains are repatriated (reburied), what then is the intrinsic value of the remains when they will no longer be available for study? The importance of keeping them available for scientific research is that the focus is always changing and technology improving. The value of knowledge garnered in the future hold intrinsic value for society as a whole, as well.

  • Profile picture of David Ringland
    David Ringland 3 years ago

    No one yet has disputed the value of the scientific study...for good reason.

    The point is that the objectification that occurs when an archaeologist studies the remains discounts and minimalizes the intrinsic value of the human remains.

    One thing is for certain: the supply of corpses/remains far outpaces improvements in technology. What is the harm in reburial after an ample amount of study>?

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    What about the violation of the sanctity of a gravesite? It's not as if a modern cemetery could be violated in the name of science. Can you imagine? It's no different than the government claiming the right to exhume a recently buried segment of a population to run tests!

  • D. Lawrence 3 years ago

    "It's no different than the government claiming the right to exhume a recently buried segment of a population to run tests!"

    This statement couldn't be more wrong. First of all, because governments are not the ones doing the excavating/testing. Secondly, the human remains discovered during excavation are usually part of a larger city or village site that happens to include burials. Its not as if these cemeteries are marked and an archaeologist purposely is looking to desecrate someones afterlife. Modern cemeteries have the protection that they do because they are marked and mapped. Come 200 years, and that may change for them as well.

    And David, what is an appropriate length of time to have remains for study? Two years is an extremely short period of time when it comes to carrying out research on a skeletal population.

    Again I am struck by the willingness of the public to put limitations on the scientific process. What would we expect to come out with if we limited research on each different type of cancer to two years? Or stem cell research? Does that sound like a slippery slope argument or is it simply that we care more about the outcome of those studies than we do of archaeological ones?

    I would be interested to know why the government of the UK enacted this legislation. I bet it has more to do with the mounting costs of maintaining the institutions that house the human remains and less with appeasing the sentiments of the public.

  • Profile picture of David Ringland
    David Ringland 3 years ago

    "Its not as if these cemeteries are marked and an archaeologist purposely is looking to desecrate someones afterlife."

    If archaeologists are not purposely looking for remains and personal effects of those remains, for what then are they looking?

    No one is saying that they "purposely desecrate", but the inadvertent disturbance is somehow overlooked and put on a pedestal in the name of science.

    It seems if the grounds were marked and mapped, then the archaeologist's chore would be easier.

    There is no argument against the value of data obtained from the scientific study of human remains and those remains' relationship to the society from which they come (and, as of yet, it doesn't appear that anyone is disputing that fact).

  • Profile picture of David Ringland
    David Ringland 3 years ago

    The project here is to entertain the idea that those graves and gravesites are places of eternal rest (much like the cemeteries of today) – thank you anonymous! – and what right do people of today (scientists or not) have to disturb the dead.

    Simply because the remains are not modern, is not substantial enough of a differentiating factor to justify the exhumation of a human corpse.

    To inject some humor relevant to the topic: please see this current story from FOX NEWS : Headless Ghost Forces Theme Park to Move Ride

  • Anonymous 3 years ago

    A place of "eternal rest?" I thought that was what the afterlife was for. If we approach this from an ideological direction, does not the soul leave the body for the hereafter? How is the empty shell of an individuals body sacred then?

    And isn't this whole argument about burial grounds more than a little ethnocentric? Modern people with those opinions are applying their beliefs to a culture that may not have shared them. So while a past culture may have buried their dead, does that necessarily mean that they thought as well that their burials were sacred and should never be disturbed? In fact archaeology has borne out the opposite. In a Roman necropolis in Spain, for example, the same grave was used over and over, the bones of the earlier burials of relatives pushed aside to make room for the newly deceased. Also, in many cultures around the world, bones of relatives may be dug up and displayed after decay. So why are our current religious beliefs about the sanctity of a cemetery more important and relevant than those of the cultures we're excavating?

    And to answer your methodological question, it is possible to only have an interest in excavating a site of a past occupation and find that it does include a cemetery, without purposely looking for graves at the outset of the excavation. Archaeologist don't have x-ray vision yet!

  • Profile picture of Kiu Lalezar, Ph.D.
    Kiu Lalezar, Ph.D. 3 years ago

    Since the advent of genetic tests connecting family lines, the risk for re-burial of someone else's remains and genetic relation -family impersonation of scientists, lords and political persons must be considered and re-assured.

  • Profile picture of Caidynce Bell
    Caidynce Bell 3 years ago

    Very nice article. You have made me aware of the issues between scientific study and human values in regards to remains. Personally I don't see why it is such a big deal to examine corpses for research, but apparently it matters a great deal to many people. Very interesting information, and I appreciated the inclusition of some United State laws in your article.

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