Value of Science

Honouring the Ancient Dead
The Value of Science

When it comes to perspectives about the value of scientific research on our ancestors, the spectrum of opinion is vast. It ranges from those who believe there is no justification for any research, to those for whom every piece of knowledge is of significant importance. One of the issues we have found at HAD is that very often those who hold one perspective do not really know or fully understand the reasons why others have such different views.

This HAD project is therefore fundamentally one of education: why do people believe what they do about the value of this research?

HAD is asking various individuals in the debate on ancestors (‘human remains’) the following key questions:

(a) What is the value of scientific study on ancestors (‘human remains’)?
(b) What would be the implications if it were not possible to carry out this research?
(c) What benefits does this study bring to our world?

The number of words used is up to the respondent, but a precis of each answer must be provided in less than 100 words.

The short answers will be posted on this page, with links to fuller responses available.

If you would like to make a suggestion for a contributor, or would like to offer answers yourself, please do get in touch.

The following six responses were written without the opportunity to review others’ responses.

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Respondent: Dr Duncan Sayer, Reader in Archaeology, University of Central Lancashire. Author of Ethics and Burial Archaeology, and director of excavations at Oakington and Ribchester.

  • What is the value of scientific study on ancestors (‘human remains’)?

Human remains are particularly important because they were people, and archaeology is the study of people, society and human activity in the past. Science is a way of creating and organizing knowledge, typically by measuring and recording to allow comparison. Scientist’s explore height by measuring long bones, or they compare morphological similarities to study paleopathology (ancient disease). Similarly biochemical studies measure isotope, for example, to compare with ground water measurements to study mobility or the effects of diet. The investigation of DNA is also a measurement allowing comparison with ancient and modern datasets to answer specific questions. Archaeological enquiry is deeply ingrained in modern culture, it adds to the rich environment in which we live by adding rootedness, raising questions about identity and adding time depth to the human story of which we are all a part.

(b) What would be the implications if it were not possible to carry out this research?

Archaeology without human remains would be like mathematics without algebra or astronomy without stars. It is possible to conceive of these constricted topics, however, without a vital component their richness is diminished. Good quality ethical enquiry is an essential component of modern archaeological research and human remains puts the people themselves into the past. Archaeology enjoys positive and active public support because it offers local and global perspectives while realizing the depth and complexity of the human experience. You can stand on a Roman road built nearly 2,000 years ago, but from the study of human remains you can understand ancient medicines, or see that not all Romans were from Italy. Isotope evidence suggest that Roman society included a mixture of people who were local, from across Europe and from all over Africa. These people made their lives side by side in ancient towns which were in the same places as towns like London, St Albans, or Carlisle today.

(c) What benefits does this study bring to our world?

Evolving debate, changing questions and looking for complexity is a very real part of a healthy cultural environment. Archaeological is used for political and purpose, ISIL destroyed sites like Nimrud and Palmyra to gain publicity and as a form of cultural cleansing. In the 1960s and 1970s white colonialist argued that walled towns like Great Zimbabwe could not have been built by Africans and censored the archaeological voice. In the 1930’s and 1940’s archaeology evidence was created and ancient symbols were appropriated by prominent Nazi party officials to justify the extent of their European offensive. A particularly problematic interpretation of bog bodies, as the executed anti-social elements of ancient Germanic society, influenced Heinrich Himmler to further subjugate homosexuality. Similarly today English nationalistic rhetoric identifies with a ‘race’ of Anglo-Saxon’s yet ancient DNA evidence from a recently excavated cemetery shows how much more complex early Anglo-Saxon identity was. People of different biological heritage were buried in the same cemeteries, in similar clothes with comparable objects and as part of the same community. As well as the question posed we could ask, does it matter if woman were buried at Stonehenge? My answer, is yes it does. Across the globe women’s rights are in decline and the plurality of discourse is clouded by ‘fake news’. And so because of its contribution to our culture the archaeological investigation of human remains matters, the women at Stonehenge were probably important people and were identify amongst the cremated remains from Aubrey Hole 7. These remains were so fragmented they could only have be identified by archaeologists, and so the study of human remains matters a great deal.

