Background

Plomp's project is an archaeological migration study aiming to explore the ethnic composition of the initial population settling on Iceland in the period AD 870-930. Plomp holds that since Iceland was settled through individual migration events, unlike the rest of Europe, "Iceland represents a unique opportunity to investigate how migrations and geographic isolation may have influenced modern European variation". Plomp also aims at exploring how migration and subsequent isolation impacted the biocultural diversity of the Icelandic population. Plomp seeks to accomplish these goals by studying crania from the skeletal remains of the archaeological populations from Iceland, Norway and Ireland. Cranial shape and shape variation will be analysed using 3D geometric morphometrics.

Plomp's more specific objectives are to:

1) explore patterns of cranial variation of archaeological populations from Iceland, Norway, and Ireland; 2) identify relatedness between populations based on morphological patterns; 3) identify changes in cranial shape occurring in Icelandic populations that relate to climate; and 4) investigate the biocultural impact of genetic isolation and genetic drift on cranial morphology. These aims will be accomplished by: 1) using 3D shape analyses to capture the cranial shape of archaeological populations from Iceland, Norway, and Ireland; 2) performing an inter-population comparison of cranial shape to identify characteristics that may indicate population affinity between Iceland and the suggested origin populations, Norway and Ireland; and 3) performing an intra-population analysis of samples contemporaneous with the initial migrations and those dating from after the settlement of Iceland to identify differences and similarities in cranial shape related to genetic drift and possible transitions in climate.

Method and material

The material for the analyses is crania from archaeological populations from Iceland, Norway and Ireland. The crania will be studied in 3D images that will be captured through photogrammetry. In the analysis of the 3D images, the crania are to be assessed for patterns of shape variation. Identification of similarities and differences between the facial and cranial shapes of the different population groups will be studied through principal components analyses (PCA), canonical variates analyses (CVA) and discriminant function analyses. The relationship between cranial shape and genetic and cultural background is to be investigated by exploring the shape variance. Biological sex and age will be determined based in standard osteological methods of the skeletal remains.

The material for this project is listed as 51 Iron Age individuals, 110 Viking Age individuals, and 59 Inuit individuals from Greenland. These individuals are part of the Schreiner Collection at the Institute for Basic Medical Sciences at the University of Oslo.

Plomp will carry out the analyses in the collection and will not remove any skeletal remains from the collection. Further, Plomp states that she will provide the photographs and 3D scans to the University's archive, as well as to an online digital archival service, which will be made open access if the University agrees.

Ethical assessment

Plomp considers several ethical aspects of her research project. First, respect for remains and descendants: The material is archaeological and there are no known descendants. Further, Plomp underlines that she is "a trained biological anthropologist with decades experience handling archaeological human remains", and concludes on that basis that the skeletal remains will be treated with the utmost respect.

Second, respect for groups: Plomp writes that being a biological anthropologist, she is well aware of the impact that biological anthropological research can have on the identity of living populations, and that she considers her scientific responsibility during her research. Further, Plomp states that her research "will not subject vulnerable groups, or anyone, to undue burdens, nor will contribute to the degradation of human beings from any time period".

Third, on the materials origins, Plomp states that: "There is no reasonable concern that the remains used in this project were sourced in an unethical manner. This collection has been used in many previous research projects which would have been approved by the Norwegian Ethics Committee".

Finally, on the aspect of destruction, Plomp underlines that her methods are non-destructive and non-invasive. Further, with the use of photogrammetric method, this project will produce 3D scans of the crania that can be given to future researchers' use.

The committee's evaluation

In the evaluation of the project, the committee takes its Guidelines for research ethics on human remains as a starting point. Guidelines for research ethics in the social sciences, humanities, law and theology forms the general framework for the committee's specialised guidelines.

The committee finds the project's aims and methods interesting and believe that many new results may be accomplished through the photogrammetric technique. However, the project raises several important research ethical issues that should be addressed properly, and the committee would like to draw Plomp's attention in particular to nos. 2, 4, 6 and 8 in Guidelines for research ethics on human remains.

"An ethical evaluation of a research project includes assessing the quality of the project and how likely it is that the project, as described, will result in the intended gain in terms of knowledge" (from guideline no. 6). Plomp does not specify which individuals she will include in the study, nor the criteria for selection. Therefore, the committee cannot assess how representative the material chosen for this study is, nor to which degree it will lead to an achievement of the objectives put forward.

The skeletal material from Iron and Viking Age, in particular in the northern parts of Norway, may be of Sami origin, or, at least, from hybrid graves. Further, Plomp has included 59 individuals of Inuit origin from Greenland. Plomp writes in her request that she is "very aware of how research can impact upon the identity of living populations" and that her "research will not subject vulnerable groups, or anyone, to undue burdens, nor will contribute to the degradation of human beings from any time period". These statements are not explained further. Given that Plomp will study human remains stemming from groups that have historically been mistreated and marginalized (the Inuit population, and, if part of the study, the Sami population), ethical issues on respect for other groups (see guideline no. 4) should be addressed more fully.

Further, Plomp's method appears to be a more advanced way of executing craniometry, a method widely used in physical anthropology in the first part of the 20th century with strong connections to racial biology. The committee do not believe that Plomp intends to conduct such research. However, when cranial measurement is the basis for a project about ethnical composition of populations, including indigenous peoples with a difficult history connected to physical anthropology and craniometry, the choice of method and material selection should be object of an ethical reflection. Researchers are not only responsible for the intended results and desirable consequences, but also for the consequences that the researcher neither sought nor foresaw (see no. 6 in the guidelines).

The material's provenance, i.e. the circumstances surrounding the material, and the site of the discovery (see guideline no. 8), is not taken into consideration. Plomp writes: "There is no reasonable concern that the remains used in this project were sourced in an unethical manner. This collection has been used in many previous research projects which would have been approved by the Norwegian Ethics Committee". Since Plomp does not specify the material selection in her study, it is difficult for the committee to evaluate the provenance of the material. However, much of the material in the Schreiner collection was acquired in the 19th century and in the first part of the 20th century in a manner that involved encroachment on the rights of individuals or groups. The provenance of the Inuit material in particular, should be investigated before the material is made object of a research project. It should also be investigated if permission should be sought from a body representing the Inuit people of Greenland. If there is a possibility for some of the material from Norway to be of Sami origin, permission to include it in research must be sought from Sametinget.

Plomp has obtained permission from Institute for Basic Medical Sciences. However, there is no indication in Plomp's request that permission from the museums owning the material has been obtained. The material in the Schreiner collection is managed by Institute for Basic Medical Sciences, but the ownership of the material is spread across the different University museums. The committee presupposes that Institute for Basic Medical Sciences informs anyone making a request to study human remains in the Schreiner Collection about the ownership of the material and which museum(s) to contact in order to obtain all necessary permissions. There are no id-numbers for the crania in the documents, so the committee does not know to which museum collections the material belongs.

Conclusion

The committee needs more information and more thorough ethical self-assessment before it can evaluate the request properly. Plomp is therefore asked to provide information on specifications about the skeletal material included in the study and the selection criteria, and if permission from the museum collections with ownership to the material has been sought, to investigate the provenance of the Inuit material, and to give more thorough ethical reflections on studying groups connected to a history of oppression, humiliation and stigmatisation, and about the use of a method similar to a method associated to race biology. When the committee receives the necessary information and ethical considerations, it will give an evaluation of the request. The committee may be contacted for further clarifications or assistance.