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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‚Äôs 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.

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Written by diggingellen

February 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm

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