Ethical Considerations on Retribution and Reburial

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24th Nov 2020 Human Rights Reference this

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Chapter One: Ethical Considerations

Since the debate began, there have been questions about ‘who owns the dead?’[1], is it the indigenous groups? The archaeologists and institutions? Or all of humanity? All these questions have led to an ethical dilemma of should archaeologists keep the ancient remains for research or should they return the remains for reburial?

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Repatriation is when indigenous groups had asked for the right for their ancestor’s human remain to be returned for reburial. Many indigenous peoples believe that there is a disrespectful treatment of the dead, as they are used for research.[2] Especially as “historical trauma”[3] had been caused as during colonialism and extreme racism of the past.  Repatriation, thus, represents indigenous people being able to claim their past back.  Particularly, as archaeologists seem to have studied indigenous remains, rather than ‘white’ remains that often end up being reburied.[4] Ownership claims over ancient remains had increased over the last few decades,[5] which had led to debates and can even lead to court cases, creating ethical dilemmas that will be explored within this essay.

The question of ethics then comes into mind, for specificity the type of ethics that can be applied to repatriation and reburial. Within ethics, there are sub-genres that can be applied. Most archaeologists in this field often apply virtue ethics, as it allows “moral guidance to a flourishing ethic of collaboration”.[6] Virtue ethics is person-based rather than action-based. This essay aims to compare the view of indigenous people and archaeologists concerning repatriation and reburial of ancient artefacts, which will explore three case studies of indigenous people from Australian, American and European backgrounds.

Most archaeologists agree that they study human remains is to seek, “specific information about that one person”[7]. Whether it is to study their society, diet, gender or lifestyle. Therefore, many archaeologists feel threatened when indigenous groups want their ancestral remains to be reburied, as it could be seen as a loss of evidence, or as some archaeologists have called “book burning”.[8]

General Indigenous Groups Views

 Meanwhile, for indigenous groups, the debate started to heat up in the 1970s when indigenous groups throughout the world started to speak out about the injustices. Especially in America and Australia, where the rise of civil rights movements and groups,[9] allowed the indigenous groups to claim for their ‘ancestors’ remains, and to fight the injustices of the archaeological field.

International Laws around Repatriation and Reburial

Around the world, certain countries have to follow laws and regulations in terms of repatriation and reburial, to help create an improved ethical approach. In 1986, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) created a code of ethics.[10] The Code presents the standard for museums. The Code is intended as a basis for developing ethical standards.[11] Rules included in the reforms include, that it ‘must be done with tact and with respect for the feelings of human dignity held by all peoples.’[12] Showing that worldwide there is a need more a more ethical approach in museums.

All these principles are meant to be used to help create a more ethic approach to the state of human remains in museums. Yet, the guidelines itself barely mentions what would happen if an indigenous group wanted the return of their ancestors.[13] Similarly, the code doesn’t apply to all museums as it is not binding, meaning that museums can refuse to follow the set guidelines. Connoting the feelings of museums in general for the repatriation and reburial of human remains, as it seems that museums want to keep ancient human remains, especially those of cultural significance.

In 1989, the World Archaeological Congress created the Vermillion Accord.[14] Concerning the reburial issue, and to set principles on ethical approaches. The Accord holds high significance to both archaeologists and indigenous groups, as it marked a key moment in the reburial movement. [15] It released six statements, calling for respect.

The accord had encouraged a much-needed change in the relationship between archaeologists and indigenous people, for example, the accord made international and national news, like the New York Times.[16] Showing that the issue was getting worldwide recognition and consequently, allowing to build a relationship between archaeologists and indigenous peoples. Another positive impact of the Accord is that it allowed federal governments to take into account both views on the issue, like NAGPRA, showing the more ethical relationship between both parties.

However, some elements of the relationship didn’t change, as there were “many attitudes, stereotypes and fears remain deeply entrenched”.[17] Furthermore, there were racist views from some archaeologists, case in point, some archaeologists have mentioned that “we are all losers if for reasons of political expediency”[18] if artefacts are returned to indigenous groups. Showing how some archaeologists still didn’t want to help create a relationship, consequently, making it unethical, for not taking the indigenous views into mind and their responsibility in the problem.

All these legislations have shown how international there is a wanting to change the relationship between archaeologists and indigenous peoples, to make it more ethical. However, while some aspects were successful, some aspects weren’t as some archaeologists and countries didn’t want to commit, in helping the relationship.


[1] (Pearson, ­­1999)

[2] (Scarre and Scarre, 2006)

[3] (Fforde, Hubert and Turnbull, 2004)

[4] (Pearson, 1999)

[5] (Fforde, Hubert and Turnbull, 2004)

[6] (Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson, 2004).

[7] (St Jean, 2011)

[8] (Strauss, 2016)

[9] (Crouch, 2017)

[10] (ICOM, 2020)

[11] (ICOM, 2020)

[12] (Knowles, 2018)

[13] (Förster and Fründt, 2017)

[14] (Pearson, 1999)

[15] (Fforde, 2014)

[16] (Zimmerman, 2002)

[17] (Zimmerman, 2002)

[18] (Clark, 1993)

Chapter One: Ethical Considerations

Since the debate began, there have been questions about ‘who owns the dead?’[1], is it the indigenous groups? The archaeologists and institutions? Or all of humanity? All these questions have led to an ethical dilemma of should archaeologists keep the ancient remains for research or should they return the remains for reburial?

