Friday, 4 July 2008

Interview with a member of BABAO

BABAO is the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology. You can see BABAO's view of human remains in the various statements they have made. I was very impressed by the speaker from BABAO at the Respect Conference in Manchester in 2006, so I approached Martin Smith, an archaeologist specialising in human remains, who is a member of BABAO's managing committee.

Here's BABAO's statement of principles from their homepage:
BABAO promotes the study of human bioarchaeology and osteoarchaeology for the purpose of understanding humanity from the past to the present. BABAO also provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and information on these topics and strives to improve standards in all aspects of the study of the biological remains of past and present peoples.
BABAO is fully committed to promulgating the highest ethical standards in the treatment and care of human skeletal remains and does not condone actions or statements that violate these principles.
One of the arguments for the retention of human remains that most impressed me was that cultural interpretations and scientific understandings change over time. For example, the bones of the people of Wharram Percy (a deserted medieval village) are stored in carefully-controlled conditions in an Anglo-Saxon church. When they were first excavated, their right forearms were measured to gain an idea of skeletal growth. It was a couple of decades before anyone thought to measure their left forearms as well. It was then that it was discovered that a good twenty percent of them were left-handed (the current percentage of left-handers in the population is 10%). Most of them would have been illiterate, so this finding seems to bear out the hypothesis of psychologists that the bias towards right-handedness occurs because of literacy and language being primarily located in the left hemisphere of the brain, which is "wired" to the right-hand side of the body. From a social history point of view, this finding is also surprising, because one would have thought that medieval people would have a superstitious prejudice against the use of the "sinister" left hand.

So, on with the interview:

PfA: What is your role in BABAO?
MS: I am a member of BABAO’s managing committee (Publicity Secretary)

PfA: What got you interested in archaeology?
MS: I’m not sure really - I’ve always been interested in the past and the fact that archaeology gives us opportunities to find out about aspects of the lives of past people is really quite exciting – particularly in the case of people who lived before there were any written records.

PfA: Do you feel a kinship for the people of the past?
MS: I would say that I do in so far as the past populations of Britain and Europe are the collective ancestors of all modern British people of European origin. For example genetic analysis of the Iceman (the 5000 year old mummified body found in the Alps in 1991) has shown that he is related to a very large proportion of the modern population of Northern Europe. On a wider scale, populations all over the world are related and so we all have a degree of kinship with past peoples wherever they are from.

PfA: What can human remains tell us about the people of the past?
MS: We can learn a great deal from studying human remains; in addition to 'obvious' things like age and sex we can also obtain information on health and diseases, activity and lifestyle, diet and subsistence, levels of mobility and social organization (for example were people nomadic or did they live in one place?) as well as the overall level of biological stress people were subjected to by their lifestyles and environments. In addition, burial archaeology can allow us to gain some sense of the way people perceived the world and perhaps the afterlife. Human remains are the most direct link we have to the peoples that lived before us and they offer the chance to find out information that simply cannot be obtained from any other kind of archaeological remains.

PfA: What is the scientific and/or social value of retaining human remains for study?
MS: Firstly palaeopathology (the study of past health and illness) is beginning to make important progress in shedding light on the development of a number of major diseases in the past. Studying human remains also offers a chance to investigate the effects of various extreme economic and social circumstances on health and physical development which no longer exist in the modern world. Archaeological remains also provide the opportunity to take a really long view of the nature and development of human societies. For example we can ask questions like when did warfare / organised conflict first appear? Is war a type of behaviour that is ‘hard-wired’ into human beings or is it more of a cultural phenomenon? The remains of past people offer a ‘time depth’ when making such inquiries that is simply not available to modern researchers working in other areas of social science.

As a proportion of the total number of people that lived in the past the number of burials that survive to be discovered in modern times is tiny. When ancient human remains are reburied they are gone forever. This not only makes no sense in relation to what we can tell now, but also in that new techniques are constantly being developed that can shed new light on remains that were initially studied decades ago. Reburial is destruction and deprives future generations of the chance to learn more about our shared human past. We should look after these remains very carefully as we have a responsibility to the generations that will come after us that is just as great as our responsibility to those that lived in the past.

PfA: What do you think about the way human remains are displayed in museums?
MS: I think it’s perfectly acceptable to display human remains in museums – in fact there is overwhelming public support for it, providing it is done sensitively and respectfully. Human remains are special and are not the same as other classes of archaeological material such as pottery or metalwork. It is important that museum displays acknowledge this fact and try to tell the stories of individuals as much as possible. Human remains form a kind of record of the memories and events an individual experienced during their lifetime – it’s important for such aspects of the study of human remains to be made apparent in museum displays.

PfA: Do you think there is a role for Pagans in archaeology? Do you think the heritage sector should engage with Pagans?
MS: I think everyone has an equal right to express an opinion and conversely that the heritage sector should engage with everyone on an equal footing. Perhaps one way for Pagans to engage with archaeology is to publicise the importance of caring for the remains of our ancestors and perhaps also in thinking about what sorts of questions should be asked to try and gain a better understanding of the past. It seems clear that many Pagans care deeply about the past. We live in a society where there are a lot of people who don’t appear to care about the past at all. In this regard archaeologists and Pagans could be said to be very much on the same 'side'. There is no reason to see archaeological research and respect as being contradictory. It’s very encouraging to see the formation of a group like Pagans for Archaeology and I'd like to wish the group every success in its endeavours.

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