When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead?

Human bones tell stories that would otherwise be lost to history. But archaeologists are increasingly confronted with demands to let past generations rest in peace.

Dan Davis watched on a video screen as an underwater robot explored a ship that had sunk to the bottom of the Black Sea. He was stunned to see bones appear in the wreckage.

Davis, a marine archaeologist specializing in ancient Greek and Roman shipwrecks, wasn’t used to encountering human remains. Ancient ships were typically open decked, so most doomed sailors floated away when their vessels sank; and in any case, skeletons rarely survive long in the ocean environment. According to Davis, out of 1,500 ancient shipwrecks, only a few have been found to contain human remains.

Davis imagined the possibilities. “We could do scientific testing, maybe some DNA tests, to help us learn about these people who are virtually historically invisible,” he says.

Davis later shared the video with his Greek archaeology students at Luther College.

“Some of them said, ‘Oh, you should just leave those bones alone. Don’t recover them,’” Davis recalls.  “I remember thinking, ‘Wow! What? These poor students are misguided.’”

Excavations of four burials at the 1608 Jamestown Church site. Archaeologists were able to identify the men by studying their skeletons. [Photograph by donald e. Hurlbert]

The expedition was unable to recover the bones, but, Davis got to thinking more about the question, and he did some research on how the ancient Greeks viewed the issue. “In Athens and other ancient cities, it was a crime to mess with human remains,” he says.

Should that matter? Variations of the debate in Davis’ classroom are playing out across the United States and around the world. News stories about archaeologists unearthing and studying human remains inevitably prompt accusations of “grave robbing.”

“These people were buried with love and dignity by the people who cared most about them,” wrote one commentator on Facebook, responding to a National Geographic article about human remains excavated in Jamestown. “What gives anyone the right to dig them up and put their skeletons on display?”
The objections often stem from religious beliefs and historic grievances, but the outrage is also driven by perceptions of indecency—the discomfort of disturbing a person’s final resting place to satisfy idle curiosity.

Yet “bioarchaeologists,” people who specialise in the analysis of human remains, often defy the stereotype of emotionally aloof scientists who treat skeletons as inanimate artifacts, no different than clay shards or stone tablets.
These researchers are deeply aware that they are handling what was once a living person. They see themselves not only as scholars of the past, but as speakers for the dead, giving a voice to those whose stories might otherwise be lost to history.
The destruction of human remains...is the forensic equivalent of book burning. Archaeologist Duncan Sayer.

Still, ethical debates continue. At what age should a skeleton be considered prehistoric, or even just historic? Does it matter what the dead person’s religious beliefs were, or whether those religious beliefs still exist today?

And there’s the most heated issue of all: the debate over repatriating and reburying human remains that are now held in museums or research labs.

Some bioarchaeologists are staunchly opposed to returning bones to the ground. Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire, writes, “The destruction of human remains prevents future study; it is the forensic equivalent of book burning, the willful ruin of knowledge.”

Native Americans blame such entrenched views for the slow repatriation of their ancestors’ remains, despite federal legislation mandating their return. The bones of thousands of individuals remain in storerooms—in one instance, an infant’s skeleton was found in an oatmeal box.

Bioarchaeologists tend to agree that the days when “the pursuit of scientific knowledge” could be cited as the sole justification for studying human remains are at an end.

“We’ve come to a point in American society that we recognize we do science for people,” says Larry Zimmerman, a bioarchaeologist at Indiana University, who has long been a proponent for the protection and repatriation of Native American remains. “Their concerns sometimes have to come first, even if it’s a matter of sacrifice from the scientific community’s side.”

Grave Concerns
Skeletons are time capsules that preserve the details not only of human lives, but of the era in which people lived. They can reveal the types of labor people performed. DNA analysis can help identify remains and reconstruct family trees or even patterns of human migration. Spectroscopic studies can tell us what people ate—and, by extension, what types of fauna and flora existed at the time.

Bones also let us diagnose diseases such as the Black Death, which killed 20 percent of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Over the past decade, Sharon DeWitte, a bioarchaeologist at the University of South Carolina, has made regular visits to the Museum of London, where she examines their collection of skeletons excavated from a mass grave of plague victims buried beneath East Smithfield Road.

Researching the bones of those who succumbed to the Black Death centuries ago has yielded valuable information for dealing with present-day epidemics. [Illustration By Giovanni Boccaccio, Corbis]

Her studies have implications for present-day epidemics. “A lot of people have assumed the Black Death killed indiscriminately,” DeWitte says. “It didn’t matter how healthy people were or if they were rich or poor, male or female—none of those things would’ve mattered.”

But the skeletons told a different story. DeWitte looked for occurrences of “non-specific stress markers”—signs of illness and malnutrition than can be found in bones and teeth. For instance, excess bone growth on a tibia or shinbone can indicate soft-tissue infections on the leg that spread to the bone.

Lines on the teeth can also record childhood illnesses. If a child is malnourished or suffering from a disease, enamel formation stops temporarily. But, if the child survives, it begins again.

DeWitte concluded that people who already had been in poor health were more likely to die in the Black Death epidemic than healthy people. The mortality rate was also higher among older people than the young. DeWitte’s work suggests ways to target efforts in future epidemics. “We should expect there to be some variation in risks based on biological and also social factors,” she says.

Although scholars have praised her work, a history professor wrote a journal article singling out DeWitte and her colleagues as “grave-robbing scientists.”

DeWitte believes this notion persists, in part, because of archaeology’s unseemly past. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeology was largely the provenance of wealthy explorers with a “finders-keepers” ethos and disreputable people hired by museums to acquire artifacts—including human remains—for their collections. 

Archaeology was also tainted by racism, as 19th century scholars sought Native American remains to prove their theories about the inferiority of non-whites. Graves were robbed, and the recently dead were taken from battlefields. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that professional archaeologists established comprehensive ethical guidelines.

Present-day bioarchaeologists, DeWitte says, strive to uphold those ethics. And, she argues, her chosen profession makes a unique contribution by correcting history’s oversights. 

“Written records are mostly biased towards wealthy individuals and men, especially if we’re talking about the medieval period,” she says. “If we want to know anything about the experience of women, children, and poor people, very often the only way we can get at that is by looking at skeletal data.”

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