About 'Bones without Barriers'

The last few years the media has described a ‘crisis' for British burial archaeology. In part this is because of a series of reinterpretations of the licensing conditions under which archaeologists can excavate human remains.

During this time the UCLan team applied for and acquired Ministry of Justice permission to excavate Oakington without the screens now required by law. This open excavation method has always been a tradition in British archaeology and it has a long history in East Anglia with sites like Barrington Edix Hill and Sutton Hoo attracting thousands of visitors. However, it was not an easy application with a modern cemetery within 20 meters of the archaeological site and a children's playground in the middle of it. When consulted with by the Ministry of Justice one local doctor highlighted the educational opportunity this project would bring and explained that the opportunity for kids to see human skeletal material was very exciting because 'they would get to see real human anatomy'.

The licensing situation which requires the screening of human remains raises some interesting question about modern society. ‘When do we see bodies?'...' In museums, at school, in anatomy collections?'. This is brought home when you consider that you can actively choose to invite TV shows like Time Team or Meet the Ancestors into your personal space, your family home, the living room. On these shows you can see a skeleton being excavated; you can watch science shows like Horizon describing Bog Bodies and Mummies with detailed images and intrusive investigations. Yet you cannot choose to visit a site in your own community and see a skeleton being excavated by an experienced archaeologist.

Because public outreach had been a central component of the Oakington excavation since 2006 the application to the Ministry of Justice was successful, and all of the human remains were excavated in public view. In each of these years we have put up signs warning people about the bones and we have actively sought to discuss this issue with the local community to seek their opinions. Some of this can be seen in the written feedback we have received:

“Thank you so much for your time/explanation and patience. Very important work you guys are doing and to share it with the public is great, as it's our history, all of us.”

“Fascinating work – really glad to learn more about your work. Really pleased to hear about how respectful you are being.”

And from a primary school child:

“I particularly liKed looKing at the teeth. They were very dirty.”

So why did we need special permission to excavate the Oakington bones in view? What is it about a thousand year old skeleton that may cause offence and must we really seek not to offend when so much of modern life is sheltered and protected from the realities our ancestors endured?

Death is part of life; we all have a skeleton so the educational and historical benefits of participating in archaeology are fundamental to understand the human experience. It is by experiencing the physical remains of the past in person, in your own community, that people can really seek understanding and participate in an exploration of their own life and those who have come before us.