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Grave Robbing or Archaeology?

05/12/2014 09:13 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2014

Do human remains belong in museums? According to at least some of the families of 9/11 victims from the Twin Towers, they most certainly do not. This weekend, protesters held up unequivocal signs stating this belief: "Human remains don't belong in museums." The family members were protesting the move of the unidentified 9/11 remains from the medical examiner's office to the newly-constructed memorial and museum on the Twin Towers site. The remains will continue to be tested in the hopes of positively identifying them at some point, and they will not be stored anywhere in public view. While the museum will have a $24 entrance fee, there will be a families-only "Reflection Room" which will not require paid admission for the families of the victims. As with virtually all actions surrounding the site, some of the 3,000 affected families agree with the decision and some -- vociferously -- do not.

Since I did not lose a family member on 9/11, though, I do not even feel qualified to take a personal position on the issue. I simply do not know how I would feel if those unidentified remains contained fragments of one of my own loved ones, to put this another way. So I do not write today to stake out a firm position on the movement of the 9/11 remains this weekend, just to be perfectly clear up front. I'd rather try to make a larger point on the shift in what is considered proper for museums to study and display.

Watching the protests and the heartfelt emotions displayed, I couldn't help wondering about this bigger picture. Because human remains are indeed fully and publicly displayed at many history museums. Beyond bones and skeletons, there are also many cultural artifacts on display in museums that were dug up from burial sites. Which made me wonder where, exactly, do we draw this line? Or, in much blunter language: What, exactly, is the difference between archaeology and grave robbing?

That's obviously a loaded question. "Grave robbing" usually means digging up a burial site and making off with anything saleable which can be found within. It implies wrongdoing, desecration, and profit. "Archaeology" is a scientific pursuit dedicated to discovering how previous humans lived their lives. The two, on first glance, might seem to be so disconnected that any attempted comparison between them would hold no validity whatsoever.

Let's back off from such loaded terminology, though, to examine the heart of the issue. Because while there are no hard and fast lines, it seems to boil down to two concrete questions. The first is how long human remains have to stay in the ground before they are considered valid subjects for archaeology, and the second is the connection living people feel with the buried remains. Again, there are no bright dividing lines for the answers to these questions -- they indeed shift, over time.

If a scientist knocked on your door and asked you for permission to dig up your grandmother's grave and then to publicly exhibit whatever he found there (human remains, artifacts, whatever...), after which he would publish a scientific paper on how the peoples of her generation possibly lived -- what would be your response? Most people would not readily agree to this sort of thing, to put it mildly.

But what if the same scientist asked the same permission to exhume your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother? You can ask that sentence and vary the number of "greats" to see how intensely you would feel about your own ancestors. Your grandmother was quite possibly known to you and thus appears in your "living memory," while anyone further than great-grandmother would likely not have been personally known to you. This changes sentiments, obviously, but does it change them enough for you to grant the scientist permission to dig? And display whatever he found? How far back in your family tree would you stop having a personal connection and decide that scientific curiosity was justifiable to desecrate their final resting place?

You can look at it from the other end, if such questions are disturbing to contemplate. Very few people alive, after all, would argue that digging up fossils in Olduvai Gorge (think: "Lucy") is psychologically disturbing enough to forbid. We're talking about over a million years in time and ancestors that cannot even be accurately called "human." Archaeology wins this argument hands down, to put it another way. Moving forward, it's also hard to imagine anyone getting very upset over prehistoric or Paleolithic sites being dug up. Digging up Stone Age and Iron Age sites in Europe (and elsewhere) is far enough removed for no one alive to feel any familial connections. Therefore, archaeology wins again.

But even the dawn of recorded history isn't really a dividing line. Mummies of pharaohs (and others) from ancient Egypt actually did a lot to spur the origins of the scientific pursuit of archaeology, a few hundred years back. Such mummies were exhibited publicly pretty much everywhere at the time, from private collections to museums to traveling carnivals and freakshows. A corpse 4,000 years old was considered a curiosity, and no more. There was nothing sacred about it, especially considering that most religions practiced when the mummy was alive no longer exist, and most religions practiced today did not exist in the mummy's time. But was Howard Carter, discoverer of King Tut, really all that different from the tomb raiders of ancient Egypt? Carter didn't haul away everything in sight so he could sell it to the highest bidder, instead he hauled away everything in sight to display before the public. Is that a distinction with much difference? Tut's tomb is now empty, either way.

While mummification in Egypt was a religious rite performed by humans, there is another class of mummies which is also considered fair game for archaeology: bog mummies. People who disappear into peat bogs are sometimes kept in perfect anaerobic conditions which preserve the remains to a startling degree. Bog mummies appear from time to time, and they date anywhere from thousands of years ago (older than some Egyptian mummies) to fairly recent specimens (a German who disappeared in 1828 and was found in 1979) -- and everything in between. The bodies are so well preserved that it doesn't matter much how long they've been in the bog, to put it another way. Many of these were scientifically studied and ended up in museums (although some have since been reburied).

Since at least the Renaissance, Western civilization has been interested in systematically studying the cultures which have come before. An Italian historian created a guide to the ruins of ancient Rome as early as the 15th century. Europeans had plenty to examine in their own backyards, which led to interest in Stonehenge and other megaliths and monuments from pre-history. The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 and were subsequently excavated in 1748. By the 1800s, some scientific guidelines and principles began to be regularly used in the study of ancient sites. "Egyptology" became popular after Napoleon invaded Egypt, and the field spread when the British captured it from the French. But much of these early "antiquarians" were little more than grave robbers (at least, as seen in modern context), since they were most concerned with looting sites of anything valuable and then transporting the treasures back home. Sometimes such items would wind up in private hands (usually, the people who footed the bill for the expeditions), and sometimes they would wind up in museums where the public could at least view them. But scientific study of such sites took over a century to become standardized in any way, and many early "Egyptologists" were nothing short of treasure hunters.

