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On Doing Archaeology Where It’s Not Wanted

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I’ve wanted to become an archaeologist since before, by all rights, I should have been making any permanent decisions about my future. I think I was 4 or 5. It’s something I love – a complicated mixture of history and science, technology and dirt, people and trash. Part of my interest in it has always been on the data, the sheer love of information that could be gathered by cobbling together fragments of detritus to construct a possibility for what happened in the past. Sometimes that possibility is a well-proven scientific hypothesis, other times it’s more of a credible story. I think there’s room for both, though the masquerading of one as another (generally a story pretending to be Absolute Incontrovertible Truth) is a common frustration of mine. All this just to say that I love archaeological investigations and I think there’s inherent value to understanding archaeological remains.

Since my first excavation in 2003, I have excavated on some sites where there was ambivalence, hostility, or sadness over the archaeological investigations being carried out. In some instances our teams were monitored by Native individuals who did not want their ancestral remains dug up. On one occasion, an urban site was discovered to be the makeshift homes of several homeless individuals, one of whom spent the next three days visiting the site and calling out to us about what had happened to him. Another time I helped excavate contemporary graves that were part of a lawsuit alleging improper burial procedures on the part of the cemetery. And I’ve run frequently into hostility from people in construction or business communities who question the value of archaeology, and from site visitors who are wary of a given project’s emphasis on Native/African-American themes rather than “traditional” histories of great men.

It can be really difficult to be part of a project that I and my colleagues feel provides some benefit to the community, some new exciting revelations, only to be told that the act of producing those revelations felt like a violation to the very communities that might have benefited from it. I’ve often felt defensive or frustrated when confronted by strong emotions or a lack of curiosity about things that I think are important, and my first instinct is sometimes to justify the archaeology or make it more palatable. Sometimes, though, it’s helpful to think about the questions of ownership and community and to make sure that the archaeological work you might be doing is going to benefit non-academics and non-archaeologists in some way. Too often, it’s hard to make the direct argument that a commercial archaeology excavation that is written up in grey literature and filed with the state has had any community impact what-so-ever.

Issues of ownership of the past and community engagement have started to influence how some excavations are conducted, but there remains a divide. While some archaeologists conduct their research while actively pursuing relationships with communities and organizations that have concerns, the business and legal model of commercial mitigation archaeology (cultural resource management) is almost exclusively organized after a decision about the construction has been made, and is left to record the remains slated for destruction. Only in unusual circumstances do these construction projects get altered due to the results of archaeological excavations, and the archaeologists completing these projects usually don’t have a great way of addressing protesters or opponents who remain angry that the work has to be done at all. 

Today I’m thinking towards tomorrow’s symposium, Before It’s Too Late: An Educational Symposium on the History and Archaeology of Shockoe Bottom, which raises questions of what we might find and what a community-led archaeology there would and should look like. This is a great step, and I hope the event is valuable regardless of what happens to baseball in Richmond – it would be a step in the right direction to mitigate the flooding, and to develop that lot in an appropriate manner, and that would also require archaeological mitigation. At the same time, the questions for me about the area are bigger than archaeology currently. And the feeling I get when I imagine working on an excavation prior to baseball in the Bottom is the feeling of crossing a picket line.

Written by diggingellen

March 28, 2014 at 7:44 pm

The Shockoe Stadium Plan: Last Night’s Town Hall Meeting

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It’s not going to be a very restful weekend for Richmond city council members, particularly Johnathan Baliles and Charles Samuels. Most councilmembers have not committed to vote either against or the proposed Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium, and the meeting that Baliles and Samuels hosted last night showed a relatively even split between supporters and opponents. On Monday (February 24th) the Council is slated to vote on Resolution Number 2013-R255, which is an expression of City Council’s general support for the plan (it should be noted that a committee has already recommended striking this resolution from the agenda, so it might still not happen Monday night). This vote is the first time that council members will have to publicly announce their support or opposition to the plan. Monday night’s agenda is available online here.