Respondent:Philip Shallcrass, Chief of The British Druid Order

The three questions are really all one, i.e. what value is there in research being carried out on ancient human remains?

I’ve always believed that there is value in such research, and that value lies in illuminating the lives of our ancestors. Advances in the application of science to archaeology mean that it’s possible to gain a huge amount of information from a single section cut through a tooth. This can determine where individuals came from, where they lived for significant periods, what their diet consisted of and more. It could be argued that we need information like this in order to properly honour the individuals with reburial rites appropriate to them. Those of us who are able to journey in spirit could find this information and more without damage to the remains. The problem is that there are probably more well-qualified archaeologists than there are well-trained spirit journeyers.

On the whole, archaeologists do a good job in revealing the lives of our ancestors from a range of sources, of which human remains are an important component. Given the tiny amounts of such remains needed to produce meaningful results these days, and that those amounts continue to reduce as science improves, I think there is the possibility of a reasonable balance between the needs of archaeology and the need for respectful reburial.

A greater problem with the archaeological and curatorial approach to ancient human remains is their long-term storage after scientific investigations have been completed. The argument for storage is that improved techniques might allow for more information to be extracted from the remains at some later date. It is argued that traditional methods of storage in museums or universities offer the only way to preserve remains in a suitable state for future research. I would strongly argue that this is not the case.

Mike Parker-Pearson’s book on Stonehenge (Simon & Schuster, 2012, pages 87-92), covers the excavation of a group of cremated bones from Aubrey Hole 7. These were originally excavated from other Aubrey Holes in the early 1920s before being put in a sack and reburied in Hole 7 in 1935, where they remained for more than 70 years. Jacqui McKinley of Wessex Archaeology, one of the world’s leading specialists on ancient human remains, was there when they were re-excavated and declared that “she was very pleased to see that they were generally large pieces in good condition” (page 190). If this is the case for a group of bones unceremoniously dumped in a hole for 70 years, a more careful approach to reburial would clearly allow remains to be reburied in such a way that they would, if necessary, be available in good condition for future research. This demolishes one of the primary arguments against reburial.

I wrote to Mike Parker-Pearson on this very issue. He failed to reply.

In short, a great deal of information can be gained from reasonably unobtrusive investigation of ancient human remains. This information expands our knowledge about the lives of our ancestors and can also provide valuable information to inform the nature of reburial.

Respondent: Joanna van der Hoeven, Druid, author, dancer and director of Druid College UK.

(a) What is the value of scientific study on ancestors (‘human remains’)?

There is a lot to be said for having knowledge of our ancestors. It’s important to know where we came from, to know our past in order to move forward, fully aware, into the future. That being said, we need the scientific study to be respectful, and to honour our human ancestors appropriately. Knowledge can be shared through taking replica casts of ancient bones, for example, to teach us today while allowing for reburial. Replicas of items can also be displayed, returning the originals to where they were found.

(b) What would be the implications if it were not possible to carry out this research?

We are learning new things every day about our ancestors. This allows us to create a more holistic view of our ancestors, to make them come alive once again in our hearts and minds. The more we know about them, the more “real” they become. When we know that they had the same needs, underwent the same trials and tribulations that we still do today, then we can connect with them on a deeper, visceral level. To lose this would be a shame, yet to disrespect the ancestors through improper treatment of their remains is equally important.

(c) What benefits does this study bring to our world?

In this highly technological age, we are losing our connection to the past. We are moving so swiftly into the future that we are not grounded, not rooted in who we are, forgetting as we spend more time in front of screens than we do with other people. We need to remember who we are, and in doing so, we re-member our stories, bringing them together so that they will not be forgotten. In knowing more about our ancestors, we know more about ourselves. As with all things, there must be honour and respect.

Respondent: Sarah Levitt, Head of Leicester Arts and Museums Service 1997-2018

  • What is the value of scientific study on ancestors (‘human remains’)?

