The Disposition of the Dead


Jane Hubert

Department of Psychology, University of Southampton Southampton SO9 5NH, England

“No issue has so politicised or divided the archaeological community of the United States as this one”
Randall McGuire

There may well be archaeologists and anthropologists, in some parts of the world, who are not aware of what is loosely called the “reburial” issue. There are certainly some who are aware of it, and even involved to some extent, but who do not appear to want to have it discussed, at least with the people it most concerns. The issue concerns human remains that are the subject of scientific study, or potential study, or that are displayed in museums or elsewhere. In North America, and Australia, in particular, indigenous groups are protesting against the excavation of their burial sites, the storage of their remains on museum shelves, and their use for scientific research. They are asking for them back, to dispose of them as they wish. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists are divided in their response to the demands of the peoples who lay claim to the remains of their ancestors.

At one extreme are those who see all human (and most particularly, skeletal) remains of whatever date, as valuable for scientific study. They argue that such material provides unique information on such things as patterns of disease in past populations, diet, adaptation to the environment, biological changes, as well as on cultural practices, and that the material must therefore be kept in special conditions (usually in museums or university departments), for easy access by specialists. At the other extreme are those who see the last intentions of the deceased – as expressed through the burial rites actually carried out – as sacrosanct. They argue that whatever the date or circumstances, the human material should be left untouched and in situ, even though the result would inevitably be a skewing of our knowledge about past cultures.

Among those who want reburial of human remains already in collections, and of any material found in the future, there are some who believe that all human remains should be reburied, with due ceremony, or disposed of in a manner appropriate to the customs of the cultural group from which they come (and this includes cremation). Others are fighting to retrieve and dispose of those remains that are known to be the forbears of a particular group, others only those who are actually named individuals.

The American Indians, as represented by the American Indians Against Desecration (AIAD), intend to retrieve all Indian human remains from all over the world, and to rebury them.

At the World Archaeological Congress in Southampton, Jan Hammil, now (Mrs) Jan Hammil/Bear Shield, a Mescalero Apache Indian, and Director of AIAD, presented the viewpoint of AIAD at the session on “Material Culture and the Making of the Modern United States: Views from Native America”:

American Indians Against Desecration (AIAD) is a project of the International Treaty Council which was formed on the Standing Rock Reservation of South Dakota in 1974 with delegates representing some 97 Indian tribes and Nations from across North and South America. We hold non-governmental status in the United Nations.

AIAD was formed as a result of the Longest Walk when Indian people walked from California to Washington DC in support of Treaty Rights.

As we crossed the country and visited the universities, museums and laboratories, we found the bodies of our ancestors stored in cardboard boxes, plastic bags and paper sacks. We found our sacred burial places stripped and desecrated, the bodies and sacred objects buried with our dead on display for the curious and labelled “collections”, “specimens” and “objects of antiquity”. AIAD estimates that in the United States, half a million Indian bodies have and continue to be so treated, most as a result of federal projects, using federal monies and stored at federally supported institutions.

Further, we estimate an additional half a million bodies of our ancestors have been shipped to European countries. It is AIAD’s objective, goal and intent to ensure that all Indian remains and sacred objects buried therewith are returned to their nations, relatives and allies for appropriate disposition as was occurring prior to their theft and desecration.

Anything less is unacceptable and to ensure our objective’s success, we are training our children and grandchildren in locating and securing the return of our ancestors and sacred items. To that extent, we have accepted and are prepared for a very long war against those enemies who seek to destroy Indian religious practices, customs and traditions.

As traditional Indians from many Indian nations, members of AIAD share basic religious beliefs concerning the sanctity of our graves. We believe in an afterlife. That which is called death, to us, is only a change in life as we continue on a journey to the spirit world and thereby become one with our Mother, the Earth.

Any disruption, delay or halt in that journey is a violation of personal religious beliefs to that individual, to his descendants who incorporate and are responsible for his spirit in their daily lives and religious ceremonies and to those of the present and the future who will embark on that journey. Therefore, when we find our ancestors’ bodies and graves desecrated by the hundreds of thousands, we consider this an intolerable violation of religious freedom which must be addressed and must be resolved. Anything less would be a prostitution of the religious practices, customs and traditions of our ancestors, our relatives, our allies and, therefore, of ourselves.

AIAD has already had some considerable success. Many remains, though only minute proportion of those that exist in collections all over the world, have already been buried with due ceremony. AIAD also opposes excavation of all burial sites, and where this is necessary in the face of redevelopment of the land, insists on the return of the skeletal remains to the Indian communities concerned.

During WAC, American Indians representing many different tribal group including Pima, Tohono O’odham (Papago) and Mescalero Apache, put forward their views in sessions and in taped interviews. Cecil Antone, a Pima Indian from Phoenix, Arizona, said:

The other day I saw one of my tribe in a museum here in your country. I said to myself, why is my ancestor here, what is he doing here? They don’t belong here, this is foreign to them, they belong at home. His spirit is wandering out there, wandering out there in a limbo state, because he is not familiar with the country. He remembers when he was small, his life, the happy times he had, and the land – his land. I thought about it at night, when I heard about the list of all the tribes that are in this country – it’s over half the Indian nations in our country. Every tribe is in this country, just about . . . this person from my tribe – he was probably sold three or four different times. How can a civilisation, mankind, sell human beings? These people were once human beings – how can you sell them? It hurts, it hurts real bad . . . .

Cecil Antone does not condemn all archaeological research:

I see some good in Archaeology, it has brought some history to our people, but there is one facet of archaeology that our Indian people . . . do not agree with . . . the Indian people believe that when a person is laid to rest he should not be bothered at all. He has done his work in this world and he is going to another world to go back to the mother earth where we all came from . . . if he is disturbed he is out here, wandering, his spirit is not fully with the mother earth, and I have concern because I hate to see my ancestors being placed in museums, stowed away in boxes for heaven knows how long . . . .

He suggests that archaeology is:

. . . a profession that has been established by the dominant society in our area . . . . They understand the past – but we know the past.

Robert Cruz, a Tohono O’odham Indian from Arizona also condemns those archaeologists who excavate Indian remains:

I am angry that they disturb [the graves] and express to us their own values when they don’t consult with Indian people about what they will do, and I am angry at the lies they create to divide our people, the Indian people. I am angry at the exploitation and the degradation that they bring on to Indian people by disturbing and desecrating sacred Indian burials and ceremonial sites, and stealing, robbing us of our traditional culture. I am angry at them because they have hurt so many people, they’ve caused so much pain and so much suffering, and it’s like they are working hand in hand with the devil.

