After a rather invigorating research fellow interview with a dizzying array of questions, I was reminded of a research statement Alexis Boutin and I crafted in 2009 regarding the analysis and visual documentation of human remains and artifacts in the Phoebe A. Hearst museum at UC Berkeley. When I checked the old blog link the statement had disappeared, so I thought I’d repost it here, as I feel like it is an extremely worthwhile exercise and actually was a motivating force for the International Visual Studies Association’s more general ethics statement.
I would encourage all those who deal with human remains (and archaeology in general) to consider crafting this kind of statement before beginning a project, as it makes your position absolutely clear to your team and forces you to consider any stakeholders for your research.
Regarding the display and remediation of artifacts and human remains
The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project is working with human remains excavated in the 1940s by Peter Bruce Cornwall. Although Cornwall obtained permissions both from local governing authorities and Standard Oil, who had oil exploration rights to some of these territories , we feel that we must be explicit in our methodology and goals in depicting the excavated materials curated in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum. In this digital age it is easy for members of western academic institutions to share both visual and textual information regarding our research and while it is often desirable to keep an open dialogue with fellow colleagues and an interested public, this same openness can be seen as disrespectful when the display of human remains and associated artifacts runs contrary to the desires and beliefs of stakeholders associated with the site. We believe that it is important to clarify this relationship and our stance regarding the data we are gathering as part of the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project (DBP).
During the course of our interpretation of the artifacts and human remains excavated by Peter Bruce Cornwall, we find it necessary to fully document the collection with digital photographs and digital video. The digital photography has been performed in accordance with the wishes of the Phoebe A. Hearst museum, on a photography stand, in raw format, with neutral colored backgrounds and scales. During this photography the artifacts were handled as little as possible, by team members wearing gloves in order to preserve their structural integrity. In the case of skeletal photography, only the dedicated bioarchaeologist, Alexis Boutin, Ph.D., handled the remains. These photographs and videos were then downloaded to the laptop of Colleen Morgan, the team’s digital documentarian. The photographs were then entered into a spreadsheet and given a UUID, a universally-unique ID commonly used by digital archivists, and a selection of these photographs were then cropped, photoshopped, and shared with the team in protected online folders. These photographs are also backed up to an external hard drive to protect against data loss. After the collection has been completely photographed we will make the photographs available to the Phoebe A. Hearst museum in a format of their choosing. The video will be cut into short videos to share online and will also be given to the Phoebe A. Hearst museum in the format of their choosing.
While all depictions of the artifacts and the human remains have been shared in protected folders online to team members, a selection of the photographs and videos also will be made available to the broader online public. Most of the artifacts in the Peter Bruce Cornwall collection were excavated from tumuli, specifically from human burials of the protohistoric inhabitants of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (i.e., the Dilmun culture). Images of these artifacts are in broad circulation and are printed in many volumes, and our contributions in this respect will not be unusual. We intend to contact the archaeological authorities in Bahrain to reaffirm this process. In this case it is difficult to identify interested indigenous parties, as the excavations were performed 60 years ago and the landscape of Bahrain has changed radically since that time. It is not our intention to reify the assumption that primarily Islamic populations only care about Islamic artifacts and remains. Instead we hope that digital dissemination of our data will heighten awareness of the tumuli in Bahrain. However, if our discussions with community leaders and other interested parties indicate dissatisfaction with these depictions, then we will remove offending materials from public access. In addition to presenting traditional representations of these artifacts, we also intend to remediate the data for better understanding and interest of the online public. Remediation, defined by Bolter and Grusin (1999) as “the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms” can be used to resituate artifacts in new, meaningful, and interesting ways. Given this, we intend that our remediations will be respectful of the past and present cultural context of the artifacts.
This above set of standards does not apply for depictions of the human remains. We recognize, in accordance with the 1989 Vermillion Accord on Human Remains and the 2005 Tamaki Makau-rau Accord on the Display of Human Remains and Sacred Objects promoted by the World Archaeological Congress that “respect for the mortal remains of the dead shall be accorded to all irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom and tradition” and recognize that the depiction of these remains is a sensitive subject. Until the permission of the potentially affected community is obtained, we will not display human remains unless it is absolutely necessary for explanation, and even so, we do so with extreme forbearance.
In answering the question, “Why study human remains?,” Patricia M. Landau and D. Gentry Steele point to human remains as a unique source of direct information about ancient peoples’ biology and behavior: that is, what they looked like, how they acted as members of a society, and how they responded to their environments. Issues such as these form part of the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project’s research agenda, although we are also particularly interested in understanding these human remains within their mortuary contexts. How were these peoples’ identities related to the ways they were treated in death? Under what circumstances were people buried together, and with what types of objects? Who was “allowed” to be buried in a tumulus? But this research agenda aside, the DBP is studying this particular set of human remains because they had never been studied before. Since Cornwall collected the skeletons in Bahrain in the early 1940s and shipped them to the U.S., they have been stored in the collections of the Hearst museum, curated carefully but never subjected to osteological analysis due to lack of funding. Cornwall doubtless had the best of scholarly intentions when he unearthed the skeletons and their funerary accoutrements: his writings reflect an interest in mortuary practices as an indicator of cultural affiliation. Nevertheless, the removal of human remains from what had been intended as their final resting place might be interpreted by some as culturally insensitive and disrespectful. The fact that these remains were never analyzed by an osteologist- presumably the purpose of their excavation – gives that interpretation more credence. Thus, the BBP aims to carry out Cornwall’s presumed research goals with the human remains from the Bahraini tumuli and, in the process, redress any oversights – however unintentional they may have been – committed against these ancient peoples and their descendants.
The following ethical guidelines are based on chapters in Cassman et al. (2007). All contact with the human remains is undertaken by the person of, or under the direct supervision of, Alexis Boutin, Ph.D., a qualified osteologist. Gloves are always worn to avoid contaminating the human remains or violating their personal integrity. The skeletal remains were marked in permanent ink with a museum “object” number at some point prior to our research; we do not employ any permanent systems of reconstruction or stabilization. Those temporary systems that we have employed (in limited instances, water-soluble glue) will be removed at the request of affected descendant populations. So far, our analyses have been non-destructive (i.e., strictly morphological and metric). Should we decide that invasive or destructive analyses (e.g., DNA or biochemical sampling) are essential to our research goals, we will request permission from the appropriate Bahraini authorities and, if possible, descendant communities. We approach our tasks with a sense of reverence and of the privilege we have been granted to interact with, and learn from, these earthly remains. Above all, we recognize that these skeletal remains are not “objects of study,” but persons who deserve the same dignity and respect, and have the same rights as, the persons who walk the earth today.
2000 Landau, P. M. and D. G. Steele Why Anthropologists Study Human Remains. Pp. 74-94 in Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? Ed. Devon A. Mihesuah. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. V. Cassman, N. Odegaard, and J. Powell, eds.
2007 Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. Lanham, Md.: Altamira Press.