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Archaeological Ethics and the Treatement of the Dead. Death and Human Emotion. How do humans respond to death?. We seem to take it very seriously…. …and we have for a very long time. Shanidar Cave (Israel) Neanderthal Burial, 60,000 years ago.

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Death and Human Emotion

How do humans respond to death?

We seem to take it very seriously…


…and we have for a very long time.

Shanidar Cave (Israel) Neanderthal Burial, 60,000 years ago


Emotionally, how do you respond to these images?

Does it matter who they were or when they died?


Whether they are ancient …

Egyptian Mummies, 3000 BCE

Tollund “Bog Man, Denmark, 5 BCE

Wupu Cemetery Mummy, China, 1000 BCE


…or modern?

William Braine

John Hartnell’s marker and remains

John Torrington

Guanajuato , Mexico–1800s

Sailors from the Franklin Expedition–1845



Or Old?


And died in large numbers ?

Kurd Boy, chemical weapon victim, Iraq, 1980s

Or small?

Mass Graves of Holocaust Victims, 1945, Europe


Mostly, we seem to take it very seriously…

Images of the Black Death, Europe, AD 1400-1700


…as did William Shakespeare!

Shakespeare’s Curse on Anyone Who Moves His Bones

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To digg the dust encloased heare:

Bleste be the man tht spares thes stones,

And curst be he tht moves my bones.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church April 25, at Stratford-upon-Avon. No one has disturbed his remains since his burial.


How seriously?

The United States budgets $21,000,000 annually to recover remains of war dead from all over the world.


The African Burial Ground

New York City

Reinterment was on October 4, 2003


Archaeologists worked at the World Trade Center, 2002

WTC Archaeology: What We Saw, What We Learned, and What We Did about it. 2002 Richard A. Gould, The SAA Archaeological Record 2(5):11-17


However, many American Indian people ask why their dead don’t receive equal treatment.

If we are so concerned with the treatment of our own dead, shouldn’t we care about the dead of others?


In recent years archaeologists and physical anthropologists have had to answer exactly that question…

…especially from Indigenous peoples such as Native Americans who claim that the remains of their ancestors are often the target of study.

They also claim that these remains sit on shelves in museums and laboratories while the remains of the archaeologists’ ancestors are rarely studied and quickly reburied.


Why is studying remains important?

What can we tell about the people of the past by looking at their dead?

  • Physical attributes, such as size
  • Population patterns (demography)
  • Nutrition (what they ate and its impact on their lives)
  • Patterns of diseases and trauma
  • Burial practices/social status (grave goods, mounds)

Many scientists believe that we need to keep skeletons for long term study.

Why? There will always be new techniques for looking at remains. If bones are returned, those techniques can’t be used.

They claim it’s like burying the past or burning books.

Let’s look at one case…


The difficult course toward ethical treatment of the dead

Several state laws passed to protect American Indian dead.

The public tended to support Indian concerns.


The issue was heated.

A Lakota editorial about Dickson Mounds in Illinois

The Vermillion Accord on Human RemainsThe Vermillion Accord was adopted in 1989 at the South Dakota WAC Inter-Congress.
  • Respect for the mortal remains of the dead shall be accorded to all, irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom and tradition.
  • Respect for the wishes of the dead concerning disposition shall be accorded whenever possible, reasonable and lawful, when they are known or can be reasonably inferred.
  • Respect for the wishes of the local community and of relatives or guardians of the dead shall be accorded whenever possible, reasonable and lawful.
  • Respect for the scientific research value of skeletal, mummified and other human remains (including fossil hominids) shall be accorded when such value is demonstrated to exist.
  • Agreement on the disposition of fossil, skeletal, mummified and other remains shall be reached by negotiation on the basis of mutual respect for the legitimate concerns of communities for the proper disposition of their ancestors, as well as the legitimate concerns of science and education.
  • The express recognition that the concerns of various ethnic groups, as well as those of science are legitimate and to be respected, will permit acceptable agreements to be reached and honoured.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990

Law, Regulations, and Guidance

A number of resources are available to assist museums, agencies, and Native American communities in carrying out NAGPRA. For additional information regarding the specialized terms used in NAGPRA, see the NAGPRA Glossary.

Law and Regulations

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq. [Nov. 16, 1990] PDF or Text

Final Regulations, 43 CFR 10 (includes preamble) [Dec. 04, 1995] PDF or Text

43 CFR 10 - Updated (Full Text, excluding preamble, of 43 CFR 10 as amended January 13, 1997; August 1, 1997; and May 5, 2003; and published in the Code of Federal Regulations October 1, 2003) [Oct. 01, 2003] PDF or Text

Overview of NAGPRA Civil Penalties Procedures PDForText

Reserved sections of the NAGPRA regulations

For a decent summary:


Kennewick Man

The Ancient One

The debate continues…


What’s happening now?


(Sponsored by Committee on Native American Relations)

Room: 103 (AC)

Time: 8:00 AM–10:00 AM

Organizer and Chair: Dorothy Lippert


8:00 Joe Watkins—‘Naturalizing’ the Native, Appropriating the Ancestors: Kennewick and an Unintended Impact of Repatriation

8:15 Kerry Thompson—Who is, or Was, Native American?: The Role of Archaeology in American Indian Identity

8:30 Sonya Atalay—Grandmothers and Grandfathers|Culturally Unidentifiable:

NAGPRA and The Power of Naming

8:45 Elisabeth Cutright-Smith, Wendi Field Murray and KacyHollenback—Twenty

Years Later: A Quantitative Assessment of NAGPRA\'s Impacts on American


9:00 Michael Wilcox—Genes and Cultural Identity: Boundaries, Boundary Makers and

the Cultural Mythology of DNA

9:15 Michelle Schohn—Another Step Removed: How NAGPRA further Disenfranchised

non-Federal Tribes

9:30 Dorothy Lippert—Memory and Longing in the Practice of Repatriation

9:45 Larry Zimmerman—Discussant

The dispute over culturally unidentifiable human remains persists.



  • Do the dead have rights?
  • Can anyone “control” the past?
  • Does the knowledge provided by science outweigh the rights of people who claim remains as ancestral?
  • Are compromises possible?