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Abstract Towards a binding code of ethics for the conservation

This paper underlines the need for a and display of human remains
binding international code of ethics for
the conservation and display of human
remains. It briefly surveys the most Maria Mertzani
important codes, guidelines and Greek Ministry of Culture
legislation for the care of human 3rd Ephoria of Classical and Prehistoric Antiquities
remains up to the present. It Aeolou 1 & Pelopida str.
recognizes the need to broaden the GR-105 55 Athens
term “human remains” and to adopt a Greece
holistic approach to burial as a cultural E-mail:
praxis. Research, conservation and
display policies and ethics are discussed, Ekaterini Malea, Nikolaos Maniatis and Georgios Panagiaris*
in order to illustrate the need for Technological Educational Institute of Athens
minimal regulation of these issues. Department of Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art
The diversity of legislation and culture Ag. Spyridonos & Pallikaridi str.
between countries and groups is GR-122 10 Aegaleo, Athens
recognized. Proposals for the Greece
development of a generally accepted E-mail:;;
statutory document include the
formation of a committee after *Author for correspondence
exhaustive study of all written work
and international legislation as well as
in-depth discussion with all involved Keywords
bodies. Most importantly, the required human remains, ethical issues, legislation, conservation, display
level of competence for all scientists
working with human remains, as well
as the minimum standards of International codes of ethics and relevant legislation
laboratories, should be clearly defined.
According to the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums (ICOM 2006),
museums are responsible for the tangible and intangible natural and cultural
Résumé heritage. Collections of human remains and material of sacred significance
Cet article souligne le besoin de should be acquired only if they can be housed securely and cared for
disposer d’un code de déontologie respectfully. Their research and display must be accomplished in a manner
international contraignant pour la consistent with professional standards and take into account the interests and
conservation-restauration et beliefs of the community, ethnic or religious groups from whom the objects
l’exposition des restes humains. Il fait originated. Finally, they must be presented with great tact and respect for the
un bref survol des lois, des lignes feelings of human dignity held by all peoples.
directrices et des codes les plus The first and major reason for guidelines or legislation seems to be respect
importants pour la préservation des for indigenous people and the repatriation of human remains as well as
restes humains existants à ce jour. Il funerary and sacred objects. In Australia and the U.S. repatriation legislation
reconnaît le besoin d’élargir le sens du was developed. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation
terme “restes humains” et d’adopter
Act (NAGPRA 1990) gives the right to federally recognized tribes to request
une approche holistique vis-à-vis de
l’inhumation en tant que pratique objects of cultural patrimony from any institution or State or local
culturelle. Les politiques et la government agency that has possession of, or control over, human remains or
déontologie de la recherche, de la cultural items and receives federal funds. The law fails to recognize the rights
conservation-restauration et de of the many people of Native American descent who lack any tribal
l’exposition sont discutées afin affiliation, or whose tribe is not federally recognized (Walker 2000). In
d’illustrer la nécessité d’une Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act
réglementation minimale de ces (ATSIHP 1984) regulates the protection and repatriation of cultural heritage
questions. La diversité des cultures et and human remains of Australian indigenous peoples. It was reviewed in
des lois entre les pays et les groupes est 1996 (Review of the ATSIHP 1984, 1996) and amended in 2005 (ATSIHP
reconnue. Les propositions pour Amendment Bill 2005). Finally, in 2006 the Aboriginal Heritage Act was
l’élaboration d’un document statutaire voted, aiming to protect the cultural property of Victoria Aboriginals.
globalement accepté incluent la
The World Archaeological Congress in 1989 (Vermillion Accord 1989),
formation d’un comité, suite à une
étude exhaustive de tout travail écrit et
1990 (First Code of Ethics 1990), 1994 (Code of Ethics for the Amazon
toute législation internationale, ainsi Forest Peoples 1994) and 2006 (The Tamaki Makau-rau Accord 2006)
qu’une discussion approfondie avec adopted a series of codes of ethics on human remains of indigenous peoples
tous les organismes concernés. Chose and their display. The principles acknowledge the need to respect the mortal
primordiale, le niveau de compétence remains of the dead irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom
requis pour tous les scientifiques and tradition and recognize that their display is a sensitive issue. Most
oeuvrant avec les restes humains, ainsi importantly, the First Code of Ethics, in 1990, acknowledges, “that the
VOL I Legal issues in conservation 365

