Ninevah Relief

Issues in the Reburial of Human Remains


Human remains and their associated grave goods provide archaeologists with a vital source of information about past lives and material culture.

Archaeologists are not the only people with an interest in past material and human remains, and things that we may consider to be purely archaeological materials, other people consider to be their own cultural heritage.

The skeletal remains of many indigenous societies, especially Native Americans (north and south), Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maoris and others have been excavated by archaeologists and others. Their remains have been preserved in museums along with other artifacts - sometimes in bad conditions. Many of these remains have been permanently exported as exhibits / artifacts to museums in other countries.

Other groups do not believe that we have a right, as archaeologists, to excavate where and what we like, and that we must return what we have 'taken'.

The problem relates to how we draw up a dividing line between skeletal remains/ artifacts that are primarily the interest of archaeologists and those that are more appropriately the interest of other groups. The best example of this problem is the recent Kennewick Skeleton find.

There is a much broader issue of who owns the past and who has the right to provide an interpretation of the archaeological remains of other people.

The Reburial Issue

Background to Native American relations with the USA

The USA has had problematic relations with Native American groups since the colonisation of the West in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries. The end result of this process of colonisation was the removal of Native American nations to reservations and a growing marginalisation of these groups through the twentieth century. A number of laws have been passed concerning native American heritage and political organisation which progressively disenfranchised traditional Native American political rights and their heritage.

1906 Antiquities Act

Native American sites classified as archaeological sites and resources repeated through 1930s, 1960s and 1970s legislation.

1934 Indian Reorganisation Act

Indian nations to be organised with elected tribal councils within the federal system. Only Nations which re-organise in this way will receive federal aid. This undermines Native American status as separate nations within the USA.

1969 National Environmental Policy Act

Native American sites are classified as environmental resources.

From the late 1960s, there was a growing Native American Civil Rights movement - a political movement, akin to Black Power and the Civil Rights movement in the southern states of the USA. A key figure in this movement was Vine Deloria Jnr, who published a series of books criticising the work of anthropologists and archaeologists. The result of this movement was the passage of a number of laws that re-affirmed Native American political and civil rights.

1975 Indian Self-Determination Act
1978 Indian Child Welfare Act
1978 Indian Religious Freedom Act

These acts make Native Americans responsible for their own affairs.

The Beginnings of the Reburial Movement in the USA

In the 1970s Native Americans started to look again at the treatment of their own heritage, and particularly in relation to the treatment (excavation, study and storage) of skeletal remains and their associated grave goods.

1974 Iowa City excavations. Christian pioneers - reburied. Native Americans were boxed up and sent to the local state museum

Late 1970s American Indians Against Desecration formed (A.I.A.D.) proposes reburial of skeletal remains opposes all excavation of cemeteries. South Dakota is targeted as a state in which reburial can be achieved. South Dakota Forestry Service taken to the courts over right to rebury.

1979 National Historic Preservation Act

(amendment) - Native Americans responsible for assessing archaeological work on their lands prior to development. This stops the excavation of Native American cemetery sites on their own lands.

1982 Reburial ideas proposed to the Society for American Archaeology. The Society of American Archaeology, however, votes in favour of a motion against reburial

1980s The reburial issue grows in both the U.S.A. and Australia. Museums begin to remove skeletal remains from public display. Opposition from the Committee to Promote Scientific Study of Human Remains

1990 U.S. Senate passes a law the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Comes into force in 1991.

The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act 1990

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in november 1990, to 'resolve' legally the growing conflict between archaeologists / museums and Native American groups over the excavation and storage of Native American skeletal remains and associated grave goods. The Act comes down in favour of Native American groups and institutes a process and a timetable against which the current holdings and affiliation of Native American skeletal remains and grave goods are published and disseminated to the relevant Native American nations. It also sets out a process by which these groups can claim skeletal remains and goods for repatriation, and a process of determining to whom these skeletal remains and grave goods should be returned.

