Blog Post #19: Peopling the Past’s Approach to the Study and Display Human Remains

*Content Warning: post will discuss human remains; linked material may show images of human remains (warnings will be provided)

At Peopling the Past, our goal is to study the real people of the ancient world—what their lives were like, how they spent their time, and how they might have experienced the world around them. As archaeologists and historians, we have different tools and information available to us, from the “stuff” they used and left behind, to their images and art, to the literature and inscriptions they wrote. One of the primary sources for this data—the places or “contexts” from which they are recovered—are tombs.

In the study of ancient Mediterranean cultures, tombs—or what archaeologists refer to as “mortuary contexts”—are one of the most common sources of information about past people. Tombs reveal much about mortuary practices, religious beliefs, and of course, the physical remains of the deceased. In early archaeology, tombs were especially popular for excavation because of the high-value objects held in them—objects that could then be prominently displayed in museums. These excavations, which focused on the tombs of the elite, were in many ways closer to what we today would consider to be looting, with tomb contents, and in many cases the deceased themselves, shipped away from their resting places to foreign countries.

Preserved garlic and green onions (left), pitted dates (center), and mummified poultry (right) recovered from the Tomb of Tutankhamun, Egypt, ca. 1323 BCE. Images captured from the Ancient Egyptian Tombs Were Crammed Full of Snacks video, Secrets: Tut's Last Mission series, Smithsonian Channel.
Figure 1: Preserved garlic and green onions (left), pitted dates (center), and mummified poultry (right) recovered from the Tomb of Tutankhamun, Egypt, ca. 1323 BCE. Images captured from the Ancient Egyptian Tombs Were Crammed Full of Snacks video, Secrets: Tut’s Last Mission series, Smithsonian Channel.

In some places, like ancient Egypt, tombs are an especially common focus of study because of where they were located: out in the desert. The dry conditions of the desert helped to preserve buried materials that would normally not survive decades or millennia, especially organic materials like food, wood, linen, papyrus, and human remains (Figure 1.). Unlike tombs, settlements in Egypt were located along the Nile river valley, close to water, which means that these ancient towns are often covered by meters of river sediment and lie under modern communities.

When it comes to understanding the lives of past people, there are important questions we ask when analyzing materials from tombs, such as how closely information from tombs represents daily life. We also have to consider the fact that tombs generally represent the wealthy, as not everyone could afford expensive burials filled with goods (Figure 2). Questions about interpretation are important, but historians have often ignored (frequently deliberately so) the more important ethical questions about excavating or studying tombs, and especially, the treatment of human remains. This is a very important but complicated topic. One complicating factor is that different communities around the world feel very differently about the study and the display of human remains—even within any given community today, not everyone will feel the same way. So while the study and display of human remains may be acceptable to some communities if done respectfully, there are other communities where it is not acceptable, such as in many Indigenous communities in the United States and Canada (see, for example, the work of the Haida Repatriation Committee, including the documentary film, Stolen Spirits of Haida Gwaii).

A second major issue is that many of the policies or laws around the study, ownership, or display of cultural material or human remains have rarely been developed with sufficient (if any) consultation with descendent communities. This is especially true when it comes to displaced, dispossessed, or “unaffiliated” ancestors. Much of the material and ancestral remains now in museums were displaced under colonial exploitation—either taken from foreign lands or removed by non-Indigenous populations in so-called settler countries (where the majority population has come from somewhere else). This means that the people and institutions creating legislation often do not overlap with descendent communities. For an overview of the colonial history of museums and collecting, I recommend the video “The Problem with Museums” from PBS’s Origins of Everything (content warning: video includes images of human remains).

Jewelry including necklaces, earrings, and a headdress from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, Iraq, ca. 2600 BCE (image © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Figure 2: Jewelry including necklaces, earrings, and a headdress from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, Iraq, ca. 2600 BCE (image © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Even when policies and laws do exist, the ways they are followed by people and institutions vary due to differences in interpretation, apathy, or even an intentional desire to find loopholes. For example, in the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (or NAGPRA, passed in 1990) stipulates that ownership and control of “Native American human remains and associated funerary objects” belongs to “the lineal descendants of the Native American,” or if the descendants are unclear, to “the Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization on whose tribal land such objects or remains were discovered” or “which has the closest cultural affiliation with such remains or objects” (Sections 3.1–2B).

