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Osteoarchaeology - grave robbing or scientific necessity?

This essay will discuss the benefits of scientific studies carried out on human remains within
the field of osteoarchaeology. In addition it will assess how useful this scientific approach is
to the field of archaeology. It will also consider the ethical and religious concerns
surrounding the subject which, over the years, has been raised by numerous individuals,
organisations and religious sects, challenging the necessity of such practices. Ultimately it
will assess whether the ehumation and study of human remains is still necessary in the !"
#arvill $!%%&' (!)* defines osteoarchaeology as +the study and analysis of human and animal
anatomy, especially s,eletal remains, in the contet of archaeological deposits-.
.rchaeologists, as well as their anti/uarian predecessors, have been ecavating the material
remains from past cultures for hundreds of years. These ecavations, in turn, inevitably
involved the handling and removal of human remains. 0owever, a clear distinction was
drawn within the discipline of archaeology as there was deemed to be something
fundamentally different about the ecavation of a human body than that of other material
culture $1oberts !%%2' "*. This is probably because we, as human beings, can relate better to
human remains as opposed to other finds from an archaeological site. Ta,ing this fascination
and empathy with the dead into account, human remains and their ecavation generate much
public and professional interest. This interest has, over the years, manifested itself through
many emotions, from curiosity to disgust, and this reaction is heavily influenced by the
country in which the remains have been ehumed. That is to say that socio-cultural and
religious beliefs are a variable in the perception of the treatment of human remains $1oberts
!%%2' "3*.
Investigations through ecavation are underta,en for a number of reasons. 4ut the underlying
motivation for all investigations, scientific or otherwise, is curiosity5 curiosity about our
origins as a species, as a culture and as a society. The range of studies and analysis that can be
underta,en within the disciplines encompassed in scientific archaeology is vast. It
encompasses studies on the analysis of stable isotopes present in the teeth, to
palaeopathology, the study of diseases $6ays !%%&' "2!*. Information gathered from such
studies can enable scientists and archaeologists to reconstruct part of the life of a deceased
individual, from their diet, where they grew up and why they died. 7cientific data li,e this is
invaluable when archaeologists are attempting to reconstruct and understand the lives of
individuals and cultural groups.
In 8gypt, there have been several instances where a mummy has been de-contetualised,
removed from its original tomb in anti/uity or more recently, and as a result, its identity lost.
In the case of Thutmose I, the mummy had, been removed from its original tomb in the
9alley of the :ings :9(&, relocated to his daughter 0atshepsut;s tomb and then removed and
reinterred at #eir el-4ahri $<icholson and 7haw !%%&' (!3* . The mummy was unmar,ed and
undistinguished from other mummies in the same chamber. It was only when scientific
testing was underta,en, to trace the mitochondrial #<. $mr#<.*, that the mummy could be
identified as the lost pharaoh $<icholson and 7haw !%%&' (!3*. This case study is one of
many eamples of the use of mr#<. se/uencing, to trace the identity of the individual, and
without such tests, the remains of many important individuals would still be missing.
. more detailed demonstration of how studies within human osteoarchaeology can be used is
for the 4ron=e .ge burial of the .mesbury .rcher. The burial was ecavated in !%%! and
!%%(, and has been identified as an adult male who died in the latter part of the (
millennium 4>. The subse/uent osteoarchaeological studies, which included strontium and
oygen isotope analysis, came up with somewhat surprising results as to the origins of this
individual buried within wal,ing distance of 7tonehenge $?it=patric, !%""' p."&@*.
Oygen isotopes are derived from isotopic values of the ground water at different locations,
which in turn is ingested by humans living in that area. 7imilarly, strontium isotopes are
present in the food growing in a particular geological area, which is also consumed. 4oth
isotopes are tested independently of one another, but in doing so allow two separate
constituents for discovering an individual;s origin and any migrations they may have made
throughout their lives. 4oth oygen and strontium isotopes are fied in tooth enamel at the
time of tooth formation, during early infancy $?it=patric, !%""' p."&@*. <either of the
isotopic signatures alters during a human;s lifetime or post-mortem, so the teeth of ecavated
remains can be tested to derive if the remains are close to the deceased;s place of origin, or
moved to the location of burial after infancy.
In the case of the .mesbury .rcher, these analyses resulted in an unepected conclusion.
.lthough the burial was situated on 7alisbury Alain, the individual;s isotopic analysis came
bac, with levels of isotopes too low for an origin of the U:, but was consistent with isotopes
from the =one running through southern <orway B 7weden through to eastern Cermany
$?it=patric, !%""' p."&&*. ?urthermore, analysis carried out on the grave goods deposited at
burial, revealed other mystifying origins. The ,nives present in the grave can be traced bac,
to both ?rance and 7pain, an indication that this individual was either well-travelled or was
an elite member of society in 4ron=e .ge 4ritain, of high enough ran, to trade with or
receive gifts from cultures abroad $1enfrew and 4ahn !%%&' p.)(%*. This clearly indicates
that the .mesbury .rcher had travelled between 4ritain and >ontinental 8urope, and further
scientific analysis on burials in the surrounding area has indicated that a small number of
those people had also made this journey. .ccording to archaeologists this may also be an
indicator of the origins of a new pottery and material culture group, termed the D4ell 4ea,er;
group, its presence in 4ritain previously a mystery $?it=patric, !%""' p"2!*.
