Repatriation and reburial of human remains

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The repatriation and reburial of human remains is a current debate in archaeology. Various indigenous peoples around the world, such as Native Americans and Indigenous Australians have requested that human remains from their respective communities be repatriated for reburial. A famous case is that of the Kennewick Man in the United States. Similarly, contemporary Druids have requested the reburial of ancient human remains in the British Isles.[1]

Repatriation in general seems to be concerned with objects, in the broadest sense of the word, ranging from human remains to art Art repatriation. But it actually is about people in the present and their perception of the past in the present. Repatriation claims are linked to politics, ethnic identity, and other debates or problems in contemporary society that have or claim to have a historical link to the object.

Ethical considerations[edit]

The controversy comes from the fact that some believe that it is disrespectful to the dead and to their contemporary descendants for their remains to be displayed in a museum or in other ways stored. A lot of the human remains are from archaeological excavations or old physical anthropological collections. They are mainly stored for scientific purposes in museums, medical collections and research facilities. Most of the research on human remains is done “In the name of science”. This expression has had magical and biblical power in the past, but less and less in the modern era. It is very difficult or even impossible to explain the use of archaeology for society. When discussing stakeholders and values in a repatriation case this has serious implications for the outcome of the claim. Comparing archaeological research with medical research one clearly sees a profound difference. Human life is held so precious that for this reason certain sacrifices are made, such as the use of human remains to save future human life. The most extreme case of violation is validated due to the results that can be attained in saving human life.[2] Archaeological benefit must be sought in the generation of ‘knowledge’ itself and the understanding of human kind.[3] The only question remains when does someone’s perception of ancestor desecration end, this can differ from person to person and from culture to culture.

The trauma of history[edit]

The first and foremost undercurrent of repatriation is the ill treatment of people in the past, the repatriation of human remains is to a degree part of a healing process bandaging the traumas of history.[4] In essence it is important that this ill treatment is addressed but with the repatriation and reburial of remains they are essentially lost to the world as a reminder of that part of the object's history or biography. Repatriation also presents an opportunity for people to lay claim to their own past and actively decide what is and what is not a part of their cultural heritage. The basis beneath the open wounds of history is the difference in treatment of remains that were seen as sufficiently other and could therefore be studied without any ethical considerations.[5]

The contesting of ownership of human remains in museums and other institutions, and demands of return to cultural groups is largely fuelled by the difference in the handling of ‘white’ and indigenous remains. Where the former were reburied the latter were subjects of study and eventually ending up in museums. In a sense one cultural group assumed the right to carry out scientific research upon another cultural group.[6] This disrespectful unequal treatment stems from a time when race and cultural differences had huge social implications. These are changing but the aftermath of centuries of inequality cannot be corrected so easily. This frustration is what partly fuels the repatriation and ownership claims that seem to have increased in the last 30 years.[7] The “traumas of history” can be addressed by reconciliation, repatriation and formal governmental apologies disapproving of conducts in the past by the institutions they now represent. A good example of a repatriation case is described by Thorton where a large group of massacred Indians is returned to their tribe, showing the healing power of the repatriation gesture.[8] But the repatriation of Kennewick man goes far beyond the colonial and Indian confrontations that are the real trauma.

Druids and human remains[edit]

The contemporary Druidic movement is a modern religion with its origins in the 18th century, however based upon the ideas about the original western European druids of the Iron Age. A key principle found amongst many, though not all Druids, is ancestor veneration, and because of this many believe that they have a responsibility to care for the ancient dead. In 2006 Paul Davies requested that the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury, Wiltshire rebury their Neolithic human remains, and that storing and displaying them was "immoral and disrespectful". The National Trust refused to allow reburial, but did allow for Druids to perform a healing ritual in the museum.[9]

Criticism has come of this view from the archaeological community, whose members have made statements like "no single modern ethnic group or cult should be allowed to appropriate our ancestors for their own agendas. It is for the international scientific community to curate such remains."[10] A different argument proposed by archaeologists was that "Druids are not the only people who have feelings about human remains... We don't know much about the religious beliefs of these [Prehistoric] people, but know that they wanted to be remembered, their stories, mounds and monuments show this. Their families have long gone, taking all memory with them, and we archaeologists, by bringing them back into the world, are perhaps the nearest they have to kin. We care about them, spending our lives trying to turn their bones back into people... The more we know the better we can remember them. Reburying human remains destroys people and casts them into oblivion: this is at best, misguided, and at worse cruel."[11]

In response, the Druid, Blackbird partially agreed stating that that' no one group should be able to claim ownership of our shared ancestral remains'.[12] Paul Davies stressed that the reburial issue is not about science v religion or memory v forgetting, but of social and spiritual identity.[13]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Archaeology Live, English Heritage repatriation request notes. "a test case for the Druids to gain a precedent for more repatriations all over the British isles [sic]"". Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  2. ^ Scarre and Scarre (2006). The ethics of archaeology : philosophical perspectives on archaeological practice, p. 206-208. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-54942-6.
  3. ^ Scarre and Scarre (2006). The ethics of archaeology : philosophical perspectives on archaeological practice, p. 207-210. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-54942-6.
  4. ^ Hubert, J. and C. Fforde (2002). Introduction: the reburial issue in the twenty-first century. In: The dead and their possessions: repatriation in principle, policy and practice.C. Fforde, J. Hubert and P. Turnbull (Ed). Routledge, London and New York, p. 1. ISBN 0-415-34449-2.
  5. ^ Hubert, J. and C. Fforde (2002). Introduction: the reburial issue in the twenty-first century. In: The dead and their possessions: repatriation in principle, policy and practice.C. Fforde, J. Hubert and P. Turnbull (Ed). Routledge, London and New York, p. 2. ISBN 0-415-34449-2.
  6. ^ Hubert, J. and C. Fforde (2002). Introduction: the reburial issue in the twenty-first century. In: The dead and their possessions: repatriation in principle, policy and practice.C. Fforde, J. Hubert and P. Turnbull (Ed). Routledge, London and New York, p. 1-3. ISBN 0-415-34449-2.
  7. ^ Hubert, J. and C. Fforde (2002). Introduction: the reburial issue in the twenty-first century. In: The dead and their possessions: repatriation in principle, policy and practice.C. Fforde, J. Hubert and P. Turnbull (Ed). Routledge, London and New York, p. 1. ISBN 0-415-34449-2.
  8. ^ Thornton, R. (2002). Repatriation as healing the wounds of the trauma of history: cases of Native Americans in the United States of America. In: The dead and their possessions: repatriation in principle, policy and practice. C. Fforde, J. Hubert and P. Turnbull (Ed). London and New York, Routledge: 17-25. ISBN 0-415-34449-2.
  9. ^ "Consultation on ancient human remains ends Jan 31". British Archaeology (104). 2009. 
  10. ^ "Letters: Human Remains". British Archaeology (105). 2009. 
  11. ^ "Letters: Human Remains". British Archaeology (105). 2009. 
  12. ^ http://www.druidry.org/library/sacred-sites/speaking-ancestors-reburial-issue-britain-and-ireland
  13. ^ pers. comm.