que les normes minimales des important relationship between indigenous peoples and their cultural heritage
laboratoires, doivent être clairement exists irrespective of legal ownership”.
définis. The UK Ministry of Culture through the Department for Culture Media
and Sport set up a working group to examine the status of human remains
Synopsis within the collections of publicly funded museums and galleries in the U.K.
and to consider legislative changes in this area. A document titled “Guidance
Este artículo subraya la necesidad de un for the Care of Human Remains in Museums” was issued in 2006 (DSMS
código ético internacional y vinculante 2005). This guidance represents recommended best practice, and although it is
para la conservación y exhibición de los
not statutory, refers to acts that do place statutory obligations on museums. It
restos humanos. Analiza brevemente
los códigos, directrices y leyes más is divided into three parts, giving the legal and ethical framework for the
importantes sobre el cuidado de los treatment of human remains, dealing with the curation, care and use of
restos humanos. Reconoce la necesidad remains and finally, providing a framework for handling claims for their
de ampliar el término “restos return. Five ethical principles are designed to guide museum policies: non-
humanos” y de adoptar un enfoque maleficence, respect for diversity of belief, respect for the value of science,
holístico para considerar el solidarity and beneficence.
enterramiento como una práctica Earlier in the U.K., there were guidelines for the treatment of archaeological
cultural. Se tratan la investigación, la human remains in Scotland (Historic Scotland 1997) and the Republic of
conservación y las políticas y ética de Ireland (O’Sullivan et al. 2000). A Human Remains Working Group was
exhibición, con el fin de ilustrar la convened jointly by English Heritage and the Church of England in order to
necesidad de una regulación mínima de
assess human remains issues. The group issued a document in 2005 titled
estas cuestiones. Se admite la
diversidad de leyes y de culturas “Guidance for best practice for treatment of human remains excavated from
existentes entre los países y los grupos. Christian burial grounds in England” (English Heritage and the Church of
Las propuestas para el desarrollo de un England 2005). It is a thorough document covering practical, ethical and
reglamento, que sea generalizadamente theological issues. It aims to provide comprehensive guidelines for the
aceptado, incluyen la formación de un treatment of human remains and associated artifacts at all phases of
comité tras un estudio exhaustivo de archaeological fieldwork. The principal assumptions were that human remains
todo el trabajo escrito y de la legislación are important sources of scientific information, they should be treated with
internacional, así como un debate dignity and respect, and burials should not be disturbed without good reason.
profundo con todas las partes It recognizes the wider implications posed by excavated human burials from
implicadas. Sería fundamental definir a range of contexts (not only from Christian burial grounds). It is also
con claridad el nivel de competencia
recommended that all institutions holding human remains should be licensed.
requerido a todos los científicos que
trabajan con restos humanos, así como
las estándares mínimos que deben Human remains as part of our natural and cultural heritage
cumplir los laboratorios.
Although tangible, human remains carry strong intangible values and highly
charged meanings for a variety of different psychological, political, social and
religious reasons.
According to the DCMS Code of Practice Guidance for the Care of
Human Remains in Museums (2006) and the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act (1990), the term “human remains” is used to
describe the body and part of the body of a once living person from the
species Homo sapiens (defined as individuals who fall within the range of
anatomical forms known today and in the recent past). It includes osteological
and odontological material, hair, ashes or mummified or otherwise preserved
soft tissues (internal and external organs), embryos and slide preparation of
human tissues. They form part of archaeological, historic, forensic and
religious collections.
Human remains also include any of the above that may have been
modified in some way by human skill and/or may be bound up with other
non-human materials to form an artifact composed of several materials. They
also include artworks composed of human bodily fluids and soft tissue.
The study of human remains as defined above, can offer an important
source of direct evidence on human evolution, variation, growth, adaptability,
palaeodietry, population dynamic, palaeodemography, palaeopathology.
However, research into human remains and their context can also provide
information on cultural and spiritual issues such as different approaches to
medical treatments, to death, to burial practices and belief systems. For this
purpose, a holistic approach of the burial as a cultural praxis is required. It is
imperative to abandon practices of the past, which separated human remains
from other associated grave materials and their original cultural intent. A

broader term and practice should generally be accepted and used to describe
the undivided nature of a burial, in order to respect the value of each
individual element and to maximize the engagement of its scientific content.
The removal of any part of a burial from its mortuary context can be seen as
a violation. It is an act of decontextualization to transform a mortuary object
into an artifact in a fine art context (McGowan and La Roche 1996).
Respect for human remains is a responsibility of the living rather than a
right of the dead. This responsibility is universal and varies across cultures.
Lack of respect for a dead body is considered an offence at all times and
places. Even the dialogue for bioethics focuses only on the medical research
for human beings (NBAC 1999).

