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Archaeology and human remains in England and Wales

IfA and others have been in discussions with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) since problems arose in 2008 from a new interpretation of existing legislation relating to human remains. Both IfA and the MoJ had hoped that legislative reform could take place before the first licences with two-year deferred reburial conditions expired. We had also hoped that reform would allow professionally accredited archaeologists to be exempted from applying for licences under legislation designed for other purposes (except in the case of recent remains where particular sensitivities apply).

IfA is disappointed that legislative reform has not happened and is exploring, with others, the options available to accelerate the process. We recognise that overnight solutions are unlikely, but we have recently met with MoJ to discuss how best to manage the ongoing issues.

There are encouraging signs. The Ministry has again reviewed the existing legislation and now considers that it can lawfully follow a more flexible interpretation. It is taking advice from English Heritage over the wording of licence application forms and the conditions of licences, particularly with regard to reburial.

Meanwhile, in the absence of legislative reform IfA will continue to press MoJ for

  • a reduced requirement on professionally accredited archaeological organisations, given that there are trusted, independent quality assurance mechanisms to confirm the necessary technical and ethical competence
  • licences to be issued with either a condition that any remains are reburied within an appropriate period (in accordance with standard archaeological practice for remains of limited research potential), or with a condition allowing for their retention in an appropriate facility for future study
  • a mechanism allowing archaeologists to apply for the condition to be varied should assessment alter understanding of the research potential of the assemblage
  • this mechanism to be available for remains excavated since 2008 under the interim arrangements, whether or not an extension of the two-year period has been applied for

While some human remains excavated under post-2008 conditions have been reburied, many others are subject to extensions. IfA recognises that the present uncertainty creates difficulties for museums, but is not currently aware of an instance where an application for an extension has been turned down by MoJ. We would welcome further comment or information where members consider it appropriate.

Chartered Institute for Archaeologists
Miller Building, University of Reading
Reading, Berkshire RG6 6AB

0118 378 6446