Bodies in Museums: The Moral Standing and Displaying of the Dead

cambodia genocide museum

Cover Photo: A photograph of the victims of Pol Pot’s totalitarian regime at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial park, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Taken on a visit in 2007.



Archaeologists frequently come into contact with human remains. However, issues regarding the treatment of the dead, whether it is through scientific investigation or displaying, remain a contentious topic. In this essay, I will attempt to summarise the broad theoretical discourse on the moral standing of the dead and the displaying of human remains in museums. I will first address the different worldviews that affects how various groups interpret the dead, identifying two opposing sides of the argument: Dualistic and Materialistic scientific community and Animistic indigenous communities and Pagan groups. Different interpretations of ‘respect’ for the dead are apparent throughout these two opposing ideologies. These groups often have strong views due to the sensitive nature of the subject. In my reflection of the topic, I shall discuss two other issues concerning the dead: the photograph and circulation of their images online and in the media and the relationship of displaying of human remains, which are victims of recent genocide, to tourism.



More than a hundred and thirty museums in Britain hold in their care large quantities of human remains, for instance, the Natural History Museum, London has over 20,000 remains (Brooks and Rumsey 2007). In 1998, the Museum of London held the exhibition London Bodies, showcasing a large collection of more than eighteen thousand human skeletal remains from the Museum’s archaeology division (Swain 2002: 98). The purpose was to prove how Londoners have changed appearance through time with evidence from the archaeological record (ibid). Similarly, in 2007, the Manchester Museum hosted an exhibition, Lindow Man: A Bog Body Mystery, for the third time, attracting large number of visitors and being the most popular exhibition the Museum had (Alberti et al. 2009).

Do archaeologists have moral duties towards the dead they encounter? How are the dead wronged? How should museums store, handle and display human remains? Are archaeologists respecting the dead even with ethical and moral codes guiding their standard practices? How should archaeologists and researchers respectfully treat the dead? These are a few of the many moral and ethical questions researchers and museum staff deal with in their everyday encounters with the dead.

How do we respect the dead? There’s two stand points in this: some of the communities from which remains are said to have originated argue for their repatriation and reburial instead of being in display cases in institutions. Archaeologists, on the other hand, argue the importance of analysis of human remains but with a degree of ‘respect’ guided by their code of ethics. We see that respect is a matter of relativity in this case. There is not one correct answer as both cases are valid.

Beinkowski (2006: 8) sees it essential to dig deeper in the various attitudes we hold towards mind, body and consciousness because ‘the relationship between Body and Mind lies at the core of different world-views’ (ibid: 2). There are four worldviews: (1) Dualism: French philosopher Rene Descartes explicate that human beings have two separate substances, Mind and Body. This view ‘came to be the philosophical foundation of Enlightenment knowledge and of the practice of ‘Science’ from the seventeenth century onwards’, guiding the disciplines of archaeology and museology; (2) Materialism: only Body or Matter exists. ‘Philosophy and science had become largely materialist and continue to do so today’; (3) Idealism: Only Mind or spirit exists, everything else is an illusion. ‘Although idealism is largely ignored by contemporary western philosophy and science it is a world-view found in many eastern religious traditions’; and (4) Animism: Mind and Matter always go together and that everything is simply part of Nature (ibid: 2-4). Indigenous cultures and Pagan groups fall in this category (Alberti et al 2009; Bain and Wallis 2006). Pagans are coined as ‘new indigenes’ by Bain and Wallis (2006: 4) due to their shared worldviews with indigenous peoples, ‘whose re-enchantment practices involve engaging with nature as alive with spirits… multiple deities and other beings’.

The idea of personhood and the lack of it are also quite important. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that personhood exists with conscience and capability to make choices (Beinkowski 2006). With this comes rationality, dignity, respect and rights (ibid). In the Dualistic and Materialistic worldview, the dead are separated from the living resulting in human remains being viewed as ‘things’. ‘Things can legitimately be used as means to human ends in a way in which ‘persons’ cannot’ (ibid: 6). For Kant, because things have no autonomy on their own, they are objects rather than subjects (ibid). Because of this, ‘archaeology, as an archetypal dualistic/materialistic practice, treats dead bodies as ‘things’, for its own ends. And so, on the whole, do museums’ (Bienkowski 2006: 7). At the opposite end of the extreme, Animism shows no contrast between the mind and the body rather they are one, in unison and in harmony. ‘Sentience, or consciousness, is everywhere: within Nature, within individual cohesive humans and even human cells communicate with each other…we call this ‘the integrated body’ (ibid: 2006: 6). As a consequence, death cannot separate the body from consciousness. The dead are still integrated within the community and are still considered as persons (ibid: 7). Their presence is felt in the landscape and the environment.