His concern is not only for the spirits of the ancestors, who must live in a limbo, unable to rest until they are returned to the earth, but also for the effect the digging up of the ancestors has on the natural world:

(We must) take care of the mother earth, take care of the spiritual world, and no digging up of ancestral graves and sacred sites and bulldozing cemeteries and digging up the liver of mother earth, the veins, the rivers of mother earth . . . the natural world is what we would like to preserve for our future generations, we would like them to see what we see today, where they can enjoy seeing their brothers, their clan relatives, the eagles, the crows, the buzzards, the rattlesnakes and those animals, those human beings – the sonora fruit cactus – the various cacti and trees who through the burials have grown up into trees and into cactus, and they are with us too in that form, and we want our relations to be with us in whatever form they are.

He blames many of the misfortunes that have befallen the Indians on the disturbance of the ancestors:

We want to get rid of the sicknesses, we want to get rid of the unhappy land . . . that is the result of digging up and leaving empty the homes of the ancestors. From the empty homes, that is where the sickness comes . . . the unhappiness; that is how our children are killed, that is how we lose them, because we have disturbed and desecrated those areas where we had our ancestors’ homes. Those are their homes, and we should allow them to stay where they were left . . .

In February, 1987, at the Arizona Inter Tribal Council in Phoenix, Robert Cruz told the meeting that after a large ceremonial reburial of skeletal remains near Sells in Arizona (see below):

The ancestors came back, and said that they were very happy to be released from their prisons – the museums were their prisons.

This idea that museums are prisons for the ancestors led Robert into trying to discover what it was like to be imprisoned in this way. He began to visit Death Row in an American gaol, talking to inmates in order to discover how the ancestors must feel when they are condemned to the prisons of museum boxes and shelves.

The views of American archaeologists range from total support of AIAD to total opposition to reburial of any human material in the possession of museums or university departments. The position taken by the American Committee for Preservation of Archaeological Collections (ACPAC) is one of the most extreme. In their Newsletter (November 1986) they exhort:

Archaeologists, your profession is on the line. Now is the time to dig deep and help ACPAC with its expenses for legal fees. Next year or next month will be too late; we have to act immediately to fight this issue. This one will be resolved in court, not by the press. We will be able to cross-examine Indians on their tribal affinities, religion, and connection to the archaeological remains they seek to destroy. We will be able to challenge anti-science laws based on race and religion. We can make a strong case, but it takes money. Send some!

The Society for American Archaeology, the Society of Professional Archaeologists and many other regional, professional and “interested” groups have debated the issue and come up with their own guidelines and decisions. The arguments put forward by many archaeologists in America and elsewhere for the preservation of at least some skeletal remains for present and future research are, from an archaeological or physical anthropological point of view, overwhelming. On the other hand, the arguments presented by indigenous populations whose ancestors are the skeletal remains in question, are equally overwhelming.

One archaeologist who has found himself in a particularly difficult situation is Jo Mangi, from Papua New Guinea. He attempts to reconcile his professional background with his own cultural and religious beliefs:

I am an archaeologist by training, I am also a Kondika by birth and by initiation . . . I wear two hats . . . I am an archaeologist and an indigenous native. Asan archaeologist . . . a scientist who is concerned with learning about our past I would argue that we can learn a lot from examining and exhuming from burials. We can learn about aspects such as general burial practices, mortuary goods, social structure, population composition, technology and presence of diseases. As an archaeologist I acknowledge the potential for enlarging our knowledge of the past by studying burials. Also as an archaeologist I would like to put forward a proposal for research for some student of archaeology in Southampton: “indicators of social hierarchies” from burials, not from burial goods, but from something that can be found on individuals – tooth fillings . . . . Let me ask anyone here in the audience if they can tell me what the reception of the local population would be. Now, let us use our imagination, something that archaeologists are renowned for . . .

He stressed as others did in this session at the WAC, that our knowledge of the past is not objective fact but interpretation:

Archaeologists say that the past belongs to all people . . . This is the area of dilemma. If I, as an archaeologist, in my background, am supposed to be a custodian of the past as so many archaeologists have claimed, one must also understand that I have to interpret the past, and I interpret the past as I see it . . . in this section of the WAC on “objectivity of the past” it has become self evident that we archaeologists of the world do not see eye to eye.

Much useful work can be done, he suggests, without removing skeletal material from burial sites:

I see no reason why . . . humans, as I call them – you may call them scientific samples – I see no reason why they should be kept in cardboard boxes. Let us be very honest – I went through the list of what we can learn about it on site, the context of it, that is half of it done.

As a subject of research rather than as an archaeologist, he says, with some bitterness:

There was a journal called Archaeology and Physical Anthropology in Oceania which was started . . .in the 1960s, that journal came to an end because they could not sort out my race – Melanesian – they could not sort it out, not with physical anthropology, nor with biological anthropology, and now someone is going to tell me that you are going to keep me in cardboard boxes so that when the time is ripe and technology is developed, you are going to place me into something – I’m sorry . . . it is human beings . . . my mother and my people . . .

Is there a way out of the dilemma faced by scientists who respect the wishes of the indigenous peoples who request the return of their ancestors, but still wish to continue to be able to obtain the kinds of data that can only be obtained from human skeletal remains? Many of the States in North America have set up consultative bodies with local Indian communities to discuss ways that research can continue, with reburial as the eventual outcome, and several have introduced legislation. There are many different problems, and different strategies must be worked out for each. In some cases the collections already exist in museums or departments, in other cases human remains are currently being unearthed by such things as road, bridge or building projects; some human remains in collections are provenanced, others are not, some are clearly “ancient”, others comparatively more recent; some have been obtained dishonourably, others by relatively honourable means – and so on. Indian pressure has recently succeeded in obtaining promises to remove many public displays of Indian remains. Among those who have made these promises is Dr Robert McC. Adams, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. In correspondence with the Smithsonian, Jan Hammil/Bear Shield, for the AIAD, had written:

We request that the Smithsonian remove the display of Indian bodies from public display . . . We suggest you consider that an empty room would be of greater educational value combined with a notice stating the following:

“The remains of the American Indians previously on exhibit have been removed from public display by the Smithsonian in cooperation and out of respect for traditional religious beliefs, practices and customs of the American Indian. Current efforts to replace the exhibit include a coordinated effort with American Indians to develop a future display which would better meet the objectives of the Smithsonian”.

In England, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has already removed all Indian remains from display, and has produced a list of Indian material held there, as a basis for discussion with representatives of AIAD.

