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Posts Tagged ‘indigenous’

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.

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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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Context in Conservation

January 30th, 2013

Context in Conservation

Hannah Smith

            In a world with changing views of the past, ownership, and best practices for the preservation and conservation of archaeological artifacts, conservation has been facing new challenges regarding how to handle the conservation of objects belonging to indigenous groups. With a greater interest in and cooperation with indigenous groups in the United States and elsewhere, museums and conservators are faced with new and different requests. These include repatriation, loans for continued use, and culturally sensitive storage and display in museums (Clavir 1996). In some countries, access to objects is restricted based upon ceremonial beliefs. There are also photography bans within some exhibits to show respect for the culture that created the objects. Similar trends are appearing within the field of conservation. As a result, it is necessary to balance the wishes of the group that created the object with the professional and ethical concerns of today’s conservators.

            There are several ways that conservators can work with indigenous groups to create treatments that serve the needs of the object’s cultural source, the needs of the institution that is housing the object, and the needs of the object itself. When working with indigenous groups, the values of all involved are important. At times, however, the values of the originating culture can conflict with the values espoused by conservation (Clavir 1996). Navigating these differences requires open communication. Therefore, consulting with the group that created the object allows for the needs of all involved to be addressed as completely as possible. This consultation occurs at the beginning of the conservation process in New Zealand, and it would be beneficial to apply this practice elsewhere (Clavir 1996). By communicating with indigenous groups, the conservator may be able to learn important aspects of the object’s construction, which can help determine the best treatment methods. It also allows the conservator to explain why a certain treatment is necessary, while also allows concerns to be express about proposed treatment methods. Through communication, it is possible to balance need for “conceptual integrity” with the object’s physical integrity (Clavir 1996). For example, if the group wants the item to be returned for use in rituals and ceremonies, it may be possible to determine treatments that limit the risk to the object, one of the conservator’s concerns, while preserving the ability of the indigenous group to continue using the object.

            Another concern for all involved is change in the object itself. Conservation attempts to stop, or at least slow, the deterioration of an object, which does not always account for the intangible aspects of that object. Without culturally determined care, the intangible aspects of an item can decay, even as its physical form does not change. As a result of this change in focus, Clavir (1996) states that “conservators are being asked not only to value the less tangible attributes of an object but also to realize the acceptability of continuing process and the validity of a more abstract, shifting context than is usually found in conservation”. This suggests that there may be room for some culturally mandated care, either by a member of the indigenous community or the conservator, to be included in the care of objects, as long as it is not too harmful (Clavir 1996). This could also allow the continued use of the object by the originating group. Conservators are being asked to allow change in the state of an object in some cases. But what is allowable should be judged based on each individual situation, rather than trying to apply a blanket statement to all conservation situations (Clavir 1996). Clavir (1996) cites museums that have “touchable” collections, as well as practices for lending out “sturdier” items for use by the originating group as examples of ways to allow a changing context for objects.  By allowing people to continue interacting with objects, these contextual changes allow for people to continue being interested in, and understanding of, their and other cultures. And, by allowing for changes over time, less invasive conservation methods may be developed or applied more frequently.

            Accepting and working with changing contexts through open communication is key to keeping conservation, and the past that the field attempts to protect, viable into the future. While we should not throw existing ethics out in attempts to address the changing needs of museums and the public that they serve, it is necessary to adapt our ethics to changing times.

 

References    

Clavir, M. 1996. Reflections on changes in museums and the conservation of collections from indigenous peoples. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35(2): 99-107.

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