Meeting at the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm

Last week (January 26-27) the researchers with Ethical Entanglements met with the advisory board for the project, including Fredrik Svanberg (Nordiska museet, Stockholm), Linda Andersson Burnett (Uppsala University), Olof Ljungström (Karolinska Instititutet), Malin Masterton (Örebro University), and Kicki Eldh (The Swedish National Heritage Board). The meeting was held at the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm. The project members presented their respective work packages to the board and received invaluable feedback from the board members who represent a range of experiences and expertise that in different ways will enrich the project with perspectives from the museum world and Museology, Medical Ethics, the History of Ideas and Knowledge, Postcolonial Studies, and more broadly from a critical engagement with Humanities and Social Science research and its history.

A lot of the discussions came to focus on the ways in which human remains are positioned on a sliding scale, between object and subject, between lived lives and specimens for sciences, and sometimes between evidence and victim – and how their positioning on the scale changes over time, between cultures and academic disciplines.

visit to the storage area of the Ethnographic Museum, photo: Liv Nilsson Stutz

After the meeting, Mia Broné, objects coordinator for the four National Museums of World Culture (Etnografiska museet, Medelhavsmuseet, Östasiatiska museet, och Världskulturmuseet), presented the work that these museums in different ways have worked intentionally with their collections of human remains, and the rich and complex history of the collections. We finished with a visit to the storage area where we continued to discuss practice and ethics of care.

Thanks, But No Thanks? The challenge of spontaneous donations of human remains to museums.

In recent conversations with the Swedish museum community, I have been made aware of the challenges they face as people, who for various reasons are in possession of human remains, approach them to make a donation. This may sound odd, but it is quite common, and this probably marks a shift in the culture regarding our attitudes to human remains and the ethics that surround them. And it presents museums, as institutions trusted to “take care of things,” with a difficult conundrum.

Most of these spontaneous donations are offered by family members of deceased physicians and dentists. In the past, it was quite common for medical students to acquire anatomical specimen as part of their professional training. Having a cranium at home probably initially helped you to learn some anatomy, but it is likely that the possession soon transitioned from pedagogical tool to professional symbolic marker. Studies have shown that the engagement with the human corpse, especially in the form of the practice of dissection, functioned as a rite of passage in medical schools in the past – and still to some degree can be argued to play that role. Through the completion of dissection the medical student becomes marked off as different, as part of a groups of specialists for whom engagement with cadavers is normal. This would have played a central role in professional identity production, and memorial photographs from medical schools indicate that this was also a performance which underscored the distinction from “civilians.” Here, the shock factor, played a part in marking the identity. The keeping of human remains, most commonly skulls, but also other specimen, in the office or even at home, can probably be viewed as part of the same professional identity performance. 

American Medical Student dissection group photograph. The students are posing with the cadaver on a table signed with the name of the school and the year of their class – a common practice to commemorate the event. Photo from Discover Magazine (link above).

But times change – both outside of and in the medical profession. Dissection has become a place where medical ethics are taught, and it is no longer considered unproblematic to keep human remains around the house. Consequently, as older members of the profession die, the skulls kept on shelves start to become an issue to be solved by the survivors. 

Another source for these remains is teaching institutions, like public schools, that historically would have a teaching skeleton in their pedagogical arsenal, and perhaps also as a symbol of science more generally (since advanced anatomy never was a core component of the curriculum for most students, although exceptions exist). A debate has emerged in the last few years also in the pedagogical community. Although an underresearched area, anecdotal evidence shows that cases of unethical practice can aslo be linked to these collections (like the case of a school skeleton in Strömsnäsbruk sourced from a marginalised local man who committed suicide in 1847). As the school system is being reformed, and schools reorganize and move to new or refurbished buildings, the old skeletons emerge as left overs from the past that need to be handled. With the change in the social and cultural debate they are no longer viewed as unproblematic, and perhaps their usefulness is also being questioned. Schools too are looking for ways to ethically dispose of or rid themselves of these bones. In some cases, like one in Strömsnäsbruk (and others), burial of the remains remind us of similar burials in cases of repatriation to indigenous peoples.

Some of the remains were obtained through not only legal, but culturally sanctioned and celebrated practices at the time, while others were obtained through theft and other dubious or criminal practices. It is important to remember that while widows of dentists and physicians are trying to do right by the remains in their homes, human remains are still being traded today and how illegal that is depends on their provenience. The field is still shifting. 

In a seminar held with museum representatives on Nov 12, 2022 and organised by the Nordic Network for Human Remains in Museums, different experiences were discussed. From the discussion it became clear that museums tend to avoid accessioning problematic human remains. Most of the museums have a policy based on perceived responsibility. For example, if the museum or institution can be connected to a university that provided the medical training of the person holding the remains, or if the remains to be returned has some other connection to the collections already held by the museum, then there is a certain responsibility to receive the remains. The responsibility is not only about personal ethics and postmortem dignity but can also be linked to the professional ethics of documenting the historical practices of collecting and using human remains. It is important to underscore that this is also a consideration that should not be neglected. Other museums only accept archaeological remains.