Why are discussions on personhood and the moral standing of the dead important? It is through these discussions that we understand the different sides of the arguments on how archaeologists and the scientific community treat human remains in comparison to how indigenous and Pagan communities view the dead.

The scientific community as well as academia has been accused of treating human remains as products, things of sorts and as objects on which conducting analyses are justified and reasonable (Alberti et al. 2009; Bain and Wallis 2006; Orr 2006). Human remains are studied in order to understand past health and diseases, cause of death, nature of the surrounding environment, what their diets were, glimpse of the climate, etc. (ibid: 135). In medical and scientific terms, the study of medieval, historic and pre-historic skeletal remains can help us prevent outbreaks of deadly diseases today and may even assist us in finding cures to some diseases (ibid).

On the other hand, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and British Pagans insist that we treat human remains with respect by repatriating them and their grave goods to their original communities to rebury them (Bain and Wallis 2006; Davis 1998/9). Orr (2006) argues that the remains of British Druids in the care of museums should be returned to them and be interred in their original contexts or as close possible to their original conditions. She believes that they are the ancestors of ‘this land’ (Britain), ‘we are the same tribe’ and they should not belong to a museum case or stored in basements where they are ‘forgotten,’ ‘less honoured’, and ‘abandoned’ (ibid: 3, 5). Some people believe, when their ancient ancestors’ remains are removed, that their tribe is torn apart and feel ‘the disconnection’ (ibid: 3, 7). When human remains are displayed they are usually shown in secular museum based perspectives (ibid). Hence, she argues that archaeologists should go outside their own materialistic and dualistic worldviews and to understand other rationales (ibid: 6).

Scarre (2003) argues that we do not need to share the spiritual and religious beliefs of ancient peoples in order to treat remains with respect. However, some of the ways in which we treat remains breaches their wishes. Scarre (2003: 242) puts it, ‘it is fairly certain that an Egyptian pharaoh would not have wished to be translated from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings to a glass case in the British Museum… Ancient Egyptians took very seriously the issue of their welfare after death. For Egyptians of all ranks, one of the main tasks of this life was to make suitable preparations for the prosperity in the next….’ Some people believe tomb robbers may have disrupted their journey to the afterlife. Archaeologists however have scientific and academic intentions, which are deemed beneficial but the exhumation of remains and grave goods and their transportation to institutions out of Egypt are still as objectionable from the viewpoint of ancient Egyptians (ibid: 242). Therefore, in this case, respect is in terms of granting the wishes of the dead as opposed to serving the purposes of the living and future generations.

In the words of Davis (1997: 12-13), a member of the Council of British Druid Orders (CBDO), ‘everyday in Britain, sacred Druid sites are surveyed and excavated, with associated finds being catalogued and stored for the archaeological record. Many of these sites include the sacred burials of our ancestors. Their places of rest are opened during the excavation, their bones removed and placed in museums for the voyeur to gaze upon, or stored in cardboard boxes in archaeological archives… these actions are disrespectful to our ancestors. When archaeologists desecrate a site through excavation and steal our ancestors and their guardians…it is a theft… we should assert our authority and reclaim our past’.

On the other hand, osteo-archaeologists refute this by stating that Pagan interests are a ‘threat’ to their research (Bain and Wallis 2006: 11). Human remains are said to be safer in museums than in other grounds and that ‘it is irritating to be told how to do one’s job by people who know little about it’ (ibid: 12). By excavating and analysing human remains, we give them back their identities and immortality in which they and their stories are remembered by future generations. For Davis (2006: 3), speaking on bog bodies of Iron Age Britain and northern Europe who were subjected to brutal human sacrifice, excavation and analyses is an opportunity to give voice to the past, to those ‘who can no longer speak’. It is through ‘examining the actual materials from the period that expands our knowledge’ of the past which cannot be deduced from documents and archives (ibid). But he argues that we can do this with a degree of respect towards the dead. To rebury human remains, such as bog bodies, without having been allowed to extract information is to lose a part of history that we can never get back (Giles 2006).

