Should gravesites be disturbed for the purpose of studying them?

Viking gravePhoto: Peder Gjersøe / SCANPIX

Whether gravesites – and human remains in general – should be disturbed (even for research purposes), and how they should be handled, are questions increasingly being asked in the scientific community.

With the recent excavation of an ancient ship, the Historical Museum reopening with shiny new doors, and the Viking Ship Museum undergoing a multi-million kroner facelift, history is very much in Norway’s current cultural spotlight.

But the world of archaeology – discovering historical treasures hidden underneath the ground – is undergoing a paradigm shift, with new scrutiny on the field.

Namely, there is a growing ethical concern about whether gravesites, often excavated to help understand the past, should ever be disturbed – even to study them.

History is literally buried under our feet

Archaeology is the study of human life through the recovery and analysis of material objects. Part of this recovery means, for the most part, a literal digging up of the earth. Thanks to pop culture phenomena like Indiana Jones, many of us have stereotypical views of an archaeologist half-buried in soil, excavating some priceless piece of treasure from a long-lost civilization. Lara Croft – the tomb raider – offers another romanticized view.

Away from the stereotypes, excavations are the lifeline of this science. Throughout the ages, cities and settlements are often built one atop the other, and through other human and natural processes, end up underground. So, to discover the past, archaeologists must dig up the ground they are standing on. And this often includes excavating human remains.

An example of this in recent times was a team from the University of Leicester discovering the body of King Richard III (he of Shakespearean fame). He was not, as widely assumed, buried somewhere at Bosworth Field – but under a parking garage of the local City Council Social Services office.

The study and analysis of human remains are vital for unraveling history. Archaeologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and many other professions connected to history need to examine the dead – how they lived and how they died – to gather information, data, and evidence about our past. Yet disturbing the dead, regardless of whether they died a month or a millennium ago, has been and always will be controversial.

Disrespecting the dead: A form of cultural exploitation?

With an ongoing debate about the repatriation of cultural artifacts in museums raging worldwide – Norway included – there is, in general, a renewed focus on the morality of history.

For many detractors, archaeologists and others who excavate graves and handle skeletal remains are not (only) studying history but (also) disturbing the dead. And their living descendants. Experts such as museologists, bioarchaeologists, and biological anthropologists, whose job includes handling biological and skeletal remains of humans, have come under growing criticism.

During the colonial and imperial histories of many European nations, history was often solely the study of people, and not for people. Graves were desecrated and remains were brought back to Europe for so-called “scientific purposes” from the four corners of the earth. As a result, today many urban, and especially Western, museums have a historic or ethnographic section – which, at best, houses ethically sourced cultural items and, at worst, stolen artifacts – including human remains.

Moral questions have been raised for any gravesite being disturbed by any person – especially when there’s a tipped scale in the power dynamics between the culture of the researching entity and the archeological site. But given the West-led cultural exploitation of indigenous people the world over, the study of graves today is especially viewed, by some, as a child of colonialism. A common scenario includes Europeans traveling (usually uninvited) across the global south and disturbing the (sometimes sacred) graves of locals’ ancestors, family members, and communities.

Museum of Cultural History
The Museum of Cultural History: where many of Norway’s material and personal artifacts reside. Photo: Berit Roald / NTB

Norway’s structured and formalized system for excavations

Essentially, this heated debate, which has reached Norway, has two sides. On one are those who see gravesites as a place to be studied, with respect, and view this research as important for understanding and preserving the past. On the other are those who see the disturbance of the dead (especially by cultural outsiders) as morally wrong.

In Norway, laws exist striving to protect and preserve a range of “cultural heritage,” amongst them gravesites and human remains. The Cultural Heritage Act (1978) aims to give protection to all buried deposits, buildings, and other cultural objects before 1538 and all Saami archaeological sites before 1900.

Per the act, excavations can only be carried out by five universities (Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger, Trondheim, and Tromsø) or the National Agency responsible for post-Medieval heritage – and with the support, guidance, and permission of local government authorities.

A dark archeological past in Norway

The structured and formal archeological excavation process in Norway is perhaps the result of a troubled past.

From about the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, Norway actively dug up Saami graves for “scientific research.” This was very much in line with other European countries’ methods of carrying out scientific, historical, and archaeological studies, many of which were underpinned by dubious racial and ethnic theories. In Norway, Saami remains, despite protests from local populations, were to be studied and analyzed as a different ‘race.’

Yet the fact remains that little is known about some parts of Saami history, and gravesites remain a literal treasure trove of hidden histories and meaning. So, historians and archeologists nowadays have constant contact and consultations with local populations to minimize offense, grief, and distress.

Gjellestad Viking ship
Archaeologists work on uncovering the secrets of the Gjellestad Ship. // Photo: Kulturhistorisk museum / NTB

The Gjellestad Ship and Norse remains

One of the largest archaeological finds of the past few years in Norway was the Gjellestad Ship. When local residents first started digging for a drainage ditch, they had no idea what they would uncover. Buried deep in the ‘Jell Mound’ was a 21-meter ship. The Gjellestad Ship is thought to have been used by wealthy people living in Norway (sometime between the 5th and 6th centuries CE) to guide them to the afterworld safely.

The ship has already seen several intruders. It was pillaged in the past – perhaps for plunder or for a political purpose – but now, an academic archaeological team from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage leads the excavation.

A reburial following the study is unlikely. Old Norse remains (from the Viking Age and earlier) uncovered now are not reburied, according to Asgeir Svestad, a professor at the University of Tromsø. Reburials, he admitted, can be problematic especially as gravesites can help develop new knowledge today.

Though the dead were buried a millennium and a half ago, they are still the remains of someone’s ancestors, someone’s family members, and someone’s loved ones. So, when does a human skeleton, or a gravesite, go from being sacred to scientific? Who decides whether they can be disturbed and what role do living ancestors play?

Gravesites: Handle with care

For the study of history to progress, expand and grow, archaeologists need to do their job. Part of this job involves excavating once-sacred burial areas, gravesites, and skeletal remains. In Norway, a highly formalized system ensures that only those with the best of intentions, and clear academic credentials, can undertake any sort of excavation. Furthermore, a constant dialogue with local communities, governments, and educational institutions aims to ensure ethical archeological practices.

So, overall, should graves be disturbed in order to study them? For a nation with such a love of its history, the answer would seemingly be yes.

Yet would that answer change if you knew it was your ancestors’, family members,’ or loved ones’ graves being excavated?

Like the graves themselves, this debate is layered with meaning.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.

About the author:

Jonathan is a lover of the written word. He believes the best way to combat this polarization of news and politics, in our time, is by having a balanced view. Both sides of the story are equally important. He also enjoys traveling and live music.

Source: #NorwayTodayTravel

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