|13 February 2011
Legislation forces British archaeologists to rebury finds
British archaeologists have expressed their concerns about legislation that requires human remains discovered in ancient settlements to be reburied within two years. In a series of letters to UK justice secretary Ken Clarke, leading archaeology professors and members of RESCUE, The British Archaeological Trust, explain how the legislation is causing 'severe damage to research and the advancement of knowledge'.
The dispute centres on legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008 which requires all human remains excavated at digs in England and Wales to be reburied within two years, regardless of their age. The decision means scientists have too little time to study bones and other human remains of national and cultural significance, the academics say.
The ruling applies to any pieces of bone uncovered at around 400 dig sites, including the remains of 60 or so bodies found at Stonehenge in 2008 that date back to 3,000 BCE. The arrangements, the archaeologists say, may result in the squandering of future discoveries at sites such as Happisburgh in Norfolk, where excavations are continuing after the discovery of stone tools made by early humans 950,000 years ago. "If human remains were found at Happisburgh they would be the oldest human fossils in northern Europe and the first indication of what this species was. Under the current practice of the law those remains would have to be reburied and effectively destroyed," said Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology. "This applies to everything. If we were to find a Neanderthal fossil or a Roman skeleton, it would all have to be reburied."
Prior to 2008, guidelines allowed for the proper curation and study of bones of sufficient age and historical interest. The Ministry of Justice assured archaeologists two years ago that the ruling was an interim measure, but has so far failed to revise its decision. Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at Sheffield University, said: "Whereas we have museum collections of ancient and prehistoric human remains that have been dug up in some cases hundreds of years ago, we are about to lose all of the well-excavated, well-documented skeletal material that has been excavated since 2008," he added.
The issue has come to the fore now because the first special licences governing the removal of skeletons are up for renewal. Scientists can apply for extensions to hold bones for longer periods, but archaeologists said the process was needlessly bureaucratic and that the remains would have to go back in the ground anyway. The Ministry of Justice said in a statement the original review was undertaken in 2008 because the 1857 burial act lacked powers to authorize exhumation and retention for scientific purposes, citing health and decency laws. "Archaeologists are welcome to apply to extend the time limit for reburial. A number have already done so and no such applications have been refused." However, the ministry has no guidelines on where or how remains should be reburied, or on what records should be kept.
Remains from dozens of sites are immediately at risk of reburial, including eight Bronze and Iron Age bodies found at Clay Farm in Cambridgeshire. "The government is asking us to destroy important materials, not preserve them for future generations, a situation that is against its own heritage policies, contra to the public will and not in the interests of the general public at large," said Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire. Diana Friendship-Taylor, Chair of RESCUE - The British Archaeological Trust, says: "If steps are not taken to rectify this situation we shall see a significant reduction in the scope and scale of archaeological and historical research."
Edited from Guardian.co.uk (4 February 2011), Arab News.com (7 February 2011), Wired.co.uk (8 February 2011)
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