Human Remains in Contract Archaeology – report from a workshop

The Ethical Entanglements project mainly focuses on collections of human remains in museums, but a significant process by which they get there today is contract archaeology. In contrast to the scientific practices that resulted in many of the older collections in museums, including ethnographic, anatomical and archaeological collections, these new additions to archaeological collections are dominated by a practice driven primarily by development (such as the constructions of roads, schools and railway stations) – where archaeology is inserted as a measure to record and document cultural heritage before the destruction of these contexts for other purposes, rather than driven purely by scientific aims. To an extent this shifts the discussion. This means that it is not the scientific practice that is the root to the excavation and collection of these remains, but development. It also makes archaeology and collection into a protective practice, rather than an exploitative one. That being said, the ethical challenges remain the same, and the field, just like with the case of museum collections, lacks a clear regulation.

Participants in the workshop (from the left): Anna Tornberg, Caroline Ahlström Arcini, Lisa Hartzell, Liv Nilsson Stutz, Hayley Mickleburgh, Ina Thegen, Niels Lynnerup, and Clara Alfsdotter.

To explore these complex issues Ina Thegen, a guest researcher at at the Linnaeus University Center for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, and a graduate student in Archaeology at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at Aarhus University, and I organised a workshop on the theme of Contract Archaeology, Human Remains, and Ethics in 2022, at Linnaeus University, April 8, 2022. The workshop was generously sponsored by LNUC Concurrences.

The workshop gathered experts and colleagues working with human remains from contract archaeology contexts in Sweden and Denmark. While presenting a broad view, the different perspectives all highlighted both a concern for ethical issues and an awareness of the importance of professional ethics, and a lack of clear structures, which results in a variation in practices and decision making.

Dr. Clara Alfsdotter, osteologist at Bohuslän County Museum presented the view from a regional museum in Sweden, and highlighted how, despite the existence of guidelines and recommendations, the interpretation of these very guidelines can vary and often depends on the single museum or, even individuals. These issues were discussed around two examples. In one case there were very different views within the museum whether it would be ethical to create an exhibition on the topic of syphilis in historic times using human remains in the mueusm collectons. The other example discussed how priorities in the field could favour the documentation of architecture over human remains. This example was especially problematic as it concerned a medieval monastery, where human remains can be expected.

Charina Knutsson, archaeologist at the museum Jamtli, and graduate student at the Linnaeus University Graduate School in Contract Archaeology (GRASCA) discussed the issue from the perspective of contract archaeology in Sápmi. Her previous research, published in her licentiate thesis Conducting Archaeology in Swedish Sápmi: Policies, Implementations and Challenges in a Postcolonial Context has demonstrated the lack of consultation with the Sámi communities in contract archaeology, and this disconnect potentially also affects how human remains are treated in the process. In her presentation she discussed that museums in the region all have policies regarding the handling of human remains, but there are no special recommendations for Sámi remains. The topic is current, but also still, to an extent sensitive.

Dr. Carline Ahlström Arcini, osteologist at the contract archaeology firm Arkeologerna opened her presentation with a moving account of how childhood visits to the paediatric ward at the hospital in Norrköping where her father worked as a physician, initially drew her to the field of osteology. This presentation reminded us of the importance of compassion as a key feature of a discipline that not only allows us to come face to face with an individual of the past, but also allows us to glimpse their lived experience, including pain and illness. Her presentation discussed how different stakeholders have different voices in the Swedish context, and that the Swedish church tends to be among the most critical, while the public ususally are mostly interested in the results. Who, we might ask, are the most important stakeholdes here?

Ina Thegen presents her paper on Danish contract archaeology.

A similar concern was raised by Ina Thegen, graduate student at Aarhus University, who placed these questions in the frame of her thesis that maps and problematises the connections between the legal frameworks, practices, and stakeholders in Danish contract archaeology. She too, points to the Church as a vocal stakeholder along with the media. But she also asked us to problematise if a stakeholder is less valid only because they do not represent the majority. She also discussed how human remains are categorised as movable objects and do not have a clear caretaker within Danish archaeology per se, but rather is under the purview of other disciplines (predominantly medicine), which may create a series of ethical challenges as they are not prioritised by the contract archaeology praxis.

Dr. Niels Lynnerup, head of the Forensic Department at the University of Copenhagen which holds the vast majority of human remains collected in Denmark by contract archaeology (the second depository is at the University of Southern Denmark / Odense), spoke on behalf of this other side of the Danish equation. From the perspective of a vast experience with a range of different contexts he underscored the importance of communication with all stakeholders as a fundamental step toward ethical practice – a theme that was echoed in the other presentations as well, thus highlighting a crucial arena for progressive and constructive work.

Discussion and exploration of concepts during the workshop.
All eyes on Niels Lynnerup – who is out of frame.

Dr. Anna Tornberg, osteologist at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University, discussed the ethical implications of the Third Science Revolution on research. Her presentation highlighted the importance of keeping an eye on how funding agency priorities and publication strategies impact the research process by imposing a top down perspective on human experience in the past. While these new methods offer a lot of possibilities, they also present new ethical challenges that we must consider.

The workshop was very dynamic and inspiring, as the different presentations offered complementary views on a very current and clear professional challenge. We left feeling that we have only started to explore these complexities and are looking forward to more exchanges of ideas and experiences in the near future.