What do we do?
We are a sub-group of representatives from the BABAO membership who have experience in dealing with the sale, trade and collection of human remains that is contrary to our Code of Ethics, Code of Practice and Guidance Document on Digital Imaging. More broadly, we are concerned with objectification and commodification of the dead, and wish to educate the public about the ethical, legal, and social ramifications underpinning the existence of a private commercial trade in human remains, on and off-line.
- the potential for theft or misappropriation of indigenous cultural heritage
- the potential damage to the extant archaeological record, vandalism or looting of historic or contemporary cemeteries
- infiltration of and tampering with crime-scenes
- the potential theft from museum collections
Although we have ‘British’ in our title, we represent members from many countries from around the world, and we aim to make our work matter on a global scale.
Statement of purpose
BABAO defines ‘human remains’ as all individuals that fall within the range of anatomical forms known today and in the past. This includes skeletons, individual bones and teeth, and objects made in whole or in part from human bone or teeth and parts of preserved bodies (e.g. hair, nails, skin and other soft tissues), i.e. any ‘material’ that contains human cells. The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) has a number of codes of best practice that document guidelines for the handling and analysis of human remains, and their storage.
BABAO advocates that all human remains should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of antiquity or provenance. All practitioners who work with human remains should adhere to ethical practices in the study and care of human remains, be committed to public education, and promote the value of the scientific study of the remains. Actions or statements that violate these principles contravene BABAO’s Code of Ethics, Code of Practice and Guidance Document on Digital Imaging.
Selling of human remains
Within the past few years it has come to our attention that there have been numerous cases where human remains have been bought and sold for financial gain. The BABAO Trustees have responded in an ad hoc nature through written letters and emails. It is ethically objectionable to commodify the remains of people as objects, and the concept of ‘ownership’ of most human remains is not recognised in law. A wider concern is that the existence of such a trade has been shown to encourage looting of both archaeological and contemporary burial sites, even into the late 20th century, ultimately resulting in the banning of export/trade of human remains from many countries. In particular, the mass export of skeletons (e.g. from Asia) for medical school use continued well into the 21st century, and thus many ‘antique’ skeletons found for sale are of relatively recent date and fall under the Human Tissue Act. In the USA, it is not uncommon to find parts of unclaimed bodies or those donated to medical science for sale as part of the commercial trade in human tissue for non-medical research, even to the general public. These remains disproportionately consist of marginalised and ethnic minority groups. BABAO finds the trading of human remains for commercial gain unacceptable.
Globally today, the majority of the online human remains trade has moved from e-commerce platforms, such as eBay, Etsy, Marktplaats.nl, and Amazon.com, etc. to social media platforms (particularly Instagram, and restricted groups on Facebook) with, to date, very minimal intervention by platform moderators. The ability for buyer and seller to exchange more information and arrange the details of transactions via ‘direct messaging’ makes these social media platforms ideal hosts for a wide variety of illicit activity. In the rare instances when individual accounts are taken down, no effort is made to prevent the same individuals from resurfacing on the same or other platforms. Research also demonstrates substantial cross-platform movement of material and the ready use of social media by brick-and-mortar establishments and galleries as the best ‘place’ to finalise more controversial sales. This Task Force seeks to help address the problem where we are best able – as research professionals and public advocates.
Legal and Ethical Framework
Although the ethical issues are complex, it is an offence to hold human remains that are less than 100 years old for a Scheduled Purpose (as defined in the Human Tissue Act, 2004) unless a licence has been obtained from the Human Tissue Authority. Public display, including in retail premises, is a Scheduled Purpose. Most of the medical/anatomical remains being sold openly in the UK are the product of mass export from India and China in the 20th Century. It was not uncommon for students in UK medical schools to each have their own reference skeleton for training. The export of human skeletons from India was banned in 1985 amid government fears of grave robbing and murder, although there is evidence that the trade continues. The export of human skeletons from China was only banned in 2008. Many of the anatomical/medical examples seen for sale may therefore fall under the Human Tissue Act, and may be of very recent date. It is also illegal to exhume or remove from a place of burial human remains, including archaeological remains, without the proper legal authority. In England and Wales this can be in the form of an Exhumation Licence from the Ministry of Justice, or a Diocesan faculty where they are in consecrated ground.
BABAO has Codes of Ethics and Practice and a Guidance Document on Digital Imaging all of which it expects its members to adhere to, but it also promotes these documents for use within our wider community. BABAO also supports the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums and the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England’s Guidance for Best Practice for the Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England.
BABAO’s Stance on the Trade, Including Sale, of Human Remains
BABAO believes that the sale of human remains is unethical and does not condone the selling of, or trade in, human remains. With this in mind, for individuals or organisations that have human remains and wish to transfer them, BABAO can offer advice on institutions that are willing to receive remains for education, training or research, which adhere to ethical standards and are appropriately licensed where necessary.
Aims of the BABAO Trading and Sale of Human Remains Sub-group
- To collate information about the commodification of human remains in the United Kingdom
- To track how human remains are sold/collected/trafficked in an international market
- To offer guidance on the transfer of human remains to HTA-licensed institutions where relevant
- To monitor the use of human remains in social media associated with sale/trade/collecting
- To research claims of ‘ethical collecting’ by traders and concerns over provenience
- To raise public awareness about the ethical ramifications of a private commercial trade in human remains on and off-line
Find these and more resources in our dedicated page
If you would like to report something you have seen in relation to our group’s statement of purpose please email email@example.com
Alternatively you can contact us via our anonymous feedback form
Following GDPR compliance, we will not share any personal information from reports made to us.