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Posts Tagged ‘human remains’

Mission to Mars Body Farm

April 9th, 2015
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Mission to Mars Body Farm

Stephanie Byrd 

            With 100 individuals scheduled for a one-way trip to Mars, the idea of studying body decomposition and preservation of the body on reentry would be possible. An understanding of Mars atmosphere would be a valuable study planet; if bodies exposed to the environment were allowed to decompose outside of the earth-like artificial environment, a new body decomposition study could be conducted.

The atmosphere on Mars to Earth would be the first point of comparison. According to the Phoenix Mars Mission from the University of Arizona (Smith n.d.), Mars atmosphere is made of 95.32% Carbon dioxide, 2.7% Nitrogen, 1.6% Argon, .13% Oxygen, .03% Water vapor, and .01% Nitric oxide; compared to the Earth atmosphere that is made of 77% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, 1% Argon, and .038% Carbon dioxide. The largest elements that could affect human decomposition would be the differences in the Carbon dioxide, Nitrogen, and Oxygen levels.

Human decomposition is aided by the destabilization of the human body; the living body is kept in balance with the live bacteria in the body. Once the body is dead, the bacteria growth is uninhibited, helping the decomposition process internally. Oxygen and insect activity aids in decomposition on the outside of the body (Vass 2001). The lack of insects and oxygen on an exposed body in Mars could show how external forces impact remains. In order to understand the rate of atmospheric effects on the body, a closed camera feed would be part of the study based on the camera used in the current Mars project. The Mast Cameras used currently on Mars have the ability to take video at 10 frames per second or color snapshots and can house thousands of images and hours of high-definition video (NASA n.d.) This camera is used to photograph and record land, rock, soil, and other environmental factors on Mars, and could easily be used to record stages of human decomposition in color images.

One of the more difficult challenges would be ethics: should the bodies be brought back to study or left on Mars? In this unprecedented situation, the ethical thing to do would be allow the individuals on the project to say beforehand how their body should be handled at the time of death. If individuals waive their rights, the next of kin should have the right to request the body from Mars or have the remains left on Mars. Should a request that the remains be brought back to earth made, the complication of reentry and the effects of the body would need further study. The best case would be to work on preservation or mummification in flight back to Earth, working in a controlled similar atmosphere and slowly alter the atmosphere to mimic Earth This would be an atmospheric stage bath, much like a staged water bath for fragile organic materials. In order to know how this works in a Mars-like atmosphere, it could be produced in a laboratory setting and human remains set up for a Body Decomposition Laboratory and Reentry study.

It might be years before the human decomposition study on Mars will be done, but with the 100 individuals set to leave in the coming years for Mars, it will be important to understand all stages of life included death on a foreign planet. With the ongoing technological advancements, it might even be possible to take samples for study at the different stages of decomposition. Time will be the biggest factor in determining how the advances in science, conservation, and outer space will play out.

 

References

Unknown author. (N.D) Mast Camera (Mastcam) http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/instruments/cameras/mastcam/

Smith, Peter H. (N.D.) The Phoenix Mission. University of Arizona. http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/mars111.php

Vass, Arpad A. 2001. “Beyond the grave-understanding human decomposition”. Microbiology Today. 28. 190-192.

General Conservation, Museum Studies, Public Outreach, Research and Experiments, Science , , ,

A Thing of the Past: The Importance of Correct Cleaning Techniques of Tombstones

February 11th, 2015
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A Thing of the Past: The Importance of Correct Cleaning Techniques of Tombstones

Kristi Brantley

           The role of a tombstone is complex. It is a final physical connection to surviving friends and family- a reminder of life and a representation of loss. An important artifact for the historian, the tombstone normally has identifying information inscribed on it.  It can tell us who, what, when or where and sometimes, why.  Its cultural value increases with age.  The use of tombstones to mark grave sites is beginning to diminish, creating urgency for deliberate conservation efforts.  Tombstones should be preserved, not only for the obvious information they provide, but also for their value as a material culture object.

There are primarily two types of cemeteries: perpetual and non-perpetual.  A perpetual cemetery is usually privately owned.  A portion of the money collected for a burial plot goes into a special account that accrues interest.  The interest is used to ensure that the grounds and grave markers will continually be maintained. A non-perpetual cemetery is owned by an individual family, a local municipality, a church, or an organization, such as state and national veteran cemeteries.  They rely on private funds, donations or tax funds to maintain the gravesites and landscape.

The tombstones in the cemeteries are usually made up from one of four kinds of stone: granite, marble, slate and sandstone.  These stones are in direct contact with the ground and absorb some water from the surrounding soil.  The porous nature of the stone allows air to circulate and evaporate the water.  One could say that the tombstone breathes (an eerie thought), as it allows air to pass through it. The nature of the tombstone sets the stage for natural deterioration.