But when museums do not accept the spontaneous donations of human remains – what happens to them? Who takes responsibility? 

The Swedish Church, The County Boards, the Police, and the Swedish National Heritage Board can also be considered stakeholders with different responsibilities. But so can all the municipalities that are formally responsible for the school system in Sweden today, and even the Swedish National Agency for Education. Bottom line, it is often unclear for an individual or an organisation, like a school, seeking guidance on how to properly dispose of human remains where to turn if the museum turns them down. 

Most commonly people are referred to the Swedish Church that has routines for destruction, but it is still a bit unclear how to proceed since the organization is decentralized when it comes to burial rights and practice. 

What I find fascinating in this discussion is that it so clearly illustrates that a new ethical dilemma has emerged as our social and cultural attitudes to human remains have changed.

What I find fascinating in this discussion is that it so clearly illustrates that a new ethical dilemma has emerged as our social and cultural attitudes to human remains have changed. This is a problem that did not exist in the public mind only a few decades ago. The issue spans many different professional and scientific spheres, from archaeology, to medicine, to forensics and to pedagogy. As it is no longer considered unproblematic to keep human remains in homes, offices, and school classrooms, we are all grappling with how to handle them. Should they be buried, destroyed, or preserved for teaching and research? How do we proceed?

A first step would be to clarify who in the long chain of stakeholders has the responsibility not to curate or dispose of, but to research the history and provenience of these remains. This is a first necessary step to even know what an ethical next step would be. But this is costly. It is not reasonable to lay the burden on individual museums that have no formal, historical connection to the remains, which is probably the reason why they are not willing and able to accept these donations. At the same time, it is not reasonable to lay this burden on the relatives of the collector, especially not if they explicitly want to pass them on for ethical reasons. 

We have work to do.

Echos Through Time – the debate about honorific names at Karolinska Institutet and the connection to research ethics today

Last week I was asked to write a short comment for the public outreach science publication Forskning & Framsteg about the ongoing debate concerning the names given to buildings and streets on the campus of the medical university Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (you can read the full text in Swedish here). This debate can be understood as a Swedish reaction to the broader international protest movement that aims to change the names figuring on university campuses – especially in the United States – that are associated to slave owners and racists.

After protests by students and staff against the names, a thorough report on the history of the naming practices at Karolinska was written by Petter Hellström. He clarifies that the practice to name buildings, lecture halls, labs and even streets after prominent researchers really only became established in the 1990s as the University started to model itself on an Anglosaxon campus model. The individuals thus honoured were mostly medical scientists. Some of them can be linked to race science, racial hygiene ideology, and even Nazi politics.

Among those honoured we find Anders Retzius (1796-1860) and Gustav Retzius (1842-1919), a father and son both leading figures at Karolinska, and both heavily implicated in the emerging anthropological race science of their time. Anders Retzius was professor in anatomy at Karolinska and is famous for his cephalic index that allowed him to separate out dolichocephalic and bracycephalic forms, and thus define different human “races.” In addition to describing and organising differences he observed in the anatomy, he also added a value system in which the viewed the Nordic races, and in particular the Swedish, as superior, often using a condescending and problematic vocabulary to describe others. His research was in this way both leading and fundamental in establishing a racial typology at the time.

For the purposes of this project it is key to understand that this research craved human crania and was a driving factor in the collection (through excavations of graves, theft, and the taking of anatomical specimen in hospital institutions dominated by poor and otherwise marginalised patients) and trade with colleagues such as Morton in Philadelphia, in human skulls. Gustav Retzius, professor in histology and anatomy followed in his fathers footsteps and while he did not drive the research front forward as significantly in the field of racial anthropology, he was a very active collector and also participated in the trade in specimens.

It is surprising, to say the least, that even in the 1990s and 2000s, these names were not viewed as problematic enough to be considered out of the question. We must assume that the reason for this was not that any of the committees making decisions on the names sympathised with these ideologies. But what this seems to indicate is that, at the time, the people making decisions were not concerned about racism – probably because they had never experienced it themselves, and likely because they thought about it as something of a distant past – of history, with no actual implications today. This is problematic for many reasons, and I want to underscore a few central aspects that are of particular importance.

The lack of engagement with the topic at the time indicates a lack of diversity at the decision making levels of the institution. The fact that these names were not viewed as problematic a mere 20 years ago is a good illustration of the fact that Sweden has not truly tackled racism in society and in the academy, not in the past, and not in the present. As the academy and research become increasingly international and diverse arenas, this attitude is no longer sustainable.

Medical and medical anthropological research has demonstrated that not only is racism real in societies, but it also affects heath, well being and health outcomes for those affected by it. It is therefore not sustainable that a leading medical research and teaching institution like Karolinska does not firmly take a stand against race science, even if it was carried out in the past.

