Sense of Humerus

Emily Streetman: Anthropology Doctoral Student

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Ethics and human skeletal remains

All opinions are strictly those of the author and do not represent any institution or department discussed herein. This post is meant as an exercise in defining personal philosophy, not a definitive statement.

Image from Flick user llamnudds

In a seminar this week, a group of graduate students including myself were encouraged to create a personal statement on ethics, much as any new PhD writes up his or her philosophy of teaching. This is an intimidating assignment and possibly a risky one for me to put online. It will probably take a few sessions to boil down my many thoughts into a coherent statement; the conversation sent my thoughts in so many directions that an exercise in articulating my views on ethics will be just a start.

Here in the United States, discussions about ethics center around the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) and its implications for museum and university collections. In our post-colonial country, this Act attempts to right the wrongs of grave-robbing committed by such institutions in the name of science. For new excavations, state laws address how Native American remains need to be disinterred and reinterred in collaboration with Native representatives. These issues are complex in the extreme and involve any number of variables, but they still only address domestic issues.

Turner and Andrushko (2011) discuss how Americans working abroad need to consider the ethical implications of their bioarchaeological research. Using Peru as an example, they mention that although American researchers have communicated and shared their work with the mestizo/a majority, the marginalized Quechua- and Aymara-speaking public should also be integrated. It is these groups who consider themselves the cultural descendants of the prehistoric populations being studied, and they should be included as field assistants and researchers because of this relationship.

What does one do in a situation where no descendants claim relationship with the deceased?

Salvage archaeology was carried out along the 4th cataract of the Nile from 2006-2007 under the Merowe Dam Salvage Archaeology Project (link to publications by the International Society for Nubian Studies.) The Sudanese government eventually relocated residents once the dam reached a certain level of completion, but at the time of excavation, locals were included in the workforce and research team at sites such as Mis Island. As Muslims, these locals felt strong kinship with all burials in the Muslim part of the cemetery but none with the Christian (earlier, medieval) part of the cemetery. They were enthusiastic to help excavate what they considered to be “our” (Christian) cultural heritage, as long as the team respected their wishes to leave the other graves alone.

The Sudanese government asked a variety of international agencies to help with the salvage archaeology; the skeletal collection resulting from this excavation is being curated long-term by the British Museum and is on loan to Michigan State University for documentation and research.

Only about 5% of the population in Sudan is Christian. I wonder whether these communities are organized enough or have enough political power to request the reburial of these remains. Most of these individuals would fall on the other side of the monophysite-dyophysite schism that developed under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Their ancestors would likely have been culturally distinct from the Makurrian nationals disinterred at Mis Island. But this only confounds my question:

When there is no descendant population to defer to, what are our responsibilities to the deceased?

Should we rebury the collection once data collection is complete? On one hand, there’s nothing under-the-table about this archaeological excavation. It was sanctioned by the local government, aided by the local people, and no local descendants opposed to the work. The remains are treated respectfully and are being studied to elucidate the culture and lifeways of this medieval population. On the other hand, because the religious beliefs of the community are reasonably well-documented – and we can certainly see from the field notes that there was adherence to specific mortuary rituals – perhaps the desires of the deceased can be inferred and should be respected. When all the data is collected, should these individuals be reinterred? If so, where? Should someone in particular preside over such a ceremony?

Now, these questions are functionally moot. I, a lowly graduate student at an institution on the receiving end of a long-term collection loan, have no say at all about what the British Museum does or does not do with these remains. And, really, I’m more interested in posing the questions than trying to find the answers. Other issues seem fairly cut-and-dry; at least, current legislation in the U.S. makes domestic issues unambiguous. But doesn’t that make addressing other questions our responsibility?