The ethics of analysing human remains

Once they have been excavated, human remains are cleaned, dried, packaged into boxes, and then analysed. This is all done in a secure and respectful environment and this is what happened with the skeletons of the Scottish soldiers.

The working environment

Analysing human remains ideally occurs in a laboratory dedicated to the study of human remains with appropriate rules of conduct. This was the case in the Fenwick Human Osteology Laboratory where the Scottish soldiers’ skeletons were analysed. This laboratory also follows guidelines on best practice.

Bones laid out Anwen Caffell laying out Skeleton 19, one of the three most complete skeletons recovered during the excavations at Palace Green © Jeff Veitch, Durham University.

Macroscopic analysis (‘looking’ at the skeleton)

Analysis first involves considering the preservation of the bones and teeth of each skeleton by laying the skeleton out in anatomical position. Next, the skeleton’s sex and age at death are estimated, and the bones are measured. Measuring the bones, and looking at specific features in the skeleton, provides bioarchaeologists with the information to consider how similar or varied the skeletons from any one archaeological site are compared to other sites (normal variation). The final analysis is to find evidence of disease (abnormal variation). During this whole process the remains are not only considered respectfully (handling remains is a privilege and not a right), they are also protected from damage by a bench surface that has a padded covering. In both teaching and research, human remains may be damaged if they are not treated with care or if they are overused, which can be the case in teaching and for some museum collections.

Destructive analysis (taking samples of bone and tooth for further analysis)

With the increasing emphasis now being placed on destructive analyses in bioarchaeological research, for example using biomolecular (stable isotope and DNA analysis) and histological methods (microscopic studies of bones, teeth and other parts of the body), additional guidance is now available in the UK, particularly from APABE and others. As the UK government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sports says ‘All holding institutions should ensure that the scientific justification for the removal of samples from human remains are made in advance and placed on file [and there should also be]… reasons for approval given’. In the case of our project, we had specific questions we wished to answer regarding the Scottish soldiers’ diet and mobility histories, and we had the laboratory facilities to explore those histories in our Department of Archaeology at Durham and with the help of our colleagues at Bradford and York. All the laboratories involved have formal conduct rules in place.

It should be noted, however, that sometimes people forget that the samples they analyse come from once living and breathing people like us. In the Scottish soldiers’ case, because we had clear questions that we were attempting to answer with the samples we examined, our interpretations of the information immediately returned back to those people whose skeletons we analysed. There are clearly ethical implications for destructive analysis for all three key sectors that excavate and curate human remains (commercial archaeology, museums and universities), and their maintenance of the integrity of the skeletal collections they look after. This is especially relevant for future work of a non-destructive nature (bioarchaeologists need ‘intact’ skeletons), and scientists will need skeletons to sample when destructive methods develop and sample sizes required will decrease again. Back to first principles, if this type of work is done, the human remains subject to sampling need to have their rights protected, assuming we can agree that they have rights.

In spite of guidance being available in all spheres of analysis of human remains, ethical and practical guidance can ‘fall on stony ground’. In biomolecular analysis, however, there is increasing excellent practice in following guidelines and thinking about ethics related to research. Thankfully, in the last few years there is also evidence of increasing dialogue about ethical concerns and destructive analyses among a variety of stakeholders, and attempts to encourage scholars to attend to the very real issues related to such destructive analyses.

Do you think archaeological human remains should be subject to destructive analysis? Write your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Archaeology and the Battle of Dunbar 1650: From the Scottish Battlefield to the New World

Durham University