In keeping with current Ministry of Justice guidelines, the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) encourages the archiving rather than reburial of archaeological human remains, whether encountered in planned excavation or as a result of chance discovery. BABAO can provide professional assessments on the potential of collections in cases where reburial is considered, and guidance and support with regard to the deposition/curation of human remains in appropriate repositories that will help to ensure their retention for study to the benefit of present and future generations.

In relation to this issue we direct you to the recent Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, which provides a framework for handling claims and evaluating the status of claimants.

The BABAO position statement on methods of reburial of human remains

The BABAO Board of Trustees was invited at the 2012

AGM to consider providing guidance on methods for reinterment of human remains which would optimally preserve their osteological information content for future researchers (guidelines on permanent reburial of remains from Christian contexts are already available here). The committee noted the following points:

  • Although there is anecdotal evidence that reburial in earth or in churchyard vaults can lead to rapid deterioration in human remains, there is a dearth of controlled scientific studies on the long-term effects of reburial of human skeletal remains.
  • There is therefore no adequate scientific basis for making recommendations for reburial procedures that are least harmful to human remains.
  • There would also be logistical difficulties in accessing reburied remains for research purposes. Exhumation and reburial whenever a researcher wished to examine remains would be time-consuming and would result in deterioration of remains. Changes in land use or ownership may make future access difficult or impossible. It is hard to see benefit in such arrangements

Mindful of the strong public support, evidenced in a recent opinion poll (Link Here), for the retention of archaeological human remains in museums for research purposes, and of the current Ministry of Justice policy which is permissive toward archiving of remains, the Committee arrived at the following conclusions

  • For remains with significant research potential, unless there are pressing and specific arguments favouring reburial, storage in a museum or analogous institution should be the default option.
  • For remains from burial grounds under Church of England jurisdiction, ecclesiatical permissions for exhumation generally stipulate return of remains to consecrated ground. For important collections efforts should be made to fulfil this desire by storage in redundant or partially redundant churches rather than reburial, so that they continue to be available for research.
  • For remains where there is continuity of beliefs with other extant faiths, advice should be taken from faith group representatives.
  • Remains thought to be of no significant scientific or other value may be reburied. For remains with significant research or other potential, reburial should only be undertaken if other options have been exhausted. Advice on research potential should be sought from BABAO and/or a suitably qualified osteologist. BABAO lists Institutions willing to receive collections of archaeological human remains (Click Here).
  • APABE and English Heritage (simon.mays@english-heritage.org.uk) are available to give casework advice on archiving issues connected with human remains.

Opinion polls

Below are links to the results of some recent surveys regarding opinions on the excavation and treatment of human remains from archaeological contexts.

Survey of BABAO Members opinions 2008.

Research into Issues Surrounding Human Bones in Museums - independent survey of public opinion commisioned by English Heritage.

Life and Reburial in Cambridgeshire - survey of public opinion conducted by Cambridgeshire Archaeology.

Other opinion polls are as follows:

Survey of BABAO Members opinions 2017

APABE

A consultation carried out by The Church of England, English Heritage and the Ministry of Justice indicated a clear need for a single source of advice covering archaeological burials in England. These organisations have therefore taken a decision to form and support the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE). This panel will act as a unified source of advice covering all burials in England over 100 years old. APABE will succeed and replace an earlier panel, the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Christian Burials in England (APACBE), set up in 2005.

In 2015, APABE published their document on the working with large burial sites.

Other articles, interest pieces and communications

Below are links to some recent publications and communications relating to current repatriation and reburial issues:

Skeleton of “the Irish giant”: We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it - article in the BMJ by BABAO members in response to the Charles Byrne controversy, Jan 2012

"British Museums: the Druids are at the gates" -article by Tiffany Jenkins -director of the Institute of Ideas spikedonline.com Feb 2009

BABAO response to the consultation on the formation of a new Advisory panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE) Ancient bones could help combat TB The Observer June 2008

"Mummies are not museum 'Objects'" Armenian Egyptology Centre, Yerevan State University, June 2008

"Naked Mummies covered" The Telegraph May 2008

"Fury as museum bosses cover naked Egyptian mummies" The Mail on Sunday May 2008

"Museum surrenders vital clues to human evolution" The Times May 2007

"Gives us back our bones pagans tell museums" The Guardian Feb. 2007

BABAO response to the EH Avebury reburial consultation

Letter published in Museum Archaeologists News Summer 2007

Letter published in Museums Journal July 2007

Press Statement issued by BABAO in response to NHM handover of Tasmanian Remains (May 2007)

"Ancestors of us all" article published in Museums Journal Jan. 2007

Letter to the Natural History Museum in response to decision regarding the repatriation of Tasmanian remains (Jan. 2007)

Letter published in Museums Journal in response to articles discussing the repatriation of Tasmanian Remains (Nov. 2006)

"Sending back of Aboriginal bones is loss to scientists" The Times Nov. 2006

"Bodies: Who wants to rebury old skeletons" British Archaeology 82, May/ June 2005