Tom King, one of the small band of American archaeologists who has supported the Indians’ claims to their skeletal remains, and Director of the Office of Cultural Resource Preservation of the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation, has produced draft guidelines for the consideration of traditional cultural values in historic preservation. This was sent out as a discussion draft mainly to Indian organisations and Federal agencies in about 1985, and comments from both groups were largely favourable. In summary, the draft (King n.d.) outlines its principles and guidelines thus:

Principles

Human remains should be treated with respect for the wishes of the deceased individuals they represent. Presumably few if any people who died during prehistoric times and the early history of the United States hoped to have their bodies exhumed and subjected to scientific study at a later date. It follows that human remains should be left undisturbed wherever possible.
Human remains often have deep emotional significance for those who view themselves as the genetic and/or cultural descendants of the deceased represented by the remains.
Human remains are often the objects of religious veneration by the genetic and/or cultural descendants of the deceased; hence actions that adversely affect such remains, or adversely affect the ability of their descendants to practise their religion, may infringe upon the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion, and must be planned with great care.
Human remains often have substantial scientific value, with the potential to contribute to research in archaeology, physical, social and cultural anthropology, genetics, and medicine. The answers to research questions in such fields can help prolong life, improve the quality of life, and enrich our understanding of human history and society. Addressing such questions may require that human remains be subjected to substantial and extended study, and in some cases that they be destroyed in order to perform laboratory tests.
Since it is impossible to predict with certainty the kinds of scientific research questions that may develop in the future, or the kinds of methods and techniques that may become available to help address them through the study of human remains, there is a strong tendency on the part of the scientific research community to seek to maintain human remains in laboratory settings in perpetuity.
Some conflict is virtually inevitable between the interests of those concerned about the scientific study of human remains and those with emotional ties to the deceased. At a more theoretical level, some conflict is inevitable between the interests of science and the undoubted desire of most people, at the time of death, to rest in peace.
Proper treatment of human remains requires that respect for the wishes of the deceased, and for the feelings of the deceased’s genetic and cultural descendants, be balanced responsibly against the interests of science.
The major management tools that can be used to arrive at proper treatment of human remains are:
Consultation: Identifying concerned parties and working with them to identify their interests and achieve balance among them;
Justification: Assuring that proposed scientific studies requiring that human remains be subjected to protracted or destructive investigation, or not be reinterred, are fully justified as contributions to science in the public interest, and
Funding: Assuring that adequate funds are available for the prompt conduct of justified scientific studies, and for reburial of human remains in a dignified manner consistent with the cultural traditions of the deceased and their genetic or cultural descendants.
Guidelines

Human remains should not be disinterred unless it is necessary to do so. Generally speaking, such a necessity exists only when the remains are in danger of destruction as the result of land disturbance, inundation, erosion, vandalism, or similar phenomena.
Where human remains are in danger, they should be disinterred carefully and respectfully, and as completely as possible, using the best available archaeological methods. Although the needs of archaeological research may not demand the exhumation of endangered human remains, or may require exhumation of only a sample of such remains, respect for the dead demands that to the extent possible, all such remains be recovered before the historic properties in which they lie are destroyed.
Disinterred human remains should be reburied in safe locations, in a manner as consistent as possible with the likely wishes of the deceased. Locations and procedures for reburial should be developed through consultation with genetic and cultural descendants of the deceased. Where an American Indian community is involved, consultation should be carried out in a manner consistent with the cultural expectations and practices of the community, and should be responsive to the desires of traditional spiritual leaders.
Before reburial occurs, human remains should be subjected to such scientific study as is necessary to satisfy justified research interests. Federal agencies responsible for treatment of human remains should be careful to ensure that proposed studies are fully justified: that is, that their likely results will contribute significantly to the resolution of scientific, humanistic, medical, or other questions whose resolution is clearly in the public interest.
A definite, reasonable schedule should be established and adhered to for study and reinterment. Ideally this schedule should be part of the research design or study plan developed to guide the project in which it is expected that human remains will be found.
Many permutations on the above rules of thumb may be appropriate in particular circumstances. For example:
A wide range of justifiable historical, anthropological, and medical research questions make it generally appropriate to conduct basic examinations, similar to autopsies, on all disinterred human remains, to document the age, sex, and general physical conditions of the deceased. Where close genetic and cultural descendants of the deceased feel strongly that such studies should not be conducted, however, if there is no pressing need to conduct such studies to answer research questions in the public interest, it may be appropriate to reinterr human remains without any study at all, or with very attenuated study.
Conversely, there may be instances in which it is so clearly in the public interest to conduct extensive study of a given set of human remains, to address clearly justified research question, and to maintain such remains for future study, that the interests of science may override those of respect for the wishes of the dead and their descendants, and the remains should not be reinterred at all.
In some cases it may be possible to arrange compromises between respect for the dead and their descendants and the interests of long-term research, for example by reinterring human remains in such a way that they can be disinterred again if future research needs so demand and descendants approve.
Where questions arise about whether and how to reinterr human remains, the desires of close genetic or cultural descendants should usually be accorded greater respect than those of more distant descendants, and those claiming both genetic and cultural descent should be respected over those claiming only cultural affiliation. For example, if the direct genetic descendants of a recently deceased American Indian community ask that the remains of the community’s inhabitants be cremated, while a nationwide American Indian organisation, claiming pan-Indian cultural affiliation with the deceased, requests that they be reinterred, the wishes of the genetic descendants should be given precedence.
The precise arrangements for study and reinterment of human remains should be worked out through consultation between project sponsors, American Indian communities or other genetic and/or cultural descendants, and anthropologists or others having research interests in human remains. In some instances, such arrangements can be worked out on a regional basis, or with respect to all human remains found in the ancestral territory of, or representing the ancestors of, a given contemporary cultural group. In other instances consultation will be needed on a case-by-case basis.
Where human remains are reinterred, the Federal agency or other party responsible for their reinterment should:
ensure that the reinterred remains are reasonably secure against further disturbance;
minimise the disturbance of intact archaeological deposits during reinterment; and
if the remains are reinterred in proximity to an archaeological site, provide for the reinterred remains to be marked in some way to distinguish them from original, in-place constituents of the archaeological site.
In its April 1987 Newsletter the Society of Professional Archaeologists puts forward a very similar set of guidelines (Niquette 1987), but strengthens King’s 6.(a) (above) by removing the conditional clause “if there is no pressing need to conduct such studies to answer research questions in the public interest”. Both sets of guidelines will go some way towards easing the current situation, by recognising the necessity for consultation with American Indian representatives of, as SOPA suggests: “those tribes or groups that occupy or previously occupied the lands in which the deceased lay” or have “biological or cultural relations with the deceased”. However, the onus would still be on the Indians concerned to prove these conditions, and consultation does not necessarily lead to agreement, not least because, unless there is a pan-Indian attitude to reburial, there could be an inherent tendency to dispute between the current occupiers of the land, and any previous occupants. Much less acceptable to Indian groups, though, is the statement in the SOPA guidelines, that “as a rule” those human remains and associated artefacts that have demonstrated “extreme significance in contemporary or predictable future research” may be “retained for analysis in perpetuity”. This applies to all human material over 50 years old. Such a recommendation leaves little room for “consultation”, and to some extent makes a mockery of the rest of the recommendations since, in the last analysis, it denies the fundamental right of the Indian people to rebury certain remains – even some people that might only have been buried within living memory. It is to be hoped that the overriding interests of the scientist in this clause could be counteracted by the final clause, which states, again “as a rule”, that if human remains and associated artefacts are of extreme “cultural or religious significance” then they should be “reinterred without analysis”. The SOPA guidelines, which have been distributed mainly to archaeologists, that is, a rather different audience from King’s, have generally received a somewhat negative reaction.

