Monday, September 10, 2007

The Viking Past

Archaeologists are opening a Viking burial mound in Norway to analyze the bodies of two women placed there over 1,100 years ago. The bodies were found in 1904 along with a longship, now in a museum, that told us much about the Vikings. The longship was apparently the grave for a queen, buried with another woman who might have been her daughter or a servant. The bodies were re-interred in 1948.
COMMENT: This kind of story, and others like the current display of an Incan princess, always bring up the question of how ancient human remains ought to be treated, and whether there's a chronological dividing line between burials that are and are not OK to disturb. It's a given that there is much cultural, medical, and scientific information to be gained by studying human remains, but there are ethical gray areas.
My view is somewhat stricter than that of most archaeologists (and, granted, I'm not an archaeologist at all). For what it's worth, though, I believe graves belonging to cultures still extant should be opened only in cooperation with representatives of those cultures. Graves of cultures unknown or no longer extant could be opened if there's reasonable expectation of important knowledge, but bodies should not be kept forever on display. After a period of study, they should be re-interred in or near the original site, or at least in a museum or other facility near the original site. This view is unrelated to any views about spirituality or an afterlife. It's just my thought about how to treat all cultures and all humans with a universal level of respect while still preserving the interests of science.

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