Because of the pressure from native communities, archaeologists and investigators dealing with human remains now have a set of ethical and moral codes governing their practices, spanning from governmental legislations to archaeological and forensic governing bodies. For instance, the Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS 2005) is to provide a framework for the legal acquisition and care of human remains by museums and institutions, the curation and use of human remains (including storage, public display, and access to research and education) and repatriation (including the process of returning remains). This provided basis for the creation of legal bodies on specific interests concerning human remains.

In 2013, the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (APABE) published guidelines for institutions wishing to carry out scientific studies on human skeletal remains. It provides a framework for the destructive analyses researchers carry out. These destructive and irreversible procedures include extraction of samples from human bones and teeth for carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses, for purposes of understanding diets; strontium and oxygen isotope analyses for tracing geographic origins; DNA analyses to shed light on ancient diseases and radiocarbon dating. The APABE believes that studying human remains is beneficial to gain new insight to human history, however analyses on bones causes irreparable damage.

Therefore archaeologists need to evaluate if their research will have positive results, ‘whether that knowledge could be obtained by non-destructive analyses [if possible], the experience and competence of those who intend to undertake the work’, ‘the feasibility of the techniques’, etc. are few amongst the many considerations researchers are made aware of (APABE 2013: 2, 5). If the sampling is approved then the processes should be ‘properly documented’ for future researchers (ibid: 2, 6). In short, as long as the results are positive and outweigh the destructive sampling techniques then we could conduct scientific research on human remains provided that we treat them with appropriate respect.

Why should museums display the dead and is this necessary? To display human remains in museums and temporary exhibitions inspires young people in science and creates interest in the study of human bodies. Alberti et al (2009: 135) puts it, ‘when small children and younger adults actually experience captivating displays, their interest is piqued, their intellect stirred, perhaps a life-long exploration begins. Remains should not be relegated solely to the scholar…by the time a young person is in higher education, their interests are established and academic choices have been made. Such displays therefore act as ‘advertisement’ for the next generation of eminent physicians and anti-cancer researchers.’

Giles (2006: 2-3) argues that ‘it is the experience of coming ‘face-to-face’ with the past, which museum displays…attempt to capture’ and it is for the most reason that many visit museums. As with bog bodies, they cannot be easily interred because their original contexts have been taken away through destruction. Since their possible living descendants could be traced narrowly, Giles suggests that they be displayed in museums ‘with sufficient respect present with various interpretations’ (ibid: 11). As archaeologists, our task is to foster greater understanding of the past and telling the stories of bog victims is one of them.

It is argued that as well as conducting scientific analyses on human remains, displaying the dead is also treating them as things. ‘We put them into a particular context, with restricted information that is carefully chosen to interpret the dead body for our own contingent purposes’ (ibid: 137). Brooks and Rumsey (2007: 261) argue that human remains are ‘recontextualised’ in museums as they are exhumed from their graves and into another context for a ‘different function’. The dead merely serve the interest of the present. We use the dead for our educational efforts, scientific interest and to further our knowledge of human past. The Human Tissue Act (2004) states that human remains be ‘treated with appropriate respect and dignity’ but how can we achieve this when we use them as ‘objects, for our own purposes and needs, irrespective of the wishes of the dead?’ (Alberti et al. 2009: 138). Cole (2000: 169) contends that human remains are ‘relics of once vital individuals, which do not belong in a museum setting but rather in a memorial setting’, displaying them runs ‘the very real risk of creating a cabinet of horrible curiosities’.

Although the public have gained new insight from viewing human remains in museums, it is not necessary to showcase them (Alberti et al. 2009: 138). Tarlow (2006) argues that a degree of privacy should be afforded to them, especially considering where naked bodies are on public display open to criticism. Whether we decide to showcase them or not, the decision is technically based on the judgements of the living, or Dualistic and Materialistic institutions and scientific communities. As an example, Charles Byrne (O’Brien) ‘The Irish Giant’ wishes his body to be buried in the sea but the Hunterian Museum continues to display his remains, refuting that his will was not written in paper and that he serves to educate present and future generations about the conditions of giant peoples (Alberti et al. 2009: 140).



