When does grave robbing become archeology?

That is to say, how long is somebody buried in a graveyard before they become fair game for an archeological dig? Perhaps there’s no precise answer but I would interested in hearing about relevant law in the US say.

According to Australian Aboriginal groups it is always grave robbing. There are active campaigns to have all Aboriginal remains held by museums worldwide reburied.

I imagine many other Indigenous groups feel the same way.

I’m interested in this question. I imagine there’s another permutation insofar that some discovered graves might be dug up for examination but then the remains reburied, whereas (if old enough) then hey, let’s put old Tiberius on display in a museum.

Archaeology doesn’t always mean the contents of the grave are taken away. That which investigates, records, but leaves in place never becomes grave robbing.

That said, IMO it depends on the motive. Grave robbing is done so that the contents are sold for money, and no research or intellectual capital is generated. On the other hand archaeology done without consideration of the descendants’ feeling or culture may not be grave robbing per se, but is still a grave wrong.

On the third hand, there are many cases where the current locals in a given area are not in fact descendants of the people who produced the relics being investigated, but may be carrying an understandable grievance that is being expressed in this way. In such a case I still think there is little ethical choice but to accede to their requests, whatever one’s private feeling may be in the matter. There can’t be much argument that human remains ought at some stage be interred in their place of origin, no matter the circumstances.

Also along the lines of motive, it depends on if there are things to be learned by digging someone up. If someone gets buried in a cemetery that kept good records that can still be corroborated to the actual burials, there’s really not that much point in digging them up.

On the other hand, if it’s just some anonymous grave out somewhere, you have to dig it up to know anything about it. Around here, they’ve done some archeology on old ghost town cemeteries that were forgotten and reclaimed by the woods. In some of these, some of the burials date back only to the 1910’s and 20’s.

Obviously having someone around who doesn’t want you dug up helps. Maybe if the people from the old towns had bothered enough to keep track of where their ancestors were buried, they might have objected to them being dug up, but then there would probably be no need to dig them up!

As an aside, I would personally disagree with Askance about remains that can’t be linked to current groups, but that’s more of a GD topic.

In the US, if human remains are culturally linked to a modern tribe, they are protected by federal law. This was established in the case of Kennewick Man, a skeleton discovered in Washington State, and the subject of a lawsuit in federal court which established that the skeleton in question, dating back some 8,000 years, was not an ancestor of the Umatilla tribe who brought the lawsuit.

An interesting question to me is why a Native American grave from, say, 1800, is protected but a German settler’s grave from the same period in teh same county is fair game. And in what sense are generic 20th Century black, white, asian, or mongrel Americans not “native” when the archaeologists in the year 2200 come a-diggin’ ??

This question is exactly why I want my coffin to be booby trapped with explosives when I’m buried.

Because the Euro-American concept of “family” only extends to those who are demonstrably and immediately related to you, whereas the Native American definition is much much broader, encompassing more or less everyone in their society past and present. There is also a much broader importance given to ancestors in general, even if the ancestors in question are long since forgotten.

EDIT TO ADD: Also, to sort of speculate, another thing to mention is that most people of European ancestry wouldn’t necessarily consider digging someone up to learn something about them to really be that disrespectful. I sure wouldn’t care.

I think you are confused. The Federal Law in regards to Native tribes has to do with the remains not the grave per se. The Tribes have the right to demand repatriation of the remains. The law tends to cover remains that are found accidentally, or through archaeological surveys that are required before road work and other State and Federal construction projects can proceed. You need permission to dig on private and public land alike. For me to just wander into a privately owned cemetary or a Federal wilderness area and start a-digging is a crime.

A german settler’s historically significant gravesite could easily gain equal or greater protection by being placed in the National Register of Historic Places. If you know of a specific gravesite it is probably already on the Register.

And I would agree with them.

I’m sorry, but this sounds dangerously close to “noble savage” mythologizing. Are you suggesting that Native American beliefs in this regard were uniform, across all Native American languages and cultures? Cite? Actually, multiple cites (since you would need one for each of the many Native American cultural groups)? And are you suggesting that there is no one of European descent who would object to digging up a grave unless it is a direct ancestor or relative? Are you sure about that? And are you saying that there is no Native American out there who wouldn’t give a flip about digging up one of his distant ancestors for archaeological reasons? What about persons of mixed ancestry? How do they feel on this subject? Beware broad strokes.

Mythologizing nothing, I think it’s a bunch of hooey myself.

But this is essentially the rationale behind NAGPRA, right? Native Americans are entitled to make decisions about the remains of all of their ancestors. It’s not like the government has to call the Sons of Norway if they find some old Scandinavian immigrants or the Hibernians if they find some Irish people. Native Americans are the only group given this right/power/whatever you want to call it.

No doubt there are individual members of both groups who would take the opposite stance (I personally know some Native Americans who were pretty angry at the Umatillas for blocking study of Kennewick Man), but it is indeed these broad cultural generalizations that are the rationale for the laws. Do you really think the preservation of their ancient graves would have been such a priority in treaty after treaty if they were just sort of ho-hum on the issue?

The real answer (as opposed to the other answer just given) is because for many years Native American graves were not given the protections that other graves were given. You can’t just go and dig up a cemetery without a good reason, but until reletively recently you could go dig up an old Native American grave just for the hell of it.

Also, many Native American tribes (most?) were not in the habit of marking their graves, so it’s very common to accidentally find NA graves that nobody knew about. In contrast, mainstream American culture tends to bury people in defined locations, and mark the graves, so it’s pretty obvious where you can and can’t dig. Basically, the laws protecting NA graves exist because they were needed.

did you stumble accross the grave site (digging for other things) or did you go there pourposely to look at what was burried there? Were things removed? Was the removal sanctioned/recorded/meant to preseve whatever was found or for profit?

IMHO, the answers to that make all the difference.

Is this true? I had thought that you could, in fact, dig up a cemetery if you felt like it–assuming that you owned it, of course. And it was not Native American. What is the Straight Dope?

I don’t know about the Germans but I don’t think the English are much bothered. For example, I dug up (ha!) this story from last year about bodies buried in London.
They put the really interesting ones on display.

I want my burial site to be a well-labeled time capsule for archaeologists in the far distant future.

Just throw me on the compost pile and let me decompose a while.

Ditto, except mine is going to contradict everything they think they know about our time.

This documentary will largely be inspired by what’s found in my tomb.