Human remains in displays: the distance between theory and

There are presently various examples of human remains on exhibition. Either
in a museum environment as archaeological finds, in scientific collections as
evidence of pathology or criminal acts or recently, in contemporary art
exhibitions, human remains are extremely attractive to the public. There are
cases where displays of human remains are such popular tourist attractions
that they contribute to the local economy. They can be considered among the
most effective tools for luring people into museums (Walker 2000).
Although for many years involved parties in the scientific community have
discussed the ethical and practical issues with regard to the care of human
remains, there are numerous examples of questionable, or more frequently,
unethical ways of display. The reasons may include unfamiliarity or disinterest
by some groups with regard to ethical considerations and a general disregard
for the value of the human body. In our times of single use products, the
general public has little appreciation for a dead body, considering it organic
waste or an empty container (Richardson and Hurwitz 1995). It is however
acceptable to donate a body in the training of new doctors, as to put a corpse
to good use. However, there are other reasons for donations. The most striking
example is that of Plastination, by professor Gunther von Hagens (Walters
2004). His exhibitions, called Bodyworlds, travel around the world. Every
display presents more than 200 exhibits of real bodies or organs. The bodies
are part of a donors program of some 8000 individuals, 490 of which are
already dead. There are increasing numbers of cases of the incorporation of
human remains in contemporary art, raising interesting philosophical and
practical questions such as ownership, acquisition and disposal of human
In various countries, in most museums and as archaeological evidence,
human remains are regularly exhibited without warnings, alternative routes or
at least good explanatory material. Recently in Greece, there have been
displays of archaeological materials in public areas such as the Metro or the
Athens airport. Human remains are approached as simple archaeological finds.
Another thorny issue is the decontextualization of buried remains. Most of
the time, due to their complexity, burials require a team effort, with
contributions from a number of specialists. Due to the lack of regulation, it is
possible – and common – that the finds are divided, usually according to
materials or individual interests. Each part is treated separately and without
coordination or agreement between professionals, even at the policy level.
The display of such burials is a selection of fine arts objects detached from their
mortal content. Human remains can be added as a necessary, credible touch.
There are also medical or forensic collections of osteological and
anatomical specimens serving educational and research purposes. Although
the idea of displaying biological specimens in a museum exhibit made a
contribution to medicine at the beginning of the 20th century, nowadays one
may ask whether or not such collections still have an important role in
teaching and research, since additions to them are no longer possible for
ethical and legal reasons. A totally new approach and interpretation of these
VOL I Legal issues in conservation 367

human remains can take place now, leading to the discovery of new scientific
information. Furthermore, it has to be mentioned that these collections have
acquired a new and different meaning since they have become historical
material evidence (Saki et al. 2007). Although not open to the public, these
displays need to be regulated. Finally, there are also collections of sacred
human relics that present a specific case in themselves (Malea et al. 2004,
English Heritage and the Church of England 2005).

Human remains and the scientific community

It is generally accepted that human remains, as archaeological, historic,
religious, or forensic evidence, are important sources of scientific information:
they are key to understanding what really happened during the biological and
cultural evolution of our species (Walker 2000). Although the value of
research is self-evident to the scientific community, there are many people
who believe that such work is harmful, damaging the remains and the spirits
of their ancestors. Mutual understanding is therefore a prerequisite for finding
common ground between conflicting values (Sakki 2007).
The reburial of human remains after excavation or study restricts valuable
future research. Acquisition policies, destructive sampling, consent for analysis
and research, publication of results, display and storage policies are issues to
be resolved. The conservator is directly involved, as his actions will interfere
with all stages in the care of human remains.