What is the difference between displaying human remains in museums and publishing their photographs, usually in close-ups in newspapers, journals, etc. and in online platforms? Should skeletal remains of those who died violent deaths be treated like other archaeological and historical human remains? Should they be displayed in museums? For instance, skeletal remains of more than eight thousand people, who died in the recent Cambodian genocide from 1974-1979 under the Khmer Rouge regime, are displayed in the Choeng Ek memorial in the middle of the killing fields.

Most of the readings on archaeological treatment of human remains have to do with the actual ethical and moral issues regarding their display in museums. However, many of their images circulate on the web and are present in archaeological and historical journals and magazines as well as in newspapers, which tend to reach out to many people than visiting museums alone. Media coverage is more widespread in our society and more influential than museums. Should we also be concerned with the circulation of images of the dead in the media? I believe this is a very important issue. More people can view human remains online and in newspapers, magazines and journals than can go to museums to view them. I think we have to consider the same ethical and moral elements as displaying the dead in institutions. Foremost, the dead would probably not consent for their remains to be photographed and viewed across so many platforms open for wider public opinion, given many people viewing these images would make disrespectful comments.

On 10th April 2015, the Archaeology Magazine posted a photo of a Hungarian mummy, indicating that it was a victim of tuberculosis (see fig. 1). At the time of writing, there are over nine thousand ‘likes’ and over a thousand ‘shares’. Nine days later a photo of ‘Red Franz’, a bog body from Germany, was posted in their facebook page (see fig. 2). There are currently 14,019 ‘likes’ and 2,956 ‘shares’. A link to the original article on the web called Bog Bodies Rediscovered was provided with the photo of ‘Red Franz’, which showcases some of the most striking images of bog bodies discovered in northern Europe (Lobell and Patel 2010). These sensitive images often end up in the layperson’s facebook ‘newsfeeds’ across the world in various contexts. Some facebook users have already posted inappropriate comments online such as ‘that’s the Ghost Rider, right?’ by Mark Cardwell with 212 likes, ‘I SWEAR I saw this guy in the parking lot of a Greatful Dead concert’ by Tyler Gazecki with 67 likes and ‘this is how the zombie apocalypse starts’ by Noah Stein with 13 likes (Archaeology Magazine 2015a; ibid: b).


Fig. 1: Photo image of a two hundred year old Hungarian mummy (Archaeology Magazine 2015a).


Fig. 2: Photo image of ‘Red Franz’ (Archaeology Magazine 2015b).

The Archaeology Magazine, a reputable source of information for updates on archaeological developments throughout the world, publicised by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), has over a million facebook ‘likes’, given the easy access to archaeology news, which is automatically updated in their newsfeed. The ordinary person is possibly not aware of ethical issues surrounding human remains and thus are quick to comment with disrespectful jokes or humour. Many believe this is highly insulting to the dead. Though social media can inform people about human history, circulating graphic images of the dead, especially close-ups, is very disrespectful.

Most ethical and moral debates centre on archaeological human remains. Remains from recent atrocities and genocide are not taken into consideration but are of great historical significance. I am particularly concerned with places which hold and display multiple human skeletal remains. For instance, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre holds more than eight thousand skulls on eight different levels, indicating the type of death they received. Partially excavated by archaeologists in the 1980s, the site is a major tourist destination in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, being visited by thousands of foreign and domestic travellers (CEGC 2012). Many skeletal remains are still scattered across the site and can be stepped on and freely touched by visitors. Foreigners are charged $6, which includes an audio tour or a local guide tour. The experience takes many visitors back through time and is very informative, having been there myself.

When my family and I visited Cambodia, I particularly looked forward to our visit to Choeung Ek. This was because I had just finished my history module on South-East Asia during the Cold War in my school, thus I was aware of the history of site and the atrocities committed. Many visit Choeng Ek for various reasons but I’m concerned that many also visit to experience a different kind of dark, ‘fear-related’ tourism, such as going to scary themed parks. Many would argue that paying a visit to Choeung Ek have opened their eyes and made them respectful of the Cambodian people however some are not so respectful in their visit by taking ‘selfies’ and other of photos on site. In TripAdvisor (2015), there are over a thousand photos posted by foreign visitors with a couple of ‘selfies’ with the skeletal remains. These images could be posted online in their social media profiles, exposing the remains to further ridicule.

