Human remains in archaeology are unavoidable, especially within the world of commercial archaeology, as sites containing burials often come up for redevelopment. Archaeologists need to excavate cemeteries and individual burials to ensure that the remains are not destroyed in the construction process. Before work starts on a site, often a non-intrusive investigation will take place, which informs us about what we might find in terms of archaeology. This search gives us an indication, but never tells us the full extent of what might be found, so whilst we can predict where we might find burials, sometimes they are found unexpectedly. In England, it is illegal to disturb human remains without a burial licence, which archaeologists need to apply to the Ministry of Justice to obtain. If we were expecting to find burials (for example if it was a known cemetery) we would apply for this licence in advance, otherwise work would be stopped until a licence has been acquired.
The burial licence not only gives archaeologists permission to excavate burials but also gives us the date of reburial. This is because all human remains in this country must be reburied at some point. The licences that we receive will either have a date of reburial or a date at which they must be deposited with a museum. Sometime museums and universities can act as approved holding institutions for skeletons so that further research can be undertaken on these populations. Such an agreement usually allows four years for study, although this can be extended if there is a justifiable reason for doing so, and would still carry a final date of reburial.
The study of human remains by specialists is an important part of archaeology that can give us vital information about people of the past, both on a population and an individual level. The scientific analysis of populations can give us information about where people travelled from and to, what they were eating, their genetic relationships and how diseases may have spread and evolved. On an individual level, by studying human remains we can learn about age, sex, disease and injury and how these factors present within the skeleton. When combined with other archaeological evidence, this information can give us huge insights into the populations of the past. These skills can even be applied in a forensic setting, and the excavation and identification of human remains can be used to identify potential victims of crime, although this would require a specialist in forensic archaeology.
It is vastly important when dealing with human remains that they are always treated with respect following ethical standards, and it is the archaeologist’s duty to uphold this. This is a complex issue, as personal experiences and beliefs are often tied to our attitudes towards dealing with the dead. In England, the law requires that if living family members are known and request it, the human remains should be reburied. They should be reburied rather than cremated where possible and should be buried in consecrated ground. Professional organisations, such as the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE) and the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO), frequently review the ethical standards by which archaeologists deal with human remains and offer guidance to ensure that ethical practices are adhered to.
For further information, see:
Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE) (2017) Guidance for Best Practice for the Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England. Second Edition. London: APABE, Historic England and The Church of England.
Roberts, C. A. (2009) Human Remains in Archaeology: A Handbook. York: Council for British Archaeology