Misconstrued Modesty?

Is it misconstrued modesty to deny the public photos of the alleged skeleton of Richard III?

On the 30th of August archaeologists found a well-preserved skeleton of a middleaged male of normal height with an articulated scoliosis. The man appeared to have been slain in battle as witnessed by a series of wounds to the skull plus an iron arrowhead lodged between his upper vertebras. The skeleton was in all probability identified as that of Richard III and a request was sent to the Ministry of Justice in order to obtain the right to commence exhumation.

Of huge historical interest, the skeleton was at this point thus identified as that of an innate object ready to be made available for a series of scientific investigations, through which it would hopefully be possible to gather an endless amount of information about such things as height, physical condition, diet etc.

Nevertheless the University of Leicester, which will be responsible for this research, later claimed at the press conference (12.09.2012), that photos of the remains had not been released since the skeleton would be “treated in full accordance with the University of Leicester’s ethical policy for dealing with human remains”. Probably knowing full well that the public might be fuming, it appeared the University had as a poor substitute contracted with an artist – Emma Vieceli – who had been commissioned to draw an artistic rendering of the actual exhumation.

All this is of course fabulously interesting for not just anthropologists, who love to study such cultural dilemmas, but hopefully also a source of hilarious entertainment for the enlightened public. The question, we have to pose, is of course why an aesthetically inspired drawing is more ethically correct than a beautiful, professional photo? One might be entitled to think that a proper artist used to working with the photographic medium might be able to secure a similar respectful rendering of this skeleton, which is obviously of huge international interest. But nay…

And further: why no photos, when a man is dug out,  who was buried in consecrated earth at the entrance to the choir in a church, albeit long since dismantled? Why not let him “rest in peace”? But if one digs him out, because the cultural context deems such a procedure quite all right insofar as we are handling nothing but an innate object (which is what we do in a Christian cultural context, where body and soul are regarded in a dualistic manner); why then balk at taking photos?

All these questions are not easily dealt with. For this reason the University of Leicester has, as mentioned, a guideline, which is hopefully akin to the one, published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2005 : “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums”. Here it says: “The photography of human remains for research, educational and general museum use will be acceptable in the vast majority of cases, although in considering any photography, views of cultural communities and genealogical descendants should be considered where known.”

Now, no proper genealogical descendants of Richard III exist, except for the individual, who carries the female mitochondrial DNA, who was identified by the historian, Dr John Ashdown Hill. Might this descendant in the 17th generation be entitled to object? If not him, what about the “cultural community”? Who are they? Is it not the “cultural community”  of  us Christianised Westerners, characterised by our dualistic worldview, which have already exhumed a skeleton – albeit that of an anointed king – 527 years after his death? In order to examine how he died and whether he was a hunchback or not? In short: to see him?

Are we not entitled to photos?

Karen Schousboe

Read more about the dilemmas posed by the exhumation and exhibition of human remains in
Archaeological Knowledge, Animist Knowledge and Appropriation of the Ancient Dead

By Piotr Bienkowski.
In: Heritage from below. Ed. by Iain J. M. Robertson
Ashgate 2012

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