Oddbjørn Sørmoen, chair of The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains, introduced the seminar. Sørmoen presented the main topics of the seminar and offered a brief historical background for the establishment of the committee. 

Sebastian PayneHuman remains, archaeology and ethical issues, Dr Sebastian Payne:

Sebastian Payne, Chief Scientist of English Heritage, presented experiences from England, where ethical guidelines for research on human remains have been developed in recent years. He informed about Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (2005), as well as Church of England and English Heritage Guidance (2005). Both of these documents include key ethical considerations when conducting research on human remains, such as considerations of rights, options, harm and benefits, and whether an action is reversible.

Payne also discussed some recent cases from England. In the Avebury request, Druids asked English Heritage to rebury prehistoric human remains. English Heritage initiated a long process and decided to consult the public through their website, and to carry out a public opinion survey. The result of the public consultation was large, and even if the answers displayed ambivalent attitudes, the public generally supported the retention of prehistoric human remains in museums, and their inclusion in museum displays to increase understanding. Reburial was finally refused, and the decision was based on the public consultation, as well as the fact that the Druid group had no special connection with the remains. Further, not reburying was regarded as the more reversible option and an option in which the benefits outweighed the likely harm.

Malin MastertonDuties to past persons: Moral standing and posthumous interest of old human remains, Dr Malin Masterton:

The background of Masterton’s doctoral project was the case of Queen Christina of Sweden and the possible use of her genetic material, and the lack of clarity as to whether we have duties to past persons and whether there is a direct reason to protect the dead. Building on the work of Joel Feinberg, among others, she argues that there are interests in one’s good name and interests in one’s final resting place. Against the idea that the dead, and more broadly the non-existing have interests Joan Callaham suggests that the dead cannot be harmed because nothing can happen to them.

Masterton opposes this argument, arguing that past persons can change genuinely. She proposes that we have three duties to the past: (1) the duty of truthfulness; (2) the duty to respect privacy; and (3) the duty to recognise past wrongs. Following narrative theory, death is not equivalent to non-existence. From the very beginning, people’s lives are entangled with others’ lives, and thus other people must be included in one’s narrative. The basis for identity is life stories, and as long as there is a narrative identity, we have duties to past persons.

To balance the rights of the living and the dead. Reflections on issues raised in the National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains, Oddbjørn Sørmoen:

Oddbjørn Sørmoen told about the background for the establishment of the committee, emphasizing the unethical research on Sami skulls that have been carried out in Norway, and the quest for the reburying of two Sami skulls in particular.

The committee is an advisory body, and its members cover a variety of fields. Sørmoen proposed that good ethics is about protecting the weak from the strong. Scientific knowledge is important, but we need to be aware of the ethical issues in conducting research on human remains. The majority of the cases that the committee have considered so far concern old human remains - remains from the Middle Ages or before.

The most ethical problematic cases have been those that involve the destruction of human material, and thus when no further research can be carried out. In addition, key ethical considerations include provenience – how the material was obtained; the ethnic and religious identity of the remains; and the age of the remains. In the case of relatively ‘new’ human remains, several issues are raised, such as, to what extent consent from the descendant should be obtained, and who to include in the class of descendants.  Sørmoen emphasized the importance of exchanging knowledge and beliefs, and reminded about the upcoming publication based on the papers from the seminar.

Kjell-Åke AronssonResearch on human remains of indigenous people – reflections from an archaeological perspective, Dr Kjell-Åke Aronsson:

Kjell-Åke Aronsson pointed out that access to cultural heritage is of greatest importance for the identity of individuals and groups. In Sweden, there has been a loss of Sami cultural heritage as a result of the colonisation of Swedish Lappland. Since there is little written history of Sami past, archaeological research is important, not the least for the Sami population. He discussed different perspectives of repatriation and reconciliation.

He also discussed the Rounala case. The skulls and skeletons from Rounala were supposed to belong to a Lutheran churchyard from around 1600 AD, but C 14 dating demonstrated that the burials may date back to the 1200’s or 1300’s. The ethnic identity of the human remains is uncertain since comparable Sami burials from the medieval period are hitherto unknown in Sweden. Aronsson asked: -Who has the right to the skulls and skeletons from an ethical point of view, and how far back in time does a religious, political or ethnic group have an exclusive right to decide over remains?

The ethics of destructive bone analysis; and some examples from Denmark, Prof. Niels Lynnerup:

Professor Niels Lynnerup argued, with the use of examples from Denmark, that we often need to do scientific destructive bone analysis if we want new important knowledge. He pointed out how various people and groups often invoke different ethical principles in their argumentation, and focused on the question as to who decides whether to carry out (destructive) bone analysis.

In a recent case from Denmark, the media played an important role and actually moved the ethical considerations in a certain direction, according to Lynnerup. He emphasized that we need to widen our perspective when we make decisions about research on human remains, and to be careful to include those involved.

Further, it is important to be proactive and to take precautions, both due to scientific correctness and due to respect for the dead. If sampling is to be done, it needs to be well-planned and documented, and minimally destructive. One should also have permission from the owner and from an ethical body, and follow guidelines on publication of results. He concluded that not sampling is not ethically neutral; rather such a choice may mean blowing our chances for important knowledge with huge and direct benefits for us and future generations.  

Analysis of DNA from bone: Benefits versus losses, Prof. Erika Hagelberg:

Professor Erika Hagelberg pointed out that research on DNA has grown exceptionally within a short period of time and went through some milestones in DNA typing the last decades. For example, in 1997, the first Neanderthal mtDNA sequence was done, and from 2001, mass identifications are possible using bone DNA. The scientific and technological development opens up for important information relevant to human evolution.

Hagelberg discussed some characteristics of ancient DNA, including the fact that there is very little DNA left in the material and that it is degraded into small fragments. In the beginning of DNA research, there was little awareness of the ethical issues surrounding studies on human remains. Hagelberg pointed out that ancient DNA/bone studies are feasible; that bone DNA analysis has led to developments in forensic identification and other fields; and that ancient DNA/bone typing has huge unrealized potential. On the other hand, several studies are pointless and raise great ethical concerns, such as questions of rights to privacy. In conclusion, it is questionable whether we should do some research just because we are able to do so; we need be aware of the ethical complexities surrounding the study of human remains.