Handle with Care
Skeletons in the Closet
A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community
“Handle with Care”
A conservator works with a variety of materials from metals, to paintings, to books, to ceramics, to textiles, but skeletal remains are in a category of their own. They can hold a variety of meanings to the various groups interacting with them. To scientists, they are a window into the past. They tell a story about how people moved across the landscape, interacted with the environment around them, and help trace diseases. For descendent communities, they tell the story of their ancestors and can carry the spirit of the deceased. The conservator is put in a very delicate position. Often there are several groups that may have extremely different stances on proper handling and care of human remains. Finding that middle ground and compromising with interested parties is one of the most challenging issues facing conservators. (Weiss 2008)
Some important rules for conservators when handling skeletal remains:
-Avoid invasive or destructive techniques. Invasive techniques can include pesticides, adhesives, consolidation, cleaning, screws, and wires. It is easy for conservators to think they are being helpful, but some of these can be extremely destructive. REVERSIBILITY should always be the goal.
-Documentation is crucial. Everything that is done to the remains should be properly documented.
-Finally, always handle the remains with the utmost care, as gently as possible. Conservators should be in a mental state, acknowledging they are handling the remains of conscious individuals. (Cassman, Odegaard, and Powell 2007).
Everyone can agree human remains are different than other artifacts and should be treated with respect. How that translates to the actual physical handling is a whole other matter. Conservators should be culturally conscience at all times. At the same time, conservators have to take into consideration their own knowledge of what is best for the long term treatment of remains, and the legal ramifications of their actions- a delicate dance on the ethical tightrope.
Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell ed. 2007. Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. AltaMira Press. Lanham: 77-81.
Weiss, Elizabeth. 2008. Reburying the Past: The Effects of Repatriation and Reburial on Scientific Inquiry. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. New York: 49-83.