NAGPRA required that all museums provide and disseminate a summary of their holdings of skeletal materials, associated grave goods and culturally important artifacts (those associated with religious ceremonies, etc.) by 1992. It also required that a full and proper inventory of these remains be available for inspection from November 1995. On the basis of these summaries and inventories, Native American groups can claim to have remains repatriated on the basis of a relationship between themselves and the claimed for remains.

Claims of relationship for repatriation purposes are made according to a set of priorities, drawn up as follows.

Where claims are contested (rare) they are decided by a review committee of seven - comprising half aboriginal / half archaeological - cultural resource managers.

This process of repatriation only applies to remains held in federal / state hands or remains recovered from federal lands, or Native American lands, or remains that are funded by federal monies. Remains recovered from private lands and in private hands remain that way by law. Also requires consultation with Native American groups before archaeological work associated with development.

Once reclaimed, Native American Indian groups can treat the remains and associated grave goods as they see fit - i.e. they can be reburied in the ground, removing them from the realm of further study.

The full text of NAGPRA is available online. Click here.

It is important to remember that NAGPRA is about more than just skeletal remains. It is just as much about the repatriation of associated grave goods, as well as ritual objects that are considered to be the inalienable property of these Nations. Native Americans have set up an organisation specifically for the repatriation of these ritual objects. This is the The Repatriation Foundation

The Scale of the Problem

Current estimates - based on surveys of holdings in a number of state representing approximately 55% of the USA. Approximately 52,500 human remains recovered from 5120 excavated mortuary sites. The number of associated cultural goods will be millions. For example, the Peabody Museum (Harvard) has 10,000 skeletal remains and 8 million artifacts.

Major Repatriations.

In 1991 Smithsonian returns the remains from 1000 individuals excavated on Kodiak Island - bones date back 2000 years.

The Effect of NAGPRA in the USA

There has been a dramatic realisation of the great number of remains held in public museums. It was very much more than expected. Changes in the nature of museum displays - Smithsonian removed skeletal displays. In the inventory process most of the bones have been studies according to a newly instituted set of skeletal standards to ensure compatibility of data. Grants available from government to help in the inventorising of remains and their repatriation, but they are a fraction of those asked for (1994 $2.14 million in grants in respects of $23 million of requests; 1998 $2.31 million given in grants).

Osteology has benefited because of the standardisation and completion of records. Fairness is given to the dead and their descendants.

Excavation of skeletal remains has not stopped - when they are threatened by essential development - but it is now done in accordance with Native American wishes - and the remains are made available for reburial. But usually development is mitigated in favour of skeletal remains resting in the ground.

There have been changes in the ways in which Native American views are treated - with respect (but does this lead to interpretive relativism?).

The other key effect of the interest of Native American Groups in the activities of archaeologists and the introduction of NAGPRA has been the creation of a number of archaeological services by and for Native American groups. The best known of these is the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department.

Another major effect of the reburial debate and the passing of NAGPRA has been to encourage archaeological organisations to develop codes of ethics for their members to control what they do as archaeologists. Both the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for American Archaeology have clear statements of ethics. to develop explicit policy statements concerning such issues as repatriation. The policy statement of the Society for American ArchaeologyT, for example, whilst strongly supporting NAGPRA in the case of clearly affiliated human remains is in fact against a standardised national law for the repatriation / reburial of all human remains.

Problems in the Repatriation Process in the USA

A number of problems have been noted with how the process of NAGPRA, especially the stipulated consultation process, works.

Proposed Amendments to NAGPRA

The Society for American Archaeology disagrees very strongly with proposed changes 1 and 2. If these ammendments are passed it is argued that Native Americans will be able to veto any development that they might wish. Most archaeologists in the USA are employed in the excavation of archaeological sites prior to development.

