An image of a replica skull which has been excavated from a training excavation. The skull is resting on grass and has dirt adhering to it.

Ethics of Human Skeletal Analysis

Ethical Considerations

Human bones are the remains of once-living people and they require ethical and legal consideration above and beyond other forms of archaeological and forensic evidence. Human remains should always be treated with care and respect. The analysis of real human bones is essential to teaching because humans express skeletal traits in a variety of subtly different ways.

Many of our methods and techniques rely on a sound understanding of human skeletal development and variation. Therefore, to improve competency as an expert in human osteology it is essential that students are exposed to large numbers of skeletons, ideally from a range of different contexts. This is our justification for including real bones in the images, models and videos for this course.

Different countries have different laws concerning the storage and handling of human remains. In the UK, we have the Human Tissue Act which determines how we can use human remains in our studies. Human remains over 100 years old are not included in this Act, which is why many forensic students learn using archaeological skeletons. In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act affects how such human remains can be stored and analysed.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the use of photographs and 3D models of human skeletal remains. Much of the concern focuses on issues of consent and ‘ownership’. Do the images and 3D models have the same rights as the actual remains?

It is important when analysing skeletons in practice to adhere to professional codes of ethics and standard. In the UK, bioarchaeologists follow the Code of Ethics and Code of Practice outlined by the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists also have guidance and recommendations regarding ethical practice.

This course contains many images, videos and interactive 3D models of human bones. The vast majority of the bones included here are from archaeological contexts in the UK. Those with the copyright ICRC are from forensic contexts from a variety of countries.

This course does not include any images of fleshed or decomposing bodies. However, the external links that we have included in this course may well do. We cannot guarantee that external sites will not show fleshed or decomposing bodies and we take no responsibility for the content of those websites.

If students find images of human remains offensive or triggering then please be careful when accessing external materials as they could contain images that some may find distressing.

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This article is from the free online course:

Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University