This post should be a no-brainer, but sadly in the early 21st century this still needs stating. This is after the sale earlier this year of human remains alongside early Anglo-Saxon artefacts by Hansons.

This blog advocates education and research in mortuary archaeology and archaeologies of memory. In this context, I am an advocate for the responsible and professional excavation and analysis, curation and display, of human remains. This is because they are invaluable for scientific and educational purposes regarding the study of death, burial, commemorative practices, and the study of lifeways, including health and disease in the past and present and hence to inform our futures.

This stance is, however, a million miles for promoting the unethical treatment of human remains – including robbing tombs for artefacts and human remains by unqualified individuals and for profit. Likewise, I strongly denounce the buying, selling, giving and receiving of human body-parts, beyond the narrow confines of curating the remains of loved ones. Hence, among other things, I also study the history of archaeology and its antiquarian roots, since to understand the robust stances we take in our dealings with the dead today, we need not to forget our discipline’s problematic origins.

For most reasoned people, the difference between archaeological investigations and tomb-robbing, between the osteological analysis of a skeletal collection and the purchase of an Egyptian mummified foot off a seller on Instagram, should be self-evident. However, archaeology and the trade in human remains share a long and dark history of close association, and the former began its life as very much the latter. Indeed, archaeologists have long justified the storage of human remains retrieved in dubious circumstances, so a stance against these practices needs clearly articulating.

For the UK, BABAO (the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology), for example, have clear standards for recording, analysing and curating, and the repatriating and reburial of human remains. Their statement about selling human remains says:

Within the past few years there have been a number of cases where human remains have been bought and sold for financial gain. It is ethically objectionable to commodify the remains of people as objects, and the concept of ‘ownership’ of most human remains is not recognised in law. A wider concern is that the existence of such a trade has been shown to encourage looting of both archaeological and extant burial sites, even into the late 20th century, ultimately resulting in the banning of export/trade of human remains from many countries. In particular, the mass export of skeletons (e.g. from Asia) for medical school use continued well into the 21st century, and thus many “antique” skeletons found for sale are of relatively recent date and fall under the Human Tissue Act (2004). BABAO finds the trading of human remains for commercial gain unacceptable.

Yet still it goes on. For instance, Shawn Graham of Carleton University’s work has shown that the legal, but deeply questionable, practice of selling and buying human body parts, some undoubtedly of archaeological provenance, is ongoing and facilitated by the Internet. 

A few incidents have transpired in the last academic year involving students and others, combined with today’s news from British Columbia, prompt me to make a clear statement regarding my stance on the trade and ownership of human remains. In British law, one cannot own the dead, and no matter where the remains derive, you don’t have a right to keep them!

There is a narrow specialist market for human bones of use for anatomy and bioarchaeology researchers and students, but beyond this – whether for art, aesthetic or other reasons – the default situation is that buying, selling, giving and receiving human remains is wrong. By this I mean it is morally repugnant, ethically dubious, and professionally questionable. It shows up everyone involved to be of irresponsible and/or ill-educated character, with little respect for the human dead, their relatives, their loved ones (living and dead) and descendant communities, wherever those human remains originally derived from and no matter how old they might be.

Human remains belong in the ground, and sometimes they have a place in the custodianship of a museum store or gallery, or perhaps even in a laboratory where they can help support and sustain research, but they certainly should not be upon private individuals’ book shelves or mantelpieces.