It is a human nature to be curious and to have interest in things of the past but I believe these act does not show respect to the dead but exposes the victims of horrendous crimes to unhealthy fascination. I believe that displaying the dead in this way is ethically and morally wrong, considering they died at the hands of a terrible regime. Their story should not be exploited by ‘morbid’ tourism. Over five thousand people reviewed the site and although most comments contain the word ‘sad’ many recommend the ‘attraction’ (TripAdvisor 2015). Tourists who visit Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre also stopover at the Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia, located at the S-21 Prison, where people were interrogated and tortured before being massacred in masses at Choeung Ek. It could be argued that the victims of Pol Pot’s genocide have merely been reduced to an activity for those seeking an emotional experience.

Although, I feel affected when I see images of any human remains, whether a complete body or just body parts as images of the dead evokes empathy, I think, archaeologists have a duty to help us understand humanity’s past and where we could be heading in the future. However, to display bodies in museums carries many ethical and moral issues as does displaying photographs of human remains. Who authorises such decisions? Who has a say in which human remains should be exposed to public light and criticism? By displaying human remains, the dead are merely becoming commodities to sell archaeology. We deny them humanity and privacy.



Though an exhaustive topic, I have highlighted important debates regarding human remains and their display, including the various stances on respectful treatment of the dead. I have drawn various examples in the exhumation of human remains as well as arguments for their reburial and repatriation. I have given my view and reflected on other issues arising from the debates such as circulation of images of the dead both online and in the media and the relationship with displaying victims of atrocities and tourism.

With regards to the scientific analyses of human remains, I am personally against this. I believe that it is indeed disrespecting the right of the dead to rest, for instance, the victims of the Cambodian genocide. However, as an archaeologist, our goal is to foster greater understanding of the human past, this is the nature of our discipline. Sampling techniques extract portions of bones, teeth and burial materials that are irreplaceable. Even though these will give us a better understanding of whom the person was, some would argue that removing parts of the bone are disrespectful. The wishes of the dead and their peaceful reburial should therefore be afforded to them. As archaeologists, we are forcing our post-modernistic values on our subjects when we analyse them. In this regard, based on the debates mentioned, I agree that the dead are merely objects for the researcher than a person with the right to be left alone to rest. The display of human remains is a contentious issue but different groups should accept a healthy dialogue to move forward.



Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Burials in England (2013) Science and the Dead. A Guideline for the Destructive Sampling of Archaeological Human Remains for Scientific Analysis. English Heritage Publishing

Alberti, S.J.M.M., Bienkowski, P., Chapman, M.J. and Drew, R. (2009) ‘Should we Display the Dead?’ in Museum and Society Vol.7(3): 133-149

Brooks, M.M. and Rumsey, C. (2007) ‘The Body in the Museum’ in Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions (eds.) Cassman, V., Odegaard, N. and Powell, J. Oxford: AltaMira Press

Cole, T. (2000) Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How History is Bought, Packaged and Sold. London: Routledge

Davis, P. (1997) ‘Respect and Reburial’ in The Druid’s Voice: The Magazine of Contemporary Druidry Vol. 8 (summer): 12-13

Davis, P. (1998/9) ‘Speaking for the Ancestors: The Reburial Issue in Britain and Ireland in The Druid’s Voice: The Magazine of Contemporary Druidry Vol.9 (winter): 10-12

Department of Culture, Media and Sport (2005) Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums London: DCMS

Scarre, G. (2003) ‘Archaeology and Respect for the Dead’ in Journal of Applied Philosophy Vol. 20: 237-249

Swain, H. (2002) ‘The Ethics of Displaying Human Remains From British Archaeological Sites’ in Public Archaeology Vol. 2: 95-100.