The most well-known problems with NAGPRA relate to the case of the Kennewick Man Skeleton. The Key problems that this find has raised relate to the degree to which NAGPRA should be applicable to human remains that are thousands of years old.

The Reburial Issue in Australia

A similar campaign for repatriation and reburial has been happening in Australia. As in the USA, Australian Aboriginal peoples were driven off their previously held lands by the colonisation of Australia by Europeans. Through the twentieth century, Aboriginals were politically and socially marginalised, to the extent that Aboriginal children were forcibly fostered with white Australian families to assimilate Aboriginees into modern Australian society.

The reburial issue started with debates over the last Tasmanian, Truganini in the 1970s.

1974 Advisory Committee for Prehistory and Human Biology of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies advises for the reburial of the remains of Truganini and not for their placing in a mausoleum where they can be taken out for study.

1976 The remains of Trugannini cremated and ashes scattered.

1984 Government of the State of Victoria - amends Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act so that aboriginal remains can be returned back to their native communities. The Government of Tasmania does the same even though it is understood that the remains will probably be cremated.

1987 A draft policy statement from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies states that aboriginal remains are a significant and important part of the Aborigine heritage. They are also an important source of information within a broad range of disciplines. The policy statement recognises the Aboriginal ownership of these remains - where descent can be shown - but attempts to persuade them to think of other approaches to skeletal remains.

1993 Membership of the Australian Association of Archaeologists now requires archaeologists to give due weight to native aboriginal views of their past and to involve them in archaeological work associated with their past.

Australia currently recognises that all post-1778 remains should be put in the control of Aboriginal councils. Federal laws also often state that all pre-1770 remains are by definition Aboriginal peoples and should also be controlled by Aboriginal authorities.

This has led to skeletal remains even older than Kennewick being returned for reburial. Key examples of returned skeletal remains include a series of skeletal remains from the site of Kow Swamp dated to approximately 10,000 years bp , and from Lake Mungo dated to approximately 31,000 years bp.

Similar conflicts exist in other countries. Recently, Israel - which has passed a reburial bill for all skeletal remains, younger than 5000 years, debated whether all skeletal remains of any age should be reburied. These would have included a series of important Neanderthal and Anatomically Modern Human remains excavated from sites in the Mount Carmel area.

Reburial Issues in the UK

In England it has always been the custom to rebury Christian burials. For example, at Spitalfields Church, the crypt was cleared in the mid 1980s to make way for a shelter / kitchen for the homeless in Central London. The crypt had been used from the 1700s to the late 1800s. Inside were recovered 100s of human skeletal remains - many in a still advancing state of decay (floating in their own 'body liquor'). Rotting bodies were cremated with a service . Skeletal remains were studied and then reburied , some by their modern surviving relations - Courtauld Family in their own family plots. The study of these skeletal remains provided key information on the limitations of ageing techniques for human remains.

In Scotland there is a recognised 'right to sepulchre' (the right that individuals have to be buried).

Policies on Reburial

England: English Heritage and the I.F.A. have policy documents asking for reburial after a limited period of study and a statement on disposition after 6 months.

Scotland: There is also an extensive policy document produced by Historic Scotland on human remains. It demands a statement on disposition; proper respect in the treatment of burial sites and excavation of human remains. DNA samples okay, but dating samples must be shown to be absolutely necessary (AMS dating only). HS will not display human remains on their sites, or use images thereof in their publicity. Even restoration work at HS sites may be stopped if there are human remains.

The Archaeologist's Dilemma

Should skeletal remains be returned for reburial? If so, which skeletal remains?

In Australia, John Mulvaney has suggested that Aboriginal Authorities be invested as custodians of remains, but the remains should not to be reburied. he argues that this more exactly fits in with Australian Aboriginal notions of property. Australian Aboriginals are not in agreement.

