Human Remains

Major Sumner and Councillor Kevin Mitchell

Major Sumner and Councillor Kevin Mitchell at the official handing over of remains to the Ngarrindjeri delegation from Australia in 2009.

The whole point of reclaiming such remains is so we are able to at last put to rest in a traditional ceremony conducted by Aboriginal people the spirits of our ancestors who were disinterred from burial grounds or killed in the bush.”

Extract taken from Jeanette James, Laurie Lowery, Caroline Spotswood, Free Exchange of Captive Culture: The Tasmanian Aboriginal Perspective on Museums and Repatriation for the Museums Association seminar on Museums and Repatriation London 4 November 1997.

Human remains at RAMM

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) cares for a small collection of human remains, much of which is poorly documented. These remains were acquired during the 19th century by British colonials who viewed the remains of indigenous people as scientific curios but who acquired them through purchase, excavation, land acquisition, theft and other unethical activity. Their attitudes greatly differ to those we hold today.

RAMM remains proactive in returning human remains since its first act in returning human remains to New Zealand in 1996. It continues to acknowledge that many of these remains hold no value to science, and recognises that holding remains in its collections is a practice deeply offensive to originating communities. Where possible, human remains should be returned to their place of origin for the purpose of reburial. There is no intention to display them.

Despite recent attempts with the University of Exeter to better determine provenance, many of the remains still being cared for lack any useful information which is normally obtained through donor research. Such information would prove useful in securing a return to their community of origin.

Storing remains

Human remains are stored respectfully, until such a time as to when they can be returned. Within the Museum’s ethnography store, human remains are kept together in a single location, which is locked with restricted access. Each item is carefully packed in an acid-free box and appropriately cushioned with tissue. Each box is labelled with the accession number.

Historically, human remains were labelled in black ink and scientifically categorised like any other animal species. A hand written label was also secured. Such labels are no longer attached but instead are kept in small archival sleeves.

For the purpose of return, archival information is completely removed so that the remains are released from their status as scientific specimens or ethnographic artefacts, to be removed from the museum context to become once again the remains of an individual, a human being.

Whilst this is merely a simple summary, one can access the human remains storage care policies at the British Museum and the University of Oxford, for example. RAMM’s policy will soon be digitally available.

Over-modelled skulls

In 2014, the Designation Development Fund enabled research into three over-modelled skulls (Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu) and their donors. Details of this work can be found here, and will be the focus of an article due next year.

Information about RAMM’s current holdings and acts of return

Table 1. Human remains currently in RAMM’s care

Table 2. Human remains repatriated.

 

Table 1. Human remains currently cared for by ethnography department

Item Accession number & donor Country/Region of origin Additional information Current location
Cranium AN82

HU Janson?

Donated 11/02/1867

Originally presented to RAMM as a skull from NW Coast, USA.

1997 analysis strongly indicated a Pacific provenance; suggesting Australian Aborigine or a Tasmanian Aborigine.

Identified by Jerome Cybulski, Curator of Physical Anthropology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, as probably of Pacific region origin, and definitely not from the NW Coast of N. America.

 

Further work is needed. No documentation exists.

RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Cranium AN84

Major General Benjamin D’Urban

Donated 18/05/1869

South Africa

(British Kaffraria)

Male “Amakosa Kaffir starved in the famine of 1857 when 25,000 perished found near King William’s Town on the Yellow Wood River. 5 front teeth missing.” Acc. Reg. RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Cranium AN85

JC Bowring

Donated 03/09/1873

Lower Egypt “Skull of ancient Egyptian. From Col. Campbell’s tomb near the Great Sphinx, Lower Egypt, probably.” Acc. Reg RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Cranium (frag) AN206

JC Bowring

Donated 03/09/1873

Lower Egypt “Skull of ancient Egyptian. From Col. Campbell’s tomb near the Great Sphinx, Lower Egypt, probably.” Acc. Reg Frontal portion of cranium. RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Cranium AN209

EJH Culverwell

Donated 31/03/1884

Waaifontein, near Murraysburg, South Africa. “Skull of bushman found at Waaifontein in the district of Murraysburg, South Africa, 1 Aug 1883.” RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Cranium 74/1927

Mrs. MM Harte

Donated 20/10/1927

South Africa (Pondoland) No data. Collected by Mr. CMA Bruce RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Cranium 45/1929

Mrs. Flament

Donated 27/05/1929

Central or East Africa.  Shores of Lake Tanganyika, border of Tanzania and Zaire. “Dug up on shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1915.” Acc. Reg RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Lower jaw 91/1932/45

HFG Woods

Donated 11/10/1932

Rock tombs of Mount Carmel, USA “Found during blasting operations.” Acc. Reg. RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Cranium 91/1932/47

HFG Woods

Donated 11/10/1932

Benin “Skull (Homo Sapiens) West African.”

