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The importance of ethics in Archaeology

Charlotte Roberts introduces the subject for this week: the importance of ethics in Archaeology, particularly in the context of human remains.
Hello and welcome to this part of the course. My name is Charlotte Roberts, I’m a Professor of Archaeology at Durham University. I had a strange background though. I trained to be a nurse when I left school and I looked after the living. And now I look after the dead. I’m a bioarchaeologist, I study archaeological human remains. I’ve a lot of background experience in this area, over 30 years. In recent years I’ve been extremely concerned about how we should, or do, treat human remains from archaeological sites. So that is ethics related to human remains.
If you think about ethics in archaeology in general, think about colonialism, and how people travelled long distances and grabbed people’s property and brought it back to our museums in the West. Now that is just one area of debate in archaeology related to ethics.
So this part of your course is about ethics and human remains and I’m going to talk a little bit about this in relation to aspects of the Scottish soldiers project. So we’re going to talk about ethics and human remains in relation to the discovery of human remains, their excavation, analysis, maybe their display in a museum and their storage for future work. And in relation to the Scottish soldiers, the skeletons were found in advance of some modern developments that were going on in the university buildings. An extension of the cafe. And by law in the UK we have to excavate any archaeological remains that are found and that includes skeletons. So that’s why they were excavated.
When they are being excavated we have to be really careful doing that, and we have guidance that helps us to do it properly. When it comes to analysis, I suppose I would just dwell on one aspect of the Scottish Soldiers analysis, and that was destructive analysis taking
small samples of teeth and bones to look at diet and their mobility history: their migration history. And if we are going to do that sort of analysis we have to think about the ethics of doing so, because it is destructive but we had really got some specific questions we wanted to answer. And that’s why we did that analysis. Then we come to display. Should we display human remains in a museum? I certainly know that the public like to see the real thing, rather than maybe a 3D print.
In the case of the Scottish soldiers though, the remains had been reburied and we’d taken a 3D print of one of the skeletons to display in the exhibition, which the public really liked. And then we come to storage. Should we store human remains for future work?
A lot of people like me would say yes, but I think there is probably a time and place when that should happen, and if it does happen,
we need to be careful how we store them. So we’re going to look at all these aspects of ethics related to human remains.
I guess for me there is one message I’d like you to take home from this part of the course and that is we need to treat human remains with dignity, respect and sensitivity, and consider that it is a privilege and not a right to learn more about their lives. I certainly think that. They were once living people and we have to respect that. Everybody has their own opinions about ethics related to human remains, and I’d really like you to reflect on the content of this part of the module. Thank you.

Charlotte Roberts introduces our subject for this week: the importance of ethics, particularly in the context of human remains and their study by archaeologists.

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