Tarlow, S. (2006) ‘Archaeological Ethics and the People of the Past’ in Scarre C. and Scarre, G. (eds.) The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 199-216

Archaeology Magazine (2015a) ‘Multiple strains of TB have been detected in eight naturally mummified bodies from a 2000-year-old Hungarian crypt’ in facebook Posted in 10 April 2015.Available online: ‘ [10 April 2015]

Archaeology Magazine (2015b) ‘From the Archive: Discovered in Germany, “Red Franz” is one of dozens of bog bodies from northwestern Europe that gives us a direct look at life in the Bronze and Iron Ages’ in facebook Posted in 19th April 2015. Available online: [19 April 2015]

Bain, J. and Wallis, R.J. (2006) ‘The Sanctity of Burial: Pagan Views, Ancient and Modern’ in Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice conference proceedings at the Manchester Museum. Available online:,136200,en.pdf [3 May 2015]

Beinkowski, P. (2006) ‘Persons, Things and Archaeology: Contrasting World-Views of Minds, Bodies and Death’ in Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice conference proceedings at the Manchester Museum. Available online: [3 May 2015]

Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (CEGC) (2012) Available online: [5 May 2015]

Human Tissue Act (2004) Office of Public Sector Information c.30 Available online: [3 May 2015]

Giles, M. (2006) ‘Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice’ in Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice conference proceedings at the Manchester Museum. Available online: [3 May 2015]

 Lobell, J.A. and Patel, S.S. (2010) ‘Bog Bodies Rediscovered. True Tales From the Peat Marshes Of Northern Europe’ in ARCHAEOLOGY Vol. 63(3) [19 April 2015]

Orr, E.R. (2006) ‘Human Remains: The Acknowledgement of Sanctity’ in Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice conference proceedings at the Manchester Museum. Available online: [3 May 2015]


This article in the Post Hole: (edited)


Archaeological excavation – destructive?


“Every archaeological site is itself a document. It can be read by a skilled excavator, but it is destroyed by the very process which enables us to read it. Unlike the study of an ancient document, the study of a site by excavation is an unrepeatable experiment: (Barker 1993:13). Using archaeological examples and case studies, discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with this statement and evaluate the relative value of non – destructive methods in archaeological investigation. 

Excavation came from the Latin word excavare: ex- ‘out’ and cavare ‘make or become hollow. According to Oxford Dictionary (2011), excavation is the act of excavating, which digs, extracts, or removes materials from the ground/earth in order to find remains. Excavation is the main tool of the archaeologist into discovering the past. Without it, only a portion of the human past will be recovered and studied (Champion 1980: 43). According to Barker (1993:13-14) It is “almost the only source of information…[that] provides evidence where the documents are silent or missing…it is only a method of producing evidence about the past, a means to an end [however] it is always destructive… [Furthermore] only excavation can uncover a sequence of structures, recover stratified and secure dating evidence”. Excavation tries to “identify, define, uncover, date, and – by understanding transformation processes – interpret each archaeological context on a site” (Drewett 1999:107). It attempts to “record precisely what’s in the ground…where it is in both horizontal and vertical space…[and] reconstruct what happened on the site…” (King 2005: 71-72). Depending on the scale of discovery and destruction it results to, different people have their perspectives on ‘excavation’. Relatively, such perspectives are tied up with the purpose and aim of excavation. There are loads of excavation objectives but they mostly fall on either one of the three main categories: (1) Salvage and Rescue archaeology to which sites are being excavated to save the information that will no longer be available in the long term. Such sites are those that are vulnerable to natural erosion, development of new road systems, construction of houses, buildings, dams and etc. (Champion 1980: 43; King 2005:33, 61; Walker 2001; Renfrew and Banh 2008:75; Drewett 1999:107). (2) Excavating to expand the knowledge of the past – Research intensives (King 2005:28-29). And lastly, (3) for conservation purposes of cultural and heritage sites by differing organizations (King 2005: 87; Renfrew and Banh 2008:75).