Despite the requirement by NAGPRA legislation for institutions to actively catalogue the human remains in their institution and begin repatriation efforts, many institutions have failed to comply. For example, in early 2021 accusations were made by the Association on American Indian Affairs against Harvard’s Peabody Museum for failure to comply with NAGPRA legislation. As of writing this (March 14, 2021), the NAPGRA Inventory documents a minimum of 118,012 individuals held at institutions who have yet to be repatriated. To learn more about the repatriation of ancestral remains in North America, I highly recommend this recently recorded discussion Reclaiming the Ancestors: Indigenous and Black Perspectives on Repatriation, Human Rights, and Justice (talk sponsors include the Society of Black Archaeologists and the Indigenous Archaeology Collective). To learn more about the repatriation process and the impact of NAGPRA legislation, check out this downloadable comic, “Journeys to Complete the Work,” by Sonya Atalay, Jen Shannon, and John G. Swagger (Figure 3).

One aspect of the law that has led to dispute is the requirement that modern Indigenous communities demonstrate “cultural affiliation,” which NAGPRA defines as “a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group.” (Section 2.2). However, successfully proving “cultural affiliation” often relies on Western scientific methods such as DNA evidence, superseding oral history traditions and Indigenous views of affiliation and identity. The privileging of science in the determination of cultural affiliation is most well-known in the decades-long dispute over the ancestral remains of “the Ancient One” (referred to by scientists as “the Kennewick man), whose remains were uncovered in 1996, and only returned to local Native American groups for reburial in 2016 (cw: link includes images of human remains).

The return of the Ancient One was made only after scientists confirmed a genetic link between the 8,500 Ancient One and indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest, despite the fact that oral traditions confirmed this connection at the time of his discovery. The use of DNA evidence by non-Indigenous scientists to impose “cultural affiliation” raises many ethical questions, particularly about the ways DNA can be used to undermine tribal belonging and sovereignty. This lecture on Science and Whiteness by Dr. Kim TallBear, Canadian Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience & Environment, outlines some of these ethical issues, and discusses the ways that scientific and genomic study can be used to perpetuate colonial violence in services like medical care (you can read more in her book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science).

Journeys to Complete the Work comic on NAGPRA and Repatriation by Sonya Atalay, Jen Shannon, and John G. Swagger
Figure 3: “Journeys to Complete the Work” comic on NAGPRA and Repatriation by Sonya Atalay, Jen Shannon, and John G. Swagger

The community impact of scientific research and the prior histories of such fields as Archaeology and Anthropology are both crucial parts of the conversation. This recent video from the Everyday Orientalism project titled “Your Mummies, Their Ancestors? Caring for and about Ancient Egyptian Human Remains” is a great example of the conversations happening around the ethics of studying and displaying human remains. Although the speakers focus primarily on ancient Egypt, the abstract for this discussion addresses many of the ethical issues that we need to consider (here quoted in full):

Human remains should not be treated as objects. They require a highly sensitive care grounded in respect, dignity, and fulfillment of the wishes of the dead and the living. Consultation with descendants informs best practices for handling, storing, treating, and repatriating human remains that living communities formally claim as their own. Yet, ancient Egyptian remains are perceived  as “uncontested” and “unclaimed” due to the long-held colonial racial view of the disconnection between modern and ancient Egyptians. Today, as the colonial practices of Egyptian archaeology are being unpacked, what do we do when the “should-be-honoured” dead are treated as artefacts, race-science subjects, public attractions, and musical instruments? Should we take into consideration ancient Egyptian beliefs and wishes? Should human remains be treated in a detached manner as scientific evidence? Is there an emotional component to them? How did these human remains get into museums in the first place, and how should that inform our approaches? How can we deal with the past violences mummified human remains were subjected to, such as unwrappings and autopsies? How can the voices and concerns of Egyptian communities become amplified and validated in the treatment, display, and  care of ancient Egyptian human remains? Who gets to decide?

