Sometimes, people can be encouraged to do the right thing.
A colleague sent me a link to a story about the pending sale of 14 artifacts dug at Gettysburg back in 1949. This, in and of itself, is not that shocking, as Civil War artifacts happen all the time. I kept myself fairly nauseated trying to keep track of items from Pea Ridge (northwest Arkansas, March of 1863) while working on a National Park Service project ten years ago… the amount of information about our past lost was just staggering. This sale was different, and special in the most negative way.
It contained a human skull.
The Estate Auction Company of Hagerstown, Maryland, came into possession of a lot of Civil War artifacts recovered from the Benner Farm in 1949. These include a bayonet fragment, cartridge box breast plate, round balls, and, as just mentioned, a human skull. Based on items found in his vicinity, he may have been a Louisianan. Two brigades of infantry (Hays’ and Nicholls’) of Louisianans marched in the 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia under Richard S. Ewell, so the remains may (MAY) be from one of those units). However, the area of recovery was known to have been a hospital during the battle, so the best that can be reliably guessed at is that he was a Confederate, provided he was a wartime burial (which is, itself, an assumption).
News of the sale provoked such an outcry that the auction house cancelled the sale today and is transferring the remains to the park, so internet-spread outrage won out!
Still, I have a couple of thoughts on this episode:
- The fact that this man’s remains were still on the Benner Farm to be excavated in 1949 is likely a function of his service to the Confederacy. The U.S. Army mounted an effort after the war to relocate U.S. Army personnel to military cemeteries, leaving Confederate dead to Southern initiative. Marked-off, delineated burial grounds contain an air of sanctity beyond that of the mean farm plot where this man’s skull was recovered; one that diggers would never (we all hope) violate. The lack of protection given the Confederate soldier left his remains unprotected 80 years after the battle, when his head was disinterred, and keeps it vulnerable today, 150+ years after his demise.
- Kudos to U.S. Navy Veteran David Meadows, of Frederick, Maryland, for pointing out the immorality of selling the remains. He was particularly concerned with them as they were a soldier’s remains, and the dehumanization inherent in making his skull an item for rude sale should trouble all. Hanlon (2014a) points out that several other sets of remains have been sold in the Commonwealth in recent years, but that does not change this situation. Whatever kind of burial the man received, he was intended to remain at rest, not be trafficked along with the inanimate objects that surrounded him on the field.
- Yes, I realize archaeologists have about zero high ground on this matter, given our collective past.
- This is going to sound really smug, but this sale wouldn’t have been legal in Arkansas. The Natural State’s Burial Law (Act 753 of 1991) criminalizes trafficking in human remains. Section 4 of that act reads “Anyone who knowingly buys, sells, or barters human skeletal burial remains or their associated burial furniture is committing a Class A misdemeanor for the first offense and a Class D felony on the second and subsequent offenses.” That some states lack such legislation boggles my mind, frankly. Maryland’s (the sale was to be in Hagerstown, MD) only forbids selling items taken from illegal digs, according to Washington County (MD) state’s attorney Brett Wilson, quoted in Hanlon (2014b). As this dig was legal, the sale could have gone through.
- Now, while the SALE would be illegal here, the skull could be legally-owned in Arkansas, as it would have been grandfathered in under the 1991 law.
- Auctioneer Tom Taylor offered the following quote regarding the skull: “It’s really one of the neatest things I’ve ever seen. This person may have given their life for their country. It’s something of honor and historical significance.” Yes, I agree on all accounts, but I don’t understand how such a thought can occupy the same mental space as his follow-up comment: “It’s not that it’s an offensive thing. It’s a historical artifact — a museum-quality piece.” The “person” has become a “piece,” to be commodified and sold. Taylor offered the idea that the winning bidder could donate the remains to the park for reburial, but that would be after he reaped the substantial return that such a sale was expected to bring (Dekok 2014). If he had gotten such a large stack of money for the bones, it would have only encouraged more such sales down the line. Those may still happen, but I’m overjoyed to see this not go through.
- While people were generally up in arms about the sale, the way archaeologists reacted on various formats of social media seems struck in the mold of the conversations we had in the 1980s, which culminated in NAGPRA (1990). I’d love to see (someone else write) a monograph on links between the NAGPRA debates and burials legislation passed in the 1990s and on. Our burial law dates to 1991, Maryland’s to 1999, and Pennsylvania’s “Historic Burial Places Preservation Act” dates to 1994. Doesn’t seem like a coincidence. If this pattern really goes somewhere, a societal good came out of the negotiations beyond that of developing a mechanism for repatriation and collaboration with Native American tribes.
2014 Skull of Civil War Soldier Found at Gettysburg to be Auctioned. Reuters (http://news.yahoo.com/skull-civil-war-soldier-found-gettysburg-auctioned-191752730.html, accessed 6/2/14).
2014a Skull of Civil War Soldier to be Auctioned in Hagerstown. York Daily Record, June 2 (http://www.ydr.com/local/ci_25877374/skull-civil-war-soldier-be-auctioned-hagerstown, accessed 6/2/14).
2014b U.S. Park Service in Gettysburg: Auction of Skull is a ‘Spectacle.’ York Daily Record, June 2 (http://www.ydr.com/local/ci_25881838/u-s-park-service-gettysburg-auction-skull-is#, accessed 6/2/14).
2014 Auction of Civil War Soldier’s Remains Sparks Outrage, Bidding Cancelled. Your4State.com (http://www.your4state.com/story/d/story/auction-of-civil-war-soldiers-remains-sparks-outra/16107/fHMQ-BJyTEiVyuoJLZH_TA, accessed 6/2/14).