Handle with Care: Thoughts on the Return of Human Bone Collections

Article excerpt

The repatriation of human remains (Editorial Antiquity 78: 5) is a matter in which two viewpoints, both equally valid, are confronted. Human skeletal remains are part of the record of our past. They tell about our shared past--about the story of human adaptive radiation and dispersion. Recent research using modern and ancient DNA evidence is adding considerably to this understanding, and puts our diversity into context by the finding that we share something like 99 per cent of our genetic makeup with all other human beings. Research on human skeletal remains tells us also about how our predecessors lived and died, and has considerable potential to contribute to medical research. Medieval skeletons from a deserted medieval village in Yorkshire, for instance, have showed that osteoporosis was just as common among medieval women as it is now, giving fresh insight into the causes of osteoporosis and calling into question ideas that blame our modern lifestyle. The techniques used in this study were not available when the remains were first excavated; this illustrates the value of long-term retention of skeletal material, which allows application of new techniques so that new information can be obtained from old collections.

Many people are interested in and not disturbed by the study of human remains. In Britain, television programmes like the BBC's "Meet the Ancestors" attract large audiences. Underlying this is a widely-shared belief in the value of knowledge and increased understanding of ourselves.

However, not all people share these views and beliefs. Some feel, in accordance with their religious belief and cultural values, that disturbing burials is always wrong, and disrespectful to the dead and to their relatives. People with these beliefs are--in Britain and probably worldwide--a minority. When new graves or church extensions disturb earlier unmarked burials in churchyards, established practice in this country is that bones are collected up, treated with dignity and reburied, but it is not felt that older burials must be left undisturbed once personal memory of individuals has gone and bodies have become skeletons. Similar pragmatic practices are widespread in other countries. But the beliefs of those who feel that disturbing burials is unacceptable are no less real and important than the views of those who believe in the value of finding out more about ourselves. The problem, therefore, is to find the best balance between these conflicting positions.

When we know who an individual was, or when it is clear what beliefs he or she held, or when close relatives still survive, it is clearly right that the beliefs of the individual and the family should have strong weight. When an individual has been buried by and in the care of a surviving religious group, theirs is another interest to be taken into account. But these individual interests have to be balanced against the interests of others--as they are for reasons of public health and justice--and against the widespread belief that increased knowledge and understanding is a good thing.

For example, skeletons excavated some years ago from the Spitalfields crypt have given us important insights into life in London in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Because in many cases we know the name, age at death and cause of death, they have been very important in the contribution they have made to improving our methods for the study of human skeletons. …