Thus the conflict remains, though, overall, the position of the Indians has begun to improve in relation to the amount of influence they can now wield in the treatment and disposition of the remains of their ancestors. This would not be true, however, if the Society for American Archaeology (SAA)’s approach, as laid out in its Statement Concerning the Treatment of Human Remains in May 1986 (SAA 1986), was adopted:

Archaeologists are committed to understanding and communicating the richness of the cultural heritage of humanity, and they acknowledge and respect the diversity of beliefs about, and interests in, the past and its material remains.

It is the ethical responsibility of archaeologists “to advocate and to aid in the conservation of archaeological data”, as specified in the Bylaws of the Society for American Archaeology. Mortuary evidence is an integral part of the archaeological record of past culture and behaviour in that it informs directly upon social structure and organisation and, less directly, upon aspects of religion and ideology. Human remains, as an integral part of the mortuary record, provide unique information about demography, diet, disease, and genetic relationships among human groups. Research in archaeology, bioarchaeology, biological anthropology, and medicine depends upon responsible scholars having collections of human remains available both for replicative research and research that addresses new questions or employs new analytical techniques.

There is great diversity in cultural religious values concerning the treatment of human remains. Individuals and cultural groups have legitimate concerns derived from cultural and religious belief about the treatment and disposition of remains of their ancestors or members that may conflict with legitimate scientific interests in those remains. The concerns of different cultures, as presented by their designated representatives and leaders, must be recognised and respected.

The Society for American Archaeology recognises both scientific and traditional interests in human remains. Human skeletal materials must at all times be treated with dignity and respect. Commercial exploitation of ancient human remains is abhorrent. Whatever their ultimate disposition, all human remains should receive appropriate scientific study, should be responsibly and carefully conserved, and should be accessible only for legitimate scientific or educational purposes.

The Society for American Archaeology opposes universal or indiscriminate reburial of human remains, either from ongoing excavations or from extant collections. Conflicting claims concerning the proper treatment and disposition of particular human remains must be resolved on a case-by-case basis thorough consideration of the scientific importance of the material, the cultural religious values of the interested individuals or groups, and the strength of their relationship to the remains in question.

The scientific importance of particular human remains should be determined by their potential to aid in present and future research, and this depends on professional judgements concerning the degree of their physical and contextual integrity. The weight accorded any claim made by an individual or group concerning particular human remains should depend upon the strength of their demonstrated biological or cultural affinity with the remains in question. If remains can be identified as those of a known individual from whom specific biological descendants can be traced, the disposition of those remains, including possible reburial, should be determined by the closest living relatives.

The Society for American Archaeology encourages close and effective communication between scholars engaged in the study of human remains and the communities that may have biological or cultural affinities to those remains. Because vandalism and looting threaten the record of the human past, including human remains, the protection of this record necessitates cooperation between archaeologists and others who share that goal.

Because controversies involving the treatment of human remains cannot properly be resolved nation-wide in a uniform way, the Society opposes any Federal legislation that seeks to impose a uniform standard for determining the disposition of all human remains.

Recognising the diversity of potential legal interests in the material record of the human past, archaeologists have a professional responsibility to seek to ensure that laws governing that record are consistent with the objectives, principles, and formal statements of the Society for American Archaeology.

What makes this SAA document all the more remarkable is that it was issued just a few days after the American Indians Against Desecration had addressed some 1000 archaeologists at the SAA Plenary Session on the reburial of Indian remains. In that address AIAD expressed its frustration in its dealings with professional archaeologists, by describing how much easier it had been to discuss the issues, and find an acceptable compromise, with the US Air Force, and with the US Forest Service, than it had been, and still was, with them.

The unsympathetic stance taken by the SAA has already been opposed by some American archaeologists. Larry Zimmerman, in an article entitled “Some Costs of Refusing to Compromise on Reburial” writes:

What was or was not ethical behaviour for American archaeologists seemed so clear in the past. Only “pot-hunting” and the usual violations of scientific conduct were unethical; other issues appeared infrequently and were relatively minor. Issues surrounding the excavation, analysis, and disposition of human skeletal material, however, have provided what might be the most profound ethical challenge yet faced by archaeology in North America. Phrased in the harshest way, the fundamental ethical question is whether archaeologists exploit the past of Indian peoples and, when human skeletons are involved, whether we disturb the “ancestors” and thereby violate Indian religious freedom.

For archaeologists actively working with Native Americans on the reburial issue, the past five years have been particularly challenging and, most often, extremely frustrating. While the issue of reburial has a long history in North America, the recent past has seen the Executive Committee of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) attempt to pass an anti-reburial resolution (1982), pass an anti-reburial resolution (1983), rescind that resolution (1984), cosponsor a conference on the reburial issue (1985), hold a plenary session on the issue and pass what essentially is the 1983 resolution (1986), and actively lobby against the Melcher bill which would effect compromise by federal law( 1987). Almost every tactic, from a very patronising “some of my best friends are Indian” approach, to a “just who do you represent?” ploy, has been used. Among the worst of tactics has been the approach that stereotypes or labels both Indians and archaeologists who work with them as radical or militants who are difficult to deal with and are usually not reasonable. What the leadership of the SAA and those who support them have evidently not understood is the damage these activities and tactics may do to our future access to data and to the image of North American archaeology throughout the world.

There can be no doubt that the study of skeletal material is important to an archaeological understanding of the past, but our attitudes about Indians and the skeletons of their ancestors put that study at risk. The general public in the United States shares an interest in archaeology but certainly does not understand or believe that the benefits to be derived from such a study and retention of skeletons outweigh religious concerns of a cultural minority. The propose Melcher Bill is a recent example of legislative efforts to put such sentiments into action. Archaeologists fail to understand that when compromise is reached and trust develops, many access problems disappear. If American archaeologists persist in anti-reburial activities, they risk any future access to human skeletal material and grave goods.