The collections made by researchers like the Retziuses still haunt archaeology and biological anthropolgy, and have undermined our credibility with other stakeholders generations down the road.

From the perspective of the project Ethical Entanglements, it is also crucial to understand that also research and science outside of the immediate purview of Karolinska has suffered from this legacy. The collections made by researchers like the Retziuses still haunt archaeology and biological anthropology, and have undermined our credibility with other stakeholders generations down the road. Their collections, and the specimens they have traded, are still sitting on shelves in our museums, museums that now are given the difficult task of ethically caring for them. The fact that researchers like these are still honoured makes it difficult to argue that the disciplines have truly changed.

The past has consequences and ethical implications also in the present. The debate about the names at Karolinska will continue, but for now they have made a decision to remove the most problematic ones – like references to Anders and Gustaf Retzius. This is a good step toward a more inclusive and diverse academy and it will also likely help in building trust outside of it.

Return of Human Remains? Practices, implications and ethical issues. Report from a seminar in Oslo.

On November 4, 2021 The National Committee for Research on Human Remains (part of the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committee) organized a seminar to discuss the repatriation of human remains and the treatment of human remains in museums.

Several interesting papers brought perspectives to the issue and some raised complex and interesting questions. Reports about productive and successful repatriations from the National Museum of Finland to Mesa Verde in 2020 (presented by Director General Elina Antitila), and from the Swedish History Museum to Lycksele (presented by Adriana Aurelius, PhD student at Umeå University) in 2019, provided good examples of how the practice of repatriation – both international and national – is becoming embraced by Scandinavian museums. As practical support for this process, many attendants referred to international and national guidelines and recommendations as having been central in guiding the process. Kicki Eldh and Gabriella Ericson at the Swedish National Heritage Board presented the work of developing such support documents for Swedish Museums.

But there is diversity in how the issues is being broached in different Scandinavian countries. Ina H. Tegen, PhD student at Aarhus University presented her work on the issue of repatriation from a Danish perspective, where the archaeological and museum communities so far have been less willing to embrace the process, and where decision making regarding archaeological remains in general, including human remains, tends to be very decentralized and relies on individual decision making. At the same time, archaeology has a very high profile in Denmark, engaging multiple constituencies – also outside of the academy. She introduced the concept “embedded stakeholders” in her ongoing work to map attitudes and connections across this complex web.

Other papers sought to problematize the practice beyond the straight forward story and push the boundaries. Asgeir Svestad‘s (The Arctic University in Norway, UiT) paper on the fraught repatriation and reburials of Sámi remains at Neiden and Skjellevik, both in Norway, raised questions about the control of the process and the role of the Church in the reburial of people that predate Christianity. Jonny Geber (University of Edinburgh) presented the complicated case of Maria Grann, a woman who died in her late 20s, probably of tuberculosis, at a hospital in Lund in the 1860s. The few notes that remain of her indicate that she was poor and did not have any relatives in the area. She is described as a “Lapp Woman” or “Lapp Girl” from Lycksele. Most of her body was probably buried in the general area for unclaimed patients, but her cranium was collected to become incorporated in the anatomical collection of the university. It is now at the Lund University History Museum. Despite efforts to establish her identity it has not been possible to trace her history back to the Lycksele area or to a Sámi heritage, and even if there has been some pressure from the media, there is no current claim for her remains to be repatriated. The case, showed both how difficult and heartbreaking provenience research can be, but also how much direct engagement between researchers and descendant communities means to build trust and relationships.

Image from an urban excavation in Norway in the 1950s. When human remains younger than 1537 are not protected by law, can we avoid this kind of unethical handing in urban excavations? Slide from the presentation by Nina Elisabeth Valstrand and Monica Nordanger Enehaug.

Other ethical dimensions of the excavation and curation of human remains were discussed from various angles. Nina Elisabeth Valstrand and Monica Nordanger Enehaug, PhD students from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology discussed how the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Act only protects materials that are older than 1537, often resulting in more careless handling of younger finds, including human remains. This, they argued, is both ethically problematic and a scientific loss since bio-archaeological research on these kinds of remains holds the key to unlock osteo-biographies of the past allowing us to better understand the lived experience of past peoples. Angeli Lefkaditou (researcher at the University of Oslo) discussed the ethics of museum displays of human remains through the case of “Maren i Myra,” an unknown woman who died in the 19th century and whose body, preserved in adipocere, has become a museal curiosity still exhibited at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo.

Finally the paper by Josephine Munch Rasmussen (post doc at the University of Agder) and Vibeke M. Viestad (postdoc at the University of Oslo) problematized the process of repatriation from the Kon Tiki Museum in Oslo. Their study highlights the intricate political dimensions of the creation of Heyerdahl as a national Norwegian hero and “creator” of Rapa Nui heritage and history – an image that persists despite the postcolonial critique of the assumption and despite the evidence of ethically questionable collection practices – and the current agenda to “decolonize the museum” though agreements with the Chilean state, not the descending communities in Rapa Nui. The study shows how the legacy of a problematic collector can live on to the point of becoming an absent present curator even beyond his death. This paper took us to the heart of both why repatriation matters, and why it is important that it is done right. The study has been published in the Journal of Critical Arts.

