Call for unlimited archaeology

On 4th February a letter from Professor Barry Cunliffe and 39 other professors was published in The Guardian newspaper calling for the lifting on licensing requirements for archaeological excavation of ancient human remains and, in effect, a call for unfettered excavation of the graveyards of the ancestors.  Professor Cunliffe’s letter.


HAD has written to The Guardian in response:


Professor Cunliffe et al’s letter of 4 February calling for the repeal of recent reburial guidance in favour of large scale archaeology of ancient human remains is out of step with a growing ground swell of opinion and needs to be challenged.

The position behind his claim is that science is of paramount importance, trumping any other consideration.  This was the prevailing view for much of the last century.  We believe that this is neither automatically valid nor any longer the broad opinion.

The acquisition of scientific knowledge for its own sake is a lofty aspiration but is not sufficient justification for the dismissal of all other considerations.  Archaeologists’ claim is that scientific study of ancestral bones is essential if we are learn about the people who lived on these isles before us.  Certainly, modern archaeological techniques for analysing bone fragments can help build cameo portraits of aspects of lives long gone by.  But, even if these insights were comprehensive treasure troves of biographical insight, what real value should be attached to them?

It can be argued that the pursuit of scientific knowledge has not been of indubitable benefit to humankind, instead facilitating our species in its rapacious over-exploitation of the planet, its ecosystems and peoples.  The realisation that this is unsustainable is now quickly growing: we can no longer continue to use the Earth as a resource that can be deconstructed into isolated parts for consumption.  Even those within the scientific community with materialist beliefs are acknowledging the importance of systems; where other worldviews are held, this treatment of our world as a collection of objects is fundamentally lacking in practical respect.

The urgent need for a re-evaluation of respect extends to the remains of our ancestors.  The proactive exhumation and retention of ancient human remains – treating them as a scientific resource, as objects without personhood – is hugely out of step with evolving views that see humans as part of a sacred natural world, precious and irreplaceable.  Archaeology, like any science, cannot pretend to practise in a vacuum.  It consumes the graves of our ancestors in the same way that felling rain forests consumes an irreplaceable part of the global ecosystem.

We should consider the following question.  Which gives the greater benefit to our society and its future: the potential scientific insights into the day-to-day lives of ancient Britons, or a recognition of the social and spiritual value accrued by an increased level of respect in our society, expressed through the way we treat the remains of our own ancestors?  We believe the latter.  Science must not be the only consideration when it comes to forming a practical understanding of value and benefit to out society, to humanity and nature as a whole.

Therefore, we call for a continuation of the current, civilised, approach of licensing each excavation on a case by case basis, with the presumption that reburial will follow within the two year period unless truly special, significant and immediately funded reasons can be put agreed.


Honouring the Ancient Dead


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Guardian article by Ian Sample the same day

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