Report from “Encountering Human Remains: Heritage Issues and Ethical Considerations” in Cambridge

On May 11 and 12, 2023, the 23rd Cambridge Heritage Symposium took place at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. The topic of these two-days symposium was “Encountering Human Remains: Heritage Issues and Ethical Considerations”.

Despite what one may think looking at the hosting place, archaeology was not the only point of view in discussing the human remains, nor was it the main one. On the contrary, many different approaches, methodologies, fields were presented and discussed in these two stimulating, interesting, and emotional days – as it is very well proved by the six sessions in which the days were divided: 1. European Conflictscapes and the War Dead, 2. Necropolitics and Commemorating the Dead, 3. Shifting the Narrative and Management of Human Remains, 4. Encountering Death in Museums: Ethics of Display and Public Perception of Human Remains, 5. Studying the Dead: Curation and Archival Research of Human Remains, and 6. Reflecting on Epistemology, Spirituality, and the Social Dead.

The Symposium was organized by Dr. Trish Biers, Elif Dogan, Leanne Daly, Dr. Miriam Saqqa-Carazo, Dr. Gilly Carr, Dr. Paola Filippucci, and Ben Davenport.

File:Ivory model of a human skeleton, suspended in a case with op Wellcome L0058603.jpg” is licensed under CC BY 4.0. This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Ref Wellcome blog post (archive).

Alongside the sessions, two keynote speakers presented their unique perspectives on two interesting themes: the first day Dr. Layla Renshaw explored the different dimensions of personhood sought by the living when a mass grave is exhumed, bringing case studies of contemporary exhumations of Republican mass graves from the Spanish Civil War; on the second morning, George Gumisiriza used the lens of migrant corpses to explore potential individual and collective ways of encountering human remains in society. The registration of these interesting and moving intervention are available on the site of the research center.

After Dr. Renshaw keynote, Dr. Gilly Carr kicked-off the first session with a question that everyone working with human remains – and ethics in general – asked themselves at least once in their life: “What is an inappropriate behavior?”. The question pairs perfectly with the general recommendation of treating human remains “with respect”, when one encounters them. After Dr. Carr her colleagues in the session, Dr. Margaret Comer, Leonora Weller, and Dr. Magdalena Matczak beautifully interrogated regarding war and holocaust dead and on what the human rights of human skeletal remains are as heritage – and if human remains resulting from atrocities should be heritage at all.

The following session, with the talk of Dr. Daniel Gaudio, Oliver Moxham and Hyunjae Kim, explored the commemoration of dead and the connection with politics, from different perspectives, starting with the challenges of analyzing frozen remains in Northern Italy, going through the possible linguistic barriers in Japan and finishing with the interpretation of colonial deathscapes and local’s narrative in South Korea.

The last session of the first day explored new possible narratives around human remains, specifically shifting from the dominant Western approaches and discourses. Dr. Yunci Cai presented the case of the Monospiad Cultural Village in Sabah, East Malaysia, while Dr. Heba Abd el Gawad underlined the invisibility to which the contemporary Egyptian people are subject, when it comes to their discomfort towards the display of mummified Egyptian human remains in Western museums. Paloma Robles Lacayo proudly described the efforts undertaken in trying to identify the Mummies of Guanajuato, to eradicate their objectification, without hiding the difficulties encountered (and still encountering) and Dr. Guido Lombardi showed the possibility of carrying on the Ancestors’ legacy, respecting their body-preserving traditions and bridging them with modern education and local specialists.

Following the beautiful keynote lecture, the second day opened with the encounter of death in museums. To open the session, Dr. Katie Stringer Clary draw the history of the exploitation of the Indigenous or “abnormal”, sometimes living, bodies. She begun by discussing the very first freakshows up until today, pointing out that: “Museums no longer exhibit living people. Still, how far have they come?”. Olga Nikonenko focused instead on the complicated issues of the provenance, public display and repatriation of the multi-cultural Graeco-Roman mummified remains discovered in Egypt. More personal perspectives were those offered by Dr. Jody Joy, who told his experience in curating the Lindow Man, and by Cat Irving, who closed this session telling the stories “of those that you don’t find in history books”.

Since the beginning of the Symposium questions arose at the back on my mind, and they haven’t left yet: where do we draw a line, if we can draw a line at all?

The speakers of the second session of the day, Dr. Miriam Saqqa-Carazo, Dr Rachel Sparks, Jelena Bkvalac and Dr. Ayesha Fuentes, focused more on the curatorial aspects of handling human remains in museums, as well as on the archival research.

To conclude this full, thought-provoking two-days Symposium, the last session tackled a more epistemological, spiritual and social perspective. The speakers, Prof. Shawn Graham, Ellie Chambers, and Dr. Svetlana Seibel, went from unveiling some (disturbing) sides of the trade of human remains on e-commerce and social media platforms, through their exploitation on online news platform as clickbait, to showing literary encounters with ancestral remains. Closing the session, Prof. Charles Clary (see also his IG) moving talk guided us towards his personal exploration of death, mourning and healing through his art, which also provided the beautiful cover of the Symposium’s programme.

Since the beginning of the Symposium questions arose at the back on my mind, and they haven’t left yet: where do we draw a line, if we can draw a line at all? Should politics be allowed to objectify the remains, using them for its own purposes? What’s the distance in time that determines whose ancestors are worthy of asking for repatriation? And is this distance really sufficient, to ignore this type of concern? And should professionals working with human remains be completely detached and unemotional, as usually required to scientists, to be considered professionals?

As for all the best encounters, these two days left me with more new open questions than answers. Unfortunately, it is not possible to see all the amazing talks that have been delivered in those two days, but the online poster session is still available and showcases very interesting researches.

by: Nicole Crescenzi

featured image: File:Ivory model of half a human head, half a skull, Europe Wellcome L0057081.jpg” is licensed under CC BY 4.0. This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Ref: Wellcome blog post (archive).

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s