British Archaeology banner

Cover of British Archaeology 115

Issue 115

Nov / Dec 2010


All the latest archaeology news from around the country


On the Trail of Viking Women

Jane Kershaw reports on an astounding quantity of Viking-style jewellery found in England

THE BIG DIG: Bestwall Quarry

At this large site in Dorset local, largely unfunded amateurs were nominated to manage the archaeology with fascinating results

Life Between the Nations

The wartime correspondence of German refugee archaeologist Paul Jacobsthal

Excavating the Living Dead

Alistair Barclay examines the stories of the many people who were buried on Boscombe Down, Wiltshire

The Human Remains Crisis

Change is promised, but fieldwork continues under conditions that many are unhappy with

The Little House by the Shore

The directors of the Star Carr excavation update readers on the endangered organic remains

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' third exploration, we introduce Great Excavations – The Musical

on the web

Neolithic excavations online and the Cranbourne Chase gets an overhaul

CBA Correspondent

From CBA Director, Mike Heyworth on academia


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


The human remains crisis

Archaeologists excavating human remains in England and Wales are required to hide their fieldwork from public view, and reinter the remains in a legal burial ground, normally within two years. Change is promised, but fieldwork continues under conditions that many are unhappy with.

Our ancestors' stories are at risk, says Duncan Sayer

Our museums are full of skeletal remains that were excavated by archaeologists unaffected by requirements to conceal or rebury. The public went in their hundreds to see the excavation of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Barrington, Cambridgeshire, in the late 1980s: yet in June 2010 I had to seek special permission not to screen off my research excavation just a few miles away in Oakington. Museums and television regularly show skeletal material, under excavation and excavated. So why are we being forced to hide? And what has changed?

In 2008 the guardianship of burial law moved from the Home Office to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Archaeologists, used to receiving licences to excavate human remains, were confused when the MoJ declined to issue them. Fearing an end to the excavation of cemeteries, the Council for British Archaeology, the Institute for Archaeologists and English Heritage sought clarification. The MoJ said common law covered burial archaeology, but archaeologists believed it to be "unlawful to remove or disturb human remains without lawful authority" (Guidance for Best Practice for Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England, Church of England/English Heritage 2005). In April 2008 the MoJ then said it would consider archaeology under the Burial Acts, resulting in the current restrictions.

There are three principle reasons why we should feel disquiet about this. First, the destruction of human remains prevents future study – it is the forensic equivalent of book burning, the wilful ruin of knowledge. Secondly, reburial is not always the most ethical option. And thirdly the public do seem to enjoy seeing historic human remains excavated.

Let us take as an example the remains of 18th century French or Dutch immigrants from a cemetery. If we could study skeletal isotopes – work not typically done as part of a commercial project – we could explore their lives and travels, and also set a much-needed benchmark for isotope studies within the forensic sciences. Because of the different research cultures of the commercial, university and museum worlds, such remains can lie on museum shelves untouched for years: but not for lack of interest. We should study, not destroy past peoples – they are humans like us, not simply old bones.

This is not just about science. While in some cases reburial may be the best option, it is not a universally respectful solution to human remains storage. Destruction draws a line under our interaction with the past, and metaphorically says "we know all we can about you", when we clearly do not. Through reburial bones lose their historic context, and because of the cost, many remains are buried without labels and stripped of their identities.

At Oakington my students and I canvassed public opinion. We had hundreds of visitors, and I received 60 written responses, with comments like: "Thank you for sharing the experience"; "I like the fact there were no screens, it was possible to see what was going on, and being able to speak to the team"; "Brilliant – thanks for your friendly approach and accessible working style"; "I think it is really enlightening to learn as much as possible about my ancestors." None was negative. We had not advertised our presence, so no one came specifically to see the archaeology; these were local people who saw us in the village as part of their daily routine.

The laws behind this position, the Burial Act 1857 and the 1981 extension to cover disused cemeteries, were passed to protect public sensibilities when the demands of city growth lead to recent cemeteries being cleared for development. Neither law was designed for archaeology, or intended to apply to the unearthing of ancient remains.

In 2008 the Ministry of Justice said it was revisiting the application of burial law to archaeology, with a view to removing inappropriate legislation. The point was repeated in 2009, and again in March this year, with a small but potentially important change: the original phrase "with retrospective effect as far as possible" has been dropped. Until this issue is resolved, internationally significant archaeological remains are at risk.

Duncan Sayer is lecturer in archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire. His Ethics and Burial Archaeology was published by Duckworth in June.

