I’ve just finished watching the first two episodes of the BBC series Cold Case History. The series revolves around the idea of getting the University of Dundee human remains team to look over historical/archaeological remains and uncover more information about them.
The first episode was about an archaeological skeleton from an Ipswich medieval friary site, who turned out to be African. By the end of the programme the team had come up with the same answer most archaeologists would probably jump to – Crusades. But they had some nice documentary evidence to back it up, along with isotope, DNA and skeletal evidence that didn’t contradict it.
The second episode was centred around the anatomical specimen of a 6-8 year old boy, who appeared to have been mummified/preserved prior to the Anatomical Act that made such things technically legal. The team came up with some possible fear that he’d been murdered, and at the end of the programme they stated that doubting what to do with him, they should bury him.
Hang on, what? So this body may never have been buried, and is evidence of a rather distasteful late post medieval practice and the history of anatomy, and you think you’ve got the right to just throw it away? Let’s face it, burying him is essentially going to have that effect, because he’ll likely not survive a hundred years in a Dundee cemetery, after which any remains will be cleared and dumped in a mass grave anyway (if you didn’t know, that’s what often happens when the lease on your burial plot runs out).
Surely if you have any doubt about what to do with some remains, you don’t do the one thing that’s likely to be irreversible? For a bunch of forensic scientists, who explicitly discuss the need to be objective, the end of that episode featured some very emotional discussions. I agree the display of human bodies can be distasteful, and potentially inappropriate, but there are other options. You can store human remains safely and appropriately iarchives. Surely keeping the body in one piece, showing it care and respect and safety, is a better solution to just burying it in the ground and waiting for it to decompose and then for all the bones to end up jumbled with hundreds of others in a mass grave, forgotten and uncared for?
And if we’re going to talk human remains ethics, what are the ethics of hacking up a body to extract samples for DNA and isotope analysis just for a TV programme? Was there a research framework before the TV programme, or a conservation need, or is it just for entertainment?
I don’t think I can face any more over-excited, overly-emotional episodes of this programme. I respect the scientists, and I’m glad someone has the funding to do the research that has desperately been needed, but I think in some cases they are reacting to the pressure of being on TV.