Not only is access risked, but the image of American archaeology has suffered internationally. Expressions of disgust were apparent at the World Archaeological Congress, especially in discussion following the videotape of the Kansas Conference on the Salina Burial Pit. Jan Hammil became a co-opted member of the WAC Steering Committee to represent indigenous peoples to counter the presence of the SAA president-elect’s membership on that panel, attesting to negative sentiment about the conduct of American archaeology in the reburial issue. Finally, negative comments or parenthetical asides have been appearing in print. Recently, Chris Chippindale, in The Times Literary Supplement (12 September 1986, No. 4354, p. 1008) commented on a volume commemorating the SAA’s 50th anniversary:

Yet today, American archaeologists who are using the evidence of native American prehistory as simply a route towards a generalised or universal anthropology, may be as spiritually alienated from native Americans as their forefathers were and may equally, if more subtly, be stealing native materials for the interests of Euro-American society.

Another example comes from Philip Rahtz’s (1985) delightful little book, Invitation to Archaeology. His discussion of motivations for doing archaeology echo Chippindale:

It has been said that American archaeologists investigating Indian archaeology in the USA do so not out of interest in Indian culture (least of all for the benefit of Indians), but to provide fodder for computer analysis.

Frustration often makes one feel that no progress is being made on the issue, but perspective shows that change is occurring. Several conferences between Indians and archaeologists have been held. Meetings in the state of Iowa in 1980 and1983, a session at the Plains Conference in 1983, the Peacekeeper Conference in1985, the SAA/SOPA conference in 1985, discussions at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in 1985, and more recent meetings in several states have worked to keep the dialogue going. (Indian patience wears thin, however, and they chose not to have a presence at the 1987SAA Annual Meeting in Toronto.) Most states now either have laws in place or are considering laws that protect human skeletons; though they are variable in quality and enforcement, attention is being paid. Finally, even though the SAA Executive Committee either misread or chose to ignore the sentiment of its constituents and backed an essentially anti-reburial policy the composition of that committee is changing. Worthy of note is that no less than 7 of 9 candidates for SAA office in 1987 mentioned or alluded to the issue in their position statements; only one or two have done so in the past.

In the end, archaeologists will become more flexible in their dealings with Indians, and will compromise. I firmly believe that most archaeologists in North America are very willing to work with Indians in spite of pronouncements from the SAA or other organisations, and I also believe that most do so from a well-considered moral and ethical stance. Many also realise that if they don’t, Indians will use both public sentiment and bureaucratic avoidance of the bad publicity inherent in confrontations with cultural minorities, in order to work around us, as they have done with the US Air Force, some Forest Service districts, and several other agencies. If we cannot develop compromises with Indians we will find our access to human skeletal material and our constructions of the past dramatically changed. The SAA statement specifically opposes “any Federal legislation that seeks to impose a uniform standard for determining the disposition of all human remains”. However, in January 1987, Senator Melcher told the Senate (Melcher 1987):

Mr President, I am going to introduce two bills today . . . . The first bill, for which I have asked the number 187 to be reserved, deals with a very special problem, a shameful problem that exists in this country. I asked for the number S. 187because I hope that this is one of the first bills passed in 1987.

Mr President, most of us know where our ancestors are buried, where their remains reside, where we have placed them with some respect and dignity. But there are a great number of native Americans and perhaps native Hawaiians who do not know where their ancestors’ remains are placed.

Mr President, there are scores of museums in the United States and abroad. There are several universities, Mr President, that have the remains of native Americans in skeletal form on display or just their bones collected in boxes without the consent of the families or the tribes.

In addition to that, there are numerous artefacts of sacred nature to tribes of native Americans that are in museums without the consent of the tribes. There are religious artefacts of a sacred nature to various tribes. To correct that, Mr President, I am introducing this bill, S. 187, which is the same bill that I introduced on the last day of the last Congress. I introduced it at that time in order to provide an opportunity for its consideration by various museums, various groups of people, various tribes and clans, and families of native Americans and native Hawaiians.

The response we have had to the bill during the past 2 or 3 months since adjournment has been very much on the positive side. The bill will set up a system of repatriation, and that means just as it sounds, the return of the remains of these people taken from their native grounds and returned now with some dignity to the tribes or the clans or the families of native Americans and native Hawaiians, where they properly can be given respect and be cared for by the people.

In addition, the same will be true of the sacred offerings. The bill sets up a system for figuring out whose bones are stored in the Smithsonian. Right now there are scores of boxes, literally hundreds of boxes of native Americans’ bones stored in the Smithsonian in its attics and nooks and crannies. The religious objects and the remains of these native Americans will be identified. Then a system is set up within the bill to return them and the respect will be paid.

I think the bill is absolutely essential. I think it is a shame on our country, on our people as a whole, that we have not corrected this problem. I believe respect is due, dignity is due and now is the time to do it. That is the purpose of the introduction of this bill.

The Melcher Bill drew immediate response from Jane Buikstra, Chair of the Committee to Promote Scientific Study of Human Remains, in a memo to professional colleagues, in which she says that her committee believes the Bill to be a “serious threat to physical anthropology”. She writes:

In addition to this Bill, Senator Inouye (Hawaii) has drafted proposed legislation that has two provisions: (1) the Smithsonian would have five years to survey its collections and to return all tribally affilliated remains to the tribes and (2) the remainder of the North American collection would then be buried in them all with a suitable monument erected.

The memo urges archaeologists to write to Senators, Representatives, and members of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. It offers a sample letter, which suggests that the Bill “provides for rights to native peoples that others in this country do not enjoy”. A strange statement to be made in the context of a system that, when white and Indian bodies are unearthed, arranges for immediate reburial of the white bodies in consecrated ground, and sends the Indian bodies to the museum to be labelled, shelved and used for research purposes. In fact the Melcher Bill, and Inouye’s proposed legislation now appear to be moribund.

The kind of discriminatory practice regularly carried out when Indian and non-Indian burials are excavated is forgotten by those who dismiss the Indians’ request for the return of their ancestors as a purely political gesture, as opposed to being a cultural or religious statement, but the conflict is, fundamentally, one of beliefs. It is not unusual for differences in cultural beliefs to develop into political issues, especially when the cultural groups concerned are the oppressors and the oppressed, the colonial majority and the indigenous minority.

Even those archaeologists or physical anthropologists who are the most violently opposed to any ban on excavation of burial sites or display of human remains would presumably draw the line at some point, and, this being so, should be able to understand others who believe that no human remains should be dug up or displayed. It would probably be true to say that an English (or white American) person would fight to protect the grave of their own mother or father, or of their own child. Many would probably extend this to other relatives within “living memory” or even to any Christian graveyard, if it were to be excavated purely for “scientific” purposes.

