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Digging up human remains in the UK
Dear all, I'm an interested amateur and been reading up on some of the ethical issues surrounding human remains. What does the law currently say about human remains in archaeology? It all seems somewhat unclear and has changed recently. At a practical level would I be correct in saying that an exhumation licence is still required and that bodies must be reburied within 2 years (unless additional approvals are sought)? Is this correct? Is their guidance on how long must pass before a grave can be legitimately excavated for research purposes (i.e. obtaining a licence)?
With peace and consolation hath dismist, And calm of mind all passion spent...
You are broadly correct.

The guidance for how long and what circumastances a 'historic' grave rather than a purely 'archaeological' one, usually 18th/19th century+, will depend on the context of the excavation, the site and the reason for investigation, but is entirely down to the Ministry of Justice rather than hard-and-fast rules, who I might add do issue very helpful advice, though a little lawyerly and often not rapidly. I find it is best to phone them, outline your project and then official e-mails will be more forthcoming.

Also on a practical note, as long as you ensure careful packaging and screening, your more pressing concerns may be with environmental/safety issues (including checking with the local environmental health officer).
this seems to be the last attempt at this subject.

Bombbert what connection are you looking for between ethics and the law. I don't think that the law mentions archaeology. The law would appear to be the Burial Act from last century which is kinda concerned mostly about burying people in cemeteries and then not going around and digging them up without asking. This Act then seems to have been regulated into a licence which people worry about if they come across a burial outside of a cemetery:
I am not sure where the two year thing came from, its a kinda magic that departments can do and get away with until you can have a court case where the judges will say that the regs set a precedent. you might like to plead a human right to dig up and keep bones. Well I think that what is going on.

Obviously we are not talking about recent murder victims but if that was the case I don't know that there is any specific crime if an archaeologist did not report it. Possibly if you touch it you might be interfering with a crime scene but then how were you to know it was a crime scene or even a dead body without touching it? It might be a common law offence in obstructing the coroner under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 but still a lot resides on the certain identification of human remains which often isn't that obvious.

Ethics seem to apply a lot to religious views I cant help you there much. You also probably don't want to get involved if there are any people claiming ancestry around. You might what to contemplate this


Quote:Do I need a licence to remove foetal remains?

The removal of a buried foetus under 24 weeks' gestation does not require an exhumation licence. Arrangements may therefore be agreed with the land owner and the holder of the burial rights to the grave. A licence is required for the exhumation of a buried foetus over 24 weeks’ gestation.
what is a holder of the burial rights to the grave?

One way round things is to record every thing as yet another example of a missing link. Everybody's at it, heres the latest.
.....nature was dead and the past does not exist
Marc Berger - that is really just confusing official guidance with your own philosophy, and not helpful to bomberh.

If there is a chance ancestry is involved the MoJ will require you to place adverts around the local area and in two local newspapers, to trace possible connections/objections, though this need not be a barrier to work. Depending on the historiy of the site, they may also ask about formal desk-based research, although one hopes this would have happened prior to this stage. If post-medieval graves are not associated with a religous institution, there's a good chance they were formerly associated with something of significance.
p.s. some of the forms and guidance notes may have been updated fairly recently, but to be honest the real-life approach to these issues on an ethical and legal basis has not actually cvhanged much. The bottom lime is you must apply for an exhumation licence, and abide by the general and any project specific conditions they stipulate. That may cut through alot of academic discussion, but thats the reality (in England anyway).
gonetopot Bombert said that the law had changed recently. has it? As for the ethics of reburial. The reburial thing seems to be an condition of issuing the licence and the act of parliament that it is based on seems to be concerned of licence to exhume bodies from known grave sites presumably with known religious affiliation. Now would you want to get your hail marries right and should these artefacts be reburied by secularists or people of a different religion. Recently buried a family member. It cost. Reburial seems to be find a likely hole and chuck them in. Cheap and convenient. Obviously you might want to consider if you have become the "holder of the burial rights to the grave". You probably got to have liability insurance for that.

I must admit I think that archaeologists might be missing a trick with the reburial thing and see if they couldn't make a bit more song and dance about it. Maybe put a lot more effort into accusing people of being related to the bag of bones and asking for a subsidy for them. Obviously it would be done tastefully. You could possibly use it with the ministry of Justice that as you hadn't found the full expected subsidy from the ancestors that you have to hold onto their bones for a little bit longer. Obviously we couldn't have a set price because that would be anti competitive.
.....nature was dead and the past does not exist
I suggest that this thread is beginning to press beyond the bounds of dignity.....the official advice from the MoJ is summarised in the PDF (the subject of my first post) and can be further clarified at the end of a telephone. I don't think it does our profession any good to suggest that any part of our trade might involve ripping off relatives of the deceased.....
With peace and consolation hath dismist, And calm of mind all passion spent...
Whos ripping anybody off. I would have though that a lot of descendants would be grateful that if you had gone to the trouble to save the remains of their ancestors from the jaws of development to notify them and at least give them the chance to voice what they might want to happen. presumably some people might be insulted if you asked for too little. Maybe the route to go is to give them the bones for nothing but then charge them to bury them. Maybe if the exact ancestors could not be found then maybe the state might like to step in on their behalf and pay you to bury them. I cant say that I like the use of the term rebury. It kinda suggest that you had already had one go at burying them. We are paid to dig them up not put them into another bit of ground. Could we cremate them instead. Seems to me that a lot of archaeologists make out that burying them is archiving.

Still does anybody know where the MoJ got the two years for reburial from and what does they define as "re"burial.
.....nature was dead and the past does not exist
I'm with Kevin, thank you for linking to the PDF guidance, which clarifies the updated MoJ guidance, Ic couldn't do it from where I was.

For clarity, the exhumation licence covers all burials, wherever they me be, with re-burial appropriate to the context of recovery. Archiving on the grounds of research potential may be identified for sample burials, though this is less likely where re-burial of post-medieval skeletons is concerned. Again it comes down to case specific responses from the MoJ.

BomberH, I hope Kevin and I have provided some assistance, and that the gravitas that should be associated with dealing with human remains prevents others from spurious discussion of un-ethical alternatives. We strive to be taken seriously as proffesionals, and while humorous asides are to be encouraged, simply being provocative (and I am provoked) and deliberately twisting debate and interpretation is a pointless diversion.

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