A controversial law that requires all human remains unearthed at ancient settlements to be reburied within two years threatens the future of archaeology, it is claimed today.
Under legislation introduced in 2008, bones and skulls found at sites in England and Wales, such as Stonehenge, have to be put back where they were found after 24 months.
A group of leading archaeologists has writt
en to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke to protest that this will vastly diminish their ability to research the history of humans in Britain.
Forty archaeology professors wrote to express their ‘deep and widespread concern’ in a letter published in today’s Guardian newspaper.
‘The current licence conditions are impeding scientific research, preventing new discoveries from entering museums, and are not in the public interest,’ their letter states
‘Your current requirement that all archaeologically excavated human remains should be reburied, whether after a standard period of two years or a further special extension, is contrary to fundamental principles of archaeological and scientific research and of museum practice.’
The 2008 legislation applies to any piece of bone of historical interest found at around 400 archaeological sites across England and Wales; the 1857 Burial Act applies to more recent remains.
‘The current licence conditions are impeding scientific research, preventing new discoveries from entering museums, and are not in the public interest’
Scientists working at Stonehenge who discovered 60 bodies in 2008 have been granted an extension before they have to return the remains to the ground.
Their colleagues at the Happisburgh site in Norfolk are currently digging after finding the oldest stone age tools that date back 950,000 years.
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology who signed the letter, said: ‘If human remains were found at Happisburgh they would be the oldest human fossils in northern Europe and the first indication of what this species was.
‘Under the current practice of the law those remains would have to be reburied and effectively destroyed.
‘This applies to everything. If we were to find a Neanderthal fossil or a Roman skeleton, it would all have to be reburied.’
Among the high-profile signatories are Barry Cunliffe, from University of Oxford; Chris Stringer, from the Natural History Museum; Graeme Barker, from University of Cambridge; and Stephen Shennan, director
Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website