Excavation, according to Barker (1986:71) extracts everything that is known leaving little original evidence of the site. He argues further that the soil containing the material remains plays a major part in human development (Barker 1993:14) making the study of landscape a recent and growing sub discipline (Renfrew and Banh 2008:77). Furthermore, in recent years archaeologists are now taking into consideration how ‘off-site’ or ‘non-site’ areas may have also affected human development, especially where people are leading a mobile life and “have left only a sparse archaeological record” (Renfrew and Banh 2008:77), which needed to be documented and carefully analyzed rather than excluding it from the main excavation site. These sites are “very faint scatters of artifacts that might not qualify as ‘sites’ but…nevertheless represent significant human activity” (Renfrew and Banh 2008:77). There are a number of writers and scholars who refer to excavation being ‘destructive’ but never give an exact example or case study of such sites since the discovery and information being rescued outweighs the destruction that excavation holds. This is also probably because the excavation process itself, being a demolishing process, i.e. digging out soil for certain amount of depth in grid squares, is self explainable (Barker 1986:73- 99). “Whether on a small or massive scale, [it] involves the destruction of the primary evidence, which can never be recovered nor repeated since no two sites are identical” (Champion 1980:43). In response to this, if excavation is never held with reference to the three main purposes of excavation above, then human knowledge of the past will never be accounted and be enumerated to our archives. King (2005:60-61) states that sites are ‘non-renewable resources’ because they never grow back. The most intriguing words from him are that “we may be the last archaeologists to have a shot at the site before it’s totally destroyed”. He, Champion, and Barker could all mean that they probably want archaeologists to recognize that excavation is itself disrupting the actual resting place of antiquities and when excavating, they need to maximize their time to attain the greatest information they can in order to outweigh the destruction it brings.

On the other side of the argument, some hold the idea that excavation is not a destructive process. So far, there is not a single scholarly book which states that excavation is not destructive, they all however refer to non-destructive methods that may limit the need for excavation (this would be evaluated later). For instance, ground survey and with the help of technologies are able to outline the geological and geographical format of the landscape which enables archaeologists to have an idea of the site. Egyptologist Mark Lehner used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the Giza Plateau which exposed the “vast urban centre attached to the pyramids, sometimes known as ‘The Lost City of the Pyramid Builders’” (Renfrew and Binh 2008:92). The technology was also used to integrate all the information they have including “thousands of digital photographs, notebooks, forms and artifacts into a single organized data [that enabled them to] map patterns of architecture, burials, artifacts and other materials” (Renfrew and Binh 2008:92). The discovery of so called ‘Japanese Atlantis’ at Yonaguni proved to have shed a light into the archaeological evidences of ‘pyramids’ and somehow brought legendary stories, which have been passed down from generations in Ryukyu Islands, back to life (Journeyman Pictures 2008). Scholars stated that history and archaeological books needed to be rewritten again (Zombiehellmonkey 2010). Masaaki Kimura, a marine geologist from University of Ryukyu believes that a 5,000 year old city lies below the surface of the water “based on dates of stalactites found inside underwater caves…ruins of a castle, a triumphal arch, five temples [and] one large stadium” (Ryall 2007). In this case, the knowledge attained from excavating the ruins at Yonaguni is immensely valuable that the little details of destruction that excavation brings did not even matter. Even though that excavation in Yonaguni was done underwater, the processes are alike but the scale of destruction may differ. For instance, “shifting vast quantities of sediment [and] removing bulky objects” from the ocean floor to the surface may entail that some materials may be lost (Renfrew and Banh 2008:109). Excavation is not the only means of bringing destruction to sites, other factors such as natural soil erosion or even tourism could cause even more damage. The differences between them are that one is beneficial for knowledge and research while the other is economically tied up. For instance, the ruins of Angkor Watt was kept stable and firm due to the water reservoirs it is built onto but recent years, illegal pumping of water by hotels and other developments drains the life out of the irreplaceable site, evidence of collapses in some parts of the temples are already revealing. Though tourism is an economic advantage for Cambodia, it is on the other hand, continuously destroying her heritage sites. (AljezeeraEnglish 2010).