This study has been important to archaeologists as it has shown that during the 4ron=e .ge,
0omo sapiens were much more mobile than previously thought. .lthough this study only
demonstrates a limited number of the analyses that can be performed within the discipline of
osteoarchaeology, it is a significant eample of research on 4ritish archaeological remains. In
this case, ecavation and osteoarchaeological study was entirely necessary from the
perspectives of the scientific and archaeological communities because the research was able
to show the migration pattern of a small group of individuals, and subse/uently addressed
some previously unanswered /uestions on the origins of a particular subassemblage of
artefacts located in their graves.
One of the primary institutions that retain and study human remains are museums. The
principle function of these establishments is to preserve and study material culture and to
educate the general public in regards to their findings $#arvill !%%&' p.!2E*. 0uman remains
are an integral part of museum collections, particularly in the Festern world, with many
4ritish museums having held, researched and displayed human remains since the eighteenth
century. The use of these remains as research objects and indeed for educational purposes is
common practice $Gen,ins !%""' p.!*. 0owever, in recent years museums have come under
scrutiny due to the way in which some collections have been ac/uired, and it became clear
that previous owners may have come into possession of objects illegally $Gen,ins !%""' p.@)*.
Fhat is more, many would argue that to disturb, study and display the dead is morally wrong,
citing reasons such as disrespect of the dead and disregard for the descendants of the dead
1enfrew and 4ahn !%%&' p.@@"*. These anti/uities dealers of the past had no such /ualms and
would ecavate burial sites without consulting authorities or contacting possible descendants,
as would be the practice today. Objections were voiced in many instances as, for some5
respect for the dead is a vital part of their culture and religion. One such eample of these
concerns arose during the early "23%s in the United 7tates5 regarding the removal of human
remains from the cemeteries of the <ative .mericans $Harsen "223' p.()"*. The beliefs of
many <ative .mericans involve the eistence of a spiritual lin, to all other <ative .merica
people, including those who are physically no longer alive. This connection also involves a
duty of care and respect towards the dead, and encourages the living to ensure the spiritual
well being of their ancestors. The consensus amongst the <ative .merican people was that all
native human remains should remain out of the control of institutions such as museums, and
bac, into the control of the native people. >ommon beliefs amongst the <ative .mericans
include the view that to retain such specimens, interfere with the afterlife and in separating
the dead from the living, upset the spirits of the dead further $1oberts !%%2' p.(@*.
Once the objections were raised, the issue concerning the holding of indigenous remains
became a significantly important issue within the archaeological and political communities.
This inspired 4ritish-based .nthropologist Aeter Uc,o, along with others including those who
studied under him such as >ressida ?forde, to launch a campaign to call into /uestion the
legality of holding these collections of human remains $Gen,ins !%""' p.")*. ?forde
researched many elements for the campaign, including the +...circumstances of the
ac/uisition and collection of human remains, eamining various separate collections-
$Gen,ins !%""' p.")*.
The efforts of many campaigners belonging to both <ative .merican tribes and Festern
communities, was rewarded with legislation being passed in "2&2, "22% and "22", including
the <ative .merican Craves Arotection and 1epatriation .ct. 6any accompanying
regulations were also passed at various stages through the "22%s, and has resulted in many
human remain specimens being returned into the care of their decedents. This is an elo/uent
argument that demonstrates that despite the genuine academic intentions of modern scientists,
anthropologists and archaeologists, there are many legitimate objections to consider as far as
the removal, study and display of human remains.
#ebates on more contemporary eamples of the holding of human remains in universities and
museums, reveal that this is still a controversial issue. #uring one such debate at the Institute
of Ideas, Tristram 4esterman $!%%(* asserted the claim that +the collections in our Festern
museums derive, at their most innocent, from grave-robbing, and at their worst, from
wholesale slaughter-.
0owever, this view is consistently challenged, as through campaigns made by many
individuals and groups belonging to the discipline of archaeology, archaeologists,
anthropologists and osteoarchaeologists have attempted to correct past wrong doings. In
6arch "22(, the whole month;s issue of the 6useums Gournal was dedicated to the
/uestioning of the validity and morality of displaying and holding human remains in
6useums. The front cover of the issue read D1eburying 0uman 1emains' ma,ing amends for
past wrongs;, and the issue itself contained five opinion articles, a news article and an
editorial addressing different issues within the campaigns to return the remains of indigenous
peoples bac, into the care of their decedents $Gen,ins !%""' p."3*.
