For the children
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Editor Mike Pitts
For understanding our shared past
In his first regular column Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage, seeks a balance in approaches to ancient human remains
New ways of analysing human remains are helping us understand the past. Ancient DNA makes news but other techniques deliver at a fraction of the cost. Nitrogen and carbon isotope ratios in human bone collagen, for instance, tell us about diet. Oxygen isotope ratios in bone and tooth minerals reflect rainwater, and strontium isotopes local geology, marking skeletons according to where people lived or grew up.
Recent work on stable isotope ratios in teeth suggests greater mobility in Medieval England than in Iron Age or Roman times: one in six at the Early Medieval village of West Heslerton, Yorkshire may have been first-generation immigrants from across the North Sea.¹ The Early Bronze Age â€˜Amesbury Archerâ€™ was also born on the continent. As with any new approach, there are uncertainties (contrary to reports, the Archerâ€™s home could not be pinned down to as small a region as Switzerland), but of particular value is that methods like this bring out variation at the personal level â€“ real people with individual histories.
Another new technique, looking at bone density, shows that osteoporosis was as common among older women in the now deserted Medieval village of Wharram Percy, Yorkshire as it is today, casting doubt on suggestions that osteoporosis is caused by modern life-style.² Such studies have obvious potential value for modern medicine.
We need to be able to return to material from old excavations: these techniques were not available when most of the sites were excavated. Yet museums can be reluctant to keep large collections of human remains,³ and the Church of England usually requires reburial after excavation in places under their jurisdiction. It then becomes almost impossible to apply new methods.
An English Heritage and Church of England working group recommends that important groups of skeletons should, if possible, be kept accessible.&sup4; Storage in redundant churches and crypts is proposed, thus keeping remains in consecrated ground. This is surely to be welcomed.
Other proposals could be more problematic. DCMS is about to seek comments on the Palmer report on the repatriation of human remains in Britainâ€™s museums. It is clearly right that these be returned to close family if they request them. This is current practice here, as happened with Louisa Courtauld, buried in Spitalfields in 1807. After excavation, her remains were reburied at her familyâ€™s wishes.
For older remains, however, a balance must be drawn. In a long dispute, four Native American tribes seek to prevent scientific examination of Kennewick Man, a 10,000 year old skeleton from the western USA. Here the claimed relationship and rights seem very tenuous. The balance should favour scientific examination of a skeleton important for understanding the early colonisation of America.
The new Human Tissue Bill allows national museums to de-accession and repatriate human remains.&sup5; It would also make it illegal to examine or possess human remains without a licence, understandable after Alder Hey, where childrenâ€™s organs were removed without parentsâ€™ consent. Unlike museums, archaeologists would not be exempt, although we already have licensing and reporting procedures to control excavation. There was no consultation during the drafting of the bill. It should be amended so that licensing is required only for recent remains, perhaps less than 100 years old.
The study of human remains is poised to deliver exciting new insights. It is vital that collections remain accessible for future study and that we avoid unneeded bureaucracy and cost. We must treat human remains with respect, and give strong weight to the views of close relatives. But we must never forget the importance of greater understanding of our shared past.
1 Antiquity 2004, p127
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005