Because of the interest in ancient artifacts (including, in Egypt, the mummies themselves), the local populations near ancient sites realized there was money to be made, which set off a wave of looting that continues to this day (the black market in antiquities has never really gone away). Owning something man-made that is really old -- especially something old that is beautiful -- was a much bigger motivating factor than any scientific study of the culture which created it. And, in the case of museums, the public's curiosity was certainly more important (it was thought) than respect for ancient graves or even respect for keeping cultural treasures in the country they originated from.

Since Christianity has dominated Europe, human remains have been treated in various ways during various periods. By modern standards, the thought of digging up Christian graves from, say, the Middle Ages would be somewhat controversial. Digging up Christian graves for the sake of science might be considered acceptable if they are ancient enough, to put this another way, but the closer you get to modern times, the more controversial such research would become. Especially if it included digging up (and then publicly displaying) relics which had been buried in such graves. Where does the idea of "desecration" begin and the idea of "important scientific research" end?

The Catholic Church isn't much of a guide, considering its own penchant for holy relics. During the Dark and Middle Ages, trade in saints' relics was lively indeed, until virtually every cathedral could boast of having "authentic" bone fragments of one saint or another. Since there was little to regulate such a trade, needless to say, forgeries abounded. Possessing the bones of a saint meant people would make pilgrimages to the cathedral, which did wonders to boost the local economy -- which was why the relics were so valuable. Sometimes relics would only be displayed on certain holy days, but in some instances they were openly displayed in "reliquaries" (some of which appear rather gruesome today). The practice has not completely died out, however, as during the recent canonization of two former popes, their official relics were displayed: a piece of skin cut from Pope John XXIII (when he was exhumed, so his corpse could be publicly displayed for veneration in 2001), and a vial of blood from John Paul II.

The two relics from the new saints will not be displayed in a museum, but rather in a church. Contrary to the protest signs from the 9/11 families, however, human remains are indeed currently displayed in museums all over the world. From fossils to skeletons to Egyptian mummies to bog mummies, human remains are not only displayed publicly, they are (in the non-public areas) actually stockpiled in many museums, for scientific study. The only question is where the line is drawn, chronologically. It cannot be said to be drawn before written history, because ancient Egyptians certainly knew how to write. It cannot be said to be drawn on religious lines, since the Catholic Church exhumed a body a little over ten years ago and snipped off a small piece of it for continued veneration.

While drawing a line between grave robbing and archaeology is tough to do when you strip all the scientific rationale away, the question is mostly now answered by who gets offended. Digging up colonial graves in America would mean offending the descendants of the people buried there -- who still exist, in many cases. Digging up graves on old farmsteads on the Great Plains or from Gold Rush camps in the Yukon would also likely raise some form of protest from the families involved. In either case, if the graves were accidentally discovered what would likely happen is scientists would have a short window to catalogue and record the contents of the graves, and then they would be reburied, most likely with the benefit of modern clergy. It would seem the only respectable thing to do.

Which, at long last, brings me to the point I set out to make. The United States Congress acted in both 1989 (with the passage of the National Museum of the American Indian Act) and in 1990 (with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) to start including Native Americans in the respect that would likely be given to any other historical American grave. The Smithsonian Institution at one time held the remains of around 20,000 Native Americans, for scientific study. This included the brain of a man scientists named "Ishi" (which only means "man" in his language, as his true name was sacred to him and never admitted). You may have heard of him described as the "last wild Indian," or perhaps from the book Ishi In Two Worlds (which was compiled by Theodora Kroeber, the widow of museum director Alfred Kroeber, after her husband's death).

Ishi appeared out of the Northern California wilderness in 1911. He was starving. He was taken in by the Museum of Anthropology (part of the University of California system), and hired as a research assistant so he could live out his life in an apartment in the museum. He worked closely with both Thomas Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, who gained a wealth of information about the culture of Ishi's tribe (of whom he was considered the last surviving member). Ishi, however, had no immunity to Western diseases and was often sick, and he died of tuberculosis only five years after he arrived at the museum, in his early 50s. Over some objections, his body was autopsied and then cremated, although his brain was preserved. Kroeber sent Ishi's brain to the Smithsonian in 1917, where it remained until the year 2000, when it was sent back to his closest descendants (of the Yana people), in keeping with the spirit of both the National Museum of the American Indian Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

This newfound respect for human remains of Native Americans is not complete, though, even if Ishi's story has a positive ending. The laws only cover remains which can be linked to existing Native American groups today, after all, and not the more broad description they prefer -- that all Native American remains are linked to them through over 10,000 years of oral histories, and they should all be respectfully repatriated (rather than being studied in a museum). The courts are still deciding some cases in favor of the scientists and against repatriation, however, even with the new laws.

As I said, I am not going to offer any opinion on the families of the 9/11 victims in New York. That is for their own families to do, I feel. But America has moved from digging up Native American graves for profit (which was clearly nothing more than grave robbing, and started with the earliest European settlers), to scientifically examining human remains and artifacts from such sites, to finally realizing that the descendants of the bodies they are examining are offended by the bones of their ancestors being kept in museum storerooms. That is progress, of a sort. It is incomplete, but it is at least moving us in the right direction. Because what one person's (or "one scientist's") determination of "this grave is old enough to only be of scientific value or interest" is no longer the last word on the subject, when others feel differently. The line between scientific interest and considering graves sacred has never been a hard and fast one. What is considered proper to display or hold in museums has also changed, over time. And where that line should be drawn depends on who you ask.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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