Ancient Human Remains and Research Ethics: Fostering Research Culture and Practice

New methodologies open up new avenues for research in ancient human remains. How to address the complex ethical questions in this field?

The image depicts a hand holding a skull, a DNA strand and a map of the world. Surrounding these three focus items are smaller images: runes, a laboratory flask, a compass, a magnifying glass
Nils Anfinset, Sean D. Denham and Lene Os Johannessen 

Good research culture and practice are based on a core set of scientific and ethical norms and values within the research community. We define research ethics in a broad sense, covering all four principles in The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2017): reliability, honesty, respect and accountability. This article focuses on respect and accountability. More generally, we discuss the fostering of a culture of sound research practice that is built on ethical guidelines derived from the particularities of a specific research field, in this case the ancient human remains research. 

Research on ancient human remains

In this context, human remains are defined as ancient human remains (intact skeletons, parts of skeletons, cremated remains, and other human biological material) that are retained by museums and collections, or that emerge as a result of archaeological and other investigations.

Ancient human remains encompass several identities. First and foremost, they are the remains of individuals deserving of respectful treatment. Furthermore, they represent groups, ethnic or otherwise, whose history and culture are likewise deserving of respectful treatment. Finally, they are a scientific resource for improving our understanding of past societies and peoples, and may, based on their cultural or archaeological context, be defined as unique or rare. These various and overlapping identities can give rise to a wide range of ethical dilemmas.  Examples include remains of individuals belonging to historically oppressed groups, human remains with few extant cultural or archaeological parallels, or human remains with no clear discovery context or origin. Researchers who wish to perform research on human remains should carefully consider the impact their research may have on individuals, extant groups and the scientific material.

Research on human remains is an interdisciplinary field, involving studies within archaeology, anthropology, bioarchaeology, paleoepidemology, and genetics. The scientific methods are constantly improving, and the knowledge gained is ever-increasing.  A few milligrams of skeletal material can provide a researcher with fresh insights into an individual’s sex, health, diet, genetics and place of origin. While the rapid development of such methods undoubtedly opens up new avenues of research, it also puts stress on human remains collections and drives increasing competition amongst researchers, research groups and institutions over access to this non-renewable resource.

The Human Remains Committee in Norway

The questions regarding research ethics that arise are complex and specific to the field of ancient human remains. In Norway, the National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains (the Human Remains Committee), an interdisciplinary committee under the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees, functions as a national resource for the promotion of responsible and ethically sound research in this area. This committee sets out ethical guidelines, contributes to training and teaching, and provides advice to researchers, research institutions and authorities on both general ethical issues within the field and specific cases/research projects.

The Human Remains Committee was established in 2008, initially in response to questions regarding research on human remains from Norway’s indigenous group, the Sami, and requests for the repatriation of Sami human remains from national collections. Over time, however, the committee has come to engage with a broad range of topics and ethical dilemmas within the field of ancient human remains research.

The Norwegian guidelines for ethical research on human remains

The committee’s Guidelines for Ethical Research on Human Remains from 2022 (first published in 2013 and available in English), forms the basis for its evaluation process. They also encourage reflection on and assessment of ethical issues relating to research on human remains. The guide consists of an introduction and eleven articles, which all together cover several sets of norms:

Norms concerning sound scientific practices, tied to the pursuit of accurate, adequate and relevant knowledge;

Norms regulating the research community and relations between researchers, such as responsibility, impartiality and criticism;

Norms speaking to the relationship between individuals and groups who participate in research, based on principles of respect for human dignity, freedom and self-determination, protection from the risk of harm and undue pressure, and fairness in procedures and the distribution of benefits and burdens;

Norms based on the principle that research should benefit society and not cause harm to people, society, nature or the environment. Transparent and honest research dissemination plays a key role in this.

The eleven articles are split into two parts. One part focuses on considerations of individuals, descendants, groups, discovery context, origin and ownership history. The other part focuses on considerations of research quality, the use of destructive methods, data management, repatriation and visual dissemination.

Main areas of concern

The cases that the committee handles are, for the most part, research projects. The ethical dilemmas the committee typically deals with fall into four general categories.

Quality of research: Does the research plan adhere to sound, scientific practice? Are the research questions and methods well-defined and appropriate?

Responsible research and respect for colleagues: Does the project have a data management plan (i.e. processing, storage, sharing and publication)? Is the use of any destructive methods legitimate within the framework of the project? Can other, non-human materials and/or previously collected data be used to achieve the proposed research objective(s)? Are the human remains considered unique as a scientific material?

Respect for individuals and groups: Is the research based on respect and recognition of any vulnerable groups? What is the potential impact of the research on such groups?

Wider social responsibility: Do the human remains in question have a clear, known and undisputed provenance (i.e., discovery context, origin and ownership history)? Might any individual or group have a legitimate claim to the remains? Should the remains be repatriated? Who has the right and responsibility to decide? In cases of repatriation/reburial, should authorities consider the loss of future research potential, or merely the concerns of the affected group?

The need for guidance is increasing

Although the Human Remains committee is strictly advisory, in practice most institutions require that proposed projects are evaluated by the committee before granting access to material  in collections. This is not merely pro forma but reflects a recognition on the part of the responsible institutions of the complexity of the ethical dimension of the research field. We in the committee see this not only in feedback from the institutions themselves but in the increasing range of topics we are asked to comment upon. There is a need, and desire, for guidance.

However, the ultimate goal should not be the imposition of a set of ethical norms by an outside body, but rather self-regulation by the research community. Guidance, therefore, needs to be customized to the field in such a way as to facilitate good research culture and practice.

Nils Anfinset, University of Bergen and former Chair (2016-2021) of Human Remains Committee, Bergen, Norway

Sean D. Denham, University of Stavanger and Chair (2022-) of Human Remains Committee, Stavanger, Norway

Lene Os Johannessen, Director of Human Remains Committee, Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees, Oslo, Norway

Further reading

Fossheim, Hallvard (ed.) 2012 More than just bones. Ethics and research on human remains. The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees, Oslo

Opinions from The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains (only in Norwegian)