In their presentation, Josephine Much Rasmussen and Vibeke M. Viestad demonstrated the continued creation in the national discourse of Heyerdahl as a Norwegian National hero and as the creator of Rapa Nui history and heritage.

The seminar was very rich and stimulating. It was positive to see such a thoughtful debate, and also to witness the many ways in which Scandinavian museums and the heritage sector more broadly are entering into an era of engagement with descendant communities through repatriation.

The seminar left me with many insights, but also a few questions. Is it possible that the general embracing of repatriation also can hold new challenges? When a social or activist movement gains ground and becomes mainstream, it runs the risk of becoming appropriated. For the future we must make sure that repatriation does not become a performance carried out by by museums to promote themselves as socially conscious. I must underline that I have not yet seen any evidence for this. The progress made thus far is important, and this potential risk should not be used to question repatriation per se, but rather be viewed as a small concern that we need to keep in mind as we support the process going forward.

In The Grey Areas Between Practice, Law, and Ethics. Update on the MOVE Remains at U Penn.

On August 20, 2021, The Tucker Law Group published its independent report The Odyssey of the MOVE Remains on the handling of the human remains recovered from the MOVE bombing site in 1985 that eventually resurfaced in an online anthropology course at Princeton decades later and caused outrage and protest in the spring of 2021 (for more on the background and recent developments please read this previous post). Five days later the Penn Museum published the key findings on its webpage under the heading Towards a Respectful Resolution. The report can be read to assess blame and responsibility, but I find it even more interesting as a documentation of the complex, unregulated, and muddled grey areas of professional (and sometimes unreflected) practice, law, and ethics that sometimes occur in the handling of human remains in museums and research.

The report establishes that the human remains ended up in the Penn Museum in 1986 after anthropologist Dr Alan Mann was contacted, as a private consultant, by the Medical Examiners Office in Philadelphia to help settle a difference of opinion concerning the estimated age of the fragmented remains of two individuals, one named B-1 and the other Body G. The efforts of identification were inconclusive, especially regarding B-1. Three of the experts who had studied the bones estimated the age to be 14, which was the age of Katricia Africa at the time of the bombing, while others, including Mann, his then graduate student Janet Monge, and the Medical Examiner, concluded that the remains were those of an older individual, and therefore could not be attributed to Katricia Africa. There was also some debate over the age estimation of Body G, but in the end it was attributed to Delisha Africa aged 12 at the time of her death, and the remains were released to her family for burial in September 1986. The remains of B-1, were considered by Mann and Monge to be unidentified and were therefore never returned to the MOVE community. Instead they came to be curated as a semi-private possession in the heart of a museum.

Osage Avenue in Philadephia, the site of the MOVE bombing in 1985. Photo credit banner: “Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

After the first examination in 1986, no further tests were carried out by Mann on individual B-1. The remains were left in storage in his office until 2001 when he moved to a new position at Princeton. This is an interesting detail. It is important to note that the remains never were added to the museum collections – but remained in the office space of Dr Mann. To understand this we must remember that the remains came to him in the capacity of private consultant, not museum curator. This is a key piece of information, because it shows that the museum never formally acquired these remains, even if they existed on its premises. This may explain why their exact location was unknown by the Penn Museum Spokesperson in April 2021 who, at the time suggested that they may have been transferred to Princeton. This turned out to be incorrect. In 2001 the remains were transfered from Mann’s office to a file cabinet in Dr. Monge’s office, now the Curator-in-Charge of the Physical Anthropology section at the Penn Museum. In 2014 they were stored in Monge’s lab at the museum.

The relationship between the remains, and the museum, curators, and university, remains remarkably undefined in the following years. The fragments were stored in the offices and lab of the curators, which were located in the museum, but they were never officially accessioned to the museum collections. However, while not formally part of the museum collections, they were, in fact, often treated as if they were. They were occasionally displayed (albeit never as a part of the public museum exhibitions), and used for teaching purposes. In the decades that followed Mann’s departure from Penn, the remains were displayed by Monge “on ten separate occasions,” and notably in 2015 during a meeting of Museum donors. Monge also occasionally showed the remains to colleagues to get their opinion about the age estimation. This indicates that she might have been unsure about her and Mann’s original assessment, or at least wanted additional confirmation. The remains were also used to train students (including in the now infamous Princeton Coursera video, but also in student research projects, and examinations). In 1998, for example, they were included in a diplomate exam for the Society of Forensic Anthropologists where the takers of the exam were asked to estimate the age of the remains. In 2018-19 a student under the supervision of Dr Monge, wrote a senior paper on the MOVE remains, a study that included x-rays of the bones. The paper is focused on B-1, but also includes references and an x-ray of what the student at the time of writing the paper identifies as the occipital bone of Body G (i.e. Delisha Africa), remains that allegedly would have been returned to the family and buried in 1986. It is unclear whether or not this identification is correct, but, of course that kind of lack of clarity is in itself troubling. The report outlines issues in the handling of the human remains including the lack of systematic labelling, and even accounts of a student taking remains home with him. This might explain why there might be some confusion about the identity of some bone fragments in the labs.

