Repatriation in principle, policy and practice


Edited by Cressida Fforde[1], Jane Hubert[2] and Paul Turnbull[3]


List of figures and tables

List of contributors



Introduction: The Reburial Issue in the 21st century

Jane Hubert and Cressida Fforde 1

Repatriation as Healing the Wounds of the Trauma of History: cases of Native Americans in the United States of America

Russell Thornton 17

Collection, Repatriation and Concepts of Identity

Cressida Fforde 25

Saami Skulls, anthropological race research and the repatriation question in Norway.

Audhild Schanche 47

Skeletal remains of the Norwegian Saami

Berit J. Sellevold 59

Indigenous Australian people, their defence of the dead, and Native Title

Paul Turnbull ` 63

Bone reburial in Israel – legal restrictions and methodological implications

Yossi Nagar 87

A Decade after the Vermillion Accord: what has changed and what has not?

Larry J. Zimmerman 91

Academic freedom, stewardship, and cultural heritage: weighing the interests of stakeholders in crafting repatriation approaches

Rosemary A. Joyce 99

Implementing a ‘true compromise’: the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act after ten years

C. Timothy McKeown 108

Repatriation in the USA: a decade of Federal Agency activities under NAGPRA

Francis P. McManamon 133

Artefactual awareness: Spiro mounds, grave goods, and politics

Joe Watkins 149

Implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard

Barbara Isaac 160

Ka Huaka’I O Nä ‘Öiwi: the journey home

Edward Halealoha Ayau and Ty Kawika Tengan 171

Implementing repatriation in the United States: issues raised and lessons learned

Roger Anyon and Russell Thorton 190

The Plundered Past: Britain’s Challenge for the Future

Moira Simpson 199

One hundred and sixty years of exile: Vaimaca Pirú and the campaign to repatriate his remains to Uruguay

Rodolfo Martinez Barbosa 218


Walter Palm Island 222


Cressida Fforde 229

The connection between archaeological treasures and the Khoisan people

Martin L. Engelbrecht 242

Missing persons and stolen bodies: the repatriation of ‘El Negro’ to Botswana

Neil Parsons and Alinah Kelo Segobye 245

The reburial of human remains at Thulamela, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Tshimangadzo Israel Nemaheni 256

‘Ndi nnyi ane a do dzhia marambo?’ – ‘who will take the bones?’: excavations at Matoks, Northern Province, South Africa

Warren S. Fish 261

The reburial issue in Argentina: a growing conflict

María Luz Endere 266

Partnership in museums a tribal Maori response to repatriation

Paul Tapsell 284

Indigenous governance in museums: a case study, the Auckland War Memorial Museum

Merata Kawharu 293

Developments in the repatriation of human remains and other cultural items in Queensland, Australia.

Michael Aird 303

Practicalities in the return of remains: the importance of provenance and the question of unprovenanced remains

Deanne Hanchant 312

Heritage that hurts: the case of the grave of Cecil John Rhodes in the Matopos National park, Zimbabwe

Svinurayi Joseph Muringaniza 317

Index 327


Jane Hubert and Cressida Fforde

The past 30 years have witnessed the emergence of what has been widely, and loosely, referred to as the ‘reburial’ issue.[4] Australian Aborigines, Native Americans and, increasingly, indigenous peoples from other parts of the world, have campaigned for the right to determine the future of the human remains of their ancestors. In many cases they are also claiming grave goods, sacred objects and other culturally significant items. In particular, this campaign has contested the ownership of human remains housed in museums and other institutions, and has commonly demanded that such material be returned to the cultural group in the area from which the human remains originated, for final disposal. In addition, indigenous groups have sought to ensure that human remains found today, whether through archaeological excavation, construction work or other chance discovery, are returned to them. In the past it was often standard procedure for indigenous remains to be automatically assigned to museum collections, whereas ‘white’ bones would be taken away to be buried immediately (Zimmerman 1989).

The reburial issue has been widely represented as an indigenous issue, but it is not only indigenous people who wish for the return of their dead. People all over the world are concerned about the fate of the bodies of their kin, and of significant members of their cultural group. When wars end, the families of those who were killed often want their bodies brought back to them, so that they can be buried at home and properly mourned. In 2000, during the first visit of an American president to Vietnam since the Vietnam war, Bill Clinton collected the partial skeletal remains of one of the American troops killed during the conflict and previously deemed ‘Missing in Action’, so that they could be buried at home. Currently, forensic archaeologists are finding, excavating and trying to identify the remains of the ‘disappeared’ in many countries (for example, in Africa, South America and Eastern Europe), so that they can be returned to their families, and thus, to some degree, heal the wounds of the trauma of history (and see Thornton Ch.1).

Indigenous groups request the return of the human remains of their ancestors for a number of reasons, but primarily on the grounds that their ancestors must be accorded funerary rituals appropriate to their cultural beliefs. Some consider the retention of remains in museums as spiritually dangerous. As is well known, all societies have some kind of death rituals, though they vary in form and function, and funerary activities have been of great interest to social anthropologists for many years. Such rituals have various functions. Some of these are for the spirit of the dead – to disentangle the soul from the body, to enable the spirit to be free, to help it reach another destination, or to enable resurrection, and so on. For the living, the rituals serve to formalize the death, to make the break between life and death visible, and to help people come to terms with the death, and enable them to mourn their dead. Death rituals may serve to reaffirm cultural beliefs, but they may also be, or form part of, a display by the living of their own standing and aspirations in society.

People in different cultures perceive and manage the boundary between life and death in different ways (Hockey 1990). In many societies death is not believed to occur at a single point in time, but is a process from one world to another, a journey over time, and enveloped in a body of rituals to bring this about. Thus without funerary rituals the process of death is considered incomplete. In some societies, if appropriate rituals are not carried out, a person’s spirit is believed to be doomed to wander in limbo for eternity, or will return to the community bringing sickness or death (and see Hubert 1989).