I was at the meeting last night, and spoke in opposition as a new Shockoe Bottom resident who wants more from the space than a small season of baseball (you can see the WTVR CBS 6 video here). Of course, the plan is more than baseball – it includes a hotel, a grocery store, high-end apartments, and a 30 million dollar slavery and heritage museum. But the baseball stadium is why it’s all happening – I wouldn’t mind some of the amenities that are now coming with the stadium, I just don’t think that space is best used for a baseball stadium whose future is uncertain. Baseball is an aging pastime, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether county residents would support and attend a Shockoe stadium, and over the 30 year intended lifespan of the stadium the decline of baseball is likely to continue.

Many of the folks speaking in favor of the stadium are young people, like myself, on the Shockoe Bottom and Shockoe Valley neighborhood associations. They see it as a way for Shockoe to diversify into more than just a club and restaurant hub, and I think also express some resistance to the idea that the past use of an area should determine its future use. It’s interesting, though, since very few people would probably suggest building a baseball stadium on a Holocaust concentration camp, or beside a veteran’s cemetery or battlefield park. There are events in our history that are universally acknowledged to be special and sacred (or desecrated) sites where normal activities should be carefully considered. And then there is the response to slave burial grounds, or slave quarters, or historic towns, and the response is so often “we can’t just let the past determine everything we do, we’d have no space to build.” However, unlike with the Holocaust and the Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, there has been comparatively little local and national investment in commemorating and acknowledging the history of slavery in a way that allows that history to continue to be a feature on the landscape. The museum would be an important step forward in that goal, but I don’t like that it’s being used as a carrot to ensure the passage of a fundamentally flawed development plan.

There are a variety of other important aspects to this plan that others have weighed in on recently. My colleague Terry Brock, an archaeologist who just moved to Richmond, wrote an excellent piece about the archaeological process required before any construction will occur. Terry was also at last night’s meeting, and got a tentative confirmation from the City’s CAO Byron Marshall that the planned flood mitigation in the project will require the US Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA to approve the project, which will then make the project subject to Section 106 cultural resource mitigation standards. If this is indeed the case, the stadium plan may be subject to a large-scale Phase III excavation of the numerous resources Terry discusses in his blog. Such a mitigation would take millions of dollars and more than a year of excavation, plus additional time and money in artifact analysis, conservation, and curation.

Finally, as I was leaving a developer whose name I didn’t catch gave me a piece of paper with several links about baseball stadium projects in other cities, Baltimore and Ramapo, New York. In these cases, cities have taken on the fixed debt of a stadium with rosy tax revenue increases supposed to offset this debt. When the tax revenue projections turned out to be overly optimistic, the cities have been left on the hook for millions of dollars a year. This is a real concern with the plan, as another real estate developer mentioned to me after the meeting. It is interesting that these individuals were handing out pieces of paper with links and having private conversations instead of speaking publicly in opposition – I wish that Richmonders with these sorts of backgrounds were voicing their concerns more openly, to combat the impression that it’s only a few loud malcontents who oppose the plan. 

I’ll be at Monday night’s meeting of City Council, as long as the resolution remains on the agenda. It will be interesting to see what transpires.


Written by diggingellen

February 20, 2014 at 3:15 pm

In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life

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James Deetz’ book, probably the most influential and broadly-read book in historical archaeology, was published first in 1977 and revised in 1996. In Small Things Forgotten uses studies from several different regions and populations to demonstrate Deetz’ general approach to historical archaeology: to use the material culture of the American past to characterize shifts visible historic American material culture, influential regions and populations, and to examine the meaning of this material culture to the people who used it. Specifically, Deetz discusses shifts in material culture particularly related to architectural styles, ceramics, and gravestone imagery in New England and the southern plantation states of Virginia and the Carolinas. In sections added in the 1996 edition of the book, he also discusses the influence of West African house styles and cooking practices on African-American material culture and architecture, partially in response to criticisms of Euro-centrism. In some areas Deetz’ work has become dated since it was originally published in 1977, particularly on its emphasis on Anglo-American communities compared with native peoples, African Diaspora descendants, and communities founded by other European countries. However, in general this book is excellent as an introduction to historical archaeology or for scholars interested in examining Deetz’ material culture focus.

