HAD Conference 2009 : The Care of Ancient Human Remains

Papers Now Available – see below

Date : 17 October 2009
Venue : New Walk Museum, Leicester

HAD hosted its first conference on the care of ancient human remains.  Conference themes featured the latest ideas from leading speakers – representing museums, social anthropology, national human remains specialist groups, and the Pagan perspective that is central to HAD.  Conference participants were invited to attend from a wide community of archaeologists, museums, government departments responsible for human remains, together with Pagans and others with special interest in their care.

Conference Purpose

The conference aims were to explore issues around value and custody of human remains, with particular focus on how the institutions that maintain custody engage with external communities who have a special interest in the remains. At conference, HAD clarified its own position in developing and maintaining dialogue and facilitating access to and consultations on human remains. The results of the conference will be used within subsequent discussions relating to the respectful treatment of ancient British human remains held between HAD and institutions such as museums or government departments.

Papers / Speakers 

Dr Joost Fontein & Dr John Harries, Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh – ‘The Matter of Bones’ : Human bones are curious things. Intrinsically situated as both person and object, yet neither wholly one nor the other, they may possess an ambivalent, perhaps uncanny, quality of affective presence that has the capacity to disrupt common place distinctions between the present and the past, the living and the dead, the subject and the object. Certainly human bones do matter to people. But if bones matter to people, and this is reflected in what people do with them, then the matter of bones, their materiality, their presence and the qualities of their materials, also do things with people. How, in other words, does the matter of bones matter?  Our paper sketches out some of our thoughts concerning the matter of bones. As social and cultural anthropologists our emphasis must be on how and why human bones matter to living people.  So we look to situate the “meanings” of bones in their particular historical and cultural contexts and study how it is that these things are caught up in the affairs of the living. Yet in saying this, we also acknowledge that human bones are, indeed, things-in-themselves, and any study of the social and cultural significance of bones must encompass their physical being: in the qualities of their materials, in their emotive materiality, and in their affective quality of presence.

Philip Wise, Heritage Manager, Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service – ‘Consultation and Display : Best practice in museums, following the guidelines of the Museums Association Code of Ethics, is to involve audiences and communities in consultations around future displays. Several exhibitions of human remains in the UK in recent years have been notable in the extent of their consultation, although other museums still appear reluctant to go beyond a scientific and archaeological presentation. This paper reports on a successful consultation around the redisplay of the Iron Age gallery at Colchester Museum.

Professor Piotr Bienkowski, Professor of Archaeology and Museology, University of Manchester – ‘The Issues of Custody and Practical Respect : In recent years, with the rise of repatriation to source communities overseas, a number of laws and guides have been issued as guidance for institutions holding human remains, including the Human Tissue Act (2004) and the DCMS Guidance on the Care of Human Remains (2005). Nevertheless, these do not necessarily address all the relevant issues, particularly around custody of human remains from the UK.  This paper critiques the fundamental assumptions of the DCMS Guidance, arguing that as a framework it is impossible to apply to British human remains and engage effectively with those communities with an interest in them. At the heart of this lies the question of respect: for whom and by whom. But what is meant by ‘respect’, and how can it be carried out in a practical way by museums, archaeologists and communities? The notion of ‘respect’ varies culturally, and what might be deemed respectful for one group is the opposite for another, so it can be difficult to find a compromise. This paper further explores how consultative processes need to ensure that all the different notions of value around human remains – and different notions of what constitutes respect – are given equitable value, and are acknowledged as legitimate criteria in decision-making processes.

Charlotte Woodhead, Barrister and Lecturer in Law, University of Derby – ‘
The Legal Issues around the Excavation and Custody of Human Remains : Legal ownership of human remains in the UK is problematic, and museums and other institutions generally accept that they only have custody, not ownership, of remains. Recent re-interpretations of the law around exhumation by the Ministry of Justice have been interpreted as making it more difficult for archaeologists to excavate and then retain human remains for lengthy periods of time, since reburial should follow after two years. There is, however, still a perceived lack of clarity surrounding decisions about excavation, retention and disposal. This paper, by a specialist in cultural heritage laws, explores the current situation and its implications.

Emma Restall Orr – ‘The Pagan Voice: When a Native American or Aboriginal Tasmanian speaks of human remains as his ‘ancestors’, political correctness requires museums address the issue even where they have no comprehension of the other’s worldview or theology. When similar terms are used by British Pagans, all too often museums dismiss them as nonsense; in reaction, Pagans build negative views of those who retain custody of what they consider to be the human remains of their ancestors. This was clearly presented in the expensive public consultation undertaken when a Druid group requested the reburial of human remains held in the care of English Heritage (2006 – 9). What is this Pagan voice, and on what basis do some Pagans consider themselves intimately related to human remains that may be 2000 years old or more? What language would be better employed by museums and heritage organisations in such discussions about British-based expressions of religious interest?