Skeletons in Your Closet?

Thanks to Stephen Claggett, State Archaeologist, for the following guest post.

Or, how about human teeth, or bones re-worked into smoking pipes, or even women’s hair braided into watch fobs?

They’re all human remains, in the biological sense of being physical parts of (most likely) deceased people. And while the presence of such things in museum collections may not be uncommon or even surprising, how they are handled may present ethical, moral and even legal challenges to curators and other professionals working with museum collections.

So, how do any of us deal with bones and other human remains in our custody? First, you should be aware that North Carolina laws exist (as in many other states) that condition what we may or may not do with these objects. Federal laws may also be in play, including the oft-cited—and mis-cited—Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (25 USC 3001) which addresses Native American remains already in museum collections, or that may be encountered on federal (think National Parks) and tribal (think Cherokee Reservation) lands.

State laws here in NC extend protection to cemeteries, gravesites and their contents, and are used often by property owners, descendents, law enforcement and other officials to avert or address the disturbance, destruction, defacement, vandalism or desecration of caskets, human remains, grave markers or “any repository thereof” of human remains (NC General Statutes §14-148 and §14-149). Illegal disturbance of graves, and felony-level violations of those laws by people seeking bones, Civil War uniform buttons, ancient pottery and such items unfortunately is something that the Office of State Archaeology, medical examiners and law enforcement must deal with on an all too common basis.

But that addresses only the “final resting places” of our dead citizens. What of the human bits and pieces that have been obtained legally through archaeological excavations or other means like biological supply businesses? Again, NC law allows professional archaeologists to recover (“dig,” in the vernacular) human skeletal remains found during planned excavations of Indian villages, colonial farmsteads, and old family cemeteries. Burials likewise can be excavated in the course of recovering remains inadvertently revealed during farm plowing, construction projects and natural erosion of stream banks or ocean beaches. The law (NC General Statute 70, Article 3) that covers such situations is the “Unmarked Human Burial and Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act,” or, more simply, the “burial law.”

Germane to this discussion are the “prohibited acts” embodied in the burial law (§70-37). It is illegal in our state to knowingly acquire human skeletal remains, knowingly exhibit or sell remains (more on that in a moment), or retain remains for scientific analysis beyond defined time limits. There are several things to note carefully here; that law applies only to remains from “unmarked burials in North Carolina after October 1, 1981,” the date the law came into force. It may not apply to remains from marked graves, or those from other states, or that were obtained before October 1, 1981. (Other state and federal laws prohibit interstate transport of human remains obtained from outside NC, that were procured in violation of other state and federal archaeology laws, including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, 16 USC 470).

So, while archaeologists, medical examiners, and law enforcement officials may gather and keep (at least temporarily) human remains, where does that leave museum professionals? It is clear that museums may legally possess bones and other remains acquired through donations of private collections, and even through purchase. It is less clear, however, how curators should properly care for, much less exhibit human remains (perhaps not a good idea, in the moral sense, and especially in the court of public opinion). Determining the original provenance and, especially, the age and ethnic relations of human remains is often difficult, even with able assistance from archaeologists and forensic anthropologists. Even the hint of Native American origins may complicate things (cf. NAGPRA); and with only very rare exceptions, DNA analyses of bones, teeth, hair, skin flakes, or nail parings will not give you quick and easy answers to who’s in your collection, and are they related to Miss X, or Group Y. It’s easy in the television world of CSI, but not in real life.

The aforementioned braided hair watch fobs likely fall out the equation for curators, as such things are not expressly addressed in the laws mentioned. If items incorporate Native American hair or similar elements, they could fall under the purview of NAGPRA, but the typical majority of Victorian-era ornaments or collages should be safe to display.

The best practical, and perhaps experiential, advice I can offer is this: if you have, or even think you have human remains in your collection, do not openly advertise that fact. Don’t store or handle those items in a careless or disrespectful manner. Do not plan to display any human remains—even with caveats about the legality of how they were obtained—either as original objects, photographs, digital images, or—heaven forbid—decorated art objects. Unless, of course, you’re willing to defend openly your personal and institutional insensitivity to cultural norms, and the feelings of real or claimed descendents.

Over my professional career, I’ve excavated, analyzed and handled hundreds of human bones (and even greater numbers of deer, raccoon, bear, bird and fish skeletons). And it doesn’t bother me to do so. My performance stays within the letter and intent of the laws, and the bounds of my professional ethics. Museums and their accrediting bodies must have similar expectations of curators who deal with a plethora of object types and materials. Human remains may be among them, but there’s no reason to be inordinately afraid of the skeletons in your closet.


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on October 30, 2012, in archaeology, collections access, collections care, Exhibitions, guest bloggers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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