The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 112

Issue 112

May / Jun 2010


Rare prehistoric finds at major Carlisle dig

Hammerwich hoard "saved" – but who for?

Mary Rose studies query science of tracing migration

Surprising age of new-found stone row on Dartmoor

in brief & phase 2


University archaeology

THE BIG DIG: Discovering Bosworth

The Buried Gods of Gogmagog

Three Men and a (Leaky) Boat

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates the archaeological value of encyclopaedic websites and Stuart Jeffrey describes the Grey Lierature Library


A child's gift to science, the human remains debate


Your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Mike Heyworth explores the great rewards and challenges of undersea archaeology


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


A child's gift to science

In a specially extended column, Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage, reflects on the newly-published surveys on the display and storage of human remains.

Three years ago, the Council of British Druid Orders (CoBDO), formally asked that prehistoric human remains which had been excavated in 1929–35 and are kept in the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury, Wiltshire, should be reburied. The Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) has final responsibility for these remains, because the museum's collections were left to the nation in 1963; however this responsibility has been delegated to English Heritage, and the museum is managed for English Heritage by the National Trust. After lengthy discussion, consultation and deliberation, the National Trust and English Heritage have recommended that the remains should be kept there, and not reburied. The DCMS has accepted our recommendations.

Human remains are always, and rightly, a sensitive subject, and whatever decision is taken, some people are bound to disagree and feel disappointed or even aggrieved.

It is important to start by recognising and understanding that these disagreements exist for very valid reasons. Excavated human remains can tell us much about our past – what we looked like, how we lived and how we died. But excavating and studying human remains can cause distress to some people who feel that it is simply wrong. This is very clear, for instance, when close living relatives request the return from Britain of recent human remains taken from Australia and other former colonies.

In dealing with the Avebury request, CoBDO, EH and the NT agreed at an early stage to base what we did on principles which had recently been published by the DCMS.¹ While these were primarily intended for use in the rather different circumstances of repatriation cases, they had been offered as "an overarching set of guidelines for claims regardless of their origin". We agreed that the underlying goals are the same: to look at and try to balance harm and benefit; consider whether anyone has special rights; and consider whether there are others who should also be consulted or whose interests should be thought about. The guidelines also have the benefit that they lay great emphasis on clarity and openness, and on respect for the different views and standpoints of the parties involved.

Once evidence had been collected, we agreed to consult publicly in a way that gave other interested parties an opportunity to comment on the evidence and on what should be done. A draft report, assembled by EH and the NT, set out the basic facts together with statements from CoBDO and from appropriate archaeologists and scientists. People were asked to comment on draft conclusions and on various options for the bones, and were invited to provide any new evidence. Over 500 individuals and 75 organisations responded – a considerably larger number than we had expected.

We were very aware that the people who reply to consultations mostly have particular interests and concerns, and may not be representative; so we felt that it was important to check what the wider public think. English Heritage did this by commissioning an opinion poll from ICM. This asked a representative cross section of adults in England (in a sample of 864) whether it is right to keep excavated human remains in museums for research, and whether it is right to include such remains in museum displays.²

The consultation and research have given those involved as good a chance as possible to say what they think, in a way which has looked for evidence and reasons without encouraging polarisation. The resulting decision is based on a wide range of relevant evidence. We have all learned from each other during this process.

The main reason for the decision is the huge importance of excavated human remains in telling us about our past. Great progress has been made in recent years in developing new techniques: ancient human DNA, for example, is starting to reveal genetic relationships and details of human evolution; ancient microbial DNA allows us to identify past disease and its evolution; stable isotopes tell us more and more about diet and where people lived and where they came from.

Studying excavated human remains is also contributing to modern forensic science, and to medical science. We can look forward confidently to new methods and important new understanding in the near future; and reburial would prevent this. Over 80% of the organisations and 90% of the individuals who replied to the consultation agreed that this understanding is important; and about 90% of the general public agreed that it was right to keep and display human remains over 1,000 years old in museums, to find out more and make our past more accessible to the public.

At the same time it is important to be aware, as the opinion poll also told us, that around 10% of the population feel that it is wrong to disturb human remains and keep them in museums; this proportion is higher when more recent human remains and human remains of known identity are involved. We must respect this, and be very careful to balance the wish to understand more against the need to treat human remains with dignity.

A key question is whether CoBDO and other Druid and Pagan groups should have special rights in relation to ancient human remains. We recognise and respect the deep and honest beliefs of these groups, but the conclusion of the draft report was that modern Druidry and Paganism are essentially recent constructs. There is undoubtedly some genetic and cultural continuity between our prehistoric past and ourselves, but this is an inheritance shared by most of us – not the special possession of particular small groups. There is therefore no basis for any claim of greater, let alone exclusive, rights. Over 80% of the organisations and 90% of the individuals who replied to the consultation agreed with this. Importantly, the Avebury decision recognises that our prehistoric past is a shared heritage – it belongs to all of us and should unite rather than divide us.

The decision also respects the rights of future generations. Reburial would have closed the door. We can only know what we think and believe now; we hold the past in trust for the future. Hopefully, the decision will also help other museums and others who have to consider similar requests (we believe the consultation and poll to be the first of their kind). It is in no way a binding precedent; but the outcome provides a way of looking at things and a body of evidence (which has been made available on the internet) which will, we hope, simplify the job of looking at other requests and reduce the need to go through such a time-consuming and expensive process.

In a wider context, a number of those who replied to the consultation saw the issue as one of academic and scientific freedom, and related it to issues like creationism, where science and rationalism are under attack from religious fundamentalism. In defending science and rationalism, however, we have to be willing and prepared to make the case for them on the basis of the balance between harm and benefit – not defend them blindly – and to do so in a spirit of open and honest dialogue. We hope that the Avebury decision and the reasons for it will be welcomed as one small contribution to this continuing debate.

more science

  1. Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (DCMS 2005, PDF 350KB)
  2. Research into Issues Surrounding Human Remains in Museums (BDRC 2009). This and other relevant papers are available on the English Heritage website
  3. See also science Sep/Oct 2008 for more on this issue.

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