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ARCHAEOLOGISTS TOLD NOT TO DISTURB REMAINS
Saturday, October 19, 2002
By David Lore
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The new motto at the Ohio Historical Society could be "Rest in peace.''
Under a moratorium recently announced to staff archaeologists, any prehistoric
human remains discovered during excavations are "to be left in place'' except
in special circumstances.
"They are to note it, mark it, but not do any further excavations until we
feel more comfortable with our relations to native peoples,'' said Rachel
Tooker, the society's chief operating officer.
Previously, skeletal material was routinely returned to the Ohio Historical
Center in Columbus for study and storage. The society's collection as of last
year included 6,549 individual pieces or sets of human remains as well as
107,000 artifacts identified as grave goods.
"I kind of hated to make this the issue,'' Tooker said. "Our bottom line is to
improve communications with tribal groups.''
American Indian groups welcome the move, but say they won't be satisfied until
all remains and grave artifacts now in collections are returned to them for
"We think this is a very good thing and we're happy Rachel put it in place,''
said Barbara Mann of Toledo, a spokesperson for the Native American Alliance
of Ohio. "But it's high time. Ohio is behind the times, and Rachel is trying
to pull (the society) into the 21st century.''
Mann believes the moratorium, imposed in late July, is a reaction to the bad
publicity the society received last spring when it removed three prehistoric
Indian skeletons during a construction project at the Fort Meigs State
Memorial in Perrysburg.
The Indian bones remain at the Historical Center in Columbus while six
skeletons from a 19th century settler graveyard disturbed at the same site are
being returned to descendants for reburial.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requires
archaeologists to inventory and report Indian remains and artifacts in their
collections, and establishes how federally recognized tribes can reclaim them.
The law controls how remains and artifacts are handled after they are
collected. It doesn't deal with whether grave objects should be removed or
left alone in the first place.
According to a society memorandum, if human remains are found, "The location
of the burial will be recorded and provisions made to safeguard it from future
disturbance and vandalism.''
Decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis if the graves lie in the path
of construction or are in a "disturbed'' state, the memo states.
The Ohio moratorium does not deal with artifacts, such as jewelry or
ceremonial objects, or items already in the society's collection.
Archaeologists say this will mean the loss of some scientific information, but
they appear to be accepting the restrictions as inevitable.
"This is becoming more and more the norm,'' said Brian Redmond, president of
the Ohio Archaeological Council. "We've had a similar policy here at the
Cleveland Museum of Natural History since the 1980s: If something is not in
danger of being destroyed, we let it remain.''
The same policy has been adopted by private archaeological-survey firms, said
Ohio State University archaeologist William Dancey.
"It's not unusual, and given the sensitive issues it addresses, it might be a
smart thing to talk about,'' he said.
Archaeologists don't necessarily need to study human remains, but for forensic
anthropologist Cheryl Johnston, it's a more difficult call. Johnston was a
society staff member until she resigned last month to teach and work on her
Two years ago, Johnston headed up a dig at the Carty site in Pickaway County.
There, she and others recovered some 20 dismembered skeletons from a dozen
prehistoric graves. The odd arrangement of body parts and artifacts puzzled
archaeologists, but Johnston said the new policy likely makes further work
"We wouldn't be allowed to do it now, because it's a cemetery,'' she said last
"For the archaeology staff, it's very hard to operate when you're told
absolutely not to do anything under any circumstances, especially when there
are circumstances where you might have to do it,'' Johnston said.
"Our archaeologists are highly professional,'' Tooker said. "I didn't have
major complaints from them. But they had some good questions, and we had a
very fruitful dialogue.''
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