The need to mourn and dispose of the dead with appropriate rituals is one of the reasons why people want the bodies of their dead returned to them, but the demand for return of human remains has other dimensions. It is also a means by which people – especially those who have been dispossessed – can assert their pre-eminent right to make their own decisions regarding what should happen to their ancestors’ remains. In this way they can lay claim to their own pasts, and determine what should or should not be part of their cultural heritage.

This can also work in the opposite direction. In Zimbabwe, for example, there is a group who are demanding the disinterment, and exile from the country, of the human remains of an erstwhile national hero, Cecil Rhodes. (Muringaniza Ch. 28). To some contemporary Zimbabweans Rhodes’ grave, which draws thousands of tourists every year, represents the colonial past, and should not be considered part of Zimbabwe’s national heritage. The current debate is about perceptions of Zimbabwe’s cultural heritage, and how it is to be managed in the aftermath of colonial occupation. It is also about the wishes of the living, not the dead – Rhodes had specifically requested that he be buried in the Matopos hills.

It is in countries that have been colonized that the issue of the remains of the dead has acquired an added significance of its own. This is partly because the beliefs and practices of colonized people are known to have been ignored and denied over many generations. The colonizers have not only taken over their lands but have often deliberately tried to destroy their cultures and religious beliefs, as well as physically removing the human remains of their dead. What is now called the ‘cultural heritage’ of colonized peoples was plundered, and among the many things that were taken back to Europe were skeletons (especially skulls), mummified bodies, limbs, shrunken heads, and various other anatomical specimens.

There are also other contexts in which human remains are removed from their resting place; for example, in the building of roads, bridges, railways, housing and commercial developments. Human remains have also been removed by archaeological excavation, to be studied by archaeologists and physical anthropologists, and to be stored and displayed in museums and university departments.

Many accounts of the colonists’ treatment of the bodies of indigenous people from the late eighteenth through to the early twentieth centuries are shocking, but it should be remembered that in Britain, for example, as recently as the early nineteenth century, surgeons and anatomists were employing people to dig up the graves of the British poor, to provide bodies for dissection by medical students. Although the Anatomy Act of 1832 made the practice of grave-robbing illegal, over 50,000 bodies of poor people who died in institutions are said to have been used for dissection up until the 1930s (Richardson 1987). Clearly, those sections of the British population who were too poor to pay for proper burials, and as a result were interred in shallow graves, were considered sufficiently ‘other’ (by those who had higher status, power and authority) to be treated with what would normally be considered disrespect and inhumanity.

The reburial issue emerged from what was seen as a fundamental clash of interests, and by the 1980s it had become the subject of intense debate, which has continued into the twenty-first century. There is no need to reiterate in detail here the well-known arguments on different sides (see, e.g. Hammil and Cruz 1989; Hubert 1989, 1992; Mulvaney 1991; Swidler et al. 1997). Briefly, various indigenous groups have put pressure on museums and other institutions to disclose their holdings of human remains and funerary objects, to remove them from display and to return them to the communities concerned. Many museums have done so, sometimes being forced to do so by legislation (see Anyon and Thornton Ch. 14) but some are still unwilling to disclose their holdings, let alone return human remains, in spite of repeated representations to them.[5]

It is worth noting that as long ago as 1990, The Times newspaper wrote in an editorial devoted to the subject of the return of Australian Aboriginal skeletal remains: ‘No curator can rest easy in his mind about holding on to such items’. Yet in spite of this support, as Fforde (Ch. 2) observes, museums refuse to return human remains, and the implications of one cultural group assuming the right to carry out scientific research on the bodies of another group are profound. The scientific analysis of the ‘Aboriginal body’, comparative anatomy and physical anthropology ‘fashioned an identity for Aborigines, the effects of which reached far beyond the boundaries of the laboratory’ (Fforde Ch. 2). Fforde looks in detail at the way in which collecting and repatriation are intricately linked with identity, a connection also clearly expressed by Palm Island (Ch. 17), Martinez Barbosa (Ch. 16) and Engelbrecht (Ch. 19).

Although some suggested arrangements, such as Keeping Places (see Aird Ch. 26 and Hanchant Ch. 27) allow for the possibility of future access to human remains, cremation or reburial mark the loss to science of a unique source of information about the past. Indigenous claims for the return of their ancestors’ remains have thus been opposed by many who study and curate such items. With present techniques human remains can provide archaeologists and biological anthropologists with data about such things as past diseases, diet, social practices, population movement and human evolution (see, for example, World Archaeological Bulletin 6, 1992). With the development of such techniques as DNA analysis scientists are now able to elicit even more information from human remains, even perhaps from the most ancient ones.

Although the potential of future research has been, and still is, a common argument put forward by scientists who wish to retain skeletal material, this argument has sometimes been undermined. For example, evidence from the analysis of a large number of bodies from the crypt of Christ Church cemetery in Spitalfields, London, in the 1980s, whose age and date of death were known, raises significant questions about the reliability of standard – and hitherto presumed to be accurate – osteological techniques. Estimations of age at death using these techniques, for example, were found to be inaccurate when matched with the written records. This led some of the researchers on the project to conclude (Molleson et al. 1993: 213) that ‘The lesson from Christ Church must surely be that it is extremely dangerous to make assumptions about populations from skeletal samples’. Another example is the controversy (Sydney Morning Herald 05.05.01) among archaeologists and physical anthropologists regarding the date of Australia’s ‘most ancient skeleton’, Mungo Man, resulting from differing interpretations of DNA samples taken from the remains.

The history of the study of skeletal remains has produced many ‘truths’ which have been subsequently disproved, rejected or qualified. Yet what is held to be the primary reason for the retention of remains – their potential importance for future scientific research – is asserted without question. Those requesting the return of remains say that, in any case, scientists have had long enough to study them, and if they have not done so already – and in many cases collections have lain unused for decades – these remains should not suddenly be deemed crucial because of their possible use for future research.

Another argument frequently voiced against the return of human remains is that the study and curation of such items was not an issue among indigenous populations until their political organizations campaigning for reburial began to gain international publicity. This is refuted by Turnbull (Ch. 5), who considers that the scientists’ claim to moral ownership is at best tenuous. He presents documentation of a long history of concern and care for human remains among Australia’s indigenous people, which not only demonstrates their determination to prevent the desecration of burial sites and the removal of human remains and funerary objects, but also that this was widely recognized by the Europeans involved. Indeed, Turnbull (Ch. 5) reveals that in mid-nineteenth century colonial Australia, the British government legally recognized the right of indigenous people to own and control land when it was used for mortuary ceremonies. The British law of the land drew no distinction between the protection it gave to indigenous and to settler dead. Turnbull discusses the profound implications of the colonial British recognition of Aboriginal burial sites and also draws attention to the central, and frequent, accounts about mortuary rites and ceremonies that have been ignored by the wider community, and which could be invaluable to those making decisions about repatriation today. So far, these have been very largely ignored.

The confrontation between indigenous people and scientists in the context of the reburial issue has frequently appeared in the media. Joyce (Ch. 8) suggests that ‘much discussion of the impact of repatriation has centred on a false polarity pitting native people against scientists, as if either category were a real unity’. Although the polarized views of many archaeologists and indigenous people have emerged strongly in the ‘reburial’ issue (and see Zimmerman Ch. 7), this book shows that neither group is an homogenized, undifferentiated whole, in which all share the same views.

The recent ongoing disputes between Australian Aborigines, Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples, and institutions such as the Natural History Museum in London, demonstrate that ‘ownership’ of human remains continues to be claimed by scientific institutions. However, Simpson (Ch. 15) is optimistic that many museum curators in Britain (though by no means all) are beginning to change their attitudes. Whether or not this is so, in 2000 the issue of the return of indigenous human remains entered the national political agenda in Britain. A joint Australian/UK Prime Ministerial statement was issued, agreeing ‘to increase efforts to repatriate human remains to Australian indigenous communities’.[6] A Parliamentary Select Committee was set up later that year (see Simpson Ch. 5), followed by a working group on human remains in March 2001. This movement of the reburial issue into national politics echoes a similar shift that occurred in Australia and the United States 10 to 15 years ago.

It is clear that it was not a change in the attitudes of academics which brought about widespread repatriation, but the intervention of politicians and the development of legislation, perhaps also aided by exposure in the media. It will be interesting to see whether a similar development occurs in the UK. As Anyon and Thornton (Ch. 14) note in their analysis of what can be learned from repatriation legislation in the USA: ‘to guarantee that repatriation will occur, and occur in a structured manner, it is essential that repatriation legislation be enacted. Relying purely on the goodwill of institutions or individuals to implement repatriation often promotes ineffective, inadequate, and arbitrary efforts’.

The development of legislation does not mean that the attitudes of specialists necessarily change. Nagar (Ch. 6), for example, records his own lack of agreement, as an archaeologist, with the recent (1994) reinterpretation of Israel’s Antiquities Law by the orthodox Jewish leadership in Israel. This law demands that all human remains that are uncovered, whatever their faith, must be immediately reburied. Thus in Israel every human remain is reburied, no matter what its cultural affiliation, to ensure that all bones that might possibly be of Jewish ancestry are reinterred. In this example, the identification of past cultural affiliation is not a pre-eminent criterion in deciding what to do with excavated remains. In other examples discussed in this book, identifying the origin of human remains is of crucial importance, and the question of how to deal with unprovenanced remains, or those whose cultural affiliation is unclear or contested, has emerged as one of the most difficult aspects of decisions about what to do with repatriated items.

The symbolic power of the return of human remains to a formerly oppressed people is vividly described by Thornton (Ch. 1), both in personal and historical terms. It is claimed that the return of human remains and important cultural objects from traumatic events of the past can begin to heal the wounds of the people as a group, and help them to come to terms with the past. The ability for repatriation to heal past wrongs is echoed by Sellevold (Ch. 4) (and see also Martinez Barbosa Ch. 16), who describes the first Saami reburial ceremony of two skulls as a ‘symbolic rectification of past and present oppression, both against the families of the deceased and against the Saami people by the Norwegian authorities’. Schanche (Ch. 3) describes the history of the exploitation of the Saami people, both dead and alive, who were perceived as static, doomed and ‘primitive’, and even as an ‘alien inland people’ who had moved westward, rather than as the indigenous inhabitants of Norway. Currently Saami representatives are negotiating the return of a large collection of skulls from the Institute of Anatomy in the University of Oslo (and see Ucko 2001 for further details of the factors involved in Saami claims).

The retention of human remains in museums, against the wishes of claimants, is frequently seen as a continuance of the attitudes and perceptions which oppressed indigenous groups throughout colonialism. Those in control of collections deny this accusation, and assert that they are not responsible for the actions of early collectors, even though they now curate items collected during the colonial period.

The reburial issue was brought into international archaeological focus at the first World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in 1986, where archaeologists were drawn into debate with indigenous participants – Native Americans, First Nation people from Canada, Indians from South America, Australian Aborigines, Inuit, and Saami people – about their claims for the return of the remains of their ancestors. This led WAC, in 1989, to draw up a position statement, the Vermillion Accord, which called for respect for the mortal remains of the dead, irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom and tradition, and for the wishes of the local community and relatives of the dead, as well as respect for the scientific research value of human remains. It also stipulated that agreement on the disposition of human remains should be reached by negotiation on the basis of mutual respect for the ‘legitimate concerns of communities, as well as the legitimate concerns of science and education’ (See Zimmerman Ch. 7, for the full text of the Accord). Zimmerman (Ch. 7) discusses the impact of the Accord, and suggests that it may even have been one of the factors that influenced the United States Congress to finally make decisions about how the federal government should treat human remains and funerary goods.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAI Act) are by far the most significant pieces of legislation developed so far regarding human remains and funerary goods, and their enactment in the early 1990s has proved a powerful influence far beyond the United States. Because of NAGPRA’s central importance, a number of chapters in this book are devoted to it, including its mandate (McKeown Ch. 9), implementation (Isaac Ch. 12; Ayau and Tengan Ch. 13; McManamon Ch. 10) and implications (Watkins Ch. 11; Joyce Ch. 8; Ayau and Tengan Ch.13; Anyon and Thornton Ch. 14; Thornton Ch. 1). McManamon (Ch.10) reports that in spite of concerns about adequate financial and staff resources and other various problems encountered, ‘thousands of government, museum and academic professionals in hundreds of museums and agency offices have been able to arrive at acceptable resolutions to hundreds of NAGPRA cases with thousands of Native Americans’.

Anyon and Thornton (Ch. 14) discuss NAGPRA’s ramifications, while Joyce (Ch. 8) examines the relationships which emerge from it regarding concepts of academic freedom.

Isaac (Ch. 12) presents a case study of the problems encountered, as a result of NAGPRA, by museums that contain very large collections. Thus the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, because of a lack of financial resources, has found it difficult to meet the imposed deadlines for summaries and inventories. Only recently has the museum found the money to improve the situation. The process of repatriation is considerably slowed up by the fact that there are vast quantities of previously uninventoried human remains and funerary objects in the PMAE. This unprofessional state of affairs is evident in other museums as well. For example, the Natural History Museum in London is only now beginning to catalogue its large and very long-standing collection of indigenous material. This situation severely undermines claims that the material is held by museums because it is a source of important information for use by researchers.

The process of repatriation from the PMAE is also delayed because disagreements may arise between Native American groups about which of them are more closely affiliated to specific human remains or objects. As noted above, there is also controversy regarding the disposition of unaffiliated human remains and associated funerary goods. Some Native American groups consider that unprovenanced or poorly provenanced material should be reburied in the general area of origin, whereas others would prefer that the remains are retained by the museum. This situation is also found in other countries. In Australia, for example, Hanchant (Ch. 27) persuaded her family to keep (what was assumed to be) their relative’s skull in the South Australia Museum until she had conducted further archival research to try and locate the related post-cranial material. The skull proved not to be that of her relative, and was therefore no longer claimed by her family.

This highlights a number of important points: first, museum records cannot always be relied on for their accuracy; second, the repatriation process requires detailed archival research to determine or validate provenance; third, relatives may, in some instances, choose to keep remains (temporarily or permanently) in museums; and fourth, the return of human remains may not always result in harmony within the group receiving them, but dissension.

Hanchant (Ch. 27) recommends that remains whose cultural affiliation is unknown be kept in a National Keeping Place until decisions about their disposition are made – by Aborigines. She suggests that wide consultation would be required to establish agreement between groups who may in fact have very different ideas about what should happen to the remains. As McKeown (Ch. 9) describes, in the USA the NAGPRA Review Committee considers matters regarding items with little or no associated cultural affiliation information. Their role is potentially highly important since, as Watkins suggests (Ch. 11), in instances where cultural affiliation is unclear or contested, museums may play one tribe against another, and in this way retain control over grave goods and cultural artefacts.

As reflected in a number of chapters, when cultural affiliation is unclear the question of who should have authority to determine what should happen to returned material, and the decision making process which takes place to make such a determination, is of vital concern. It is not only lack of provenance information which can lead to uncertainty as to cultural affiliation of remains, but this also may occur when remains are uncovered in an area where the modern community has no apparent biological or cultural connection to them. For example, in South Africa, Fish (Ch. 22) describes a fifteenth century archaeological site which, from archaeological evidence, appears to relate to pre-Venda, Sotho-speaking peoples, whereas the contemporary community is almost entirely Venda. This community did not wish to claim the remains, and this, as well as the fear that that traditional healers might dig up the remains in order to extract medicinal substances from them, contributed to a decision to take the remains to the Anatomy Department of the University of Pretoria.

Another excavation in South Africa, at Thulamela, led to initial disagreement between two different local groups because of the alleged lack of clear cultural continuity of the site to modern communities (see Nemaheni Ch. 21). Because of this uncertainty, when the remains of two bodies were found at the site, problems arose about who should rebury them. Neither group wanted to be ‘associated with the dead’, and also no one wanted to be seen to be associated with ‘other people’s ancestors’. After debate, the reburial went ahead, although those who undertook the ceremony were later criticized for erecting Christian crosses on the graves. As Nemaheni describes, the challenges made explicit by the Thulamela reburial have informed more recent projects which have, consequently, been less problematic.

The first reburial, in any cultural group, is by definition a totally new experience. Decisions have to be made about what rituals are the appropriate ones to carry out. Thus new traditions are developed. For some, being given the responsibility to carry out a reburial involves intense training in traditional values. Ayau and Tengan (Ch. 13) describe the difficulties that young Native Hawaiians had learning the necessary cultural protocols from the Elders for carrying out their first reburial ‘due to our weakness in speaking our native language and understanding traditional values and practices as a result of our Western upbringing’, and, for some, the added difficulty of reconciling this training with their Christian values.

Even if the provenance of remains is known there may be other problems when the remains are returned. As Fforde (Ch. 18) describes, the reburial of Yagan’s skull has been delayed while archaeologists, on behalf of Aborigines, try to locate the exact position of his post-cranial remains, buried in an unmarked grave following his murder in 1833.

Decisions about what should be done with repatriated human remains and grave-goods when they are returned may not be straightforward. Failure to immediately rebury remains may evoke criticism, and the suggestion that such delays reflect indifference to ancestors, and demonstrates an overwhelming political agenda. However, as Ucko (2001: 231) points out: ‘It is too easy for those opposing the repatriation of human remains to ignore the need for lengthy considerations of the appropriate way to handle the new situation which has created unprovenanced mixtures of ancestral remains’.

Whatever the political contexts of repatriation demands may be, and however complex the issues involved, there can be no doubt about the depth of feeling involved in such demands. This aspect of the reburial debate is well represented in this book, and to many of the people concerned this is indeed the most fundamental of issues. Some chapters are short, heartfelt appeals for the return of the remains of a significant leader of the past.

One of these is Engelbrecht (Ch. 19), who writes from the perspective of those people in South Africa descended from the Khoisan and Griqua people, who were classified as ‘Coloureds’ by the apartheid regime. They have claimed the remains of a Griqua chief, Cornelis Kok II, who is seen as part of a heritage denied to them by apartheid policies – ‘we want to return to our roots’. The repatriation of Kok’s remains must, he states, be under Griqua control, and the necessary funding supplied, as the group demands that they should no longer be ‘neglected and excluded in major decisions and budgets that will heal our people’. Thus in this case there are two linked, but different, agenda. The demand for the return of human remains is one component of a demand for recognition, and a degree of autonomy. It also represents the re-emergence of an ‘ethnic group’ which had been submerged by group ethnicities prescribed by the Apartheid regime.

Martinez Barbosa (Ch. 6) also describes a claim for the return of a named individual, a Uruguayan Charruas leader, who died while being exhibited in a circus in France, and whose remains are held by the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Like Engelbrecht, he sees the return of this former leader as ‘an historic expression of justice for a dispossessed people… [which would recognize] the identity of indigenous descendants as part of their own heritage, despite their minority status’.

Walter Palm Island (Ch.17) reports on the return of the remains of his great great uncle Tambo, a Manbarra man from Palm Island, Australia, who had been taken to the USA, also to be exhibited in a circus. He describes how this repatriation gave the young people on Palm Island a sense of identity – Tambo ‘has become an ancestor for all the Palm Island people, not only the Manbarra’. In this case, Tambo’s return appears to have established a new cultural identity and cohesion for a heterogeneous people who had not all originated from Palm Island – the island had been a penal settlement in which ‘Aborigines of different tribal cultures and customs…were thrown together’ (Rosser 1994: ). The cultural cohesion brought about by Tambo’s return, at least temporarily, was even more poignant because those who had been sent to Palm Island had been forbidden by law to carry out any of their own cultural practices or ceremonies (Rosser 1994; see also Fforde 1997).

The struggle to repatriate the body of a stuffed ‘bushman’ (popularly known as ‘El Negro’) exhibited in a Spanish museum also raises many issues (and see Jaume et al. 1992) such as how peoples are represented, how human remains are perceived, and how the identity of individuals can be appropriated (and these issues are clearly intertwined). Identified simply as ‘El Negro’, his body appears to have been displayed, without any explanatory label, in order to represent the ‘African race’. The display also conveyed multiple implicit messages about how Africans were viewed by the society that made his body an exhibit, not least perceptions of ‘primitiveness’, ‘savagery’ and ‘inferiority’.

In the days prior to his return, the Spanish authorities reduced the body of El Negro to skeletal remains. This act of desecration removed the final vestiges of his human form, and may have been intended to confirm his status as ‘object’. Arriving in Botswana as bare bones in a small box, his identity as El Negro was then in doubt.

Despite criticism that he should have been reinterred in his place of origin, the Botswana government buried him in the Tsholofelo Park, Gaborone. His burial place has become a national monument, his identity now appropriated by Botswana as a national symbol (Parsons and Segobye Ch. 20).

Ayau and Tengan (Ch. 13) narrate the struggle, or ‘journey’, to repatriate Native Hawaiian human remains and grave goods under the auspices of the NAGPRA process. They describe the repercussions of this struggle in terms of the strengthening of cultural values, and the heightening of awareness of the damage wreaked by colonization: ‘The disturbance of our burials is intimately tied to colonization – the complicated processes by which Euro-Americans appropriated our lands, exploited our resources, disenfranchised our people and transformed the very way we think about who we are’. For Ayau and Tengan, repatriation and reburial are the means to re-establish harmony between the living and the dead, and the land, and to restore mana to Native Hawaiians.

From these accounts there is no doubt of the immense spiritual and material significance of these remains and objects. Repatriation from this perspective is not only a question of regaining ownership of property, though possession and control are fundamental requirements, it is also seen as a process towards the recreation of the wholeness of the people receiving the remains of their ancestors.

Although members of a community may be united in their desire to have the human remains and grave goods of their ancestors returned, there may be disagreement among them about what happens when they are. Among the Native Hawaiian people who have struggled to get their human remains returned (Ayau and Tengan Ch. 13) there are serious ongoing disagreements over the disposition of some grave goods (though not the human remains, which all are agreed should be buried). Some groups opposed the burial of these funerary objects, arguing that they should be preserved for future generations. Those who rebury them consider that the wishes of the ancestors and traditional values necessitated this. It seems that those who oppose the reburial of grave goods are concerned more with the preservation of cultural markers for the future and less with conforming to traditional ways of managing these objects.

The Hawaiian example serves to demonstrate that communities may differ in what they feel should be done with significant items of cultural property. Similarly, Watkins (Ch. 11) describes an example where two separate groups could lay claim to funerary objects from the Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, USA, one considering that repatriated grave goods, although sacred, should be ‘proudly displayed’, and the other that grave goods should be buried ‘away from the sight of individuals who had no right to view them’.

In New Zealand, claims of ownership of cultural objects have resulted in successful partnerships between Maori groups and museums. Some traditionally oriented Maoris working with museums are rejecting ‘repatriation’ in favour of the establishment of museum Maori advisory groups, which are involved in the decision-making process regarding the trusteeship and resource management of Maori cultural objects (Kawharu Ch. 25; Tapsell Ch. 24). Tapsell (Ch. 24) suggests that such claimants may be attempting to ‘redefine [ancestral treasures] and human remains as pan-Maori identity markers’ in order to gain ‘wider access to Crown controlled resources’.

Aird (Ch. 26) describes the loan (not return) of cultural objects by the Museum of Queensland to Australian Aboriginal groups who can demonstrate that they are culturally affiliated to the objects. He sees this loan as a form of repatriation, an example of ‘cultural knowledge’ being returned to the community. As a museum curator, he also sees it as an opportunity to build a relationship between Aboriginal groups and the museum. It also illustrates that the reburial issue is at times one process through which the ‘divide’ between indigenous people and museums can be bridged to the mutual benefit of all those involved.

Endere (Ch. 23) raises important issues regarding the disposition of repatriated remains in relation to concepts of identity, in particular the nature of ethnicity and indigeneity within the nation-state. In 1990 the remains of a Ranquel chief, Mariano Rosas, were released for repatriation by the La Plata Museum, Argentina. The Secretary of Culture of La Pampa decided to build a monument in the capital city of La Pampas, to house Rosas’ remains, as well as the remains of chiefs from other indigenous groups. This was to ensure that the nation’s history would appear more pluralist: ‘we are trying to rescue the Pampean identity and the indigenous peoples are part of this identity’ (Endere Ch. 23). However, the Ranquel people contested this attempt to appropriate the identity of their chief, saying that his resting-place should not be a monument for tourists: ‘our ancestors should lie in peace in their own land’. In contrast, a small sign outside the mausoleum containing the returned remains of another Argentinean chief, Inakayal, ‘welcomes’ visitors, although it is not known whether it attracts tourists (see Endere Ch. 23, Fig. 23.6). Significantly, the mausoleum is not located in a capital city but in the open country, close to the area where Inakayal lived.

Issues of identity permeate the whole concept of repatriation. Individual cultural groups may oppose the merging of their identity with other cultural groups whom they regard as distinct from themselves, but where there has been comparatively recent oppression and destruction of a nation’s indigenous population, there will, perhaps inevitably, be a perceived need to create a pan-indigenous identity within a national population. As Fforde (Ch. 2) writes, ‘the perception and construction of Aboriginal identity play a significant role in both repatriation requests and argument put forward by those who have opposed them’. Repatriation can ‘not only articulate, strengthen and construct local Aboriginal identity but Aboriginality as a pan-Australian commonality’. Thus repatriation can create a ‘commonality’ between cultural groups that did not exist in pre-colonial times, but has become relevant and necessary in the face of the legacy of colonialism. The process can change the cultural identity of a group, and the way that members of the group see themselves (and see Ucko 2000).

This book clearly shows that although repatriation of human remains has become policy in many places, there continues to be a great divide, at least in some parts of the world, between those who excavate them, curate them in museums, and draw up legislation about them, and those whose ancestors they are believed to be, to whom they are being repatriated. This is demonstrated by the way that different interest groups talk about human remains; thus, for example, Walter Palm Island (Ch. 17), when his ancestor, Tambo, came home, said that a Nyawaygi speaker was needed ‘because it was crucial to be able to address Tambo’s spirit in a language he would understand – to identify us as people from his own region, to tell him that he was being brought home’. All the indigenous accounts of repatriation and reburial reflect the perception of the remains of their ancestors as ‘living’ people – even if only a skull or other scant remains have come back to them. This contrasts with the language of scientists and museum curators, which articulates the perception that remains are objects, labelled and classified components of a collection, and of the lawyers, who write about them as objects of negotiation.

However, the contrast in language and approach between cultural groups and those who study and curate human remains is not impermeable, and the scientific approach to remains is not always consistent with the view that human remains are primarily data. Named individuals, or those who have known descendants, are frequently the first ‘types’ of remains to be returned by institutions (in countries where repatriation legislation for all human remains does not exist). There is no scientific basis for this distinction (and see Pardoe 1991). It may be that those in charge of museums in fact agree with the indigenous perception of named remains as ‘dead people’, and thus believe that burial is an appropriate course of action. On the other hand, refusal to return ‘anonymous’ bones implies that unnamed remains are not similarly considered, despite cultural beliefs that state otherwise. It may be that the anonymity of remains-as-data is central to their positioning as ‘objects’.

Significantly, modern DNA analysis now appears to have the capacity to identify the modern relatives of ancient remains. When DNA analysis of the 5,000 year old ‘Iceman’, a frozen body recovered from the Italian Alps in 1991, identified a living relative, Marie Moseley, the scientist responsible for this discovery, Professor Bryan Sykes (Institute of Molecular Medicine, Oxford University) noted that (The Sunday Times 20.5.2001):

Marie began to feel something for the Iceman. She had seen pictures of him being shunted around from glacier to freezer to post-mortem room, poked and prodded, opened up, bits cut off. To her, he was no longer the anonymous curiosity whose picture had appeared in the papers and on television. She had started to think of him as a real person and as a relative, which is exactly what he was.
The Iceman’s anonymity was eroded, for Moseley, by the authority of science, which ‘proved’ that he was her distant ancestor. For indigenous groups claiming ancient remains as their ancestors, the authority lies in cultural beliefs.

The decisions that are taken by museums about which human remains should be returned appear to be determined more by how the dominant society defines what (or who) constitutes ‘the dead’ than by the needs of science. The wishes of indigenous groups are certainly not of primary concern, as many requests make no distinction between named or unknown individuals, post-colonial remains or fossils.

In fact, not all museums distinguish between named and unnamed individuals. The University of Edinburgh, UK has agreed to return all the remains in its collection ‘when so requested, to appropriate representatives of cultures in which such remains had particular significance’. On the other hand, the Museé de l’Homme in Paris does not allow the return of named individuals, such as Sara Baartman to South Africa, (Skotnes 1996) or Vaimaca Pirú to Uruguay (Martinez Barbosa Ch. 16).

Perhaps it is the nature of the study of human remains itself that requires something similar to ‘medical detachment’ which produces an attitude towards the human body, whether alive or dead, that appears to differ from that held by society at large. Judging by the public support for repatriation (see Simpson Ch. 15), and the outrage that follows desecration of the bodies of their own dead (see below) and of graveyards (Hubert 1989), the wider society generally appears to have respect for the dead, and acknowledges the right of relatives to accord them appropriate treatment.

Such ‘medical detachment’ would perhaps explain why early scientists with close indigenous friends felt able to deflesh their bones as soon as they died, and incorporate them into museum collections (see Endere Ch. 23) or take their organs for research purposes (e.g. Miklouho-Maclay 1982:127-31). In such cases the interests of science appear to have been paramount, overriding any feeling of affection, or fulfilment of the responsibility to carry out funerary rituals and dispose of the body according to cultural expectations.

Since the chapters in this book were drawn together, the complexity and inconsistencies of perceptions and attitudes have exploded into the consciousness of the British public. A scandal has erupted about the treatment of the bodies of their own dead, and the removal and retention of human organs in British hospitals without the knowledge and permission of relatives. A Government inquiry (Department of Health 2000) reports that over 54,000 organs, body parts, still-births or foetuses had been retained from post-mortems by NHS pathology services, many without fully informed consent.

Until this scandal arose, it was generally assumed that the bodies of the dead were treated with respect by doctors and those staff whose responsibility it was to care for them between the moment of death, and their return to relatives for disposal through burial or cremation. Furthermore, central to this assumption is the belief that it is the relatives who should make decisions about what happens to the dead. Now it appears that, without consent, many bodies, including those of babies, have been stripped of their organs, which have then been kept in jars, stored in cupboards or in some cases sold. In Alder Hey hospital, in Cambridge, for example, some 3000 organs of dead babies are alleged to be stored without parents’ knowledge. In cases such as these the ‘body’ that parents had buried and mourned was, to all intents and purposes, simply an ‘empty shell’. Since this was discovered, some parents have felt the need to carry out two or three subsequent burials of body parts which were later returned to them, such as the hearts, lungs and brain of their child, in the original grave, with funerary rituals. On the face of it this desire to bury the remains of a relative appears to echo the responses of indigenous people, who have for many years been trying to take home the various human remains of their own dead, to dispose of them with due rituals. Until now, it was not envisaged that parents in Britain would find themselves in a position of having to bury different body parts on separate occasions. Just as for colonized peoples, who are successful in securing the return of human remains, this is a new situation that has arisen, necessitating the creation of new ceremonies and rituals, to encompass these subsequent burials of body parts.

Another example in Britain concerns the families bereaved by the sinking of the Marchioness pleasure boat in the Thames in 1989. Relatives have recently learned that, in addition to the hands of many of the victims being chopped off ‘for identification’, all the bodies were stripped of their organs – lungs, brains, livers, kidneys, hearts, spleens, tonsils and other organs, without the relatives’ consent. Some bodies were returned to their families in sealed body-bags (Independent on Sunday, 11.03.01).

These recent events in Britain demonstrate that the contrast between the treatment of the human remains of ‘others’ – kept for possible future evolutionary and other research purposes – and the supposedly humane treatment of the bodies of the dead in British contemporary culture, is less clear cut than was thought before. In some cases doctors and hospitals appear to have been paying only lip service to what the public believes to be appropriate respect for the dead, their wishes, and the wishes of their relatives. These practices, accepted as normal among at least some doctors and scientists, may reveal that some look upon patients and their relatives as ‘other’ – that there is an established culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which permits such disregard for what is considered ethical practice.

Whether or not the circumstances and contexts of attitudes to the disposal of the dead are similar, the same, or different, it is to be hoped that the horror and disgust of the British public to the revelation that parts of bodies have been separated, without permission, from the whole dead person, will lead to a greater understanding of attempts by indigenous people to repatriate the human remains of their relatives.

The chapters in this book, from a wide range of different geographical areas and cultural groups, demonstrate that social meanings are inextricable from perceptions of the human body, in life and in death. Those who curate and study human remains, against the wishes of those who seek their repatriation, may seek to deny, ignore or devalue these social meanings. A perceived duty to retain collections inherited from the past – by definition ‘objects’ to be curated – has often overridden social and cultural meanings. The reburial issue, however, as illustrated throughout this book, has demanded that social and cultural values are acknowledged and responded to. During the past two decades this has gained sufficient strength to change the very nature of museums and what they were originally created to do.

In some countries the acceptance of cultural beliefs and values, and a desire to right the wrongs of the past, has resulted in repatriation legislation. In other countries this is only now being developed, and in yet others the repatriation debate is still in its early stages. This book documents these developments from a range of perspectives, bringing together the voices of indigenous peoples, archaeologists, museum curators and others concerned with the principles, policies and practice of the reburial issue throughout the world.


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We are very grateful to Peter Ucko for his comprehensive and constructive comments on the various drafts of this Introduction.


1. What is an Animal?, T. Ingold (ed.)

2. The Walking Larder: Patterns of domestication, pastoralism and predation, J. Clutton-Brock (ed.)

3. Domination and Resistance, D. Miller, M. J. Rowlands and C. Tilley (eds)

4. State and Society: The emergence and development of social hierarchy and political centralization, J. Gledhill, B. Bender and M. T. Larsen (eds)

5. Who Needs the Past? Indigenous values and archaeology, R. Layton (ed.)

6. The Meaning of Things: Material culture and symbolic expression, I. Hodder (ed.)

7. Animals into Art, H. Morphy (ed.)

8. Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions, R. Layton (ed.)

9. Archaeological Heritage Management in the Modern World, H. F. Cleere (ed.)

10. Archaeological Approaches to Cultural Identity, S. J. Shennan (ed.)

11. Centre and Periphery: Comparative studies in archaeology, T.C. Champion (ed.)

12. The Politics of the Past, P. Gathercole and D. Lowenthal (eds)

13. Foraging and Farming: The evolution of plant exploitation, D. R. Harris and G. C. Hillman (eds)

14. What’s New? A closer look at the process of innovation, S. E. van der Leeuw and R. Torrence (eds)

15. Hunters of the Recent Past, L. B. Davis and B.O. K. Reeves (eds)

16. Signifying Animals: Human meaning in the natural world, R. G. Willis (ed.)

17. The Excluded Past: Archaeology in education, P. G. Stone and R. MacKenzie (eds)

18. From the Baltic to the Black Sea: Studies in medieval archaeology, D. Austin and L. Alcock (eds)

19. The Origins of Human Behaviour, R. A. Foley (ed.)

20. The Archaeology of Africa: Food, metals and towns, T. Shaw, P. Sinclair, B. Andah and A. Okpoko (eds)

21. Archaeology and the Information Age: A global perspective, P. Reilly and S. Rahtz (eds)

22. Tropical Archaeobotany: Applications and developments, J. G. Hather (ed.)

23. Sacred, Sites, Sacred Places, D. L. Carmichael, J. Hubert, B. Reeves and A. Schanche (eds)

24. Social Construction of the Past: Representation as power,
G. C. Bond and A. Gilliam (eds)

25. The Presented Past: Heritage, museums and education,
P. G. Stone and B. L. Molyneaux (eds)

26. Time, Process and Structural Transformation in Archaeology, S. E. van der Leeuw and J. McGlade (eds)

27. Archaeology and Language I: Theoretical and methodological orientations, R. Blench and M. Spriggs (eds)

28. Early Human Behaviour in the Global Context, M. Petraglia and R. Korisettar (eds)

29. Archaeology and Language II: Archaeological data and linguistic hypotheses, R. Blench and M. Spriggs (eds)

30. Archaeology and Anthropology of Landscape: Shaping your landscape, P. J. Ucko and R. Layton (eds)

31. The Prehistory of Food: Appetites for change, C. Gosden and J. G. Hather (eds)

32. Historical Archaeology: Back from the edge, P. P. A. Funari, M. Hall and S. Jones (eds)

33. Cultural Resource Management in Contemporary Society: Perspectives on managing and presenting the past, F. P. MacManamon and A. Hatton (eds)

34. Archaeology and Language III: Artefacts, languages and texts,
R. Blench and M. Spriggs (eds)

35. Archaeology and Language IV: Language change and cultural transformation, R. Blench and M. Spriggs (eds)

36. The Constructed Past: Experimental archaeology, education and the public, P. G. Stone and P. Planel (eds)

37. Time and Archaeology, T. Murray (ed.)

38. The Archaeology of Difference: Negotiating cross-cultural engagements in Oceania, R. Torrence and A. Clarke (eds)

39. The Archaeology of Drylands: Living at the margin, G. Barker and D. Gilbertson (eds)

40. Madness, Disability & Social Exclusion: The archaeology & anthropology of ‘difference’, J. Hubert (ed.)

41. Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Property, R. Layton, P. G. Stone and J. Thomas (eds)

42. Illicit Antiquities: The theft of culture and the extinction of archaeology, N. Brodle and K. Walker Tubb (eds)

43. The Dead and the Possessions: repatriation in principle, policy and practice, C. Fforde, J. Hubert and P. Turnbull (eds)

44. Material Culture: The Archaeology of 20th Century conflict, J. Scholfield. W. G. Johnson and C. M. Beck (eds)

45. Natural Disasters and Cultural Change, R. Torrence and J. Grattan (eds)

[1] Independent researcher with honorary post at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London.

[2] Senior Research Fellow and Honorary Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychiatry of Disability at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London.

[3] Associate Professor of History, School of Humanities,

James Cook University, Townsville, Australia

[4] The term ‘reburial’ is commonly used in the debate regarding the return of human remains to countries or cultures of origin and is therefore used throughout this book. However, it should be noted that cultural practices relating to disposal of the dead often do not include burial at all (see Turnbull Ch. 5), and human remains may have been initially collected before they underwent any funerary rites (e.g. see Fforde Ch. 2 and Palm Island Ch. 17).

[5] Memorandum submitted by the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA) to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee: Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade 2000.

[6] 10 Downing Street Press Notice July 2000.