Skeletons in the Closet:
A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community
I was shocked that when I visited the AIC (American Institute for Conservation) website’s ethics page, there was hardly any mention of the complex and sensitive concerns that surround the treatment of human remains. Just a call for conservators to obey applicable laws:
“The conservation professional should be cognizant of laws and regulations that may have a bearing on professional activity. Among these laws and regulations are those concerning the rights of artists and their estates, occupational health and safety, sacred and religious material, excavated objects, endangered species, human remains, and stolen property.” (AIC 1994)
This four part series will discuss the conservator’s role in the treatment and storage of human remains in museum and archaeological settings, as well as the ethical implications. This is also a call for the AIC to use stronger language and address the treatment of human remains specifically in their code of ethics.
“Laying Down the Law”
In order to discuss how conservators should approach human remains in accordance with the AIC’s code of ethics, it is important to be aware of the laws and regulations already in place in the United States. The most influential piece of legislation that has affected the treatment of human remains would have to be NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) that was passed in 1990 (McGowan and LaRoche 1996). This law was passed in response to Native American activist groups that demanded the return of their ancestors’ remains that were being stored in universities and museums across the country. NAGPRA forces these institutions to catalog their collections and determine whether they are affiliated with a recognized tribe (Owsley and Jantz 2001). That tribe can then determine the fate of the remains, most choosing reburial.
This law was initially met with serious criticism by some members of the academic community, especially physical anthropologists that believed they were being robbed of valuable research. It has politicized osteology and led to lengthy and expensive court battles (Rose et al. 1996). The law does not protect African American cemeteries and other minority groups, nor does it protect Native American groups that have not been federally recognized (McGowan and LaRoche 1996). Sometimes anthropologists cannot determine the tribal affiliation in cases such as Kennewick Man where the remains are extremely old. This can and has led to contentious court battles over these remains (Owsley and Jantz 2001).
Of course, this law has not actually led to the end of the world in the academic community. NAGPRA has had some positive results and contributions. It has provided funding and jobs for physical anthropologists to analyze collections, as well as funding for better storage facilities. Collections that have not been looked at in decades are now being closely examined using new techniques. It has actually led collaboration and a new level of trust between academia and many Native American groups. Anthropologists now have access to oral traditions, and Native Americans are participating in more archaeological projects than ever before. (Rose et al. 1996)
Of course, the big question is: what has this to do with conservation? Conservators should be assisting archaeologists and physical anthropologists in determining the proper care, handling, and storage of human remains as ethically as possible (which I will visit in the next installment). They can add their expertise to the interdisciplinary teams that work with human remains in collections across the country. Conservators can be advocates for the remains themselves.
AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
http://conservationus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewPage&PageID=1026&E:\ColdFusion9\verity\Data\dummy.txt. (Accessed 01/21/2013).
McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl J. LaRoche. 1996. The Ethical Dilemma Facing Conservation: Care and Treatment of Human Skeletal Remains and Mortuary Objects. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2): 109-121.
Owsley, Douglas W. and Richard L. Jantz. 2001. Archaeological Politics and Public Interest in Paleoamerican Studies: Lessons from Gordon Creek and Kennewick Man. American Antiquity 66(4):565-575.
Rose, Jerome C., Thomas J. Green, and Victoria D. Green. 1996. NAGPRA: Osteology and the Repatriation of Skeletons. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 81-103.