On two occasions, in 1995 and in 2014, attempts were made on behalf of Monge to communicate with members of the MOVE group “to enlist their help in identifying the remains and, if they did belong to Katricia, return them to her mother, Consuewella Africa.” These efforts were unsuccessful. According to the report, the family members refused to assist her. It was only after the story about the use of these remains in an online course broke in Billypenn on April 21, 2021 that the remains were relocated and transferred to a West Philadelphia funeral home. According to the report, the Deputy Director of the Museum, Dr. Stephen Tinney, instructed Monge to hand over the remains to Mann, who in turn, at the request of the University, handed them over to a funeral director. The remains were picked up in a hearse from Mann’s home on April 30th, 2021. This performance of transfer of ownership was no doubt arranged by the museum to clearly signal that it never had formal custody of the remains, and that the responsibility of receiving them must be shouldered by Mann. The remains were finally returned to the Africa family on July 2, 2021.

The handling of the remains in this case reveals interesting insights into the grey areas that sometimes still loom over research and museum practices when it comes to human remains.

The handling of the remains in this case revelas interesting insights into the grey areas that sometimes still loom over research and museum practices when it comes to human remains, and the close examination of this case revelas significant contradictions between practice, policy and decision making.

The remains were never accessioned to the museum, which means that they were never the museum’s responsibility to validate, catalogue, store, and make available to research and the public. According to the report this never happened because according to Mann and Monge, the goal ultimately was to return them to the Africa family. This is puzzling to me for two reasons. First it is unclear why the museum would want to accept such a problematic donation in the first place, and second, because the reason they initially were withheld was because the Medical Examiner, Mann, and Monge concluded that the remains could not be attributed to Katricia Africa because of their age estimation. While the museum never formally accepted the bones, they remained within its walls. In the report it is stated that the curators felt OK with this because they were stored in safe conditions. Yet, the report points out, that the curators seem to not have had complete control of what happened to the bones. Mann is quoted saying: “I do not specifically recall, apart from the re-examining the bone fragments, what we did with the fragments after we secured them at the Penn Museum.” Had the bones been subject to a clear process of accession, they may in fact have recieved better protection. In 2017 the museum drafted a policy “addressing the use and display of the accessioned human remains in the Museum’s collection”. However, these guidelines to not concern unaccessioned remains like those of B-1, a category that according to the former Director of the Penn Museum, Julian Siggers, may be quite common in University museums across the US.

What we have here is an interesting unregulated grey area. Both the current and previous directors of the Museum were aware of the presence of the MOVE bones, but did not think that their presence or use violated any museum policies. In fact, because they were never accessioned, they did not fall under the guidelines of the Institute of Museum Ethics on the treatment of human remains or the American Alliance of Museum’s Code of Ethics section on Collections. When reviewing case law and statutes concerning liability for the mishandling of human remains, the report also concludes that the case falls through the legal cracks, “because statutes or holding by their terms the requisite states of mind required for liability were not present, or the statutes of limitations had run on any potential claims.” The case is further complicated by the fact that as long as the bones remain unidentified, it is difficult to identify the proper claimant. In the end, what we are left with are ethical professional guidelines.

In the end the report states that it is not possible to conclude that the actions taken by Mann and Monge were “unethical as such.” It reprimands them for their “cavalier” treatment of the remains and for displaying “extremely poor judgment and gross insensitivity to the moral, social, and political implications of their conduct.” Their actions were, the report states “inconsistent with the implied overarching principle of the respectful treatment of human remains.” But they never broke the law.

While not illegal – and formally not unethical – the whole ordeal is upsetting. It clearly illustrates the vast grey areas that still exist in the field of research ethics when it comes to human remains. As researchers and institutions become increasingly aware of their ethical responsibilities, the field will need better practices and guidelines to prevent this kind of behaviour in the future. In the end, it does not only hurt stakeholders, it damages the reputation of biological anthropology and undermines our credibility as researchers.

Image credit banner: “Figures of Justice” by Clearly Ambiguous is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Real Bones. The Scandalous Case of the Remains of Katricia Africa.