In the first chapter Deetz defines historical archaeology as “the archaeology of the spread of European cultures throughout the world since the fifteenth century, and their impact on and interaction with the cultures of indigenous peoples,” which he describes as a popular definition of historical archaeology but which is now widely ascribed to Deetz himself. In his discussion of this definition he focuses on the importance of having a global perspective when interpreting historical findings. While this is a critical aspect of historical archaeology, Deetz fails to adequately critique the Eurocentric core of this definition, in which he characterizes native peoples solely as groups impacted by European contact rather than being engaged in their own processes of change or as having extensive impacts on European colonists. Neither is this Eurocentric view limited to his definition of archaeology. In his examination of African-American house architecture and cooking practices, for example, Deetz problematically suggests that high-status but out-dated ceramics were likely charity provided to the African-American family at Parting Ways, rather than suggesting these dishes were purchased by members of the family in order to play the same socio-technic roles as Deetz has described ceramics playing in Anglo-American contexts.

Major emphasis in In Small Things Forgotten is placed on technological advances, like mass-produced creamware, or shifts in fashion, like the colonial shift away from using trenchers to ceramic vessels. While this focus does a good job of describing how a need to “keep up with the Joneses” is visible in the historical record, it does not address questions of why styles would shift in a particular direction, cases in which a change in material culture is more practical than stylistic, or cases in which a community might be purposefully rejecting the dominant fashion or be using it in a subversive manner. Deetz does touch upon ideological causes of ceramic style change where he discusses Puritan restrictions on the elaboration and variety of styles of ceramic vessels. However, he is much more effective at examining the ideological implications of material culture where he discusses shifts in gravestone style in Chapter 4. Here Deetz argues that styles were in some cases heavily circumscribed by the strength of Puritan ideology in a given community, and that shifts from death’s head gravestones to cherubs or willow and urn designs can reveal the decline or maintenance of Puritan values, which varied by region in New England. In this case, he exclusively mentions the ideological implications of tombstones without giving much consideration to families whose economic situation might have prevented a stone marker, or the presence of communities like Christianized Native groups that might have been rejecting this trend or displaying it in a different manner. However, there are many strengths to Deetz’ focus on material culture, one being that he places analysis of artifacts back into their context of use – describing foodways when he discusses ceramics, for example, and integrating folk culture studies in with archaeological data regarding excavations of lower-class sites. Additionally, the trends described in this book are still being reacted to in many ways in historical archaeology, and some of the frameworks laid out are still considered to be generally valid.

Despite the reservations described above, with In Small Things Forgotten Deetz has done an admirable job of writing an engaging yet detailed introduction to the ideas of historical archaeology. Deetz’ focus on the uncelebrated ‘common man’ of history ensures that the theories of material culture serve as a sort of social history, illustrating broad trends that would have had many impacts on the lives of working and middle class groups in colonial America. While he has underplayed the influence of certain European and African migrant communities and Native Americans, he has also demonstrated the impact that regional differences had on the development of material culture in early America. In several places in the book Deetz describes scenes from the past in a somewhat romantic fashion but that is deeply grounded in historic and archaeological data. Such an expressive, mentalistic view of past people is one at which historical archaeology excels and which is very effective to make archaeology relevant to members of the public. It is interesting, however, that so much of a book ostensibly dedicated to “small things” focuses so heavily on the importance of ideological concepts like the Georgian order to the lives of colonial Americans.

Written by diggingellen

March 20, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Politics as the new ethics?

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The theme of this week’s informal theory gathering was ethics, and one question posed was whether the debate regarding best practice in anthropology would be better served by considering the question of ‘politics’ over the issue of ‘ethics.’ This suggestion clarified a few things for me, and in general I did find it to be a productive line of thinking.

The essay we spent most of the time discussing was Jorgensen’s 1971 ‘On Ethics and Anthropology,’ an article published in the wake of the Project Camelot scandal that discusses issues that seem depressingly similar to the ones still under debate. One of the main points of the article is that anthropologists cannot conduct themselves as scientists in terms of their approach to ethics, given the personal opinions held by members of groups studied in anthropology (of current people) and the manner in which anthropological/archaeological issues are not esoteric academic questions but are deeply situated within political and social debates (ie the mosque/temple debate at Ayodhya, the implication of archaeological evidence in NAGPRA claims, and the present repatriation debates regarding the antiquities of Egypt, Greece, and other nations). Jorgensen’s article strongly advocates that anthropologists have a responsibility to consider the impact of their work, and to follow a mantra of ‘do no harm.’

