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Archive for February 2011

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

Race: The Power of an Illusion

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Today we showed part 1 of the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion to the introductory class I TA for. This part is about the lack of biological support for the idea of human races as sub-species as they exist in the rest of biology – sub-groups that effectively don’t mate or mate very little, occupy different habitats or geographic range, and are considerably genetically different from one another. On the whole, I very much liked the approach of the section we watched – the documentary shadows a group of students at a DNA lab examining their thoughts about race and comparing their mtDNA with their classmates in ways that highlighted the larger points about the continuity of human diversity between ‘races’ and the large proportion of human variation present between two individuals with the same racial identity.

I look forward to the second two parts of the documentary, but some review of my own racial attitudes and awareness got me thinking about when racism is transmitted to children, particularly whether there is any work in cognitive psychology about the age at which discriminations and preconceptions are first transmitted. In The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, sociologists Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin write about the problem whereby adults, particularly white ones, excuse racist statements in young children by saying that “they don’t understand.” This denial of the early emergence of racist attitudes then hinders the active challenging of such attitudes, as teachers and parents convince themselves that children do not understand the implications of racial identity and do not actively teach children about the issue. This book includes descriptions of classroom interactions involving race between children as young as three, based on 11 months of non-interactive observation performed by Van Ausdale. Many of the incidents she describe point to the difficulty of interpreting the actions of young children, particularly in a racial context, but some are unambiguous in their characterization of young children making racial judgments. However, one of the most striking elements of the book is the manner in which the teachers (in an institution that places high emphasis on child acceptance of all races) are constantly shaping the children’s views of racial categories and classification and are showing their own discomfort with racial ambiguities or mixed heritage.

Another article I lit on during my brief Google search is a public health study by Caughy entitled Experiences of Racism Among African American Parents and the Mental Health of Their Preschool-Age Children.  One of my own classes, Biocultural Anthropology, focuses on the interaction between cultural and social processes and health disparities. In terms of health impacts children are often a very sensitive barometer of population stress (their deciduous teeth can reflect maternal nutritional deficiencies, for example). It’s interesting to consider, as this article does, how children might measure social impacts of racism equally sensitively.

Written by diggingellen

February 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Posted in Biological Determinism, Race

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