Why do English people mind? What does it matter to a person that their mother’s bones are dug up, labelled, chipped at or destroyed for the sake of research, especially in the context of a society that encourages people to donate their eyes, or kidneys, to someone else after their death? In some contexts it seems that we do believe that the bones of our relatives are our relatives. This is, in essence, no different from the American Indian, or the Papuan, who says: “I see people, I do not see bones”. Are they being inconsistent, or are we?

It is clear that attitudes towards skeletal material varies widely. It cannot be assumed that in all societies in which bones are equated with the ancestors they will automatically be treated with the same sort of “respect” that American Indians show towards their ancestors. In Madagascar, for example (Bloch 1981):

the Merina do not consider tombs as unimportant because they contain specific people but because they contain undifferentiated, and often ground-up together, people; this is produced, quite literally as a result of dancing with corpses . . . . in the famadihana (funereal ceremonies).

This dancing with dug-up skeletons suggests, at one level, that the bones are perceived actually as “living individuals” but at another level it is quite clear that the bones are so mixed-up that the actual identity of any individual skeleton must be unknown.

In 20th Century England there has been little apparent concern about the excavation of ancient skeletons or the display of human remains. Recently, however, there have been well-publicised cases where excavation of burial sites has caused concern. Some say that this is “only” because of the wide publicity given to the American reburial issue, and that therefore the opposition to the disturbance of burial sites cannot be said to be founded in religious or cultural beliefs. But even if that were so, why should a society not become more sensitised to the treatment of its ancestors? In England, in the past, a man was hanged for stealing a loaf of bread; this practice was given up not in emulation of some other society, or to make political statements, but because the society became more sensitised to the relative values of a human life and a loaf of bread.

In the United States some Indian groups which had previously not been aware of the dispersal of their ancestral remains all over the world, or, more important, had not conceived the implications of this to their religious beliefs, are now requesting the return of their ancestors. Because this is a comparatively recent phenomenon some archaeologists protest that the current concern with the spirits of the dead is not a real or valid one and is merely an attempt not to get left behind by the political “bandwagon” of the moment. In February 1987, in order to try to discover what the significance of the issue really is to individual Indians and groups at all levels, Peter Ucko and I visited Tohono O’odham, Pima, Navaho and Hopi communities In Arizona, attended the Arizona Inter Tribal Council in Phoenix, and visited the site of a recent reburial near Sells. It became clear that the reburial issue is very much alive not only among politicised Indian groups, but also among those living in scattered villages and on reservations. The strength of the belief in the need for the ancestors to be in the earth was undeniable, and existed quite apart from the overall reburial issue, which was, in some cases, quite new to them.

Maria Garcia Dominges, a Tohono O’odham elder, living just across the border in Mexico, said to us:

Archaeologists must stop digging our ancestors up. Give back what you have taken; you have not had permission from us. To the whole world I say: stop digging things up, for it shows no respect for the dead. Bones turn to dust, and that is what should happen.

At a meeting with elders in Old Oraibi on the Second Mesa the message was also clear. They want returned not only all their remains, but also their cultural objects. They asked for a list to be sent to them of all Hopi remains and objects held in English museums. Larry Anderson, on behalf of the Chairman of the Navaho Nation, gave us a message specifically to be published in the Bulletin:

We would welcome statements on the preservation of artefacts and regarding human remains and their return to the reservations for reburials. We would be very interested in the appointment of Navaho Council members for checking any directive of action to be taken by the World Archaeological Congress for Tribal Councils, for elders’ councils and other Indian Councils. There should be no display of human skeletal material in museums.

At the Arizona Inter Tribal Council meeting in Phoenix, attended by representatives of all the tribal groups in the State, there was a long discussion about the reburial issue, and much talk about “angry spirits” and the intransigence of archaeologists and museum curators. There was very great concern for the unburied ancestors, and yet another reason was given as to why the bones had to be returned:

Bones should become dust. Mother earth lacks these bodies; if they are not returned there will be earthquakes and mother earth will take all these people.

Robert Cruz, who was our guide in Arizona described the big reburial the Tohono O’odham had held in the mountains near Seils. This was the first reburial ceremony they had held, and none of them really knew what would happen or what they should do, even the medicine woman who was in charge of it. Robert said that they began to sing as they buried the bodies, and found that the long forgotten words came to them as they sang. The actual ceremony had drawn hundreds of people, young and old, and since then, the young men had taken it upon themselves to take care of it, to protect it from strangers and from harm: “every day the young men run there to see that no one takes [the ancestors] away . . .”. Although the reburial was the first among the Tohono O’odham it was an occasion of immense spiritual significance.

In England reburial ceremonies have also occurred as a ‘new’ phenomenon. Philip Rahtz documents an example of the Jewish community in Britain opposing the bulldozing of a 12th century Jewish cemetery (Rahtz 1985). The York Archaeological Trust sought support for excavation of the site, rather than destruction by bulldozers which were moving in to make way for a supermarket car park. The Chief Rabbi refused to countenance the idea of a Jewish cemetery being disturbed, but supported the idea of a small excavation to see if there were in fact any bones there, provided no bones were removed from the site. Many burials were found, but since they were all oriented north-south and had coffin-nails, the Chief Rabbi’s Court of Beth Din disclaimed the cemetery. Under the Disused Burial Grounds Amendment Act of 1981,the supermarket (Sainsbury’s) was legally obliged to remove all the skeletons, and undertook to rebury them in nearby “safe” ground. Over 500 graves were unearthed, and systematic research was begun on the skeletons by human biologists at York University. Rahtz (1985) continues:

The Chief Rabbi may have had second thoughts . . . for he immediately complained to the Home Office. They, duly sensitive to the interests of religious minorities in Britain, ordered . . . immediate reburial. Sainsbury’s were asked to dig a hole for reburial and the University to give up the bones.

The bones were eventually reburied, each skeleton in a separate heat-sealed polythene bag, with a plastic identity disc – the same day, as Rahtz points out, that lightning destroyed the south transept of York Minster!

In Chichester, in the early 70s a medieval burial site on consecrated ground was excavated before an industrial development ploughed up the land. Local church authorities were totally against the skeletons being removed and examined, and within two weeks of the excavation they were ordered to be reburied.

The opposite view was taken by the church authorities about a deserted medieval village in Yorkshire, in which skeletons from medieval times up until the present century have been released for examination and research purposes on condition that they are returned for reburial. So far they remain unburied. Recently symbolic “token” reburials have taken place in England. A “token” skeleton of one of many sailors found on the Mary Rose (the ship recovered after centuries at the bottom of the sea) was reburied with great pomp and ceremony. This was apparently done in part to pacify those who saw the sunken ship as a “war grave” which should not have been disturbed.