This sounds great in theory – who wants to do harm, after all? – but I don’t think it offers a way out of some types of debate, for which a political lens is perhaps more productive. Take the issue of African-American archaeology, particularly the archaeology of enslaved Africans and their slaveowners. Plantation and domestic sites that contained enslaved populations have at least two true descendant communities – those of enslaved Africans and those of (mostly) European owners, and in some cases these groups have wildly different desires regarding whether archaeological work should be done at all. These debates can’t always be solved by a close working relationship with both groups in which community input is solicited, as in some cases their desires are mutually contradictory. Choosing not to do the work is not necessarily a blameless course, as it leaves unchallenged the methodical eradication of the slavery past and fails to satisfy possible desires for information among the African-American community. Likewise, performing an archaeological investigation and publishing an analysis of slave experience, punishment, and resistance might be strongly opposed by the descendants of slaveholders and have real implications for their relationship with local communities. There are a variety of ethical issues here, but there is also a politcal choice that an archaeologist in this position might have no option but to make.

Within cultural anthropology, this ‘do no harm’ rule seems to me likely to disproportionately impact applied anthropologists, who do their work with a more concrete goal in terms of producing research that will result in positive change. I can see the potential for other types of situations (repressive political regimes, certain types of controlling work cultures) to have similar implications as the archaeological example above. Perhaps some of these situations are better handled by journalists or another type of social scientist, but I also think our concept of ethics should be able to have a more nuanced concept of harm that can provide guidance in these common and tricky ethical situations.

As a side note, the focus on the looting of Egyptian antiquities among the archaeological community, specifically blogs, has been called out by Dr Christina Riggs,who lectures in Art History at the University of East Anglia. She points out that the concern among archaeologists and heritage professionals over Egyptian antiquities in the wake of pro-democracy protests has immediately focused on requests for the repatriation of Egyptian patrimony by Zahi Hawass, and that the current unrest is being used to paternalistically justify the retention of stolen antiquities (as it is here on the WSJ). While I think most people would agree that it seems prudent not to actively return artifacsts while the political situation is under such flux (particularly as Hawass himself may be under investigation for improper treatment of antiquities), the idea that certain nations like Greece and Egypt are incapable of safeguarding their antiquities is problemmatic. It ignores the fact that artifacts are damaged while under the care of nations such as the US and those in Western Europe, through improper storage or traumatic events such as the World Trade Center bombings, where artifacts from the Five Points NYC neighbourhood and New York African Burial Ground were destroyed. It also ignores the fact that violent riots and looting also periodically break out in many Western countries, and it perpetuates the concept that the Western nations who stole antiquities in the first place should somehow now be the arbiters of the conditions under which they should be returned.

Written by diggingellen

February 28, 2011 at 2:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tiny link roundup

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I had every intention of writing a blog post yesterday, but got swept up by some comment threads instead!  There’s been an interesting and productive back and forth between me and Dennis Price (as well as many other interesting comments) over at Eternal Idol, and I’m happy to have received some feedback on my last post here.

Pagans for Archaeology provide a reminder that the pagan communities in Britain are very diverse in their views on this issue, as they post in support of the Guardian open letter.

Mike Pitts has a post about why he doesn’t consider the reburial issue to be an exclusively pagan one this time.

Written by diggingellen

February 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

More on the reburial of British human remains

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The campaign for the Ministry of Justice to reexamine their license requirement for archaeological human remains continues, and today I thought I’d focus on one of the aspects I thought was most interesting about the Guardian open letter that I spoke about last post. One of the things that struck me upon looking through the list initially is that only a few of the archaeologists listed (Charlotte Roberts, Simon Hillson, Andrew Chamberlain)  focus on analysis of human remains to look at indicators of disease and nutrition, environmental/genetic traits, or trauma. Several more are interested in the commemoration of death, the position of graves on the landscape, or otherwise examining human burial practices. However, what many of these archaeologists are (Colin Haselgrove, Tim Darvill, Richard Bradley, Mike Parker Pearson, Barry Cunliffe, Geoffery Wainwright) are some of the foremost broad thinkers in British prehistoric archaeology for the past 30+ years. There are also representatives of archaeologists studying more recent British archaeology, but the focus on prehistory makes it clear that this letter is at least in part a response to the pagan groups that have been calling for the reburial of ancient non-Christian remains.