In an attempt to atone for corrupt past practices several organisations have been established.
The principle aims of these are to regulate archaeological practices, including human
osteoarchaeological practice, as well as ta,ing any opposition to projects into account. One
such organisation is the Forld .rchaeological >ongress $F.>*, which was fully established
by "2&E. F.> is a non-government organisation which convenes every four years to discuss
archaeological theory and practice $Gen,ins !%""' p."(*. It was during one of these
conferences, where concerns were raised in regards to the holding of the s,eletal remains of
indigenous groups such as .borigines and <ative .mericans, and resulted in large amounts
of remains being returned to their cemeteries of origin $Gen,ins !%""' p.")*.
Fhen deliberating the validity of such objections, it must be ta,en into account that
historically, many concerns regarding the ecavation, study and overall treatment of human
remains, to an etent have been justified. There are many eamples where the ecavation of
human remains has been abused and used as a means to Dtreasure hunt;, stealing the grave
goods and discarding the bodies. The most well-,nown 4ritish eamples include the
ecavations of 4ron=e .ge and Iron .ge cemeteries $1enfrew and 4ahn !%%&' p.@E(*. These
burials became ,nown for yielding rich burial goods and as such, were ecavated without any
form of recording, the grave goods sei=ed and the body either left eposed or removed to be
put on displays in Dcabinets of curiosities;5 rooms dedicated to the display of wonders of the
natural world as well as objects from anti/uity $Gen,ins !%""' p.(*.
One of the most shoc,ing eamples of grave desecration and subse/uent disrespect of the
dead occurred in 8gypt5 where people were not only brea,ing into tombs in search of the rich
bounty that the noble dead possessed, but also the mummies themselves. These were used in
4ritain and other western nations in the early modern period for many reasons, two eamples
of which were for train fuel and medicine $#awson "2!3*.
This in particular is a poignant eample disproving the claims of >hamberlain $"22)' p.@3*
who asserts that although ethics and values vary from country to country concerning the
ecavation of human burials and the handling of the remains, it is most certainly +universal
for people to treat their dead with respect-.
Fith a history such as this, is it possible to justify the disturbance of the dead for the sa,e of
the living? .nd if so, can archaeology as a discipline +reconcile a respect for the people of the
past with deliberate disturbance of their remains...against the wishes of modern groups who
for religious or other reasons see themselves as the living representatives of the deceased?-
$1enfrew and 4ahn !%%&' p.@@"*.
To summarise, this essay aimed to provide a critical discussion on whether osteoarchaeology
should be deemed Dgrave-robbing; or a scientific necessity. 8ven though the discussion
provided was able to address several issues, a full analysis on the necessity of
osteoarchaeology and the ethical concerns and objections surrounding it, would have
undoubtedly have re/uired several thousand words more. <ow that past conflicts have mostly
been resolved, and the discipline of archaeological science has laws and regulations relating
to the ecavation, study and retention of human remains, does the term Dgrave robbing; still
apply to social and scientific archaeology at all?
6any religious sects and individuals may still disagree with this claim, some >hristian
groups being some of them, as they believe that the dead must remain in their sanctified place
of burial so that they may be resurrected upon the return of their messiah $1enfrew and 4ahn
!%%&' @@"*.
Using modern techni/ues, osteoarchaeologists are able to study human remains without
destruction, as well as preserving specimens and protecting them from further decay. 6uch
archaeology is lost to us through both >-transforms, such as land development, and <-
transforms, including elements of climate change such as rising sea levels $1enfrew and 4ahn
!%%&' @)@*. 6any archaeologists would argue that it is the more noble intention to study,
record and preserve such specimens before they are lost to science, archaeology and society
In conclusion it can be suggested that the case for osteoarchaeology, being a scientific
necessity, is etremely strong. 8ven when studying material culture in contet, there is never
a way to reconstruct so much from the life of an individual and the people who buried them,
than through simply ecavating the grave.
Crave goods are a reflection of how society saw the person, because after all, the dead do not
bury themselves. In fact, according to 4rothwell $"2&"' p.i* fact no social reconstruction
can be complete without eamining the physi/ue and health of the community-.
0owever, the s,eletal remains, tell a different story, not just about the culture that the dead
belonged to, but provide the most basic information about the person' their gender, how old
they were, how tall they were, any diseases they had, their diet, how they died and it
occasionally provides the means to trace their family line through mr#<. se/uencing.
In the past, such practices have been deemed Dgrave robbing;, and to an etent, this view was
justified, as past practices were not regulated by law or supervised by impartial organisations
such as the Forld .rchaeological >ongress. In modern times, however, bones are not simply
used for entertainment purposes, neither are they allowed to decay or to be lost to science
forever. Osteoarchaeology is not only a scientific necessity, but a socio-cultural necessity too,
as it is this practice of ecavating, studying and retaining human remains that allow us to
learn more about our past as a species.
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