Human remains in commercial archaeology: Legal, Ethical and curatorial considerations

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PICT0168I attended the Historic England day event which discussed the latest legal aspects of exhuming archaeological human remains and the ethical considerations necessary when planning a project. There was also a talk on the problem of archiving human remains. It was a very informative day and well attended. It is always reassuring to hear from others working in the commercial sector who have encountered the same problems as yourself.

The MOJ (Ministry of Justice) still issue licences with a 2 year time limit for re-interment for archaeological remains. The 2 year limit can be extended, but it is the holding institutions responsibility to remember to apply. There is a requirement to screen the exhumation from public gaze (and remember this can be from above, with tall buildings around). Duncan Sayer pointed out that the public don’t always wish to be excluded from the process and many are very interested. For his university excavation he applied to the MOJ to have the screening requirement taken off his licence so that the public could see what was going on and it was very successful. It is worth considering public access when planning large excavations of graves.

Burials from Church of England land don’t come under MOJ control, but need permission from the Church. A Faculty is applied for and this usually comes with a re-burial requirement. This does not necessarily mean immediate re-burial and scientific study is acceptable. When planning a project ensure your needs (study of the bones, removal from the consecrated area temporarily) are stated on the Faculty application, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

The discussions were mostly focused on large assemblages, and these will become very prevalent with the coming of HS2, where 4 sites have already been identified as having 1000s of burials which it will be necessary to remove archaeologically.

Storage of large assemblages is problematic, across the sector storage of archaeological material is a huge problem, but it is especially pertinent to human remains as these take up the most space. Re-burial is seen as the ‘easy’ alternative, but this prevents future study of the bones and as we have seen in just the last 10 years new techniques are being developed all the time. Researchers have re-examined old assemblages and have completely re-interpreted them using more recent techniques. If we re-bury then this option is taken away. MOJ consider re-burial as in a church crypt or redundant churches, therefore potentially keeping access to material. This is not a cheap option, and needs long term finance.

Large assemblages can’t be entirely analysed using commercial money, as 1000s of burials take a long time (time = money) to research. So sampling is suggested as a way forward. A new guidance document is out imminently which lays out the various options for sampling the large assemblages.

It seems we still have a long way to go to ensure the proper study of archaeological human remains in the commercial sector. Although things have improved significantly since the beginning of PPG16 in the 1990s there are still a number of pressing issues. Archaeological licences and the 2 year time limit creates a whole wealth of issues, of curation and what to do when the remains are not recognised as human on site and licences can’t be issued retrospectively. These bones have been ‘illegally’ removed and can’t be deposited with the rest of the archaeological archive as the museum won’t accept them without the licence. Re-burial on site is usually not an option as by the time the post excavation process identifies them, the development (funding the site) has probably started. They are then in ‘limbo’. The 2- year time limit has created a culture of assumption in favour of re-burial. Yet there are no guidelines as to how to re-bury bronze age cremated bone or Iron age pit burials. It is more straight forward for remains from Christian contexts (nice big publication available for this), but what about the prehistoric?

The Historic England event was a start in attempting to discuss these issues, I am hoping there will be further events , discussions and a move towards solutions.

By | 2017-01-12T20:40:50+00:00 May 31st, 2015|Blog|Comments Off on Human remains in commercial archaeology: Legal, Ethical and curatorial considerations

About the Author:

I’m an Osteoarchaeologist and mum to 3 young girls. Archaeology is my passion and my life. I have a wonderful partner, Steve Leech, who works as a project officer in commercial field archaeology. When we get a spare minute, you’ll find us all down the allotment growing veggies.