One of the main themes addressed by the speakers in the video is the ways that scientists and museums contribute to normalizing the dehumanization of remains in their care. This is especially true in sensationalizing displays of ancient Egyptian remains or “mummies” and the public’s expectations for access to these remains. Public fascination with mummies, and their depiction as monsters in horror films (Figure 4), has played a role in dehumanizing and objectifying ancient Egyptian ancestors. As Dr. Heba Abd el Gawad argues in the video (starting at 1:37:30), it is important to reflect on the terms we use like “mummy”, because of the baggage it brings with it, and the way it “(dilutes) a human being into a word.” As an extreme example, this dehumanization can be seen in the recent illegal trade of real mummified human hand, deliberately mislabeled as a movie prop (these remains were recovered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as part of “Operation Mummy’s Hand”, and were repatriated to Egypt in 2016; cw: link includes images of human remains). A more recent example would be the 2020 publication of vocalizations made from a 3D printed vocal tract of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian scribe and priest who lived during the reign of Ramesses XI (20th Dynasty, New Kingdom, ca. 1099–1069 BCE). The results of this experiment, published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, were shared broadly by International News outlets, often with click-bait titles such as “the Mummy Speaks” or “scientists learn how to talk like an ancient Egyptian.”

Movie posters for four films about mummies
Figure 4: Movie posters for (from left to right): The Mummy (1932, directed by Karl Freund); The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964, directed by Michael Carreras); The Mummy (1999, directed by Stephen Sommers); The Mummy (2017, direct by Alex Kurtzman).

As Dr. Abd el Gawad addresses in the video, ancient Egyptian mummies are used as selling points for museums—spaces which are often not accessible to modern Egyptians. Descendent communities are this excluded from both the conversations and decisions made about their cultural heritage, but also from places and institutions where their ancestors are taken (see discussion starting at 1:13:50). These ongoing issues of colonialism, commodification, and the dispersal of Egyptian cultural heritage is the subject of a new comic series produced by Dr. Abd el Gawad and Nasser Junior (Figure 5). Using comics shared through social media, a platform particularly popular in Egypt, is providing new opportunities for modern Egyptians to engage in the discussions of cultural heritage from which they have been traditionally excluded (you can read more about ‘Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage’ project here and follow them online to see more from the comic series).

A second major topic raised in the video is the need for greater transparency, especially in addressing the colonial histories and violence experienced by human remains. This is especially important given that the vast majority of human remains studied by archaeologists and anthropologists were recovered before our modern ethical guidelines were in place. In the video, conservator Charlotte Parent outlines the post-recovery history and poor treatment of the Young Man held at the Royal Ontario Museum. Similar histories have been documented by Prof. Salima Ikram for the remains of ancient Egyptian Royal in her paper From Thebes to Cairo, the Journey, Study, and Display of Egypt’s Royal Mummies: Past, Present, and Future (cw: link includes images of human remains).

Comic 1 by Nasser Junior (Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage Project). Translation:
(a) Heba: Did you know that British-led excavations have discovered thousands of artefacts in Egypt and exported some of them to 27 countries?
(b) Heba: What are you doing?!!
(c) Nasser: Tell them you discovered a mummy who wants to travel
Figure 5: Comic 1 by Nasser Junior (Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage Project).

Translation: (a) Heba: Did you know that British-led excavations have discovered thousands of artefacts in Egypt and exported some of them to 27 countries?
(b) Heba: What are you doing?!!
(c) Nasser: Tell them you discovered a mummy who wants to travel

In the video, Prof. Alice Stevenson, drawing on the work of Janet Marstine (The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics), argues for museums to adopt policies of “Radical Transparency”, which is “a mode of communication that allows accountability” (starting at 25:15). For museums, this would mean articulating to the public specifically why displaying human remains is controversial. Museums should “make explicit the histories of collection under colonial conditions” and “look at the examination of these remains which have often happened under racist thinking.” Accountability also requires consideration of where and when to share images of human remains (cw: link includes images of human remains), both photographs as well as digital imaging like x-rays or CT scans, and ensuring that there are clearly articulated research or education goals that require such images (video discussion starting at 1:51:30).

