The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 82




Another early garden pot

Hunters respect white magic

New body to promote endangered Roman wall

Leicester lion is rare import

Sea finally takes defences

Gold rings still unexplained

In Brief


Bodies - who wants to rebury old skeletons?
New sensitivities change attitudes to ancient human remains

Carrowmore - Tombs for hunters
Göran Burenhult describes excavations at Irish neolithic tombs

on the web

Recommended websites


Heritage Crisis?
Views and Responses

CBA news

Headlines from the CBA office.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Bodies - Who wants to rebury old skeletons?

Heritage professionals are concerned about the ethical treatment of ancient human remains: but what do the public think? A survey with unexpected results opens this special feature. Quentin Carroll reports

Debate about the reburial of excavated human remains began amongst indigenous populations elsewhere in the world, but has now reached the green fields and development sites in this country. Our experience in Cambridgeshire has shown that the retention and treatment of human skeletal remains is a contentious issue.

Cambridgeshire Archaeology Historic Environment Record maintains the county archaeological store. We have some 1,200 individuals in our care, a large collection of human skeletal remains (HSR – teeth, bones, ash and other forms) of which 65% are "Christian" burials. Several assemblages are deemed of national significance.

We have been involved in five requests for reburial since 1994, and a further two requests for treatment of materials that go beyond our standard requirements for archaeological archiving. We have resisted these requests and have only reinterred one assemblage, in environmentally controlled conditions in a charnel house. New Scientist cited a Cambridgeshire example where everybody "caved in" to local demands for reburial of a pagan HSR assemblage (May 16 2004): this was incorrect.

At a recent outreach event, we withdrew a display of locally excavated human remains as we were concerned about its appropriateness. The response to this decision suggested that visitors had expected to see the skeletons, and our actions were criticised. This surprised us, as we thought we had acted according to the prevailing mood.

We realised that although much has been written on this issue, no one has actually quantified feeling for and against reburial. Whilst archaeologists may take stands, and the pagan voice is certainly loud, does reburial concern the wider public? Have people not been asked because of fear of the answer?

Throughout the summer of 2004, we distributed a questionnaire at our public events, and local museums made it available to their visitors. We deliberately did not direct it at heritage professionals, or ask organisations, but did accept responses from individuals associated with these bodies. It was stressed that human skeletal remains referred to archaeological material only.

The survey ran for four months and we received over 220 responses.

  • Question 1 was asked to see how many people did not know HSR were stored
  • Question 2 is the main one. Although the 70% in favour of reburial may seem high, 71% of them felt that this should only take place once archaeologists agreed it was appropriate
  • Question 3 focused on scientific purposes, questions 5 and 6 on outreach
  • Question 4 supported our experiences in Cambridgeshire, where we have found reburial requests were made not only on religious grounds, but also that the skeletons "belonged" to a community and so should be reburied there
  • Questions 5 and 6 distinguished between museums and archaeological events. There appears to be wide support for exhibiting HSR.

So 80% of respondents felt that HSR should not be reburied or that reburial should only happen when archaeologists said there were no further scientific or research uses for them. There were similar levels of support for displaying HSR in museums and at archaeological events. This is a vote of confidence in the professionals, with the public trusting us to do the right thing with human remains, such as research, study and appropriate presentation.

Of the options that took control away from archaeologists, support for immediate and total reburial was minimal, and although support for reburial at the request of the local community was marked, it is still a minority view.

The key point is that what has been perceived as a popular view for the reburial of human remains may be incorrect, and that we as archaeological professionals may have had our opinions skewed by a vocal minority. Certainly these results suggest there is not the groundswell of opinion that is sometimes claimed.

Our survey could be deemed subjective for several reasons:

  • It was not "scientifically" prepared or conducted
  • Questions were based on the issues as we saw them
  • By using our events and contacts in museums we were playing to our active audience and not the wider public.

These would be valid criticisms, but Cambridgeshire Archaeology believes it was right to carry out the survey.

Those engaged in the study, care and management of HSR can often feel besieged by demands for reburial. We believe we are the first to undertake any form of survey on this issue, and would encourage anyone facing reburial arguments to take heart from our results.

