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British Archaeologists Frustrated By Reburial Legislation

February 5, 2011

Human remains from ancient settlements such as Stonehenge are to be reburied and lost to science due to a controversial legislation that could bring archaeological research in Britain to a crashing halt, a group of leading archaeologists said Friday.

A group of 40 archaeology professors wrote of “deep and widespread concern” in a letter addressed to the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, which was printed in the British newspaper The Guardian.

The dispute centers on legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008 that states that all human remains excavated from digsites in England and Wales must be reburied within two years, regardless of their age.

The decision, based on a law previously administered by the Home Office, means scientists have too little time to study any of the human remains of national or cultural significance, the group says.

“Your current requirement that all archaeologically excavated human remains should be reburied, whether after a standard period of two years or a further special extension, is contrary to fundamental principles of archaeological and scientific research and of museum practice,” they wrote.

Participants of the group include Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, Stephen Shennan, director of University College London’s archaeology institute, and Helena Hamerow, head of archaeology at Oxford University.

The ministry says the rule applies to any fragments uncovered at as many as 400 digsites, which include the 60 or so bodies taken from Stonehenge in 2008 that date back to 3,000 BC. Archaeologists have been granted a temporary extension to give them more time, but not much.

The ruling, according to archaeologists, could undoubtedly result in the demise of future discoveries at sites such as Happisburgh in Norfolk, where the discovery of stone tools made by early humans some 950,000 years ago has led to continuing excavations.

“If human remains were found at Happisburgh they would be the oldest human fossils in northern Europe and the first indication of what this species was. Under the current practice of the law those remains would have to be reburied and effectively destroyed,” Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, told The Guardian. “This applies to everything. If we were to find a Neanderthal fossil or a Roman skeleton, it would all have to be reburied.”

Before the 2008 ruling, guidelines allowed for the proper curation and study of fossils of sufficient age and historical interest. The Ministry of Justice assured archaeologists two years ago that the ruling was a short-term measure, but has so far failed to revise its decision.

“Archaeologists have been extremely patient because we were led to believe the ministry was sorting out this problem, but we feel that we cannot wait any longer,” Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at Sheffield University told The Guardian’s Ian Sample.

“Whereas we have museum collections of ancient and prehistoric human remains that have been dug up in some cases hundreds of years ago, we are about to lose all of the well-excavated, well-documented skeletal material that has been excavated since 2008,” he added.

While the ruling remains in place, the ministry has no guidelines on where or how remains are to be reburied, or on what records should be kept.

Remains from dozens of digsites are immediately at risk of reburial, including eight bronze and iron age bodies found a Clay Farm in Cambridgeshire, 50 or so skeletons from the cemetery of a medieval hospital in South Yorkshire, and a Viking mass burial site unearthed during work on the Weymouth relief road in 2009.

“The government is asking us to destroy important materials, not preserve them for future generations, a situation that is against its own heritage policies, contra to the public will and not in the interests of the general public at large,” Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire, told The Guardian.

“This is a law that was not designed for archaeology and is doing a considerable amount of damage, and because of it we may prevent people in the future from ever being able to explore their past because we have destroyed it,” said Sayer.

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