Richard III: Ethics and the archaeology of death

By Professor Sarah Tarlow, Director of the Centre for Historical Archaeology, University of Leicester.

The bodies of the dead have powerful social, religious and emotional meanings. Archaeologists around the world are aware that this means they need to be careful when balancing their needs for research material with the sensitivities of others. Under English law excavated human remains should normally be reburied within two years. Sometimes, however, archaeologists do not always see reburial as the best option, and longer study periods can be agreed, or we can retain the option to return to reburied assemblages. While they are being studied it is considered good practice in archaeology to treat human remains  ‘respectfully’ – a rather vague term but it would certainly include treating them in a serious and scholarly way, and not putting silly hats onto skulls or giving skeletons comic nicknames. In the case of church burials, the presumption is that the burials of the dead should not normally be disturbed. So the excavation at Greyfriars was quite unusual because burials were excavated even though there was no immediate threat of destruction. The project was granted a licence to excavate up to six burials in order to meet their research goals. In the event, they only removed a single burial; other burials uncovered were highly unlikely to be Richard III and so they were left undisturbed.

One of the surprising things about the huge attention paid to the announcement earlier this week that the remains of  Richard III have been found in Leicester is that hardly anyone has expressed discomfort about us excavating, studying and showing photographs of human remains. As we have seen, scientific testing of the bones can tell us a great deal of interesting information. We can learn about the date of the bones, his probable diet, his sex and even his family relationships. Some of this testing is destructive. Archaeologists need to balance the gains in knowledge against the damage to the integrity of the bones; and to any offence to people’s religious, emotional and ethical beliefs.

At the heart of our ethical decisions are the questions: whose interests do we need to consider? How can we best accommodate those different needs? Who stands to be harmed? The scientific needs of archaeologists, the desires of immediate descendants and relatives of the dead and the best interests of the local community and of any groups who identify strongly with those buried at a site all need to be taken into consideration. To complicate matters further we might also ask how we can accommodate the expectation of the dead person. Some people say that the dead person – by virtue of being dead – need not be considered, but the public response to the question of where Richard III should be reburied shows that many people do think it matters. However, many of these people have attributed very modern sentiments to Richard, such as wanting to be buried with his wife and expecting to remain undisturbed forever, and these might not be appropriate.

A person dying in England in the late fifteenth century would not normally expect their body to remain untouched until judgement day. Bones were frequently removed and redeposited after a few years to make room for new burials. And burial in the same grave as family members was not necessarily an expectation for most Britons until the eighteenth century.

Many British museums have removed human remains from display, despite the fact that where they remain they are often among the museum’s top attractions, and surveys suggest strong public support for the display of archaeological bones. Some archaeologists also feel uncomfortable about showing photographs of human remains, but in most of the UK this rarely causes offence and is not at the moment a big ethical problem. Against the ethical questions about how appropriate the public display of images of his bones is, we need to set Richard’s undoubted  familiarity with the display of saints’ bones and the custom of reinterment and movement of significant bodies from one place to another.

By Professor Sarah Tarlow, Director of the Centre for Historical Archaeology, University of Leicester.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*