We are not claiming that our survey "proves" anything except that this issue needs more careful and objective assessment. We think it is time for a national survey and debate on the whole reburial issue, as a significant matter seems to be directed on assumptions rather than information. Our results appear sympathetic to the role of the archaeologist and indicate that members of the public who take an active interest in heritage issues, do not widely support the call for reburial of HSR.

Cambridgeshire Archaeology intends to use these results and our experiences on the reburial debate to produce a policy on the retention, treatment and use of human remains. We aim to have a consultation document later this year.

Quinton Carroll is principal archaeologist (Historic Environment Record) at Cambridgeshire Archaeology, the archaeology and historic environment service of Cambridgeshire county council.,

Question Yes No
1. Were you aware that skeletons excavated by archaeologists are frequently kept after the fieldwork? 85% 15%
2. Do you think that skeletons should be reburied? 70% 30%
If YES, at what point in time:
Immediately after excavation
If requested by the local community
A set time after excavation (say two years)
When archaeologists decide the skeletons have no further scientific or research use
Other (please state)

% of YES responses
3. Human skeletal remains can aid future scientific study. Do you think it is appropriate to keep skeletons for future scientific work? 88% 12%
4. Do you think that the buried person's religion should make a difference to how the skeleton is treated? 56% 44%
5. Do you expect to see human skeletons displayed in museums? 79% 21%
5a. Do you think this is appropriate? 73% 27%
6. Do you expect to see human skeletons displayed at one-off public events hosted by archaeologists? 71% 29%
6a. Do you think this is appropriate? 69% 31%

Debating sensitive issues

Two recent studies on the treatment of ancient human remains result from substantial consultation and committee work. Though one addresses only public museum collections in the UK outside Scotland, and has been criticised for missing the significance of more ancient remains; and the other considers only remains excavated in English Christian burial grounds: both raise important issues for all curated or exhibited items once parts of living people. They are likely to have significant effects on future attitudes and policies in this country.

Care of Historic Human Remains

This is a consultation paper, jointly published with the Welsh assembly, on the Report of the Working Group on Human Remains (DCMS 2003), often known after the group's chair, Norman Palmer; the Palmer report originated in a declaration in 2000 by the UK and Australian prime ministers to increase efforts to repatriate remains to Australian indigenous communities. The paper is concerned with publicly funded museums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and seeks views on the Palmer report's key points:

  • Is current legislation for the holding of human remains by museums, and that to be made under the human tissue bill, sufficient?
  • Should museums answer to the proposed Human Tissue Authority?
  • Should there be a Human Remains Advisory Panel to mediate repatriation claims, as recommended by Palmer?
  • What rules should govern claims for repatriation?

The report sought an "open, public, objective resolution mechanism by which claims can be made", and was welcomed by Rodney Dillon of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission: "Just because [museums] bought [the remains]", he said, "doesn't mean to say they weren't stolen". Sir Neil Chalmers, director of the Natural History Museum (which has a large, significant collection of historic and ancient human remains), wrote a dissenting statement known as the minority report, in which he said:

  • The Palmer report is "slanted heavily, both in tone and in substance", in favour of claimant communities and against the public benefits of research
  • Some recommendations are "disproportionately complicated and cumbersome", and some are "unworkable".

Writing to the Guardian (November 15 2003), Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge University, said the Palmer report, if implemented, would go "far beyond any other country's legislation or intent, including that of the us". Its proposals would usher in "the beginning of the dismantling of British museums... The damage to science in this country and internationally would be very substantial".

Guidance for Best Practice for Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England
Church of England and English Heritage 2005

In 2001 English Heritage and the Church of England convened a Human Remains Working Group to address issues of concern to "archaeologists, parishes and clergy". In 7th-19th century burials from Christian contexts, the group found a "consistent theological framework... to help inform ethical treatment". This is their report.

Main assumptions:

  • "Human remains should always be treated with dignity and respect"
  • "Burials should not be disturbed without good reason... [though] it may be necessary to [do so] in advance of development"
  • "Human remains, and the archaeological evidence for the rites which accompanied their burial, are important sources of scientific information"
  • "There is a need to give particular weight to the feelings and views of living family members when known"
  • "There is a need for decisions to be made in the public interest, and in an accountable way".

Main recommendations:

Continuing burial
"Digging any fresh graves in... an established burial ground thought to be an area of archaeological significance should be avoided unless... [they] are first excavated archaeologically... [but] monitoring of grave digging... is otherwise not something that can reasonably be required."