We have not treated the remains of the people who built Stonehenge well. Yet, says Mike Pitts, the real injustice may be yet to come

In 1863 Nathan Woolf Jacobson employed builders in a large former burial ground on Tottenham Court Road, London. The land had been sold for development, but Jacobson was promptly convicted of removing human remains without a licence. However, after the Master of the Rolls said that Burial Acts did not apply to this type of site (it had been the unconsecrated cemetery of a nonconformist church), in March 1880 Jacobson began work again. He was soon in Westminster High Court.

It was shown that his contractor had disturbed graves in which coffins and "large portions" of the bodies still remained, and that some of the deceased had living relatives. The prosecution argued that Jacobson had offended common law by opening graves and "taking out parts of whole skeletons... so as to destroy [their] identity". "A time may come", counsel continued, "when the bones are not recognisable as human remains, when the bones have become dust and the ground might be built upon. To disturb the remains of Druids who had been buried on Salisbury Plain, for instance, would not be indictable." Jacobson's conviction was affirmed.

Four years before, the archaeologist William Long had assembled the extensive evidence from excavation to argue that while Salisbury Plain boasted hundreds of burial mounds – containing well-preserved skeletons, popularly said to be Druidic – Stonehenge itself was not a cemetery. Systematic excavation in the 1920s, however, revealed many human remains buried around the stones: they had been cremated, probably explaining why they had not been found before. It was thought that the practice occurred in a brief period before there were megaliths, and in 1935 almost all the fragmentary remains were reburied in Aubrey Hole 7, in the belief that they had no value to science.

The time has come when such remains hold immense promise for understanding Stonehenge. In August 2008 I re-excavated Aubrey Hole 7, with Julian Richards and Mike Parker Pearson, director of the Stonehenge Riverside Project (News, Nov/Dec 2008). This happened to coincide with changes in the way the law is interpreted, and Parker Pearson obtained a licence from the Ministry of Justice under the Burial Act 1857. Permission to remove "persons unknown" was granted on condition that we screened the excavation from public gaze, and that the remains be reinterred within two years; applications to vary the terms would be considered.

We recovered some 50,000 bone fragments, that had been dumped in the pit in a single mass in 1935. Analysis will allow an estimate of the minimum number of individuals, thought to be 50–60, but we cannot recreate their "identity". This would seem to be an extreme example of what counsel had in mind in 1880 when he referred to Salisbury Plain: human remains beyond the reach of both common law and the Burial Acts.

We expect preliminary recording to be completed in July next year, by Christie Cox Willis as part of a PhD at the University of Sheffield. Complete analysis and radiocarbon dating will be done by August 2012 (a few preliminary dates suggest that burial was in fact an essential part of the monument's history); comparative analyses and reporting will continue into 2015.

Parker Pearson has applied for a five-year extension to the licence. If granted, this would still mean, in principle, that the remains could be reburied in 2015. We await the MoJ's response. It could offer us five years, or two years with a further chance for review; or it could demand reburial now.

That these remains of such obvious international importance and interest be threatened with imminent reburial is, I believe, absurd, and contrary to public and scientific interest. It is also, I would argue, disrespectful to the people who built Stonehenge: their physical identities may be lost, but aspects of their cultural and religious values survive in these remains, and with them a chance for their stories to be told. The principle applies to all obviously ancient human remains. Archaeologists should be free to study such material. And the Ministry of Justice should be spared from committing stretched resources to an area where the public interest is not being served.

Note: These are not necessarily the CBA's views.

<< prev | index | next >>

CBA web:

British Archaeology

Jan/Feb 2005
Mar/Apr 2005
May/Jun 2005
Jul/Aug 2005
Sep/Oct 2005
Nov/Dec 2005
Jan/Feb 2006
Mar/Apr 2006
May/Jun 2006
Jul/Aug 2006
Sep/Oct 2006
Nov/Dec 2006
Jan/Feb 2007
Mar/Apr 2007
May/Jun 2007
Jul/Aug 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jan/Feb 2008
Mar/Apr 2008
May/Jun 2008
Jul/Aug 2008
Sep/Oct 2008
Nov/Dec 2008
Jan/Feb 2009
Mar/Apr 2009
May/Jun 2009
Jul/Aug 2009
Sep/Oct 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
Jan/Feb 2010
Mar/Apr 2010
May/Jun 2010
Jul/Aug 2010
Sep/Oct 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
Jan/Feb 2011
Mar/Apr 2011
May/Jun 2011
Jul/Aug 2011
Sep/Oct 2011
Nov/Dec 2011
Jan/Feb 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

CBA Briefing

Courses & lectures
CBA Network
Grants & awards

CBA homepage