Last week Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania both released apologies for their “insensitive, unprofessional and unacceptable” treatment of the bones belonging to an unidentified African American child who had perished in the flames of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in 1985. The apology refers to the use of charred remains of the child’s pelvis and femora in an online anthropology course entitled Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology offered by Princeton University. The story was reported in an article in Billypenn, and also discussed in a Philadelphia Inquirer Op-ed, both published on April 21, 2021. The apology came only weeks after the release of a report that outlines a shift in the policy at the Penn Museum to repatriate African American remains from the infamous Morton collection. While the ethical challenges of the Morton collection (which was built and used to support a polygenist racist ideology) was well known, the debate about it reached a tipping point in the summer of 2020, as the world was protesting structural racism and the police violence that had killed George Floyd. The new direction taken by the museum signalled a desire to build better relationships with the local African American community and make amends for its problematic heritage. In the light of these progressive steps, the story about the bones from the MOVE bombings was shocking, and it seems to indicate just how much work the scientific community still has left to do.

“Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

In the 1980s, The Philadelphia Police Department was engaged in a lingering conflict with the revolutionary black military separatist group MOVE, who lived in a communal row house on Osage Ave in West Philadelphia. On May 13th, 1985, a final and violent standoff ended with the police dropping a bomb on the house. 11 people died in the ensuing fire. Five of them were children. The Philadelphia Fire Department deliberately held back their response, and as a consequence the fire spread to engulf two city blocks, and over 60 homes were completely destroyed. Pictures from the blast reveal what looks like a war zone, and the attack has left a deep wound in Philadelphia’s African American community. In 2021, 36 years later, bones recovered from the MOVE house, and suspected to be those of 14 year old Katricia “Tree” Africa, resurface in an online anthropology class at Princeton. How is that possible?

When examining the chain of custody of the remains, several things stand out as problematic. The bones arrived to Penn already in 1985 when the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office asked anthropologists there to assist in their identification. The Medical Examiner’s Office wanted to know if the bones, recovered from the burned out MOVE house, could be the remains of Katricia Africa. The analysis was inconclusive. So far so good. It is common to seek out specialists for analysis, and it can be viewed as a service to the community at large. It is also to be expected that some specialist analyses are inconclusive. It is what happens next, or rather what does not happen, that is strange. The remains were never returned to the Medical Examiner’s Office once the analysis was terminated, but remained in the museum. Museums are often custodians of human remains from archaeological and historical contexts, some of them admittedly controversial or problematic. This is a well known and complex issue. Museums have a responsibility to curate and make these collections available for researchers and to the public, and many of them are currently grappling with the ethical considerations this responsibility entails. However, it is very unusual that contemporary specimens are incorporated into such collections, and certainly not without the explicit consent of the donor or their descendants. It is not the museums’ responsibility to accept to curate remains from local law enforcement, and usually, unidentified remains are cremated. Is it possible that the bones from the MOVE house were simply forgotten? Did they get lost in the chain of custody? Is this a case of neglect and poor procedure? Beyond questions of responsibility and professionalism, we must also ask how is it possible that the remains were not viewed as deeply problematic at the time? Even if it may have been difficult to locate surviving relatives, it is especially hard to understand how the anthropologists working in a museum in a city recovering from such a traumatic event did not make the connection between the remains and the needs of the community. That is troubling.

Then, somewhere along the way, things get even more complicated: the location of the bones becomes unclear. In her article in Billypenn, Maya Kassutto writes:

For decades, the bones were kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A Penn Museum spokesperson said the remains have since been transferred to the care of researchers at Princeton — but an administrator at the New Jersey university was uncertain of their whereabouts. After this story published, a spokesperson said Princeton does not have them.

Could it be that a researcher simply took the remains from one place of employment to another? Here, it is difficult to shake the feeling that these practices are not very different from those of anthropologists in the 19th century who viewed scientific collections as their private property.

Kassutto continues:

“Princeton Anthropology Department Chair Carolyn Rouse wasn’t sure of the remains’ current location. Reached by phone, she said they might be in a lab run by Alan Mann, the now-retired professor who had been studying them with Janet Monge, curator of Penn Museum’s physical anthropology section.”

A lot has happened in the 36 years that have passed. Ethical standards, recommendations, and experiences with different perspectives have pushed anthropology to examine itself and develop more ethical practices and attitudes. Seen in that light, it is even more surprising that the remains of this unidentified child, violently killed by the police in Philadelphia in 1985, could be used in an online course that, according to its description, explicitly focuses on lost personhood (cases where remains cannot be identified due to their condition). What is so striking about this is the combination of a choice of words such as personhood, which signals an awareness of contemporary anthropological research questions and sensibilities, with such a casual neglect for the lived life of the human being that is represented by those very remains. It is difficult to imagine a case that more clearly, not only objectifies, but even dehumanises the remains of a child.

Ruth Benedict famously stated: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.” With those words in mind, it is discouraging to realise that anthropology still so often remains incapable of reforming itself from within and leading the charge against racism and structural violence, but instead only reacts to external pressure when the public lifts up the curtain to expose our dirty laundry. This must prompt us to take action and examine our practices and ethics at every juncture. It is not certain that the discipline will survive many more of these omissions, missteps and scandals.

You see, the thing about real bones is that they once were living people. If we want to continue to have the privilege of studying them, we must learn to respect them and those who care about them.

