archaeology ethics

When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead?

27 August, 2020

The ethical debate surrounding archaeologists unearthing and studying human remains is one of long-standing.

Human bones tell stories that would otherwise be lost to history. But archaeologists are increasingly confronted with demands to let past generations rest in peace.

In this article Mark Strauss asks why we care so much about the rights of the dead, who, by virtue of their non-living status, have no apparent opinion on the matter?

He says some academics portray the issue as one of religion versus science. That’s certainly true in many cases, but not all of them. Those uncomfortable with the excavation of human remains don’t always express their distaste in religious terms. Even the Church of England, which concedes there is no theological basis for the protection of human remains, nevertheless feels obliged to safeguard them. 

Dan Davis, a marine archaeologist specialising in ancient Greek and Roman shipwrecks, says time is often the defining issue: “Time is the big washcloth that wipes away distinctions between uncovering a modern, 100-year-old body from a cemetery versus one that’s from 2,300 years ago.”  

Yet, he adds, time is relative in human affairs. The bodies in the wreckage of the Titanic, he notes, recently crossed the one-century threshold to be deemed “historic,” but “it still has this aura of being a grave site.” And, among peoples who see an unbroken continuity in their history, time measured in millennia has little meaning. 

For others, the treatment of human remains taps into historic injustices; an extension of racist, colonialist policies inflicted on indigenous peoples. 

“Particularly for groups that are currently or who historically have been marginalised and exploited, I think that we really do have to give greater weight to their wishes than to scientific endeavours,” Sharon DeWitte, a bioarchaeologist at the University of South Carolina,  says. “They’re the reason why I work with dead Europeans and I don’t do work with the Native American populations.”  

Our views are also shaped by tradition. “I think that the idea [that] the only way to respect the dead is to place remains in a hole in the ground and cover them up is something that is very strong in Western European culture,” says Simon Mays, a British archaeologist and human skeletal biologist. “It’s probably to do with the idea that you own a burial plot and the remains should stay there in perpetuity. This is something that only became widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries.” 

Above all else, when discussing human remains, the terms that most commonly emerge are “respect” and “decency.” How we deal with the dead is how we gauge our own humanity. It’s why, depending on one’s perspective, the excavation of the dead can be seen as an act of desecration or as an act in service to those who might otherwise be forgotten. 

National Geographic, Mark Strauss 7 April 2016. Read the full article here.

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Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash