‘Human Remains’, Or: Dignity, communal value and the construction of ‘ancestry’

I was pleasantly surprised to read an article in one of the recent newsletters from the UK Museums Association about a database of ancient ‘human remains’ collated by an organisation called Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD).


I appreciated the reference in the article to HAD’s challenge to the term ‘human remains’. According to this challenge, the term removes acknowledgement of the fact that all human tissue belongs/belonged to an actual person. HAD argues that consequently, the physical remains of these individuals deserve to be treated with respect, and it is on this point that they have been engaging with museums since their foundation in 2004.

It is laudable that the British Museums Association, and apparently the wider sector judging from participation in the database, are reflecting on a position that comes not only from outside the sector itself, but arguably from the margins of mainstream society.

Communal Value

HAD, according to their statement of intent, are primarily concerned with the ‘tangible evidence’ of ‘ancient and historical pagan culture’ exhumed in the British Isles and kept in the collections of British Museums. Their call for respecting the dignity of the individuals whose remains have been exhumed also includes a section on the present-day people to whom this matters: local communities with strong roots to the geographical area in question as well as modern Pagans in general who believe ‘ancestors’ and landscape to be sacred.

Needless to say, I think it is absolutely right that HAD highlight these sentiments and that the British museum sector apparently takes them serious. We’ve actually had these conversations about the ethics of displaying ‘human remains’ for long enough. Already in 2013 I blogged about this after a visit to the then new display at the Mary Rose Museum.

Also, I am really pleased to see in action the acceptance of the concept of heritage as defined by the values of (heritage) communities. People to whom a so-called artifact has meaning in their everyday experience of life are being heard and their views are taken into consideration when making decisions about displaying, storing and caring for these ‘artifacts’. That’s great.

The Construction of Ancestry

There was, however, one aspect in the newsletter article that made me pause. HAD actually use the term ‘ancestor’ instead of ‘human remains’, which combined with the editorial definition of ‘ancestor’ as ‘people who may be ancient relatives of Britain’s modern-day population’ had an unpleasant ring in my diversity-loving ears.

To make a genetic connection between the population of Britain today and the individuals with whose remains we are concerned here immediately excludes quite a large segment of that very population. Those who have arrived in the British Isles more recently will likely feel their connection to these ‘ancient dead’ forcibly loosened, if not cut altogether.

This is of course a stance that some people may wish to take. However, when we’re thinking about heritage as a future-making process, particularly in a Third Space, then it is not a very helpful notion.

To my delight, I found that HAD themselves actually understand ‘ancestor’ differently, as already hinted above. They emphasise instead a connection to the ancestor through the landscape(s) that people share with them in the present. In other words, it is lived experience, not DNA, that matters.

In many of our recent projects in my current organisation, it was exactly this sense of landscape as a connective element within a diverse society that emerged strongly. It has made me think that this framing of ‘heritage connection through landscape’ and of heritage ‘in’ instead of ‘of’ a country [1] has much more scope for negotiating new joint heritages than a narrow focus on pre-existing and separate cultural traditions that somehow come together.

What do you think? Do you know of studies that explore this further?


[1] I never fail to mention in this context the inclusive approach that Scotland took to collating their inventory of intangible cultural heritage. They did not seek the intangible cultural heritage of Scotland, but across Scotland, thus seeking to ‘[respect] the diversity of Scotland’s communities‘. This was in 2011 (!).


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