Photo credit banner: “Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Reaching The Tipping Point – the repatriation of the Morton collection from the Penn Museum

On April 12, 2021, The Morton Collection Committee released a report on their work of examining the ongoing issues relating to the anatomical collection created by Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), physician, natural scientist, renowned polygenist, and originator of the American School of Anthropology. Morton built a collection of 900 crania to provide “hard evidence” for the superiority of the white race, primarily by measuring the volume of the crania, linking the size of the brain to intellectual ability. The work was published in a series of volumes of which Crania Americana (1839), and Crania Aegyptica (1844) are the most well known. Both are renowned for their detailed drawings of the crania (see below), and both publications used the collection to demonstrate the alleged superiority of the “Caucasian race.” The collection is deposited at the Penn Museum since 1966, and it is now time, the report states, to take responsibility for this collection including developing a process for the repatriation of remains to descending communities.

Morton’s studies have been critically discussed by Stephen J. Gould who argued that they were plagued by implicit bias. This study, and Morton’s implicit bias in general have subsequently been discussed by J. E. Lewis et al., Michael Weisberg and Diane B. Paul, and Paul Wolff Mitchell , and while there is scholarly disagreement on the level of “fudging” in the study, there is a general consensus that Morton’s work was underpinned by the racist doctrine of polygenism, and that his ultimate conclusions as well as his casual remarks throughout the texts were openly racist. His work must also be understood in a context in which it provided scientific evidence that supported the American colonial effort, including attempts to eradicate and marginalise the Native Americans, and the economic system relying on both the transatlantic slave trade and on the labour of enslaved people.

Engraving of an Araucanian skull from Crania Americana by Samuel Morton, John Collins (engraver}, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like so many other anatomical collections, the Morton collection has a complex history. Morton initially collected 900 crania, and after his death in 1851, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia bought and expanded the collection to ca 1.300 specimens. It was moved to the Penn Museum in 1966. We are familiar with similar transitions of historic collections from medical faculties to history museums (e.g. the anatomical collection transfered to the Lund University Historical Museum in 1995, and collections transferred to Gustavianum in Uppsala in 2009 and 2011, etc). When they are transfered to these museums – they are, in many ways, already a part of our history, being the cultural artefacts of a dark heritage of science. However, the fact that these collections are historical does not automatically neutralise them, and they remain both valuable and problematic. Since 2002 the Morton collection has been extensively scanned (over 17.500 CT scans have been distributed to researchers across the world), and the collection has continued to be used for research (source: PennMuseum/The Morton Cranial Collection).

While the collection had been known and debated as problematic for a long time, it appears that the situation came to a tipping point in the summer of 2020. In the report, the Morton Collection Committee clearly states that it was the events following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 and the continuously growing influence of the Black Lives Matter movement and renewed calls for racial justice that prompted the institution to critically examine its history and reevaluate its relationship to the Morton collection.

In the US context, and for researchers who are familiar with the impact of the the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act on archaeological collections there since 1990, it seems almost strange that it took this long for the museum to “reassess its practices of collecting, storing, displaying, and researching human remains” and to provide “a visitation location for human remains that provides a quiet, contemplative space for reconnections and consultation visits in its future plans for rehousing the collections.” But this also demonstrates to what extent our practices are shaped by existing guidelines and legal frameworks, and how remains that are not explicitly subject to these have been able to remain more or less unaffected by the developments in other areas of museum practices with regards to human remains. However, it is also clear that the experience from engaging with NAGPRA over the past 30 years has been valuable as the museum develops practices to handle the current situation. It will be interesting to follow this development as a case study for how human remains in these complex and problematic anatomical collections may be curated and returned in the future.

As this work progresses, we must also remain engaged in continuing to examine how the engagement with these collections is shaped by current events, and assure that remains that are not illuminated by the limelight of current political debates are not forgotten. In addition, we should also ask to what extent new technology, like CT scanning, provides new solutions to old problems, or perhaps creates new problems and new ethical frontiers to examine.

Thoughts about Pharaohs’ Golden Parade

On April 3, 2021 a spectacular event took place. A parade of 18 kings and 4 queens – all mummies, were paraded through the streets of Cairo, from the Egyptian Museum to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. There they all were, Ramses II, Hatshepsut, Amenhoteph the Magnificent, and others, transported in the order of their reign, on newly paved streets, in nitrogen filled coffins, and surrounded by a motorcade of security. The specially designed chariots, golden beasts, like a cross between a military vehicle and a boat and decorated with architectural shapes and Egyptian patterns, floated along the streets, one for each ruler, with their name clearly marked in Roman script, Arabic, and hieroglyphs, on the front, on the back and on the sides. The live streamed event also included performances by the United Philharmonic Orchestra, highly staged and produced parades by people in spectacular costumes, chants in ancient Egyptian language, readings form old inscriptions and from the Book of the Dead, and videos streamed of famous actors visiting important and restored Egyptian archaeological sites. At their final destination, the mummies were welcomed by president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a gun salute by the National Guard.