No other data.

RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Cranium (modified) 129/1935

A Riley

Donated 1935

Fly River, Papua New Guinea Over-modelled crania decorated with organic fibres.   Seeds and wood plug in eye sockets.  Vegetable fibre fringe and wood or shell section in nasal cavity.

Acquired from donor’s uncle, an LMS missionary called Ellis Baxter Riley who published a book in 1925 called ‘Among Papuan head-hunters’. EB Riley worked in PNG, acquired this skull through purchase.

World Cultures gallery E11
Cranium (modified) 59/1939

Lieut. HJR Gould

Donated 17/06/1939

SW Malekula, Tomman Island, Vanuatu (New Hebrides) Over-modelled skull.

Acquired by donor whilst serving in the Royal Australian Navy. HMAS Melbourne in 1914 was in Pacific waters.

World Cultures Gallery Case E11
Cranium (modified) Accession number unknown

Donor unknown

 

Papua New Guinea Over-modelled skull. Crania partly covered with mud and organic fibres with exposed front. RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.
Jaw Accession number unknown

Donor unknown

Papua New Guinea Separate lower jaw

Stored in same box as 129/1935

RAMM, human remains cabinet, ethnography store.

 

Table 2: Human Remains – repatriated

Item Accession number & donor Country/Region of origin Additional information
War feather box containing human bones E1653

Fred W. Reed

Donated 14/10/1877

Taken from a cave at Panmure, near Auckland. New Zealand  

Repatriated via New Zealand High Commission, London, 13/8/1996

Cranium No number New Zealand Transferred to RAMM from Weston-super-mare museum in 1993.

Repatriated via New Zealand High Commission, London, 13/8/1996

Cranium AN81

Gregory Bradley

Donated 18/08/1866

Ahousaht Nation, west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. Northwest Coast of North America  

Repatriated via Jerome S Cybulski of the Canada Museum of Civilization, Quebec, to Chief Earl Maquinna George, hereditary chief of the Ahousaht Nation in 1997.

Cranium

Bone fragments

AN90 cranium

AN91 rib

M480 right humerus

Frank W. Reed

Donated 14/11/1877

“Right and left humeri, ulna, femur, tibia and 3 ribs. Panmure, near Auckland. New Zealand. Found in a cave apparently these bones belonged to a woman.”  

Repatriated via New Zealand High Commission, London, 2005

Cranium AN88

W Dixon

Donated 27/11/1876

Near Adelaide, South Australia. “Two skulls of Australians from near Adelaide South Australia. Walter Dixon Esq.” Acc. Reg

Repatriated 2006

Cranium AN89

W Dixon

Donated 27/11/1876

Near Adelaide, South Australia. “Two skulls of Australians from near Adelaide South Australia. Walter Dixon Esq.” Acc. Reg

Repatriated 2006

Cranium AN86

Peter Orlando Hutchinson

Donated 10/1/1874

“From a native burial ground 300 miles below the junction of the River Darling with Murray in 1852”

South Australia

Female crania

Wt.13 ounces

Acc. Reg.

Repatriated 2009

Cranium AN87

Peter Orlando Hutchinson

Donated 10/1/1874

“From a native burial ground 300 miles below the junction of the River Darling with Murray in 1852”

South Australia

Male crania

Wt. 24.5 ounces

Acc. Reg.

Repatriated 2009

The Museum’s collection policy reflects this care and explains the process for return, which is conducted on a case by case basis (see RAMM Collections Development Policy 2014-2019: Appendix A). Enquires regarding human remains held by RAMM should be directed to Tony Eccles, Curator of Ethnography [email protected]

RAMM is a member of the Human Remains SSN and the Museum Ethnographers Group.