Sense and Sensibility: Is it right to publish photographs of human remains on the web?

Human remains are an important source of knowledge for archaeologists, which can reveal lots of information about people’s heritage and lifestyle. It is not unusual for museums to own human remains, mostly skeletons, as part of their collections, and these remains are often exhibited quite prominently within the museum.

There is a strong awareness in the academic world that human remains are different from everything else that emerges from the past, and as a result of this, they have to be treated with due respect. This is usually also true for museums that might come to own human remains that were recovered during excavations. Ethical guidelines exist to lead the way in which human remains are treated during and after excavation, and usually museums try to exhibit human remains in a respectful and considered way.

What happens though when pictures of human remains become widely available on the web? Nowadays, anyone can take pictures of human remains exhibited in a museum, and subsequently publish them in whatever context they deem appropriate. The same goes for images originally published to illustrate archaeological papers, or articles, that could easily be taken and reused in different ways.

Coleen Morgan teaches Digital Archaeology and Heritage at the University of York, and she is interested in the relationship between archaeology and new technologies. She also explores this relationship in her blog Middle Savagery.

The blog post by Morgan that I want to focus on, is titled- The Beautiful Bones: Skeletons as Visual Shorthand for Archaeology. In this post, she raises the question of- how to deal appropriately with the publishing of pictures of human remains on the web? There isn’t really a big debate on this matter within the archaeological world. This is quite surprising considering that the treatment and display of human remains has long been a hot topic within this field. Morgan herself points out, how the recovery and display of human remains has been a controversial topic, since the early days of archaeological research.

From an academic point of view, much has been written on this topic. Recently, Sysling (2010) has considered; how back when archaeologists were ‘antiquarians’, colonialist policies resulted in the removal of artefacts, and human remains from many countries. This has provoked a backlash in more recent times, with many former colonies demanding the repatriation of their dead ancestors, as well as of their material culture. In his work, Sysling focuses on human remains in Dutch museums, and he points out that owning and exhibiting human remains, is mostly considered as unethical in three cases.

Firstly, when the remains in question were collected without consent from the source community, and in a way that is not considered as acceptable anymore. Secondly, when the people whose remains were collected were badly treated during their lifetime. Thirdly, when the human remains were used for researches that aimed to classify races. In conclusion, Sysling suggests that in order to truly deal with human remains in an ethical way, their scientific purpose should not be separated from their heritage value.

I believe that if we look at Morgan’s blog post in the light of Sysling’s analysis, it is easier to point out what exactly is controversial about the publishing of pictures of human remains on the web.

Morgan acknowledges the fact that there is a need to improve the ethical guidelines with regards to the publication of pictures of human remains on the web, but she does seem to be quite pro this practice, especially for aesthetic purposes. She uses two pictures as examples, one is of a bioarchaeologist observing a skull, and one is of a fully excavated skeleton in a trench. Both shots have been carefully set up, and were originally used to illustrate the contents of one of Morgan’s recent academic publications about ancient DNA for the press. Interestingly the pictures were used for the web press roll-out, but not in the academic publication itself, which is also available online, meaning that these pictures do not really add anything to the scientific value of the research. Nonetheless, Morgan considers this an appropriate way to display human remains, as the skeletons in the pictures look good and the images are well staged!

Morgan doesn’t have a problem with the fact that the skeletons are used to illustrate the main points of a paper that doesn’t aim to explore human remains per se, but is in fact a study of ancient DNA. She actually thinks that the publication of skeletal remains in 

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particular can be beneficial to the wider public, especially when the ‘owner’ of the body has suffered a violent death. This is because, she argues, a fleshed reconstruction could result as more gory than a picture of a battered skeleton. What Morgan does not seem to realise is that a picture of a skeleton can’t, and shouldn’t be compared to a reconstruction. This is because a skeleton represents the actual remains of a human being of the past, while a reconstruction is simply a visual aid, created more or less accurately in the present.

Morgan’s considerations about the different meanings that human remains have for different people, also seems quite unconvincing as a reason to justify the use of their pictures on the web. When she points out that no one cares about ancient Romans’ human remains, one can assume that she means that there isn’t a direct connection with Roman civilisation anymore. Therefore, the public exposure of their human remains is not as sensitive as the same practice regarding the remains of other people. What I wonder though, is if this means that Roman human remains don’t deserve the same respect as that afforded to other human remains? Just because there is no one that presently demands they should be respected.

Shouldn’t all human remains be treated in the same way, and with the same ethical considerations? Isn’t this even more important when pictures of human remains are published on the web, and become part of the public domain?

If we apply Sysling’s suggestion- not to separate the scientific value of human remains from their heritage value, to pictures of skeletons on the web, the aesthetic value of a picture representing a skeletal remain can’t be the criterion used to decide if it is appropriate to publish the image, or not. In addition to this, I believe that as heritage workers, we should not forget that the human remains that we deal with were once people with their own sets of beliefs and heritage. This means that they can’t be treated in the same way as we treat material culture, regardless of the time and society in which they lived in. For this reason, photographs of human remains on the web should only be allowed to be published in very controlled settings, and only when they are actually needed to aid, and disseminate pertinent scientific research.

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