And it appears they are right to be concerned. Despite the Ministry of Justice’s earlier assurances that the license requirement was a non-issue and that archaeologists could continue to apply for extensions, a letter from the MoJ to a Druid group indicates that the MoJ plan to permit the reburial of Stonehenge remains. The letter states that after permitting an additional 5 years of analysis on the Stonehenge remains, the “religious views of the Pagans and Druids will be respected and the remains reinterred,” information not provided to any archaeologists affiliated with the remains until that blogpost was made. This basically seems to me to be an endrun around the issues of which stakeholder community in Britain gets to decide what happens with prehistoric patrimony – despite the fact that an English Heritage study in 2010 regarding other prehistoric remains recommended keeping prehistoric remains in curation due to the irreversibility of this choice and the fact that such retention is overwhelmingly supported by the British public.

Mike Pitts, one of the few professional archaeologists involved in the letter-writing process, has a great blog with several updates about the state of the reburial debate. He has a good point about the MoJ and its misunderstanding in terms of the completability of scientific research:

“The threat of reburial hanging over remains will have important repercussions for archaeologists’ ability to conduct research, affecting how grant-giving bodies will assess applications and how museums will consider accessioning material into their collections (would you wish to embark on an expensive three-year PhD in the knowledge that, when you start, there is a requirement that your subject of study has to be destroyed at the end of your second year? For that matter, would you wish to continue the research with an extension on reburial, knowing that when you had finished your degree, the remains would be destroyed, and that you would then be unable to do more research on the material, and that no one else would ever be able to confirm or refute your work?). Research conducted on newly excavated remains is often little more than a condition statement, a study to announce the recovery of material that future archaeologists will wish to examine. It is never conceived of as a “complete” analysis, as there can never be such a thing”

There are plenty of archaeologists out there who write their Masters or PhDs on material excavated in the 1920s or before – reinterpretation is one of the biggest functions of archaeologists. A lot has changed since much of the famous material at Avebury and Stonehenge was excavated (methodologically and technologically, but just as important is the theoretical development that has occurred), and it seems arrogant to assume that will not be the case in 40 years from now.

If this was the US and these were prehistoric Native remains, I don’t think the benefit-to-science argument would hold water in the same way it does here. No matter what the scientific benefit, it would be immoral to insist on excavation and analysis of remains if by doing so you were perpetuating an historical system in which one group of people is treated as objects of curiosity rather than individuals with full rights. A clear cultural or genetic ancestral group would change this balance, and would provide a manner by which claims to the remains could be assessed for their moral and historical validity. However, the members of pagan groups are no more genetically related to the remains as are many other Western European populations, and culturally there is a period of disruption for a good 1000 years between the decline of Iron Age paganism and its revival in the 18th century. No doubt the pagan groups’ religious convictions are genuine and strongly-held, and they have been actively seeking the reburial of remains for several years now. However, this seems to be an attempt to privilege one small group’s religious practice over the cultural patrimony of the majority, and I don’t really see the justification for doing that.

EDIT – Dennis Price has a case for reburial here, focusing on the remains from sites like Stonehenge. His basic point is that he’s only advocates that individuals recognized as ‘ancestors’ (ie prehistoric people buried in the Stonehenge area) should be reburied. He might be moderate compared to some in the Druid community – Honouring the Ancient Dead state that they support reburial in all but ‘truly special’ cases – but also this point doesn’t really address what the MoJ have done. The MoJ status quo applies to all human remains, of any period or affiliation, and seems to stop the curation of many sets of remains excavated after 2008. The letter in the link I referred to above (posted ontl the same blog) seems to strongly suggest that the MoJ’s license policy is being influenced at least in part by Druid requests for reburial. So, if he wants to write to the MoJ saying that they don’t support the blanket reburial requirement for licenses, that would be great.