Normal weather occurrences such as rain, snow, ice, or wind impact the stability and inscription details of the tombstone.  Vegetation growing around and on the stone often causes damage.  A common problem is the attachment of lichen, fungi, or algae to the stone. These trap moisture and secrete acids.  Often roots from ferns, ivy, and moss will grow into the stone (particularly on the north side of it), further destabilizing it.  In addition, shifts in the ground from erosion can have a substantial impact on the degeneration of the stone.

There are man-made causes of tombstone deterioration as well.  Erosion problems as a result of poor landscaping can cause a tombstone to fall over or break at the base.  Pollution found in rainwater (i.e. acid rain) can do significant damage to the stone.  Actions such as recording the epitaph through crayon, pencil, or wax rubbings can eventually destroy the stone.  The practice of rubbings has been banned in some states and many others are now requiring a permit. Stones can erode internally, while the outside hardens because of environmental exposure thus giving the impression of a sturdy gravestone. The pressure applied during a rubbing can cause the stone to implode.  Cleaning attempts can also create a dangerous environment for the tombstone.  It is not uncommon to hear of someone using bleach to clean and enhance the stone.  The salt from the bleach is hazardous to the stone and wears away details.

before1wash

after1wash

 

Inappropriate cleaning techniques:  A power washer was used to clean this tombstone.

The top image is before and the bottom image is after.

Notice the reduction in detail in the after photo.

Source: http://www.ctgravestones.com/Conservation/examples_clean.htm

 

There are a few companies that clean gravestones, but it is a job primarily done by ancestors of the deceased.  It is important to use proper techniques when cleaning a tombstone.  Never use household cleaning supplies to clean a tombstone.  The safest way to clean a gravestone is to keep a constant flow of water over the spot to be cleaned, using a hose, and gently scrub the stone with a soft bristle brush. If one has access to it, a D/2 Biological solution can be used.  It can be a time consuming task, but is eventually effective and safe for the preservation of the stone.

correctclean2

correctclean1

 

Appropriate cleaning techniques:  Notice the improvement in the tombstone after it had been gently cleaned with a soft bristle brush and water.

The top image is before and the bottom image is after.

Source:  http://www.ctgravestones.com/Conservation/examples_clean.htm

 

 

 

During the 1970s, many cemeteries, especially perpetual cemeteries, began moving away from using upright tombstones as grave markers and instead began using flat, bronze plates.  These ground-level plates granted more accessibility for grave digging equipment and allowed maintenance upkeep such as grass cutting to be easier and more cost efficient.  As cemetery spaces decrease and maintenance costs increase, the use of tombstones to mark graves will continue to diminish.  It is essential that the public be educated on gravestone conservation techniques and begin employing them because, eventually, tombstones may be a thing of the past.

gravestone

 

Photo by Kristi Brantley.

 

 

References:

Melton Caison, Jr. Location Manager of Johnson Funeral Home; Operation Manager of Rocky Mount Memorial Park, Rocky Mount, N.C., telephone call January 23, 2015

Eddie Finch, Funeral Assistant, Johnson Funeral Home, Rocky Mount, N.C., telephone call January 20, 2015.

Chris May, Funeral Service licensee, operation manager Cornerstone Funeral Home, Nashville, N.C., telephone call January 23, 2015

Chicora Foundation, Incorporated. 2008. http://www.chicora.org/conservation.html

Conneticut Gravestone Network. 2012. http://www.ctgravestones.com/Conservation/conservetopics.htm

Odgers, David. Caring for Historic Graveyard and Cemetery Monuments. 2011.  Digital. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/caring-historic-graveyard-cemetery-monuments/

 

 

 

General Conservation, Research and Experiments, Science , , , , , , , , , ,

Challenges of Human Skeletal Remains

February 12th, 2014

Challenges of Human Skeletal Remains

 Allison Miller

The study and care of human skeletal remains continues to provide challenges to archaeologists and conservators, as the cultural implications of the remains often supersede their scientific implications. Many of the cultural and legal aspects of working with skeletal remains, however, can be mitigated if archaeologists and conservators remain vigilant about treating the remains of the individuals and their potential ancestors with the proper respect. While certain laws, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), exist to prevent the study of remains in deference to religious and cultural beliefs, they do not broadly hinder the study of human remains, as there continue to be many other remains to be examined. Conservators working with human remains should both be knowledgeable about conservation of bones and be concerned with the remains as a person.