Moving on, there are other methods in which the use of excavation may be limited whilst obtaining some sort of information. Such are called ‘non-destructive’ or ‘pre excavation’ techniques. Questions arises to what extent are they different, Green (2002:50) argues that non-destructive methods are pre-excavation techniques and therefore are one and same. Furthermore, Roskam (2001:48) states that such techniques, whether you term them as either so, is used “to give knowledge of sites prior to full excavation”. One such feature is Reconnaissance survey: aerial and ground (Renfrew and Banh 2008: 74, 79, 95, 99).  It has “developed from being … a preliminary stage…to a more or less independent…inquiry, an area of research in its own right which can produce information quite different from …digging.” (Renfrew and Banh 2008:77). Aerial reconnaissance or so famously termed ‘aerial photography’ consists of different sub strategies that assist in locating and acquiring information from sites (Greene 2002:62). For example, the use of oblique and vertical photographs has its own drawbacks and advantages that consequently affect the way interpreters and archaeologists decipher sites (Renfrew and Banh 2008: 83). Other techniques used are analyzing crop marks, soil marks and earth works in the landscape because they reveal where materials have been buried. For instance, cropmarks can clearly exhibit where the archaeological remains are since “buried features either enhance or reduce the growth of plants.” (Greene 2002:63 – 64; Roskams 2001:44) This abnormality is used to assess the sites in order to gain information or to help prepare for excavations. In recent decades, technological advancement also proved to be a useful and valuable tool. These are, for instance, infrared and radar photography, satellite images, digital terrain modeling, computer enhancement and etc. (Renfrew and Banh 2008:86), which critically reveal landscape and geological features and also enhance the sharpness and contrasts of photos. Aerial photography has it’s own pros and cons. The advantages of it is that identification of archaeological sites became easier and time efficient rather than analyzing ancient documents and maps to locate sites. For example, Father Antoine Poidebard in Syria had “discovered many new forts and roads [showing] that underwater sites could be detected from the air, revealing for the first time the ancient harbor beneath the sea at Tyre, Lebanon” (Renfrew and Banh 2008:79). Moreover, “hundreds of sites have been dug [and] has helped decide where… digging would be most productive” (Barker 1986:58) According to Greene (2002:57,62), it “made the greatest single contribution to archaeological fieldwork and recording” and is continuously playing a major role in mapping and documenting sites. However, on the contrary, aerial photographs reveal the potential of a site but sites are far more complex from the look into the air (Barker 1986:58). This means that excavation still needs to be done if considering to do further research. In essence, aerial photography is of a great advantage in terms of locating, mapping, and documenting sites, to an extent, however if considering further research on the particular sites, excavation is still the main method. Likewise, ground reconnaissance is another non-destructive method, which, like aerial reconnaissance, has sub strategies that makes it productive and useful. Its advantages are that it can map the whole landscape of the site using three types of geophysical and geochemical sensing: resistivity, magnetometry, and radar transmission (Greene 2002:73;Roskams 2001:52). When combining aerial and ground reconnaissance into a 3-D model, the results are immensely magnificent and significant; therefore, the use of excavation may be taken into consideration (Roskams 2001:56).

In essence, excavation is said to be ‘destructive’ because of its processes as stated by Barker, Champion and King, to an extent that the scale of discovery and knowledge gained from it outweighs the destruction it brings. With reference to examples mentioned, such as the Japanese Atlantis and the lost city of pyramid builders in the Giza Plateau, excavation expands our knowledge of the human past. It is the means to an end when it comes to further research on sites. ‘Non – destructive’ methods are ‘pre-excavation’ techniques because they are used to attain as much information as they can before resolving into excavation. They are pretty useful especially when combining aerial and ground survey techniques together because it may even not need excavation.


Barker, Philip (1986) Understanding Archaeological Excavation. London: B T Batsford Limited

Barker, Philip. (1993) Techniques of Archaeological Excavation (third edition). London: B.T. Batsford

Champion, Sara. (1980) A Dictionary of Terms and Techniques in Archaeology. London: Morisson and Bibb Ltd.

Drewett, Peter (1999) Field Archaeology. An introduction. London: UCL Press

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King, Thomas F. (2005) Doing Archaeology. A Cultural Resource Management Perspective. California: Left Coast Press

Renfrew, Colin & Bahn, Paul (2008) Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (fifth edition). London: Thames and Hudson

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This essay earned CAS point of 20/20 according to University of Aberdeen’s grading system. What are your thoughts on excavation? Do you agree that it is destructive? Do you agree that excavation is necessary and justifiable if immense information on the site would be recovered and archived for future uses and research?

Let me know what you think in the comment section.

This article in The Post Hole: (edited)