These days, research on the depth and breadth of the global illicit antiquities trade, and how best to dismantle and prevent it, grows ever-more diverse. One particularly under-studied aspect continues to fascinate me: the trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains. With licit and clearly illicit faces, deals conducted online (but most likely primarily off-line), this trade forms but one component of a vast global “red market“- the vast, legal and illegal trade in organs, tissues, eggs, blood, even children.
The existence of this trade is especially poignant given the affront to human dignity it represents, as portions of once-living people, with added significance as objects of cultural heritage, are reduced to commodities to buy and sell on the “open” market, not to mention the damage caused to ancient and recent burial sites to provide some of this “merchandise.”
A new paper just published by myself and my colleague Prof. Duncan Chappell from the University of Sydney, Australia, presents the first attempt to update, and provide a snapshot, of the online portion of this trade. It is the first relevant attempt, by our reckoning, in more than 10 years. It has been released early-view online in the Journal of Crime, Law, and Social Change (DOI # 10.1007/s10611-014-9528-4), and is now available in the SAFE resources section. In it, we provide an overview and an update, from legal, criminological and archaeological perspectives, of the current scope of the (predominately) online trade in human remains.
Given that this research was conducted on our own time, by necessity we focused on that component of the trade we could actually access-online markets from eBay to private galleries to auction houses. Given that very little published research of this nature has been conducted, and the most prominent examples of what exists focus on such specific contexts as the eBay sale of specimens with potential medico-legal import (e.g. Huxley and Finnegan 2004), we figured it was about time to rectify this.
Our search for archaeological and ethnographic human remains includes everything from mummies to trophy skulls, Tibetan skull-cap “damaru” drums and “kangling” flutes made from human femora and tibiae, to all manner of items marketed as “curios,” as well as primarily cranial specimens allegedly bought and sold for medical research only. Using key word and phrase searches on common search engines as well as mining public-access collector and dealer fora, we created a database that allowed us to quantify this ‘snapshot’ of what is being sold where, and by which kind of dealer (auction house vs. online gallery vs. private, usually anonymous, sellers). This information should provide a baseline for future studies to keep tracking the trade over time, especially when/if laws change in source or demand countries.
Without rehashing all the results in advance of publication, the data in general suggests a small but persistent global trade still exists, primarily conducted by European and North American based dealers selling items (primarily trophy skulls) from as far away as Peru, New Guinea, Vanuatu, West Africa, Naga land in India, and Borneo. More surprising were at least one example of an Egyptian mummy head recently and unsuccessfully offered for sale, with records still available online if one searched the darker corners of the internet. Although the dealer or auction websites that our searches turned up quickly became repetitive, in time, new examples will continuously come to light.
Unsurprisingly, the data suggests that auction houses, smaller online galleries and private (usually anonymous) sellers target different markets (“tribal art” enthusiasts vs. seekers of curios and “oddities” vs. seekers of oft-times professionally prepared medical specimens, allegedly for continued teaching purposes). Substantial overlap occurs. Although rare instance of the altruistic “sale” of human remains can occur, as the photo below from the Mütter Museum “Save Our Skulls” adoption program attests to, usually the exchange of money for human remains is purely profit driven.
Different marketing tactics were also employed, with the majority of online galleries and some auction houses presenting “back stories” of old collections or collecting trips, occasional reference literature, and dealer biographies to entice potential customers and convince them of the “authenticity” of what they seek to buy. Sadly, the same care was not taken to ensure potential customers of the legality (for transfer of ownership, import or export) of the sale. Indeed, the overall impression gained from our research is that most dealers in such material are more than happy to operate by “caveat emptor” and abdicate responsibility once payment occurs, and (for this trade to exist) it appears that many buyers are willing to play along. Perhaps any sales conducted one-on-one off line are even less transparent?
With the majority of ongoing or recent sales recorded at the time of writing via small, semi-anonymous galleries or private dealers hiding behind eBay handles, this is not surprising. Despite clear policy, our research suggests that enforcement continues to rely too heavily on self-policing or reports from concerned citizens when news of suspicious auctions “go viral.” Although the rules state that only non-Native American remains used/to be used specifically for medical research purposes can be listed, we could detect no evidence whatsoever that any kind of due diligence or proof is required by either buyer or seller. Examples such as this demonstrate this clearly.
Even in the short amount of time between online release last month and now, I’ve discovered or heard about several more examples of ongoing or halted sales of human remains. Ranging from the attempted, but halted sale of an autopsied medical specimen as a raffle prize (thanks be to the astute blogger and animal bone enthusiast Jake of “Jake’s Bones”), to the unexpected donation of three skulls; two likely Caucasian former medical specimens, one a Native American child of unknown context, to a Seattle Goodwill. Fortunately, this donation has inspired others to turn in human remains in their possession to the local Medical Examiner’s office, as opposed to anonymous sale to the highest bidder or being throwing away.
Other examples of dealers in human remains as ‘curios’ have been uncovered, and will be added to a greatly expanded database as we take this research further and reassess motivations for buying and selling in more detail. Our long term goal is to document and publicize as many case studies as possible so as to both raise awareness and help affect legal reform. It is my firm belief that research on any form of illicit or questionably legal activity must also go hand in hand with public awareness.
Deliberate sale of freshly surfaced remains destroys archaeological context, while the sale and seemingly no-questions-asked purchasing of even old medical specimens and ethnographica not only risks breaking local or international law, but also robs a people of unique cultural heritage and, as importantly, steals the dignity of respect in death from the person being sold.
At the end of the day, we must remember that even if only a small component of the global trade in antiquities or ethnographica, the trade in human remains uniquely cross-cuts both the “red” and “grey” market (illicit made licit).
With undoubtedly much occurring off-line and policing of the online trade apparently largely voluntary, much remains to be done to expose those who put profit above all other concerns when handling these “bones of contention.”