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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 , , , , , , ,

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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