Yesterday brought a momentous event to Peru. After nearly 100 years, the skeletal remains of 177 different Incans taken from Machu Pichu were returned. The remains were taken by an American explorer from Yale and then held at the university’s Peabody Museum. After years of failed diplomacy and ineffectual international legal action, Peru was granted its long awaited request when Yale decided to return the remains.
“It was the feeling of the university that Machu Pichu was of such enormous symbolic importance to the people of Peru in term of the symbolism of its national identify that is was really a unique circumstance. Our responsibility was to conserve it, to study it, to make it available to the broadest possible public. We came to realize that this could best be done here in Cuzco.” transcript of Richard Burger speaking on behalf of Yale University
I’m glad to know Yale finally agreed the remains should be returned. Though I’m not really sure what Dr. Burger meant by qualifying the return as “a unique circumstance.” Perhaps he is leaving the door open for archaeological remains from other civilizations to be kept for scientific study.
If that is what Dr. Burger was insinuating, then I take issue with that particular comment. At least I think I take issue with it. To be honest, I’m torn on this one.
One the one hand, I am Heathen and I absolutely believe ancient ancestral remains should be respected according to the customs, wants or needs of their descendants.* I believe this because ancient remains are an important archaeological link to the people who “inhabited” those bones and to the culture those bones represent. The current Peruvian government made it pretty clear they wanted these ancestral remains by investing years of time and resources trying to get them back from America. And its not like Peru is going to hide the artifacts away from the public; they are going to exhibit the remains in a museum in Cuzco. Peruvians want to be responsible for their ancestors’ remains. I respect that and I have great hope for them being able to be preserve these remains for future generations to behold. Indeed, I have great respect and hope for all cultures who have successfully reclaimed and repatriated archaeological finds, be they human remains or cultural artifacts.**,***
On the other hand, it is not always the case that artifacts are safe when they are returned home. A museum in Egypt was looted during the revolution earlier this year just weeks after the country’s top curator demanded artifacts from England and Germany. I don’t know if the pieces stolen were repatriated pieces. But this looting was evidence that housing artifacts in an unstable country is a risk. Which begs the question: Should repatriation of artifacts only be offered to stable governments? Who gets to decide what country is stable? Who gets to decide who gets to decide?☨ For my own part, I believe artifacts have a better chance of long-term preservation in a country with a stable government. If believing this makes me a royal b*tch, then so be it. At least I am still royal. *wink and grin*
(Still on the other hand) As a scientist I believe archaeological inquiry has value and merit. We learn a great deal about human history from the analysis of archaeological finds, including what our ancestors ate, what they wore, how they lived and how they died. This information is important to me, not just as a scientist, but as a Pagan vested in being linked to my ancestors. Knowing about my ancient ancestors helps me wrap my head around the eternal weave of wyrd.
But…argh…ancestral remains should be with their people! I’m still struggling with this!
In my ideal world, ancient human remains would stay in their home country and be evaluated for scientific inquiry by descendants. If science is something the descendants want to do [with the remains]. Some descendants don’t want to do that as we learned in the now famous Kennewick Man case.☨☨ Many Native Americans believe the loss that comes from disrespecting ancestral remains outweighs any gain scientific study might bring. Even if descendants want to study ancient remains, some may not have the resources (such as equipment or training) to do so. And I don’t know how to fix that.
So I should amend my previous statement. In my ideal world, ancient human remains would stay in (or go back to) their home county and be scientifically evaluated by descendants interested in archaeology, as well as spiritually an/or culturally valued. And those descendants would have access to the resources needed to conduct science using reliable and valid methods and preserve the remains for future generations.
What do you think readers? Am I a hypocrite or a <insert colorful word> for being divided on this issue? Is my “ideal world” pure fantasy?
* The remains of recently departed ancestors should be buried, burned or what have you according to the last will and testament of the departed ancestor — in my opinion. In the absence of that, funerary rites should follow the departed’s spiritual beliefs. In the absence of that (if the departed’s beliefs are not known), burials should follow customs or appease the grieving, whichever of these two is more valued in the family.
** I also admire those who try to protect the remains of their ancestors but do not succeed. A Druid in Great Britain fought for the reburial of remains from Stonehenge but lost his case against the Ministry of Justice.
*** I particularly admire Native Americans and their battle to repatriate ancestral remains. Their fight was so successful it resulted in legislation called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Passed in 1990, NAGPRA requirs all federally funded agencies and institutions to return Native American cultural items to their respective peoples.
☨ Jax raised another good question about repatriation. Are famous remains from antiquity a part of all human heritage? Or are they location specific? Do the British or Berlin (or any) museums have a right to hold Egyptian artifacts since modern civilization culture has foundations in cradle of civilization (which includes Egypt)? Hmm. Sounds like we need another post!
☨☨ I fully recognize the duplicity of the me citing NAGPRA as a point of national pride in one footnote and again here as a less than ideal situation for science.
+ Featured image, Machu Pichi from the view of the Guard House.