Sunday 15 January 2012

It's About Time This Loophole Was Closed!

I'm a scientist. I seek to know this universe in its own terms, without recourse to personal or sacred knowledge or supernatural explanations. I observe. I feel the wonder of an unexpected outcome and the satisfaction of a new theory that explains my observations in a way that makes more sense than previous attempts. Nevertheless, I know that I conduct my business in the context of a pluralistic society, even if others don't want to accept that view.
     Unfortunately, 'scientists' have always wanted to assert what you might call their 'objective distance' from the scientific subject, with the result that they've done so in a way that frequently trod on the feelings and beliefs of others. Those who share my love of the past know that for many of the indigenous people of the world an 'archaeologist' is the equivalent of 'grave robber.'
     To say that we scientists have been 'tone deaf' in these matters is an understatement of the lowest order. For decades we ignored the pleas for respect and for a 'hands off' approach to the ancestors of present-day indigenous people. We cloaked our desecration of other peoples' ancestors in what we called 'the interests of science.' And what haven't we done to denigrate others' beliefs about how the dead should be treated, calling them superstition, or worse? Imagine walking up to someone brought up in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and saying to that person, 'Your beliefs about the dead and the afterlife are superstition and therefore we propose to exhume a random sample of your graveyard' for the scientific information it can yield.' You wouldn't dare. And d'you wanna know why? Because they have immense power in this society. Not so, those we colonized.  
    The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) was the first time that the American public officially acknowledged the sanctity of the dead in the worldview of present-day Native Americans. NAGPRA specified how and when the remains gathered in the name of science should be identified and returned to the people who demonstrably shared a continuity of culture with the dead. Sadly, NAGPRA included a loophole. Those remains that didn't share a continuity of culture with present people, or which were very old and thus unlikely to have been ancestral to the present-day descendants of the European invasion, were in a 'gray' area.
     And so it is with great pleasure that today I learned of recent legislation governing those 'gray' remains held in collections across the United States. The Associated Press reports that in 2010 the U.S. Department of the Interior clarified the law regarding what were termed the 'culturally unidentifiable' remains. And now the same institutions that reluctantly repatriated the majority of their collections under NAGPRA are busying themselves with the rest. Protests are heard in the present circumstances, but they're nothing close to the chatter that one had to listen to in the 1980s and 90s over NAGPRA.
     At that time there was much hand-wringing and whining about the 'loss' of the 'scientifically valuable,' 'irreplaceable' collections from Berkeley to Cambridge. All of those voices allowed that, of course, Native Americans had 'lost' their dead due to our depredations, that the remains possessed something other than 'scientific value' for the descendants, and that, certainly the dead are 'irreplaceable' regardless of whose side you're on. But for years those allowances were made while in practice those same scientists were helping to perpetuate the oppression of Native Americans that had been unleashed by Columbus's hapless encounter with a 'New World.'
     I imagine there'll be those among you on both sides of the razor-wire fence in this matter. I don't wish to spark a debate. I welcome your comments. But I will not involve myself in what is essentially a deeply divisive disagreement. I prefer reasoned argument. And I think that Native Americans, First Nations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and others of the world's indigenous people have the trump card in any argument relating to the dead of colonized territories. And I can sum it up this way. 
I know that those dead are not my ancestors. 
As such, I respect what I consider to be the fundamental human right to have the final say in the disposition of one's ancestors' remains (and their mortuary-associated belongings). To do otherwise would be to abrogate my humanity. Make of that what you will.


  1. I agree 100%. In my view, when it comes to human remains, the wishes of indigenous peoples trump the wishes of archaeologists and biological anthropologists every time. In my part of the world, it still isn't unusual for Indigenous burial grounds to be disturbed in the name of 'Development' ("got to have those condos overlooking the ocean!). Little consideration is given to the complaints of Indigenous people. Yet, I have yet to hear of anybody wishing to disturb a burial ground of non-Indigenous people.

  2. Hopefully over time archaeologists will be able to foster new and more mutually agreeable relationships with these groups. I would point out that in regards to Christian graveyards you seem to be incorrect, we dig them up all the time. I work in Ireland which remains intensely Catholic and there hasn't really been an issue over here regarding the removal of large numbers of skeletons, typically from previously unknown early Medieval graveyards in advance of development. Curiously there seems to be much more of a concern about this in the UK, which is often claimed to be one of the most secular countries in the world. However that seems largely to involve a discussion with 'Neo' Pagans and is basically all kinds of odd. Good coverage on that can be found here

    1. ‎@Stuart. Appears I made a bad choice attempting to paint a comparable European-flavored scenario. I keep forgetting that we late Capitalists of all stripes can see the 'value' of foregoing tradition in the pursuit of a Buck, a Pound, or a Euro, and are quite ready to accept the scientific value argument. Although I do still think that if Great, Great Aunt Martha's remains were involved the story would be much the same. Thanks for pointing out the nuances.

  3. At the time of the first reburials in Australia, some time in the 1980s, there was also talk of a new Airport in western Sydney at Badgery's Creek. About the only thing that happened about that proposal was that a "European" cemetery was dug up and re-buried somewhere else.
    Disclosure of conflict of interest. The only human bones I have excavated were on my first excavation in Winchester, UK in 1963. Searching for the Saxon cathedral footings (where I also worked in 1965) we dug through a Victorian (period) cemetery. I excavated some coffin studs and then some foot bones. I was assured the foot bones would be given a full church burial.

    1. @Iain. First paragraph: The inverse of Poltergeist? Good late-Capitalist Christians! Second paragraph: your first excavation. You could say that it was the 'foot in the door' of a career in archaeology [coughs, clears throat].

  4. When I worked for the Victorian government in the 1980's our agency was at the heart of the reburial debate. While the Aboriginal people had a point they were willing to discuss matters except for the absolute refusal of University based academics and Doctors to even acknowledge that there was an issue. This resulted in the seizure of the Murray Black collection of human remains by Jim Berg an Inspector under the AARP Act. Many of the valuable human remains in fact lacked vital data about their location and depositional context so they could only be generally located which IMHO meant that they were scientifically useless. Some remains has been held for 30 to 50 years and still hadn't been looked at and there was no guarantee that they would have been.

    When it came to historical cemeteries I took the approach that we simply applied the Aboriginal consultation policies i.e. consult with relevant parties and where it was difficult to identify them to use Church groups as interested parties to make sure we did the right thing. This seemed to work very well.


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