As Dr. Balachandran articulates in the video (starting at 1:42:00), echoing earlier points raised by Dr. Abd el Gawad, “this expectation that there is going to be one perspective that we should follow, we need to let go of this… this is the kind of racist and colonial legacy, well ongoing situation, that continues to put pressure on the one person who is say Egyptian, in the case of Heba, or the one Indigenous person who has to speak for every Indigenous community member’s experience.” Reducing multivocal communities to a single—often tokenized—perspective denies descendent peoples their full humanity. Doing so serves colonial agendas of alleviating our ethical unease through easy and universal solutions to complex problems; in reality these solutions require long-term consultation and commitment to rebuilding trust and developing collaboration (for an example of such work, I recommend looking at the aDNA Ethics Project). As the speakers in the video demonstrate, engaging in truly ethical research incorporating human remains requires ongoing reflection, contributions from many voices from scientific and descendent communities, and an emotional and respectful recognition of the humanity of each deceased individual.

At Peopling the Past, we want to be ethical and transparent in the discussion of human remains and material from tomb contexts. This means being considerate of the human beings of the past, their descendent communities, and the viewers of our content whose ancestors have been displaced or mistreated. We will be following the policies and best practices developed by communities today in our discussion of human remains and burial materials, including only those places where such research has been broadly accepted. All content and linked material in our posts that show human remains will be given a content warning. We also would like to encourage educators using Peopling the Past content that discusses or displays human remains in their teaching to provide students with content warnings and the choice of whether or not to view the material. As settler-descendants in North America and cultural outsiders to the communities in which we work in the Mediterranean, we are committed to ongoing reflection of these policies and to engaging in work that does not inflict more harm.

Authored by Christine Johnston and co-signed by the Peopling the Past team. We would like to thank all of our colleagues who generously read and provided comments and feedback on this post.

Further Reading

Balachandran, Sanchita. 2009. “Among the Dead and their Possessions: A Conservator’s Role in the Death, Life, and Afterlife of Human Remains and their Associated Objects.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 48: 199-222. (cw: images of human remains)

Cortez, Amanda Daniela, Deborah A Bolnick, George Nicholas, Jessica Bardill, and Chip Colwell. 2021. “An Ethical Crisis in Ancient DNA Research: Insights from the Chaco Canyon Controversy as a Case Study.” Journal of Social Archaeology.

Squires, K, D. Errickson, and N. Máquez-Grant, eds. 2019. Ethical Approaches to Human Remains. Cham: Springer Nature. (cw: includes images of human remains)

Watkins, Joe E. 2003. “Beyond the Margin: American Indians, First Nations, and Archaeology in North America.” American Antiquity 68(2): 273-85. doi:10.2307/3557080.

Wild, Sarah. 2019, 5 Dec. “Restoring Dignity to Stolen Ancestors.” Sapiens

Additional Resources

Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage Project: National Museum Scotland article and podcast with Samira Ahmed, Margaret Maitland, Heba Abd el Gawad and Alice Stevenson; Manchester Museum podcast with Heba Abd el Gawad; Digital Hammurabi’s interview with Egyptologist Heba abd el Gawad and graphic artist Nasser Junior.

In addition to human remains and tangible material, repatriation can also apply to other cultural materials or knowledge. For example, Indigenous music and songs:

Gray, Robin R. R. 2018. “Repatriation and Decolonization: Thoughts on Ownership, Access, and Control.” In The Oxford Handbook of Musical Repatriation, edited by Frank Gunderson, Rob Lancefield, and Bret Woods.

Interview with musician Jeremy Dutcher about his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, which includes audio from 110-year-old wax cylinder recordings of his ancestors held in the Canadian Museum of History.

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