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Ethics of exhuming ancient corpses

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  • Ethics of exhuming ancient corpses

    I've never been able to come to a clear conclusion on the ethics behind exhuming ancient bodies and removing their burial artifacts. When does a burial mound, site, or chamber become a historical artifact open to archeological investigation? It seems as if the intrusion of burial sites by archeological investigation is permitted if those sites are not barred by contemporary descendants of the dead who wish for their ancestors to metaphorically rest undisturbed. So as long as the dead have no modern familial ties and are, to put it tersely, forgotten, they become archeological artifacts open to investigation.

    Is it wrong to exhume the buried corpse of an ancient person, stock it in a museum holding bay, display it to the public, sell its wares to interested buyers, etc.?Something feels off to me--perhaps it's an ethical intuition. Are we commodifying the dead, reducing the dead to mere historical props? Within a secular manifold of reality the corpse becomes an object and there is nothing inherently special, sacred, valuable about human remains. However, most religious contexts emphasize the respect human remains are due. And, at least for the Christian, this respect reflects the eschatological value the corpse has (e.g. the final resurrection).
    Last edited by RomanJoe; 05-17-2019, 04:58 AM.

  • #2
    There is a book by Sir Thomas Browne called Hydriotaphia: Urne-Burial or, a discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk first published in 1658, where these issues are discussed. It is also a sort of 'cult classic' among writers and literary people, as being among some of the finest prose written in English.

    I was reminded of the part where he writes about the trade in Egyptian mummies for medicinal purposes in his period:

    ''Others rather than be lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, were content to recede into the common being, and make one particle of the public soul of things, which was to return into their unknown and divine original again. Aegyptian ingenuity was more unsatisfied, contriving their bodies in sweet consistencies, to attend the return of their souls. But all was vanity, feeding the winde, and folly. The Aegyptian mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsoms."

    I might write a longer reply later as I think about this more. I am thinking an important issue is the spirit in which the relics are treated, but that this is partly in the 'eye of the beholder', and related to what prior beliefs and assumptions people bring to dealing with and viewing these kinds of objects.