Studying human remains can raise some pretty serious ethical questions. The large skeletal collections housed in the United States, like the Terry and Todd collections, are composed largely of dubiously collected remains from all over the world. And while these collections are treated with the utmost respect by researchers, it still does not lessen the damage early archaeological excavations caused the indigenous groups that these remains were taken from. In countries where remains are by and large excavated by archaeologists of the same ethnic heritage–the U.K. and continental Europe mainly–there is an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards excavation and analysis of skeletal remains. However, these areas do not carry the same colonial burden as the United States, where excavations were done without regard to the cultural heritage or the needs of surviving communities.
In 1990, the United States enacted a law called NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). This requires any institution that receives federal funding to return any cultural items to the descendants of the groups that the items were taken from. This includes human remains.
Museums like the American Museum of Natural History faced a monumental task. Many of these cultural artifacts were kept protected in climate controlled collections, and if they were returned immediately would undoubtedly degrade irreparably. It is standard practice now to return items only when there are suitable facilities to keep the artifacts safe.
AMNH faced another monumental problem. They had built their multimillion dollar Rose Center around the Willamette meteorite . This meteorite had been taken from a Native American group called the Grand Rhode in 1906. As dissembling the Rose Center would be economically catastrophic for the museum, groups from the Grand Rhode are given complete access annually to the meteorite to perform cultural rites. These ceremonies are not open to the public. Similarly, the Archaeology Department will invite members of Native American groups to come examine the artifacts that are still housed within the museum.
The complexity of this issue this is further examined in this documentary about the repatriation of a totem pole.
In many cases, Native American groups do not necessarily want to take repossession of human remains, as they are kept safe in the museum, but do not want the remains to be used for research. The Biological Anthropology Department honours this desire.
Do you have any questions regarding the ethical excavation of human remains? Ask away in the comments section or on the contact page!