Following the success of the Richard III excavation, is it time to dig up other famous skeletons?

Rarely, in recent weeks, has archaeology been out of the history headlines: the coffin-within-a-coffin in Leicester that was found to contain a woman; the medieval bodies discovered underneath a Paris supermarket; and, of course, the countdown to Richard III’s reinterment at the end of March

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These discoveries offer unique insights into the lives of individuals and populations past, helping us to understand where, when and how people once lived. British Museum curator, Alexandra Fletcher, last year wrote that human remains “advance knowledge of the history of disease, epidemiology and human biology…. [and offer] valuable insight into different cultural approaches to death, burial and beliefs.”

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As in the case of Richard III, exhumations can also help to answer burning questions such as how the last Plantagenet king died (by two blows to the head and one to his pelvis), and from what conditions he suffered (scoliosis, malnutrition and a roundworm infection). We even know his probable hair colour (blonde, with blue eyes), and that he enjoyed a diet of swan, crane and heron!

What’s more, we are, as historian Dan Jones argued late last year, “better equipped to study historical remains than ever before”. Is it time, then, in pursuit of knowledge, to dig up other famous skeletons? Look inside, say, the urn in Westminster Abbey containing the supposed remains of the princes in the Tower; place a camera inside Elizabeth I’s tomb?

There are, of course, a number of ethical issues to consider. As Mike Parker Pearson, Tim Schadla-Hall and Gabe Moshenska state in their 2011 paper ‘Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology’: “Given the powerful emotional, social and religious meanings attached to the dead body, it is perhaps unsurprising that human remains pose a distinctive set of ethical questions for archaeologists.” Likewise, Dan Jones points out that despite living in a “relatively secular age… we are so squeamish and prissy about meddling with the dead”.

Of particular importance is the treatment of human remains: as archaeologist Grahame Johnston writes, whereas in centuries past “the remains of native people and their artefacts were torn from their locations and displayed in foreign museums or sold to high-bidding collectors with little thought for the living descendents… [today] a more respectful approach of dealing with human remains has entered into the academic stream. It is now not uncommon to have a Rabbi, at least on-call, if not on-site, on major archaeological excavations in Israel.”

The issue is often complicated further by the fact people of varying traditions and faiths may prefer to treat remains differently. As The Economist explained in 2002: “However scientifically respectable their methods, archaeologists have been forced to acknowledge that they do not operate in a vacuum, and must take the values of others into account.” The British Museum echoed this sentiment when, last year, curator Alexandra Fletcher wrote: “There is no justification for the voyeuristic display of human remains simply as objects of morbid curiosity. As in storage, displays of human remains must acknowledge that the remains were once a living person and respect this fact.”

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Queen Elizabeth I’s tomb and monument by Maximilian Colt, 1603, in Westminster Abbey. © Angelo Hornak / Alamy

A second consideration, illustrated by the battle between the University of Leicester and the Plantagenet Alliance over where Richard III’s remains should be reburied, is ownership: to whom do newly discovered human remains – and artefacts – ‘belong’? The Economist writes: “Around the world, the general question of who has the first claim on buried items – local people, the descendants of the original owners or archaeologists – is deeply controversial.”

We ought also to consider whether there is sufficient justification for disturbing the resting places of famous skeletons. According to the ethical guidelines drawn up by the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology: “No burial should be disturbed without good reason. Archaeological excavation of burial grounds is normally carried out as a response to a threat to the cemetery due to modern development. Disturbance of unthreatened sites should only be contemplated if it is essential to an adequately funded, peer-reviewed research project orientated toward specific and well-justified research aims.”

And while we might be, in the words of Dan Jones, “better equipped than ever to glean new information from… long-dead bones”, surely future generations will be better prepared still? As the Council for British Archaeology states: “In many cases, it is better to wait, to leave objects and other evidence in the ground where it has been lying safely for hundreds or thousands of years. As long as it remains safe then it is better to leave the evidence for future generations to investigate with better techniques and with better-informed questions to ask.”

It is, says The Economist, “a central paradox of archaeology… discovery involves destruction; investigation requires intrusion. Where should archaeologists draw the line when deciding how much of an important site to excavate, if they are not to hinder future investigations?”

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What, then, of our current situation? Is it time to put aside ethical considerations and, in the pursuit of knowledge, widen the archeological net? Share your views by commenting below, tweeting us @HistoryExtra, or by posting on our Facebook page.