Friends of America's Past

Forum | Articles & Books

Burying American Archaeology

by Clement W. Meighan
University of California, Los Angeles

In 1991 the Virginia Department of Transportation and a committee of Indians and non-Indians claiming to represent Native American viewpoints signed an agreement whereby everything unearthed in advance of road construction near the 2,000-year-old Adena mound was to be given up for reburial within a year. "Everything" included not only cremated bones but artifacts such as chipping waste, food refuse, pollen samples, and soil samples. The $1.8 million rescue excavation was federally funded - in the interest of science. Yet nothing of tangible archaeological evidence was to be preserved. In addition, Indian activists were paid by the state to monitor the excavation and to censor "objectionable" photographs or data appearing in the final report. The activists also insisted that, following an alleged ancient custom, human remains be covered with red flannel until reburied and that no remains, including artifacts, be touched by menstruating women.

American Indians, Australian aborigines, and ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel have all attacked archaeology in recent years and continue to seek restrictions on archaeological study. In North America, the argument has been put forward that the archaeological study of ancient Native American people is a violation of the religious freedom of living Indians. Some Indian spokesmen have claimed their right, on religious grounds, to control archaeological study and specimens regardless of the age of the remains, the area from which they come, or the degree of claimed Indian ancestry.

In my view, archaeologists have a responsibility to the people they study. They are defining the culture of an extinct group and in presenting their research they are writing a chapter of human history that cannot be written except from archaeological investigation. If the archaeology is not done, the ancient people remain without a history.

A number of confusions have led to the present conflict over archaeological study of Native American remains. One is the assumption of direct genetic and cultural continuity between living persons and those long deceased. Who knows whether the Indians of 2,000 years ago believed that a corpse must be covered with red flannel and not touched by menstruating women? As if to emphasize their contempt for real ancestral relationships, the activists who demanded reburial of the remains from the Adena mound included Indians from tribes as far away as northwestern Washington, as well as non-Indians. Meanwhile, the views of a local West Virginia tribe that favored preservation of the remains were ignored.

A year before the Adena mound reburial, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. According to preliminary interpretations of this law, some sort of relationship must be shown between claimants and the materials claimed. However, no line has been drawn at remains over a certain age, despite the obvious impossibility of establishing a familial relationship spanning 20 or more generations of unrecorded history. Millions of dollars have now been spent to inventory collections, including those containing items thousands of years old, and to add a corps of bureaucrats to interpret and administer the legislation. An enormous amount of scientists' time is also being diverted from research that might otherwise be done on those bones and artifacts soon to be lost to repatriation.

One wonders why museum directors are so eager to relinquish the holdings for which they are responsible. Museums house a great variety of collections and their directors are rarely trained in any of the natural sciences or have any special interest in physical anthropology. Being, for the most part, public institutions, they are dependent on good public relations, which can be undermined by activists. Like politicians, museum directors seem all too willing to satisfy activists by dissatisfying scientists. Meanwhile, in university departments of anthropology, physical anthropologists are normally outnumbered by cultural anthropologists. The latter have little interest in osteological collections; more important to them is maintaining good relations with the living tribes with whom they work. As a group, cultural anthropologists include a considerable number of politicized academics. Many of them welcome an opportunity to demonstrate their solidarity with an allegedly oppressed minority, especially when it means insisting that the latter's native religion be respected. Since their own research will not be adversely affected, they have nothing to lose. Political correctness has rarely been so all-around satisfying.

It is questionable whether Indian activists and politicized professors and curators could succeed in influencing politicians and administrator if the latter found their claims to be utterly implausible. Even the most cynical and opportunistic lawmakers would not want to be observed supporting self-evidently absurd demands. Yet the multiple laws inhibiting archaeological research, physical anthropology, and museum studies have all been instigated and justified in the name of Indian religious beliefs. This is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, no other religious group is the United States has been given the same protection. Second, most Indians no longer hold these beliefs. Third, Indian knowledge of the traditions of their ancestors is derived in large part from the collections and scholarship that the activists among them are now seeking to destroy.

That measures hostile to science have gained so much ground in this nation's legislative bodies, universities and museums, - and on so flimsy a basis - suggests that there has been a sea change in the opinions and sentiments that have hitherto guided the public in support of scientific endeavor. The New Age disposition to invoke or invent beliefs no one really holds, and to maintain that they are of a value at least equal to, if not supremely greater than, those that account for the triumph of Western civilization, is given concrete expression in the repatriation movement. Conversely, the success of this movement will further reinforce these newly fashionable doubts about the value of Western science in particular and rational thought in general.

Reasonable doubts have been raised about whether the large quantity of bones tucked away in museum drawers and cabinets are really of scientific value. In fact, these are frequently studied by physical anthropologists and their students. The techniques of statistical research require as large a sample as possible so that generalizations can be well formulated. In addition, bones that have already been examined may be needed again when new analytic techniques are developed. Only recently has it been possible to extract antibodies and genetic materials from ancient bones, making it possible to trace the evolution of specific human diseases. Future laboratory advances in dating bones and in determining the source of artifact materials will also require these objects to be available for study. Finally, the bones belonging to particular tribes are precisely those that are most valuable to historical studies of those tribes.

But even if it were true that the bones, once examined, need never be studied again, the demand that they be reburied conflicts with the scholarly requirement to preserve data. If research data are destroyed, there can be no basis on which to challenge honest but possibly erroneous conclusions. Reburying bones and artifacts is the equivalent of the historian burning documents after he has studied them. Thus, repatriation is not merely an inconvenience but makes it impossible for scientists to carry out a genuinely scientific study of American Indian prehistory. Furthermore, it negates scientific work that has already been done, since the evidence on which that work was based is now to be buried.

Repatriation also raises other issues. It is a violation of a museum's public trust to give away materials that it has held legally and at public expense. A similar violation is involved when a museum has received those materials from a private donor or at a private donor's expense. In particular, such action ignores many Indians who donated or sold materials on the understanding that these items would go into a permanent repository for the benefit of future generations of Indians.

An entire field of academic study may be put out of business. It has become impossible for a field archaeologist to conduct a large- scale excavation in the United States without violating some law or statute. The result is that archaeology students are now steered away from digs where they might actually find some American Indian remains. American archaeology is an expiring subject of study - one in which students no longer choose to specialize. Instead, they specialize in the archaeology of other countries, where they will be allowed to conduct their research and have some assurance that their collections will be preserved.

Scientific disciplines are not immune to change, but scientific ideal is that these changes are the consequence of new discoveries and theories driven by developments internal to science, and not imposed from without. It may therefore be questioned whether the repatriation movement is not a massive invasion of the freedom of scholarly and scientific discipline to define their own goals and chart their own course.

What the activists know about the Indians' past depends almost entirely on the records of European explorers, missionaries, and settlers, and on the studies of past and present historians, ethnographers, anthropologists and archaeologists. These scholars and scientists often thought of themselves as helping the American Indian to preserve his heritage. A great many Indians, past and present, share or shared that conviction. It would be interesting to know whether a majority of living persons of Indian descent actually favor reburial or the continued preservation, display, and study of Indian remains and artifacts.

This article originally appeared in Academic Questions, vol. 6, no 3 (Summer, 1993). Academic Questions is a publication of the National Association of Scholars.

Return to Articles & Books