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 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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 Neo-druidic movement is a modern religion, with some groups originating in the 18th century and others in the 20th century. They are generally inspired by either Victorian-era ideas of the druids of the Iron Age, or later neopagan movements. Some practice ancestor veneration, and because of this may believe that they have a responsibility to care for the ancient dead where they now live. 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".[citation needed] The National Trust refused to allow reburial, but did allow for Neo-druids to perform a healing ritual in the museum.[8]

The archaeological community has voiced criticism of the Neo-druids, making statements such as "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."[9] An argument proposed by archaeologists is 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."[10]

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. [permanent dead link]
  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. ^ 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.
  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. 2. 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. 1-3. 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. ISBN 0-415-34449-2.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ "Consultation on ancient human remains ends Jan 31". British Archaeology (104). 2009. 
  9. ^ "Letters: Human Remains". British Archaeology (105). 2009. 
  10. ^ "Letters: Human Remains". British Archaeology (105). 2009.