Editorial

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


Who do skeletons belong to? Are they scientific data or cultural heirlooms? A consultation paper due early in 2004 will give the British Government's take on this delicate matter of the archaeological treatment of human remains (www.culture.gov.uk/global/publications/). There is to be a three month consultancy period--rather a tight turn-round for a quarterly journal, but it is hoped that readers will want to express their views on this issue in the Debate Section and we intend to publish selected comments as we receive them on our letters page (http://antiquity.ac.uk/Letters/letters.html). A Working Group on Human Remains was set up in May 2001 under the Chairmanship of Norman Palmer, a specialist in art law at University College London. Its 12 members reported to minister Estelle Morris in November 2003, recommending that museums in England should adopt a liberal approach to requests for repatriation and that DCMS (the ministry) should set up a Human Remains Advisory Panel. The working group identified 132 museums in England holding the human remains of 61 000 individuals. They had received in recent years 33 requests for the return of human remains, including 11 from Tasmanian aboriginals, 10 from New Zealand Maoris, six from Australian aboriginals and five from American communities (Art Newspaper Dec 2003: 13). The report recommends that museums should not retain remains without the consent of close relatives of the deceased or from those "within a deceased person's own religion or culture with a status comparable to that of close family". In an eight-page statement of dissent, the Director of the Natural History Museum Sir Neil Chalmers voiced fears that advice would soon become obligation: the recommendations did not provide a proper balance between the public benefits deriving from medical, scientific and other research on the one hand and the wishes of the claimant community on the other. If the measures were implemented Sir Neil feared that it would bring all research on human remains to a halt and would result in their mandatory return to those communities.

The British initiative follows (after the usual ten year interval) American practice as incorporated in the legislation of 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which recognised the right of descendent communities to reclaim and dispose of human remains in their ancestral territories. When human remains are encountered, the field archaeologist makes contact with the Native American authority to negotiate access and a period of study. Where the identity of the descendent community is uncertain, the assemblage is officially "declared" and time is allowed for it to be claimed. Bones may usually be studied with permission and then are returned ("repatriated") for reburial. Examples of declarations and invitations to claimants can be found on www.cast.uark.edu/products/NAGPRA

The idea of a "descendant community" (as opposed to a "claimant community") makes little sense archaeologically, since it assumes that some people move about and others don't. In practice, the manner in which Scotland (for example) was settled, initially and later, by people from across every sea, is the very thing we want to know, and archaeologists will go on wanting to know it, whatever political aurora temporarily dazzles the skyline. As the pages of Antiquity are showing, the tools of the inquiry are nearly ready to start work. In this edition we present state-of-the-art assessments of the use of stable isotopes for tracking changes of diet (carbon and nitrogen) and the movement of people (oxygen and strontium) in Northern Europe (see Milner et al., Liden et al., Hedges and Budd et al.). The implications of this technique for mapping the human experience are immense--and it needs bones. Are we to repatriate the massive collections of northern hemisphere burials in case we don't like the answer? Er no,--because repatriating bones from Scotland to Ireland, Norway or Italy assumes you already know where they came from--and that is begging the question.

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