In another case a few of the many bones unearthed in recent excavations in Winchester, Hampshire, have been reburied in a symbolic ceremony.

It is clear that in burial rites, as in all other cultural activity, change is a dynamic force. Our own practices in England have changed – as elsewhere – on numerous occasions, for example, from including burial goods to including none, from burial to cremation, from burial inside the church to outside, from graveyard to cemetery. In the case of living American Indians (as also with regard to Truganini, see below) it is currently the fear of the scientist that is influencing a change towards cremation. When such traditions change, for whatever reason, the “charter” of belief and myth also changes to accommodate and explain the change of practice. It is such changes that archaeologists and physical anthropologists often claim to be mere political manoeuvring of the evidence.

In many cases changes in custom and situation require rethought and time before appropriate reactions can be determined by religious leaders. Archaeologists and museum curators often expect immediate answers. But why should American Indians, if it has never happened before, know what to do with a large amount of unprovenanced skeletons? Or Australian Aborigines know, without due consideration, whether an ancestor’s soul can be at rest if his skeleton is incomplete – as, for example, in Groote Eylandt (see below), where Aborigines took a long time to decide whether or not they wanted the return of a skeleton whose skull had been “mislaid” by the missionary who sold it.

In England, time is also taken to decide on the rules that should govern new practices, and to develop an ideology which will encompass them. The Anglican Church took many decades to come up with an acceptable “justification” of cremation, which had become a widespread practice. In another context the comparatively recent acceptance by the Church of burial rites for pets has meant that church officials have to develop appropriate ceremonies.

In other parts of the world the controversy regarding excavation and research on human remains is also alive. Paul Bahn reports cases throughout the world (Bahn 1984, 1986):

The question of whether archaeologists should be allowed to excavate and study the dead refuses to go away – if anything, it is growing in intensity as already vociferous opponents increase their muscle and achieve some success in preventing excavation or in retrieving material from the hands of scholars.

This summer saw developments in several different areas. In Israel, for example, an important archaeological site at Tel Haror in the Negev Desert was vandalised in August, most probably by members of Atra Kadisha, an ultra-orthodox group dedicated to preserving the sanctity of Jewish cemeteries. The site, which dates to the 8th century, is believed by the local Bedouin to be the tomb of a pupil of Mohammed, and the archaeologists in charge of the dig claim that the graves encountered so far have been positively identified as Turkish and Bedouin, dating only to the First World War. Nevertheless, ultra-orthodox Jews (that) think the graves on the site are “likely to be Jewish” and warn that future excavation will cause a huge public outcry.

In Australia, the concern for the treatment of Aboriginal skeletal remains has come into the public eye chiefly through the spate of books and films about Tasmania, especially about Truganini, the so-called “last Tasmanian”. Archaeologists in Australia, however, have been confronting the problem for many years. The Australian Aborigines have actively opposed the excavation of sacred sites, including burial sites, and the display and storage of Aboriginal skeletal remains in museums and university departments in Australia and elsewhere, and any research on their human remains. As in America, there remains the conflict between the interests of those scientists who consider Aboriginal skeletal remains to be of great scientific significance, and the interests of the indigenous population, whose relatives and ancestors constitute these skeletal remains. To the Aborigines, the significance of the skeletal remains of their ancestors is complex. Traditionally, the dead are disposed of in a variety of different ways and with a wide range of complexity of ritual and ceremony. That these dead should be left undisturbed is as important as it is for those Aborigines who are buried in Christian cemeteries, as many are. In addition, these remains are often significant to Aborigines because they have become symbolic of European oppression and callous practices in the past.

There are huge collections of Aboriginal material in museums – some acquired through archaeological work, others by less acceptable means. Many of the “last Tasmanians” buried in a Christian cemetery in Tasmania underwent horrific treatment after they were dug up, before becoming the “Crowther Collection” (now returned to the Aboriginal community for disposal). It is reported, for example (Ellis 1981), that William Lanne, after his death, had his skull removed by Crowther: and a “white” skull inserted in the skin of his head to deceive viewers of the body. His hands and feet were apparently chopped off by someone else on behalf of the Royal Society. A burial service followed, but the remains of the body were dug up the same night and various parts of the dismembered corpse turned up in England at the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Surgeons.

The history of Truganini’s remains, possibly the most famous bones in the world, is of particular interest. In 1974, Australian scientists on the Specialist Advisory Committee for Prehistory and Human Biology of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies agreed that the Director of the Tasmanian Museum should be informed that the Institute recommended that Truganini’s remains should be disposed of immediately in accordance with her own wishes or those of her descendants (a public acknowledgement that she had not been the “last of the Tasmanians”). Any suggestion that her remains should be housed in a mausoleum especially designed to enable future research was rejected. It is important to note that this historic recommendation reversed the previous stance of only a few years earlier – and in many cases it was the same scientists who had now altered their opinions. The AIAS considered this to be of such importance that it requested the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to report the issue to the Prime Minister. Nevertheless the Institute’s decision had the following explanatory qualification – “It was felt that the case of Truganini, a know historical person, is an exceptional one and that the moral issue involved overrides any other consideration”.

In the light of this advice, as well as Federal/State political pressure, the Tasmanian State Government agreed to cooperate with representatives of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Information Centre in burying her in a final and secure grave. Given the history of the treatment of Truganini’s corpse, such an arrangement was not enough. It is reported that Truganini herself had lived in fear of her body being exploited after death by those who would wish to study or sell it; she is said to have favoured cremation to avoid such abuses. Only one day after her death in May 1876 the Secretary of the Royal Society of Tasmania requested her body as a valuable scientific specimen. This request was refused and Truganini was buried privately a few days later. Two years later she was exhumed to be placed in the Royal Society’s museum. Ten years later she was sent for study to Melbourne, then to England, and in 1904 back again to Melbourne. She was on public display in the Tasmanian Museum until 1947when she was placed in the museum vaults, available only to scientists.

In 1974, after the pressure from AIAS scientists and, more important, the Aboriginal community, whose existence had been recognised in Tasmania only since 1972, the Tasmanian cabinet agreed that Truganini should be cremated. Museum objections were overruled, and the skeleton was taken into Crown custody. Truganini was cremated on 30 April 1976 and her ashes scattered in the D’Entresateaux Channel the next day.

As recently as 1987, Ida West, a Tasmanian Aborigine wrote (West 1987):

One night while watching television I saw a Legal Aid person for my people talking to someone about what Europeans did to Aborigines, cutting off their heads and so on. He pulled out a drawer filled with Aboriginal heads all shapes and sizes, and the sight of the skulls started to turn my stomach. The second drawer was full also. By the third drawer I felt faint. The Legal Aid person said “Would you like to have your grandfather’s head in there?

