Dry Bones

There is an excellent article at spiked by Tiffany Jenkins, who wrote another excellent article for us last spring. An excellent article on a very depressing and irritating subject – this passion for defining all human remains, however old and however uncertain of provenance, as someone’s ‘ancestors,’ thus ensuring that they can’t be studied or preserved for future research and study.

Note that the report by the Human Remains Working Group, which was appointed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is called a majority report ‘because the group’s only scientist refused to accept its verdict.’ Note that and then ponder it a bit. Ponder the fact that a matter with such large implications for science is handed over to a working group with only one scientist. Which is not to say that political, ethical, moral or other non-scientific concerns should never second-guess or criticise or veto scientific ones – but it is to raise an eyebrow, at least.

But another factor is the message that this policy sends out – it effectively suggests to all and sundry that scientific research is not a priority, and that science should be put second to mystical kinds of belief. The panel of experts that will oversee the treatment of remains, for example, will explicitly not include any scientist or researcher who works on the remains – but it will include those ‘versed in belief systems’. The panel will be akin to a new high priesthood guarding the sacred relics.

And not all of this pressure to ‘return’ bones and remains is a response to demands by indigenous (or any other) groups who have had their ancestors’ remains unceremoniously carted off – a lot of it starts at the other end, among museum staff and lawyers, smitten by a bizarre mix of political zeal and spirito-mystico nonsense. It’s enough to make a cat laugh, frankly.

Even in cases of unaffiliated or unwanted remains, the report leans on the side of return. While there are campaign groups who have made strong and vocal demands for return, there are as many people contacted by museums who have been uninterested in receiving boxes with bones of their possible ancestors…The report seems to suggest that descendants are in denial, arguing that: ‘Museums might wish to look critically at the political, economic and other reasons for any silence or absence of protest.’

Well don’t let that stop you! If nobody wants the damn bones back, just ‘look critically’ at the reasons for that absence of protest until you manage to come up with a convincing explanation and then, wallop! drop the cartons of bones on the doorstep of some lucky descendants.

The target of this report is the researchers and scientists working on the remains. The constant message is that remains are sacred and that research must be restrained by ‘respect’. Museums’ claims to scientific or historical objectivity are implicitly criticised…What is drummed home is the idea that no bone shall be regarded in an impersonal fashion. Every molecule, hair and fingernail is seen as sacred unless proven otherwise – and even then, it is thought that the sacred significance has not yet been discovered.

The people who want the remains back have not yet been discovered, the sacred significance has not yet been discovered – so the energy that once would have gone into research on the remains themselves now goes into discovering ‘sacred significance.’ Sad, isn’t it.

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