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Rescue write to Secretary of State for Justice concerning reburial of human remains

Rescue write to Secretary of State for Justice concerning reburial of human remains

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Rescue write to Secretary of State for Justice concerning reburial of human remains
Rescue write to Secretary of State for Justice concerning reburial of human remains

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Published by: Rescue - The British Archaeological Trust on Feb 07, 2011
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02/07/2011

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 The Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke QC MPLord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice102 Petty FranceLondonSW1H 9AJ14
th
January 2011Dear Lord Chancellor,
Human Remains and Archaeology
I am writing to you in my capacity as chair of RESCUE – The BritishArchaeological Trust. RESCUE is a non-political organisation which exists tosupport archaeology and archaeologists in Britain and abroad. We receive nosupport from government and are entirely dependent on the contributions of our members to fund our work. Details of our activities can be found on ourwebsite:www.rescue-archaeology.org.uk.I am contacting you in this instance to express our concern over thecurrent arrangements for the analysis and retention of human remains fromarchaeological excavations in museums, universities and archaeological unitsand trusts. This concern stems from changes to the conditions of the licencesissued under the Burial Act of 1857 and the Disused Burial Grounds(Amendment) Act of 1981. Since 2008 new conditions have been introduced tothe licences which seek to enforce the reburial of human remains a mere twoyears after excavation. While extensions to this time limit are possible, theultimate requirement for reburial is causing severe damage to research and theadvancement of knowledge. If steps are not taken to rectify this situation andto allow the indefinite retention of human remains in museums, universitiesand other appropriate institutions, we shall see a significant reduction in thescope and scale of archaeological and historical research, fields in which Britainis an acknowledged world leader. The excavation of mass graves from the First World War (including therecently excavated site at Fromelles) attests to the valuable work undertakenwith respect to our recent war dead by archaeologists accustomed to workingwith human remains. The work of forensic archaeologists in the Balkans andother conflict zones has been of great value in bringing evidence of humanrights violations before international courts. Forensic archaeologists are
 
regularly consulted by police forces throughout the UK when issues relating tosuspicious deaths have to be investigated. The success of such work dependsalmost entirely upon the application of archaeological techniques of excavationand analysis to specific cases. These techniques have been, and continue tobe, developed through the work of archaeologists and archaeological scientistsinvestigating the remains of the ancient dead.While archaeologists have always recognised that human remains of recent date (where there are living blood relations) should be reinterred withdue respect after excavation, the vast majority of human remains dealt with byarchaeologists are from the distant past and have no links beyond the mostgeneral with any living individuals. The archaeological excavation of human remains from prehistoric andearly historic sites is of vital importance in a number of fields of scientific,historical, cultural and educational endeavour. The importance of studies of human remains in contributing to our understanding of human history andsociety has grown in recent years with the development of innovative scientifictechniques including the analysis of ancient DNA and the development of methods to determine the geographical origin of individuals through theanalysis of bone chemistry. Such work, scarcely imaginable a decade or moreago, highlights why it is necessary for archaeologists to be able to retainhuman remains under appropriate, environmentally controlled conditionswhere they will remain available to researchers working at the forefront of science and technology. The recently adopted requirement for rapid reburial will make such workimpossible in the future by effectively rendering human remains inaccessible,cutting off the opportunity to investigate them further as and when newtechniques are developed or when the opportunity arises to apply newtechniques to previously excavated material. The possibility of theunnecessary destruction of a uniquely valuable scientific and educationalresource is shocking to all with an interest in and concern for the integrity of historical and archaeological enquiry, particularly as there seems to have beenno general or widespread consultation on the matter and no opportunity for theissues involved to be properly debated.While we understand that a small number of individuals have raisedobjections - on what we would consider to be deeply questionable grounds - tothe excavation and study of human remains, there is strong evidence tosuggest that the majority of the public views the archaeological investigation of human remains as of considerable importance and interest. Polling carried outon behalf of English Heritage in 2010 indicated that over 90% of the populationare happy to see human remains properly curated, studied and, in certaincases, displayed in museums. Anyone who has taken part in a communityarchaeology project or has participated in activities with school childrenfocussed on questions around death and burial will attest to the considerableeducational and cultural value of an encounter with the remains of the ancientdead. We would suggest that in this respect the conditions being attached tothe excavation licences issued by the Ministry of Justice are at variance not onlywith scientific and historical opinion but also with widespread popular opinionand as such should be reviewed and revised at the earliest opportunity.On two separate occasions since 2008 archaeologists have been informedby officials from the Ministry of Justice that measures would be put in place toensure that the existing legislation would be amended to recognise therequirements of archaeology in respect of the need to be able to excavate,

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