In 1984, in response to growing protest from Aborigines, and corresponding unease among many archaeologists and anthropologists, the Government of the State of Victoria amended their Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act ( 1972).Betty Meehan, expressing the fears of the scientific community, wrote (Meehan 1984):

At one stage it seemed likely that once all Aboriginal skeletal remains had been transferred to the Museum of Victoria, which was deemed to be the only institution legally entitled to house them, they would be handed over to the Victorian Aboriginal community for re-burial thus bringing to a halt all research into the biological history of the Australian Aboriginal population based on Victorian material. It also seemed that this transfer and subsequent re-burial would happen very quickly. A few months after the Victorian Government had passed the amendments to their 1972 Act the Tasmanian Government had announced that it too was preparing to transfer all Aboriginal remains held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Queen Victoria Museum at Launceston to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community to dispose of as they saw fit.

The Australian Archaeological Association (AAA) responded to this situation by forming a committee to produce a working document outlining the nature and extent of the scientific importance of all Aboriginal skeletal remains. The resulting document continued to stress the vital importance to research, of Aboriginal skeletal remains, and although supporting the burial of the remains of known individuals, reiterated the AAA’s position that no other skeletal remains should be destroyed by burial or cremation. This stance was very much in line with the 1984 resolution of the Society for American Archaeology, and of the Canadian Association for Physical Anthropology in 1982. The AAA document stressed the importance of consultation with Aboriginal communities, of training programmes for Aborigines in museum curatorship and the setting up of Aboriginal Keeping Places, where Aborigines could keep and care for their own skeletal remains, with, again, the training and employment of Aborigines to work in them.

The Australian strategy appeared to be to encourage Aborigines to become part of the system, to offer them “control” over their own skeletal remains, but only – at least in the case of “unknown” remains – in so far as they were able to accept the overall control of a system that does not allow for the return of these remains to Aboriginal communities for reburial. This strategy had been used before in different circumstances. Aborigines have been employed in uranium mining in an attempt to deflect and defuse Aboriginal opposition to mining of their land. In Kakadu Park, for similar reasons, Aborigines were employed as wardens and site recorders. In 1986, in spite of the events of recent years, the skeletal sub-committee of the Australian Archaeological Association reported on the continuing lack of communication between relevant groups and it then set up a programme of consultation and liaison with those Aboriginal communities who had a direct interest in the Murray Black collection, which contains over 1800 individuals. Steven Webb, a physical anthropologist with a distinguished record of research in this field, was appointed to carry out the task.

Webb made his own difficult situation clear in his final report on his year of liaison (Webb 1987a):

With widespread Aboriginal support for reburial of all Aboriginal skeletal remains held in museums, there was fear among the scientific community that this would mean the irretrievable loss of unique scientific data. This loss would not only affect the present generation but those, both black and white, in the future. The emphasis of the consultation, therefore, was to try and explain to people at the community level the value of preserving such remains. Their immediate scientific value had to be emphasised together with the long term benefits of such study for the local Aboriginal community and all Aboriginal people. My policy was to recognise the right of the Aboriginal people to have a say in what happened to such remains and to actively help them formulate ways in which they could achieve custodianship of them and gain recognition of their rights in this regard. As a biological anthropologist this was difficult to do, because it meant accepting destruction of the remains by burial if Aboriginal people wished it. Moreover, I assured people that if they did not want me to study their skeletal remains I could not do so even if the weight of the law was behind me. This was a difficult decision to make also, but one which I felt was necessary if any common ground for discussion was to be reached.

In Antiquity (1987b) he writes:

After listening to why people did not want research to continue, I could find no scientific argument to balance or equate with their moral one. It is difficult to argue against the rights of any group of people to choose what should and should not happen to their skeletal remains.

However, he also says:

Talks during repeated visits over many months have convinced me that many Aboriginal people do not necessarily want to see the skeletal collections destroyed by reburial. Individually they see why research is deemed important, and many agree that it is valuable to them.

He concludes, in this paper (1987b), that:

it might be appropriate for skeletal biologists who use recent skeletal populations to reappraise their working philosophy and temper their overwhelming enthusiasm for the search for their particular kind of knowledge, with the feelings and aspirations of all peoples who feel their ancestral skeletal remains should be protected from scientific scrutiny.

It is, perhaps, significant that Webb, in this article, refers only to recent skeletal remains, whereas earlier he says, “Aboriginal people want recognition that they are living descendants of any Aboriginal skeletal remains.” This raises another fundamental issue, that of fossil versus non-fossil remains. The former are, according to our scientific lights, often not members of the group which we call Homo sapiens sapiens. Many archaeologists and physical anthropologists who might come to terms with the dilemma as to who should have the final say regarding the appropriate disposition of “recent” human remains do not consider that any living population can legitimately lay claim to fossil remains.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies has faced the existence of Aboriginal opposition to the excavation of burial sites, and to research on Aboriginal skeletal material for longer than most organisations and departments in Australia. For example, the excavation of the Broadbeach Aboriginal burial ground in Queensland was carried out at a time when there was no legislation to protect Aboriginal “relics”(1965 to 1968). According to Laila Haglund (1976a), the archaeologist in charge of the excavation, “The existence of an Aboriginal burial ground here was not known to local Aborigines…The bones of Aborigines along with the soil around them were spread over gardens on the Gold Coast to fertilise the soil”. However, the report of the excavation was not published for many years because: “It seemed that a book like this might be offensive to members of the local Aboriginal community”. It was eventually published, not by the AIAS but by the University of Queensland Press (Haglund1976a). In her thesis, also on this excavation, Haglund (1976b) writes:

one . . . aspect must be mentioned: the reaction of the Aborigines to this activity. When archaeological work was small scale and intermittent it was hardly noticed by them. What we may call a sudden flowering, is to some of them a sudden lush growth of alien weeds” .

In this same thesis (1976b) she also writes:

Some archaeologists have seized on the physical differences in early skeletal remains and suggested that the Aborigines should take a different attitude to their study. But to most Aborigines this would be meaningless sophistry.

The land has been here since the Dreamtime. Human bones are the remains of their ancestors, the landscape itself the remains of ancestral beings and creators. It has been suggested that the study of prehistory is for the sake of the Aborigines to give them a past to be proud of. Traditional Aborigines do not need this, they have . . . knowledge as shaped by tradition. . .

It is particularly important to note that the human remains excavated at the Broadbeach burial ground which Haglund specifically points out was unknown to local Aborigines have now been successfully claimed back by the Kombu