Human remains and the conservator

Human remains present an interesting subject for researchers and conservators.
We all should consider the ethical and methodological dilemmas they present.
Although involved in all stages of human remains management,
conservators have the following questions:
• What is the content of human remains that must be preserved and how
this can be achieved (Panagiaris 2001)?
This is a product of teamwork and the result of discussion. There are no
actions to be taken by one person, and no one’s work is less important than
someone else’s. The members of the team should bear in mind that the burial
should be approached holistically, with attention given to both tangible and
intangible content at the site.
• Which regulations should be followed when displaying human remains?
The conservator should respect:
The principle of integrity of human remains, concerning the inviolability,
untouchableness and wholeness of an individual (Rendtorff 1998). For
example, it is considered unethical to mix parts of different skeletons in order
to produce a complete one.
The principle of dignity, referring to the inviolability of individual human life.
Every human being is without a price and must not be commercialized
(Rendtorff 1998).
The principle of preservation. Human remains are a source of unique insights into
the history of our species. They constitute the “material memory” of our
ancestors and mark our common heritage (Walker 2000).
The purpose and the target group (e.g. scientists, students, general public) of
the display should be clear. The displays should be accompanied by extensive
explanatory material. In cases where human remains form part of an exhibition,
there should be warnings, and the viewers should be given the option not to
attend that part of the exhibition, and offered an alternative route.
• What are the limits of interventions (conservation and analysis) on human
remains and the restrictions on the dissemination of these actions?

Active conservation treatments should be avoided whenever possible.

Thorough documentation and passive treatments should be applied instead.
Any work undertaken should be in relation to the requirements of analysis
and research. Research and display require the consent of living relatives or
groups with legitimate interests in those remains (English Heritage and the
Church of England 2005). However, once consent is given, decisions for
treatment should be left to appropriate professionals.
The authors of this paper strongly believe that human tissues, either living
or dead, must be treated with the same principles of respect and tact. The
qualifications and ethical framework applied to the medical sciences should be
applied in the same proportion when dealing with dead tissue. Dissemination
of analytical results when the identity of human remains is known should be
treated accordingly.
• What related professions deal with human remains and what are the rules
governing their collaboration?
In a multidisciplinary field, collaboration is a primary issue. It is assumed that
professionals form a group of equals, each one contributing the best of their
knowledge and skill. The strategic plan should be formed collectively,
although actions and results can be synthesized by a director.
The aim of this dialogue should not be directed at abolishing human
remains collections, exhibitions or study; it should be directed towards
regulating and making a sound basis for the scientific community and for the
Proposals for the development of a generally accepted statutory document
regulating the display and conservation of human remains.
In the management of human remains, the existence and the level of
relevant legislation varies greatly from one country to the other. Human
values and ethics are not universal and range greatly according to different
cultural perspectives. However, it appears to be feasible to formulate an
ethical and practical threshold of our actions.
Our proposals fall into three main categories:
A. The development of a generally accepted statutory document regulating
the management of human remains. This document should be the
outcome of:
• international legislation on human remains and human rights after death
• exhaustive study of all written work undertaken on the subject up to date
• broad discussion of all involved bodies.
The constitution of a committee is necessary in order to organize actions
and compose the document. The committee may be formed of independent
legal advisors, curators, museologists, archaeologists, conservators and
possibly relevant institutions (religious, social, political, medical, etc.)
B. The development of a code of ethics in conservation of human remains.
The code should identify clearly the cases in which the conservator would
be obliged to refuse participation in any part of the conservation of
human remains. It should define cases in which publication of work
undertaken may be restricted.
C. The definition of the profile of conservators and related professionals as a
prerequisite for participation in the care of human remains. The
conservator’s profile can consist of the socio-economic context, role
definition and requirements, the expected education/training path,
required knowledge and competences. The definition of standards for
laboratories and storage areas accepting human remains.

The dialogue on legal and ethical issues with respect to the management of
human remains is already underway. Although conservators have a critical role
VOL I Legal issues in conservation 369

to play in the management of human remains, they have not had a satisfactory
participation in this dialogue so far. It would be useful if conservators could
work together to develop a code of ethics that outlines the necessary
competencies for professionals dealing with the conservation of human
remains and that defines the standards required for the treatment, storage and
display of human remains.

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