Theses mummies have all traveled before. They all come from two locations:  The Royal Cache in Deir El Bahari and The Tomb of Amenhotep II in Luxor, where they were excavated in 1881 and 1898, respectively. Back in the day they reached Cairo by boat on the Nile and in some cases by first class train. Since then they have been on display for both Egyptians and tourists to see. Now they will take up court in the newly built Royal Hall of Mummies which opens for visitors on April 18.

The display of mummies is not uncontroversial in Egypt. While it is one of the few categories of human remains that are regularly on display in the United States where otherwise such exhibits are considered controversial (see article by Liv Nilsson Stutz in Archaeologists and the Dead), many muslim scholars argue that the dead should be treated with dignity and not be put on display. In 1980 the president Anwar Sadat ordered that the the royal mummies should be reburied. Allegedly the position grew out of a dispute he had with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Sadat criticized Khomieni for displaying the bodies of dead American servicemen on TV to which Khomeini retorted with questioning why Egypt displays mummies. Sadat did not get his wish, and the mummies remained in the care of the museum.

In this light – bringing together history, geopolitics, and religion, it is interesting to reflect over what the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade really means today. It is hard to miss the message of nationalism connecting the prestigeous past with the contemporary state, its president and military. It goes without saying that this is problematic. It is also likely that the live streaming and publicity surrounding this elaborate and costly event is an investment in the future tourist revenue streams which will be crucial for the economic post-covid recovery. The bread and circus aspect of the event is also hard to miss, and we are right to call it out. Finally, International media has taken the bite and in an expected and orientalist way brought to the fore “the curse of the mummies angle” as the days leading up to the event coincided with the stranding of an enormous ship in the Suez Canal.

But beyond all that we can see something else in the treatment of the royal mummies. The parade demonstrates how these human remains are treated, not only as invaluable antiquites, but also as the remains of important people, as individual named rulers with a public history, and personal dignity. We can reflect on what it says about us as we marvel and snicker at a performance like this, while we at the same time mine the graves of European royalty to extract DNA and other organic samples.

Rethinking how death and dying are visualized. Could 3D and VR technologies offer opportunities beyond displaying human remains?

The recent DigiDeath conference, generated an exciting discussion on the public archaeology of digital mortality (see also Liv Nilsson’s earlier blog post). Among the topics of the conference, the use of 3D technology to document and visualize archaeological human remains provides us with food for thought on how this intersects with the debate on ethics in research practice.

With the rapid development of affordable tools to capture 3D information, 3D models (digital replicas) have become an increasingly popular way to document archaeological human remains. Digital replicas of bones and burials are now commonly shared among researchers and with wider audiences, and 3D models of the dead tend to be very visually appealing.

The ease with which 3D models of human bones or archaeological burials can be shared, reproduced, even 3D printed, has generated discussion on the ethical implications of using such technologies (see also Campanacho and Alves Cardoso’s twitter paper here). Moreover, previously raised concerns about the sharing of photographs of archaeological human remains in presentations, publications or the media, apply equally to sharing in newly available 3D formats and to modern (social) media.

As discussed during the conference, the many online contexts in which mortuary archaeology is accessed by a wider audience, not only amplify the audience engaging with this information, but can lead to disconnection from its sociocultural context and archaeological narrative. Many online formats do not allow for the level of detail and context that researchers are accustomed to providing along with these images. Disconnection of visualizations of the dead from their context represents an ethical dilemma in its own right, as the mortal remains of a person can become reduced to simply an object of interest, a curiosity. With the possibility to present human remains in new and perhaps even more visually appealing ways, comes the benefit of capturing people’s attention and imagination, but also the danger of such images becoming shorthand or even a substitute for the sociocultural context and archaeological narrative.

But while 3D technologies are certainly not exempt from existing ethical dilemmas in mortuary archaeology, and while the ease of sharing and reproducing 3D models raises new set of concerns, 3D visualization may yet offer new ways of exhibiting the context and narrative. Immersive and interactive 3D technology has been widely demonstrated to increase memory retention and learning, and is perceived to be highly engaging and motivating by participants. Some Virtual Reality (VR) reconstructions of how archaeological sites would have looked in the past, allow the user to engage with the environment, including architecture, artefacts, people and their life histories, as well as a wider range of sensory experiences (i.e., not just visual, but also auditory and even haptic). Rather than presenting the skeletal remains of the dead, either as 3D bones, disconnected from their burial context, or as static 3D models of a grave during excavation, could we find ways to share past experiences of death and burial in a similarly immersive and sensory-rich way? Could we harness the potential of 3D visualization to share the wider context of what mortuary archaeology can reveal about the past: social interaction, social identities and inequality, health and disease, ritual practice, landscape and spatial organization, concepts of death and dying, to mention but a few. Can we imagine communicating mortuary archaeology beyond bones?

Hayley Mickleburgh