Development of burial grounds
If building or development threaten burial grounds with graves over 100 years old, "the relevant areas should be archaeologically evaluated... [and] exhumations should be monitored, and if necessary carried out, by archaeologists", with the developer, "whether a religious or a secular organisation", paying the bill, including study and disposal of excavated remains.

Research excavation
Is acceptable only if graves are over 100 years old, is approved by "living close families... if known", and is conducted according to normal professional standards.

Excavation, study and publication
If a partly exposed skeleton is "deemed osteologically or archaeologically important", the trench should be extended, but remains should otherwise be reinterrred. Destructive analysis is acceptable if research aims are "adequately justified" and known close family approve. Removing human remains during evaluation work should be minimised.

Reburial and deposition
Remains should be reburied (normally by inhumation, not cremation), if family request it or if remains have "limited future research potential". If over 100 years old and with "significant future research potential", remains should be placed in a "suitable holding institution" such as a redundant church. A new working party should consider funding and working practices.

Advisory committee
English Heritage and the Church of England should establish a national advisory body to complement any committees set up in response to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport working group on human remains in museum collections.

Wider implications
Many of these issues apply to burials excavated from other English sites, and further debate in the broader context of human remains is needed.

European bodies - 2000 years ago

The Yde girl is currently on display in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. She died aged about 16 between 54bc and ad128, with a spine condition known as scoliosis, strangled with a woollen band and stabbed above her left collarbone. Her striped cloak was worn and much mended. For the model above, Richard Neave, medical artist at Manchester University, reconstructed her face and hair, building on a physical replica of her skull created with digital data from a CT scan of her head.

Many human corpses have been found in northern Europe dating to this late iron age/Roman era, preserved in peat bogs where often, it seems, people were buried or sacrificed. "Multiple deaths" are not unusual: the one fully documented bog body from Britain, Lindow man, had been garrotted, hit on the back of the head and cut across the throat.

This intimate picture of long gone belief and ritual survives only in these remarkably preserved bodies, which command wide public interest on television, in books and in displays. In the week before British Archaeology's visit to the Manchester exhibition, 4,323 people had seen the Yde girl.

As well as human remains, exhibits in Manchester include prehistoric and historic artefacts that would have been known to the ancient people, often of wood and other materials that survive only in waterlogged ground. Amongst several of special interest are parts of the unique bronze age wooden "temple" from Barger-Oosterveld, Drenthe – Holland's Seahenge – which stood within a ring of stone boulders, and a full-scale reconstruction.

Maori heads - 200 years ago

The first Europeans travelling across the Pacific Ocean found island communities with an exuberant art, from woodcarvings and fabrics to the statues on Easter Island, that inspired recent artists like Picasso and Jacob Epstein and is still popular with wealthy collectors. "Toi moko", Maori tattooed heads from New Zealand, were particularly prized.

Perth Museum has two toi moko, sent by Scottish-born ship's surgeon David Ramsay to the Literary and Antiquarian Society of Perth in 1825. They are no longer on display, in recognition of their sensitivity. Mike Taylor, Perth and Kinross council head of arts and heritage, told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland that for Maori the head "is the most sacred part of the body... providing a tangible link to the ancestors and to the start of creation. After death the heads were very often... kept with families and clans".

The Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa) seeks to retrieve such remains for descendants, or at least for related groups. Reporting on Te Papa's request, the council noted that their policy states that "there is the strongest possible presumption against the disposal of any material from the collections", a principle "central to the operation of all publicly funded museums in Britain". This first request for repatriation, however, fell outside the policy. Considering the widest context – the objects' identity, the status of the requesting body, the "continuity of community", the importance of the objects both to Perth and to modern Maori, the fate of the objects and benefits such as increased understanding of other items in Perth's collections, on January 12 it was decided that, at Te Papa's expense, the heads could be returned – providing a press opportunity for all concerned, and positive media reports in both countries.

Last year Glasgow city council agreed to return three Maori heads and a leg bone (said to be from a chief killed in 1790) from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. Aberdeen University is considering Te Papa's request to return nine heads from its Marischal Museum. The New Zealand Herald reported that tattoo design and the recent history of the remains would help researchers to determine their region of origin.

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