Rescue have recently written to The Right Honourable Kenneth Clarke Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, over recent changes to conditions on licenses granted under the Burial Act of 1857 and the Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act of 1981.
These changes have made rapid reburial a key requirement of such licenses, which have placed limitations on the timescales available for effective archaeological analysis of many assemblages.
Under the Burial Acts 1857 and 1981 it is an offence in England and Wales to exhume human remains without a licence, but these acts do not say what should (or should not happen) to excavated human remains. The Secretary of State can however prescribe precautions as a condition of the licence.
Before 2008 licences from the Home Office permitted human remains excavated by archaeologists to be curated in museums, or reburied (which happened if an ethnic or religious community could be identified and requested it).
In 2008 pending a promised review of the arrangements the Ministry of Justice introduced new conditions to such licences issued to archaeologists. These have caused deep concern.
In November 2010 Kenneth Clarke advised Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee for the House of Commons, that he had received no formal representations against the current scheme, and that professional archaeologists had advised that the arrangements had given rise to no particular difficulties.
RESCUE’s letter explains why the present arrangements for managing the excavation of human remains are in fact viewed by many in the UK archaeology and heritage professions as unacceptable. It has taken two years for the full implications of these arrangements to become apparent, and we believe they are not in the public or national interest.