Questions/Issues to consider

  1. what about prehistoric human remains - the Ice Man, Bog Bodies, etc?
  2. what about Egyptian mummies - the pharoahs were deliberately buried and the burial places disguised or protected to prevent their removal. Should they be excavated and displayed?
  3. some early hominids (Neanderthals) were deliberately buried. Should they be excavated, or reburied?
  4. if we do not have the respect and interest of other people, who are we doing archaeology for, and why should other people pay for it?

The Broader Problem:
interpreting the past of other peoples

There is a much broader problem that is illustrated by the reburial debate. Archaeology has a particular approach to the interpretation of the past. It is an empirical discipline with greater weight given to physical evidence. It also has a series of 'world views' of what happened in the past. These conflict with Native American systems of knowledge and beliefs, and the systems of knowledge and belief held by many other people, including other groups in the UK. For example, tribal groups in Hawaii believe in the ability of spiritual leader to directly access the past in the present.

Some Native Americans have described archaeological knowledge as inaccurate because it is 'scientistic' and ignores native understandings (Vine Deloria) others have described it as an imperialist and racist endeavour and immoral because of the ways in which the evidence was originally acquired (Running In). To what extent should we accept other people's viewpoints about their past. Should they be able to offer interpretations that we have to take account of?

Library and Web-based Resources

T. Biolsi and L. Zimmerman (eds.) 1997. Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Crtique of Anthropology. Tuscon. University of Arizona Press. (see especially papers by McGuire and Zimmerman).

T.J. Ferguson, 1996. Native Americans and the practice of archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 63-79.

D.G. Jones and R.J. Harris, 1998. Archaeological human remains: scientific, cultural and ethical considerations. Current Anthropology 39: 253-64

R. Layton (ed). 1994. Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions. London, Unwin Hyman. (See articles by Hubert, McGuire and Zimmerman especially).

R. McGuire, 1992. 'Archaeology and the First Americans'. American Anthropologist 94(4): 816-836.

D. Mihesuah (ed.), 2000. Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains?Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press. (see papers by Mallouf, Landau and Steele, Goldstein and Kintigh, and Meighan, as well as a good background discussion of NAGPRA by Trope and Echo-Hawk).

J.C. Rose, T.J. Green and V.D. Green, 1996. NAGPRA is forever: osteology and the repatriation of skeletons. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 81-103.

N. Swidler, K. Dongoske, R. Anyon and A. Downer (eds.), 1997. Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground. Walnut Creek, Altamira Press. (see papers by Downer, Zimmerman, Jemison and Lippert).

D. H. Thomas, 2000. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology and the Battle for Native American Identity.New York, Basic Books.

B. Trigger, 1980. 'Archaeology and the Image of the American Indian'. American Antiquity. 45(4): 662-676.

J. Watkins, 2000. Indigenous Archaeology: American Indian Values and Scientific Practice. Walnut Creek, Altamira Press.

Link to the ALGY 399 Sydney Jones Library Reading List.

Internet Resources for Repatriation of Human remains

There are many pages of resources available online devoted to reburial and NAGPRA. These resources comprise government resources, such as those maintained by the National Parks Service in the USA as part of their Archaeology and Ethnography Program, resources provided by indigenous societies, such as the Repatriation Foundation, as well as web pages developed by other academics designed to support their modules and research

A good place to start looking for internet resources on the subject of reburial and repatriation in the United States of America is the University of Iowa server maintained by Professor Larry Zimmerman. Zimmerman is perhaps the best known anthropologist in the USA who has embraced the need for repatriation of human remains.

The full text of the Natve Americans Grave Protection and Repatriation Act is online. Click here.

There is now a National NAGPRA Database online on which you will be able to find notices about the completion of inventories and a searchable database for Native Americans. The Native American organisation specifically for the repatriation of ritual objects is to be found online at The Repatriation Foundation

A special edition (1995) of the National Parks Service Archaeology and Ethnography magazine Common Ground, devoted to the issues of NAGPRA can be consulted online

More details on the Kennewick Man case are to be found here

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