Is There a Crisis Facing British Burial Archaeology?

By Sayer, Duncan | Antiquity, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Is There a Crisis Facing British Burial Archaeology?


Sayer, Duncan, Antiquity


Introduction

2007 was an eventful year for the ethics of burial in Britain: the Science Museum returned the remains of Tasmanian Aborigines to their cultural home (Henderson 2007), the legal system governing the excavation of human remains was reinterpreted (Small 2008), The Guardian reported on the desire of neo-pagans to take ownership of human remains (Randerson 2007) and there was a debate in the museum literature on just this topic (see Restall Orr & Bienkowski 2006 and Smith & Mays 2007). In light of these changes and debates it may be unsurprising to learn that many British archaeologists feel that it is 'getting more difficult to work with human remains'.

Although British burial laws were never meant to apply to cemeteries that had passed out of use, the result of recent reinterpretations is that all archaeological sites containing human remains are now affected by them. However, it is not the national administration, but archaeologists themselves that have most affected or inhibited the application of these laws to historic and prehistoric materials.

Religious considerations also play a large part in what happens to skeletal material. Current guidelines only address the reburial of Christian remains, and offer no advice on how to respond to modern pagan groups who express an interest in what happens to pre-Christian material. In this paper I will look at these issues and challenge the naive assumption that the post-colonial situation applies in Britain and that neo-pagan groups constitute an independent indigenous people. Neo-paganism is as much a lifestyle decision or a vehicle for political protest as it is a belief, but it is still a factor in ethical practice.

Practising archaeologists in Britain feel threatened, and their research interests in danger, not because the 'legal and legitimate' practice of archaeology is threatened but because we are sensitive to the same issues as have been raised in the USA and Australia.

The legal framework

In 1990 the framework of British archaeology changed with the introduction of Planning Policy Guidance note 16 (Archaeology and Heritage) (PPG 16). This guidance meant that most development taking place required some prior archaeological intervention. Parallel official guidance governed the removal of human remains, which required a licence from the Home Office. The Burial Act of 1857 covers exhumation in a cemetery whose use has not changed, while the 1981 Disused Burial Grounds Amendment Act applies to the exhumation of the recently dead. However, the Home Office was not responsible for enforcing the rules of the licence (Sayer & Symonds 2004: 56), and these rules, especially those on the treatment of remains with due care and attention to decency (2a) and the screening of remains from the public gaze (2b) have been broken on numerous occasions by commercial exhumation companies. A good example of this was seen in the exhumations at a tram stop outside Sheffield Cathedral between 1992 and 1993 and the subsequent public outrage at the licensed exhumation company who did not screen the work appropriately and did not show respect to the remains (Sayer & Symonds 2004: 56). But the public who raised these concerns and the paper which reported them (Sheffield's Star) were unaware of the regulations and licensing arrangements and the company was never fined.

Elsewhere there have been more successful collaborations between contractors. The excavations at St Martin's church in Birmingham recorded 857 burials with a local government official present on the site to ensure the conditions of the licence were met (Brickley et al. 2006: 25). Oxford Archaeology (OA) have exhumed burials in a number of cemeteries and crypts in conjunction with British Graveyard Services (BGS). Sites worked in this way include St George's Crypt in Bloomsbury, the Vancouver Centre in Kings Lynn and St Luke's in Islington. The Spitalfields excavations achieved international recognition (Molleson & Cox 1993; Reeve & Adams 1993) and laid the foundations of an archaeological framework for research into nineteenth-century remains (Bell & Lee-Thorp 1998; Harding 1998; Reeve 1998; White 1998). …

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