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BABAO Statement on the Sale of Human Remains

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Statement of Purpose

The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) have a number of codes of practice that present guidelines for the handling, storage and analysis of human remains[1]. 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 and parts of preserved bodies (e.g. hair, nails and other soft tissues), i.e. any “material” that contains human cells. 

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 care of human remains, be committed to public education and promote the value of the scientific study of the remains. Actions or statements which violate these principles contravene BABAO’s Code of Ethics.

Selling of human remains

Within the past few years there have been a number of cases where human remains have been bought and sold for financial gain. 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 extant 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 (2004). BABAO finds the trading of human remains for commercial gain unacceptable.

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[2]. Public display, including in a shop, is a Scheduled Purpose. BABAO has a Code of Ethics1 which it expects its members to adhere to, but also promotes this document for use within the wider community. BABAO also supports the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums[3] (DCMS 2007) 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[4] (APABE 2017). 

BABAO Stance on Selling and Trade 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. 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[5], which adhere to our ethical standards and are appropriately licensed where necessary.

Last updated 2023