Though the conservation of skeletal remains often lies outside of the scope of study of conservators, they are regularly called upon to assist in the best care of such remains (McGowan and LaRoche 1996). Considering the regularity with which conservators are asked to assist in the care of skeletal remains, it is prudent that dissemination of information on proper care practices for bones be provided through educational courses and publication of studies. “The treatment of human remains is an evolving topic, subject to updated and revised philosophies” (McGowan and LaRoche 1996:112), of which publication would help conservators keep abreast of the most current care practices. Though it is as true as with any other material, no one practice would prove best for all situations, knowledge of the variety of treatments and storage available would provide conservators with the greatest ability to continue the preservation of the remains.

In handling skeletal remains, their dual scientific and cultural value must be remembered at all times. Archaeologists and conservators must remember not to separate themselves from the remains they are handling; they must always remember that those remains were once, too, a whole person, an individual, with a personality and a life story. The cultural background of the individual should also be remembered, as it can provide a basis for the treatment and storage options that are most culturally acceptable; sometimes reburial may even be best practice. Care for individuals whose identity and therefore cultural background is unknown, though case dependent, should often include reburial in a condition relatively unaltered from first recovery (Ubelaker and Grant 1989).

Proper storage is likely to be the primary concern of conservators working with skeletal remains, as many conservation techniques used elsewhere may prevent further study of the remains. This study is often fraught with complications, as well, since they can damage the physical characteristics of the bone, though new, less invasive methods are being developed (Bolnick et al. 2012). Too often, bones are improperly stored at the excavation site, which then becomes long-term storage. Sound conservation practices should ensure that skeletal remains are properly stored in acid-free materials with environmental controls and correct cataloging of the remains. “The proper storage and treatment of human remains serve the interests of both an engaged descendant community and the scientific community” (McGowan and LaRoche 1996:116).

Working with human remains can be a sensitive subject, as it highlights many spiritual and philosophical belief systems. Concern for the proper scientific analyses and conservation practices of skeletal remains can communicate the respect shown for the individuals and help allay the concerns of descendant cultures.

 

Citations

Bolnick, Deborah A., Holly M. Bonine, Jaime Mata-Miguez, Brian M. Kemp, Meradeth H. Snow, and Steven A. LeBlanc, 2012, Nondestructive sampling of human skeletal remains yields ancient nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 147(2):293—300.

McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl T. 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.

Ubelaker, Douglas H. and Lauryn Guttenlan Grant, 1989, Human Skeletal Remains: Preservation or Reburial? Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 32:249—287.

Ethics and Theory , , , , , , ,

Displaying the Dead: Disrespecting or Honoring the Past?

February 4th, 2013

Displaying the Dead: Disrespecting or Honoring the Past?

Kate Clothier

Going to museums has always brought me happiness. After spending countless hours lost in their different exhibits I would come out feeling more connected to the past cultures and curious to learn about the different societies on display. This interest led me to become an avid history reader and museum patron. When I was older I was shocked to learn that there was one specific controversial issue surrounding museum exhibits internationally. The ethics of displaying human bodies. Should museums be able to put the deceased on display for the public and who has the rights to the bodies once they are discovered?

I was always torn on the answer to these questions. For me, the people on display spurred reverence and curiosity, for others the displays served as symbols of disrespect to our ancestral heritage. This division of thinking persists today and was even the subject of ethical debate at the 2010 conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM)- Committee for Conservation conference. Large nationally recognized organizations are facing the ethics of displaying the deceased in attempt to find common ground but the debate rages on. There is no ‘cure all’ for the questions at hand.

It has been suggested that the direct descendants should get the finally say on whether the bodies should be on display, but what if there are no direct descendants? Who then has the right to decide? Where is the quest for information on the human past to stop and, would we dig up cemeteries for knowledge? To me, the best solution is to stick to the ethical guidelines created by organizations like the ICOM in reference to past societies and what they left behind (Brajer, I. 2010. “Human Remains in Museums.” International Council of Museums- Theory and History of Conservation Working Group, Accessed: Web. 21 Jan. 2013). These bodies can offer us insight to the past that would otherwise be unknown and can even spark interest the societies themselves, as was the case for me. I believe the bodies should be treated with upmost respect and if a direct link to a current society is found or known of, those people should get the final say in whether the body can be displayed or not. The ethics surrounding human remains being put on display is sure to persist for many years to come and museums will continue to be at the forefront of this debate.

 

 

Ethics and Theory, Museum Studies , , ,

Skeletons in the Closet

January 30th, 2013

Skeletons in the Closet:

A Blog about Ethical Handling and Storage of Human Remains in the Conservation Community

Eva Falls

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.

 

Works Cited

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.

 

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