Written by diggingellen

February 10, 2011 at 6:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Ministry of Justice versus British archaeologists

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There’s been a lot of press recently (or perhaps just a lot of my Facebook friends posting the same Guardian link) about the open letter written by forty archaeology professors to the Ministry of Justice over the recent requirement that human remains be reburied within two years of their excavation. The letter and accompanying article refer to both the 1857 Burial Act and 2008 Ministry of Justice legislation to describe how the reburial requirement has come to be applied to archaeological sites. Here’s my take on it thus far:

The 1857 Burial Act was passed in response to abysmal conditions in urban cemeteries, particularly those in London, and a large portion of the act itself is devoted to public health requirements in terms of the administration of cemeteries (see Necropolis: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold for an entertaining and generally well-researched introduction to the topic of the political evolution of burial regulations in Britain). The part of the Act that causes problems for archaeologists in this instance is Section 25, which states:

“it shall not be lawful to remove any body, or the remains of any body, which may have been interred in any place of burial, without licence under the hand of one of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, and with such precautions as such Secretary of State may prescribe as the condition of such licence; and any person who shall remove any such body or remains, contrary to this enactment, or who shall neglect to observe the precautions prescribed as the condition of the licence for removal, shall, on summary conviction before any two justices of the peace, forfeit and pay for every such offence a sum” (emphasis mine, text found here)

In this case, the Burial Act itself has not been amended or altered, but the conditions the Ministry of Justice attaches to its burial removal licenses have. At this point, I have to confess to being a bit out of my depth with British burial law. According to a MoJ statement on burial law in archaeology, their legislative change is that archaeological excavations will now be subject to the 1981 Disused Burial Grounds Act, but only if the area in question has not subsequently been “put to some other use.” Therefore, archaeologists would now be subject to the requirement of acquiring a license and abiding by the reburial requirement, but only if the area has been abandoned as a disused burial ground. However, this doesn’t jive with the objections of archaeologists, who argue that remains from sites such as the Weymouth Viking mass burial are included in this requirement. Additionally, other exemptions present in the Ministry of Justice’s own guidelines appear to apply to subsets of archaeological remains, since they state that fetal remains under 24 weeks gestation and scattered remains and those buried without a container do not require a MoJ license.

What about the implications of these legal requirements, should they be applied to archaeological sites? From a logistical perspective, the reburial requirement after two years is an unmeetable goal for many projects – though it seems like a long time, academic projects can easily be delayed by the time it takes to apply for and receive grant funding and assemble a group of experts. Contract archaeology projects completed for a developer can sometimes be put on hold due to staff members being busy with other projects, and the sheer scale of the human remains excavated as part of a large construction project can be enormous. Additionally, there is a need to interpret skeletal remains in light of the other types of findings made, so something is lost if the skeletal remains are buried long before the other analysis is completed. While the Ministry of Justice argues that extensions are obtainable, this requirement will force many academic and professional projects to dedicate significant resources to applying for an extension it is clear they will need, and leads to unnecessary uncertainty and pressure during analysis.

However, the above logistical question doesn’t address the larger question: Should human remains be stored indefinitely for their scientific value? What is different about prehistoric or non-Christian remains compared with recent cemeteries that many archaeologists agree should be reburied? There have been recent high-profile calls by pagan religious groups to claim back prehistoric remains for burial, arguing that the retention of human remains is disrespectful to the remains and to the pagan groups that claim cultural descent from prehistoric people. However, most public opinion polls show that the British population generally supports the display and curation of human skeletal material in museums. A major English Heritage study reveals that 81% of the respondents supported curation if the bones were over 100 years old, and 90% if the remains were over 1000 years old. The exhumation of human skeletons for study and display might, as pagan groups have argued, be against the wishes of these individuals and the groups that buried them. I would argue though, looking at the manner in which Britain has been transformed since prehistory, that the modern treatment of human remains would be the least of their concerns. The fate of prehistoric remains should be in the hands of the whole British public, not just select groups who claim religious inspiration from them. Since the British public seems to support their scientific analysis of this material and have a high degree of attendance at museums and archaeological sites that are informed by these remains, I would argue that the MoJ’s position on these archaeological sites is out of step with the desires of the public.

Written by diggingellen

February 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm


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