A few years ago there was heated discussion regarding the display of a child burial of Neolithic date in the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury. Yet in the same small museum display, the Neolithic bodies of animals are also displayed seemingly without comment… Indeed, many of our archaeological museums and heritage spaces display animals and animal bones.

For three decades and more, there has been a complex global archaeological ethical debate about the excavation, analysis, display and curation of human remains and other mortuary artefacts and remains. I’ve been one of the players in this discussion, writing and editing about the public archaeology of death, and most bioarchaeologists and mortuary archaeologists have contributed to the ongoing debates through their research and teaching. Indeed, I’ve got 3 projects on this theme:

But what of animals? In addition to debates regarding live animals, the use of dead parts of animals in art and science have received passionate public discussions. Perhaps one of the biggest and most publicly shamed activities has been rich Westerners on safari celebrating and promoting their personal hunting victories by posing with African game – lions, elephants, giraffes etc. But what of animals in archaeological research and public displays and public engagement? We certainly didn’t kill animals we dig up, and we aren’t eating them, but does that mean there are no ethical considerations to be tackled?

Despite long-established traditions of archaeological research into religious, social and cosmological, as well as economic, relationships with animals in the human past, this debate doesn’t seem to have spilled over at all into many discussions of the curation and display of non-human osseous materials in museums, heritage sites and other research environments. Fleshed animals – such as mammoths and horses frozen in Siberian ice – can be particularly evocative and emotive as well-preserved human remains, and can ‘time travel’ in a similar way. Let’s take the example of this baby mammoth from Lyuba and on display in the Shemanovskii Regional Museum.

With global warming, there are more and more such instances of well-preserved ancient animals being found.

These are instances where animals appear as dead individuals, passing down to us through the ages. But what of cases where animals were selected as key components of mortuary practices by past people? Hence, we know they were afforded some significance to honour the dead.

Mortuary contexts afford many relationships between animals and people in death. My research on early Anglo-Saxon cremation practices has focused on this repeated, almost intimate, connection between many early medieval people and animals in graves. Similarly, Iron Age burials from East Yorkshire reveal the striking tradition of killing and burial of horses together with chariots. Their remains are not only important insights into past societies, they spark prominent newspaper headlines as well as informed detailed and new archaeological research.

The burial of a human body (or bodies) together with animals can intrigue and attract audiences and spark the public imagination. What was the reason for the animal burials? Were they personal wealth of the deceased? Were they transport to the afterlife? Were they sacrifices to gods or to feed the spirit of the dead person? Was there a more personal relationship between dead human(s) and dead beast?

A good example is the 2012 news story regarding the discovery of an adult female and a cow buried together in an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington, Cambridgeshire.  The burial is rare, and the broader appeal of the story is evident, as Sayer and Walter (2016) show in their contribution to the Archaeologists and the Dead book. Comments in response to the online news stories hinged on the relationship between beast and person in both economic and cultic terms.

The Oakington woman and cow burial – after BBC News and Dr Duncan Sayer


Moving into heritage contexts, we often tell the human story through animals, and human-animal relationships are ubiquitous dimensions of the human past. Can you imagine an archaeological gallery without animals in one form or other? Models of animals feature in museum displays alongside people, conveying stories of the past. A good example is this example at the Manx Museum where we see a man and his horse appearing centre-stage in the Viking-period gallery. Animals are thus unquestionably part of the human story, and part of a story of human-animal interactions and death rituals. Viking elite burials on the Isle of Man show evidence of animal, as well as possibly also human, sacrifice.

Manx Museum

Yet whether fleshed or skeletal, articulated or fragmented, actual remains or representations, animal from the archaeological record, and in contexts where they are afforded mortuary treatments, still tend to be seen as just ‘stuff’, adjunct to the human remains and afforded a different social and ontological status in our scientific and archaeological practices and interpretations.

So is the special status of human remains sacrosanct? To suggest human remains are just ‘stuff’ is heresy in many quarters of the anthropological and archaeological community and shows disrespect, not only to the dead people and the ancient cultures, but also to descendant communities and other stakeholder communities and individuals. To suggest that animal remains might be more than ‘stuff’ might threaten this special connection between living and dead humans. Yet, there might be special considerations given to the ethics of animal remains display and curation too. It is surely a necessary field of debate for archaeologists, and for mortuary archaeologists in particular.

There are multiple issues here. First, many of the past societies we investigate didn’t retain such a clear-cut distinction between people and non-human persons. While most frequently discussed for hunter-gatherers, religious and cultural attitudes to animals, from sacred beasts to pets, are widespread dimensions of the ancient and medieval, as well as modern, worlds. For mortuary contexts in particular, these attitudes are manifest in graves, tombs and cemeteries. In death rituals, animals can be sacrificed but also afforded a range of other roles. Religious, eschatological and social relationships with animals are revealed by mortuary practices, with beasts – mythological, legendary and actual – permeating the mortuary archaeological record through their bones but also their representation on art and architecture, and the use of animal materials as grave-goods and structures.

A second issue is that many of the same practices of collecting and displaying collections of fossils, animals and plants follow similar trajectories to antiquarian and early archaeological collections. Botanical and zoological collections, as well as archaeological ones, chart the history of the colonial project. Many of the displays date to the colonial era.

Third, we often afford a special status to particular animals ourselves, and treat them and display them in special ways, so the archaeological blurs with multiple dimensions of our heritage and our landscape. Take Slough’s Station Jim, for example.

Station Jim on Slough Railway Station

Another instance is the military mascot in Caernarfon Castle (if Slough station isn’t “heritage” enough for you).

The stuffed goat mascot on display in the Royal Welch Fusiliers Regimental Museum, Caernarfon Castle

And dog graves can be integral parts of open-air heritage sites too, as here at Chirk Castle.

Chirk Castle’s dog graves

I don’t have a clear solution to present to you, dear reader. I give you a problem.

However, I would like to be clear that ‘ethics’ is here not simply about respecting those human beings who regard animals as ‘spiritual’ or ‘ancestral’ or equivalent in their emotional and sentient status to human beings. No, I think ethical practice regarding how we dig, store, study and display, write about and envision animal remains has a wider scientific import and relates to how we responsibly, openly and fairly treat the traces of once-living things. Are ‘humans’ special, or should the bones of other mammals, and animals more broadly, receive comparable ethical considerations?

Note: I’m not saying with shouldn’t dig, study and display animal remains, but why and how we do so needs more careful consideration. Especially when derived from mortuary and ceremonial contexts (or indeed ‘domestic’ contexts where evidence indicates care and attention was afforded to the treatment and deposition of animals – whole or in parts), and thus the manner of their treatment, and their contextual associations, suggest that past people afforded these remains with ‘respect’, we should pay considerable attention to how we convey this information in our writing and public engagement. This is especially the case when many of our museum and site visitors might be as, or perhaps even more, connected to seeing traces of an ancient animal to seeing human remains.

What I have identified here is a glaring lacuna in our mortuary archaeological debates. Unless, that is, I’ve missed some key discussions. If this latter point is correct, please do enlighten me in the comments below.