23 Nov 2013

Britons wrestle with sending back human remains

11:23 pm on 23 November 2013

Mummified heads, tattooed skulls and relics of sacrifices are among a collection of about 60 ancient body parts that the University of Birmingham no longer wants in its stores.

After returning a Maori tattooed head and skulls to New Zealand, university staff say the institution now faces a wider problem of what to do with other ancient remains identified in the medical school stores.

Dr June Jones, religious and cultural diversity expert at the university, said the remains reflect European exploration and the former British Empire.

Each item is boxed and labelled with a location, including Fiji, East Africa, Australia, the USA and New Zealand. Some are simply classified 'Inca'.


There is scant paperwork about how the body parts came to be in Birmingham, but it is likely they were collected by wealthy individuals in the 1700s and 1800s before being donated to the medical school, which was founded in 1825.

"To keep them would be wrong," said Dr Jones.

"These items being stolen or traded is an example of historical practices we're now deeply ashamed of," she added.

The collection is made up mostly of skulls. Some of them show marks that suggest they have been used for phrenology, a practice popular in the 19th Century that tried to prove links between head shape and character.

Others are misshapen, which the university suspects were children selected for sacrifice whose heads were bound from birth to produce unusual deformities.

Te Papa role

Dr Jones recently instigated the repatriation of a tattooed Maori head and skeletal remains to New Zealand.

Inviting Maori delegates from Te Papa to collect the artefacts - their ancestors - was the culmination of more than two years' research work.

Arapata Hakiwai, the Maori leader of the museum, said: "Repatriation is always very special, it's the return of our ancestors home."

Dr Jones has also returned one set of skulls herself, carried as luggage with special permission, on a flight to California.

She said: "I spent most of the day crying. It's a huge responsibility looking after these things. It is almost like carrying a baby and giving it back to its mum.

"They are so much more than bones to the tribes, they are getting their heritage back."

At one stage Aberdeen University claimed to own about 80,000 Maori exhibits. Some of these were returned in 2006, when Neil Curtis, the curator of the university's Marischal Museum, said: "They are no longer objects, they are people."

Oxford University continues to display some of its tribal remains publically, in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

It has a policy of assessing education and research significance before remains are considered for repatriation.

Birmingham University is now planning to return skulls to Australia, despite having limited details of where they originated.

A decision will be made by the end of the year on whether to invite indigenous representatives to Birmingham or to send Dr Jones to Australia with the remains.

Where no provenance and rightful owner can be found, the university admits it may have to "sensitively destroy" remains by cremation.