Firstly I would like to make it clear that repatriation can be the answer, I am not anti it as a concept, but do worry about it being abused. There are clear cut cases when Westerners have 'explored' countries around the world and in one way or another taken elements of their indigenous culture. To many indigenous peoples these are not artefacts or objects of curiosity, they are their ancestors, their culture, their world. As such they have every right to determine what happens next and I would encourage museums and archaeological units (where necessary) to work alongside indigenous groups to portray and protect their cultures and ancestors.
In Britain I feel the situation is different. Our ancient peoples would not recognise any element of our modern lands, yes we have maintained monuments such as Stonehenge and many landscapes portray aspects of our ancient past. However, religious philosophies are multiple, there are few who rely on the land for a livelihood and technology has changed what we prioritised. As such deciding the fate of our ancient dead is complex. We are unsure as to their views on life, death, afterlife, faith and much more. To allow this understanding to grow museums, archaeologists, osteologists and many more try to piece together clues. Finding a prehistoric structure is common, postholes, pits and ditches are well known within the archaeological record, however what does that tell us about people? Not a great deal and there is nobody to ask, this makes the remains of our ancient dead essential to furthering our understanding of the life and death of the ancient man, woman and child. Without studying human remains we would be unaware of how multi-cultural prehistoric societies were, how far people moved and how ideas we able to spread so rapidly in world without Facebook! Now do not get me wrong I am not pro everyone going out to find themselves human remains to experiment on and I do not believe in exhuming the dead unless their burial place is at risk. Many are found during commercial archaeology and I believe it is better for them to be exhumed than built upon and be forever forgotten.
Much of the reading I undertook for my essay pointed me in the direction of Pagan groups and the one which jumps out is Honouring the Ancient Dead. Now I am all for everyone maintaining their desired faith and others respecting it. However, I feel HAD make the world of heritage seem dirty, seedy and underhanded. They often imply that archaeologists and museum professionals do not care about the remains of the ancients and that they are treated as scientific specimens to be wheeled out of collection stores when the next big idea comes along or museum visitor number are dropping. I feel this to be an absurd notion, I know from my own experience that the study of human remains is to allow the ancient peoples to once more inhabit the landscapes that are being studied. I agree that museum displays and archaeological texts can be lacking the human touch from time to time, but I feel this is improving. It will not change over night, the science and the peopling of the past have reached a balance and now that is beginning to shine through in articles and displays.
So why are human remains displayed?
I honestly believe that human remains can lead to a new level of understanding when people visit museums. Seeing material culture is interesting and allows them to see what was there but it does not bring people into the equation. There is often a critique for not peopling the past, yet when ancient remains are displayed in Britain that is not right either...it seems we cannot win!
Living in the technical age is of huge benefit to us in matters such as these. I do not believe that human remains should be handled on a regular basis, the display which they become a part of is essentially their new burial place and as such commands a level of respect. This is obvious to me regardless of your faith, culture or any other inclinations you may have. However, technology would surely allow is to create replicas, this can then satisfy both sides of the coin, remains are removed from display but replicas allow education to continue. In terms of Britain, even with the use of replicas I do not believe that our ancient dead should all be immediately reburied as I feel as science continues to develop they will allow us to learn more about our ancient lands.
What about overseas?
Overseas, is another questions and I do not profess to have all the answers...not by a long shot. However, if American museums worked more with Native American communities to develop exhibitions relating to their culture rather than seeing them as having the potential to remove elements of their collections, relations would improve. Both sides are trying to protect what is important to them, however, I often feel that people are forgotten when culture is mentioned. America is a huge multi everything nation and museums should reflect this. Each ethnic group has the potential to experience issues, yet, Native Americans appear to be perceived as something that has past and is no longer part of the world. This may not be the case, however, it is the way it has always come across to me. Museums should promote their past as much as any other element of American society, however, it should be presented in an ongoing manner and the communities should have vast input on how this is achieved. The museum should be a place that Native Americans take their children to learn about their past and the wider past of the country. Improved relations will ultimately integrate America and it will become culturally richer as a result.
In the case of America the discussion relating to display and storage is, I feel, a personal dialogue between museums and related communities. It is a two way street and it could lead to a fulfilling and vibrant learning environment for all. However, I fear it will be along time before that is the case. The ancient remains held in American Museums are far more traceable to modern communities than is the case in Britain. As a result consultation and collaborative working is essential if conflict is to cease and celebration is to begin.
As I have previously stated, I do not profess to have all the answers, but, I often feel that a little bit of common sense, some compassion and the patience to listen could ease the pressure of the repatriation debate and allow everyone to develop a plan for the future. The people of the present cannot undo the wrongs of the past, they cannot even apologise as it was not them that instructed or carried out the acts. However, they can put steps in place to ensure that such wrongs do not occur again and that everyone has a say in what happens to their ancestors and all aspects of their material culture. After all it is their story to tell....
Thank you again for forming a debate, I am sure my opinions are likely to cause more reaction, but, it is important that such topics are considered and discussed. The more we make it taboo the longer that poor practise will continue and that is something that no party wants.
Want to learn more?
Honouring the Ancient Dead http://www.honour.org.uk
James, N. 2008 Repatriation, Display and Interpretation Antiquity Vol. 82 770-777
Jenkins, T. 2011 Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections Routledge:
and Oxon New York
Mor, H. 2010. The Obscure Ownership of Archaeological Material British Archaeology Vol. 114 http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba114/feat2.shtml [accessed March 20 2013]
Moshenska, G. 2009 The Reburial Issue in
Antiquity Vol. 83 815-820 Britain
Payne, S. 2010. A Child’s Gift to Science British Archaeology Vol. 112 http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba112/science.shtml [accessed March 20 2013]