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Saturday, October 19, 2002

By David Lore


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 reburial.

"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 doctoral dissertation.

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 impossible.

"We wouldn't be allowed to do it now, because it's a cemetery,'' she said last week.

"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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