Finding out more about those who lived before us, ourselves, our world, and the past world when these people were alive. This can deepen our understanding, appreciation and respect for these, and for humankind today.

Improving medical treatment or public health, through understanding the effects for example of inherited disability, disease, living conditions or trauma on skeletons.

The value is less if information gained is not shared and used to its full potential. It should benefit more than just the researcher or a few people.

(b) What would be the implications if it were not possible to carry out this research?

We would lose any benefits accrued through research. The implications also depend on what is meant by “if it were not possible”, “research” and “scientific study.”

Does “If it were not possible” mean:

  • forbidden by law, or public opinion, meaning a choice was made not to do this?


  • we no longer had the actual ability to do this?
  • Does “scientific study” potentially involve harm or destruction, or any physical contact?

The implications could vary from; restricting information that could be gathered from an archaeological excavation, or a collection; to the world, or our society, being very different.

(c) What benefits does this study bring to our world?

It helps to satisfy our natural instinct to be curious; about ourselves, why we are as we are, and how we fit into the wider picture.

Many modern people living in developed cultures aspire to view the past and present world with respect, appreciation and affection, in a spirit of celebration, awe and wonder.  I believe finding out about the people who came before us helps us to do this.

It can improve lives of others, through increased medical and public health knowledge.

Respondent: Anna Garnett, Curator, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL Culture

  • What is the value of scientific study on ancestors (‘human remains’)?

The scientific analysis of human remains allows us to gather detailed information about human biology, and to learn more about how those in the past approached death and dying. Importantly, these studies also inform our understanding of how those in the past lived: for example, through the analysis of human remains we can gather detailed information on the diets, types of work, and diseases of past societies.

(b) What would be the implications if it were not possible to carry out this research?

Through the scientific analysis of human remains, which should always take place according to professional and ethical standards, we are able to gather a great deal of information which not only informs our understanding of past societies, but can also impact on modern medical practice. Without this research, this information would be much more limited.

(c) What benefits does this study bring to our world?

From the point of view of a curator of an archaeological collection, the scientific study of human remains allows us to learn much more about the individuals who lived and died in the Nile Valley, than would be possible though the study of material culture alone. This information can then be shared with museum visitors though appropriate gallery interpretation, and also through our online platform for off-site visitors, in order to present these ancient people as individuals who lived and breathed just as we do.

Respondent: Emma Restall Orr, author, animist, ethicist, founder of HAD

  • What is the value of scientific study on ancestors (‘human remains’)?

The.classic answer, the answer we expect to hear, is that the value of scientific study is all about stories.  Such studies reveal snippets of information about our antecessors from which we can piece together ideas about their lives, their diet and life journeys, allowing us to feel some connection or empathy.  My truer answer is: I don’t know if those snippets confer enough valueto compensate for what happens becauseour society accepts this kind of study. Individuals in their thousands are retained, boxed and stored after exhumation, instead of being laid to rest once again in peace.

(b) What would be the implications if it were not possible to carry out this research?

Certainly, without scientific study we would know a little less about the past.  Very occasionally, some snippet contributes to medical understanding, but details gleaned are more often far from life-changing. I do not feel humanity would be denied anything of critical importance if ancestral bones were reburied without comprehensive (or indeed any) study.  The common policy of retention for scientific study (or for potential study with little chance of funding) entails little respect for the individuals who have been taken from their graves.  Skills and resources could better be used for study and education that didn’t include such disrespect.

(c) What benefits does this study bring to our world?

I’m seldom convinced by arguments for the real benefit of such study.  Unthinking support of scientific materialism allows our antecessors to be treated like artefacts.  The pathologist investigating a modern death does so in order to satisfy a need for justice, but osteoarcheologists work to satisfy curiosity. There would be horror if early twentieth century graves were disturbed, but preceding generations are not assured such peace. The individual taken from his/her grave has given no consent.  Such actions reflect very poorly upon our society. Our world would benefit far more from behavior that showed a sincere respect for the dead.