Repatriation is when indigenous groups had asked for the right for their ancestor’s human remain to be returned for reburial. Many indigenous peoples believe that there is a disrespectful treatment of the dead, as they are used for research.[2] Especially as “historical trauma”[3] had been caused as during colonialism and extreme racism of the past.  Repatriation, thus, represents indigenous people being able to claim their past back.  Particularly, as archaeologists seem to have studied indigenous remains, rather than ‘white’ remains that often end up being reburied.[4] Ownership claims over ancient remains had increased over the last few decades,[5] which had led to debates and can even lead to court cases, creating ethical dilemmas that will be explored within this essay.

The question of ethics then comes into mind, for specificity the type of ethics that can be applied to repatriation and reburial. Within ethics, there are sub-genres that can be applied. Most archaeologists in this field often apply virtue ethics, as it allows “moral guidance to a flourishing ethic of collaboration”.[6] Virtue ethics is person-based rather than action-based. This essay aims to compare the view of indigenous people and archaeologists concerning repatriation and reburial of ancient artefacts, which will explore three case studies of indigenous people from Australian, American and European backgrounds.

Most archaeologists agree that they study human remains is to seek, “specific information about that one person”[7]. Whether it is to study their society, diet, gender or lifestyle. Therefore, many archaeologists feel threatened when indigenous groups want their ancestral remains to be reburied, as it could be seen as a loss of evidence, or as some archaeologists have called “book burning”.[8]

General Indigenous Groups Views

 Meanwhile, for indigenous groups, the debate started to heat up in the 1970s when indigenous groups throughout the world started to speak out about the injustices. Especially in America and Australia, where the rise of civil rights movements and groups,[9] allowed the indigenous groups to claim for their ‘ancestors’ remains, and to fight the injustices of the archaeological field.

International Laws around Repatriation and Reburial

Around the world, certain countries have to follow laws and regulations in terms of repatriation and reburial, to help create an improved ethical approach. In 1986, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) created a code of ethics.[10] The Code presents the standard for museums. The Code is intended as a basis for developing ethical standards.[11] Rules included in the reforms include, that it ‘must be done with tact and with respect for the feelings of human dignity held by all peoples.’[12] Showing that worldwide there is a need more a more ethical approach in museums.

All these principles are meant to be used to help create a more ethic approach to the state of human remains in museums. Yet, the guidelines itself barely mentions what would happen if an indigenous group wanted the return of their ancestors.[13] Similarly, the code doesn’t apply to all museums as it is not binding, meaning that museums can refuse to follow the set guidelines. Connoting the feelings of museums in general for the repatriation and reburial of human remains, as it seems that museums want to keep ancient human remains, especially those of cultural significance.

In 1989, the World Archaeological Congress created the Vermillion Accord.[14] Concerning the reburial issue, and to set principles on ethical approaches. The Accord holds high significance to both archaeologists and indigenous groups, as it marked a key moment in the reburial movement. [15] It released six statements, calling for respect.

The accord had encouraged a much-needed change in the relationship between archaeologists and indigenous people, for example, the accord made international and national news, like the New York Times.[16] Showing that the issue was getting worldwide recognition and consequently, allowing to build a relationship between archaeologists and indigenous peoples. Another positive impact of the Accord is that it allowed federal governments to take into account both views on the issue, like NAGPRA, showing the more ethical relationship between both parties.

However, some elements of the relationship didn’t change, as there were “many attitudes, stereotypes and fears remain deeply entrenched”.[17] Furthermore, there were racist views from some archaeologists, case in point, some archaeologists have mentioned that “we are all losers if for reasons of political expediency”[18] if artefacts are returned to indigenous groups. Showing how some archaeologists still didn’t want to help create a relationship, consequently, making it unethical, for not taking the indigenous views into mind and their responsibility in the problem.

All these legislations have shown how international there is a wanting to change the relationship between archaeologists and indigenous peoples, to make it more ethical. However, while some aspects were successful, some aspects weren’t as some archaeologists and countries didn’t want to commit, in helping the relationship.


[1] (Pearson, ­­1999)

[2] (Scarre and Scarre, 2006)

[3] (Fforde, Hubert and Turnbull, 2004)

[4] (Pearson, 1999)

[5] (Fforde, Hubert and Turnbull, 2004)

[6] (Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson, 2004).

[7] (St Jean, 2011)

[8] (Strauss, 2016)

[9] (Crouch, 2017)

[10] (ICOM, 2020)

[11] (ICOM, 2020)

[12] (Knowles, 2018)

[13] (Förster and Fründt, 2017)

[14] (Pearson, 1999)

[15] (Fforde, 2014)

[16] (Zimmerman, 2002)

[17] (Zimmerman, 2002)

[18] (Clark, 1993)

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