UK's ancient secrets may be buried with old bones

Mon Feb 7, 2011 1:04am EST
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By Stefano Ambrogi

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Top British archaeologists are urging the government to rethink a law requiring human remains be reburied, warning it risks undermining years of research into the island's ancient peoples and study of their DNA.

The row stems from the reinterpretation of a law introduced in 2008 by the Ministry of Justice. The rule states human bones discovered in England and Wales since that time, regardless of their age, must be re-interred after two years.

In a letter to Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, 40 academics complained experts would have too little time to study the remains and that reburial would result in the needless destruction of immensely valuable material.

Important sites that will be affected include Stonehenge and a Viking mass burial pit near Weymouth on the south coast.

Many archaeologists believe secrets about ancient tribes and early humans in Britain could be lost to science forever if the rule is applied. Thousands of sites could be affected in the future, they say.

"Britain risks losing its leading role in archaeology, a decline that will be observed by a mystified international scientific community," the letter said.

"The current license conditions are impeding scientific research, preventing new discoveries from entering museums, and are not in the public interest," added the academics who want the government to return to the "simple, well-tried system" practiced up to 2008.

Signatories include Professor Chris Stringer, recognized as one of the world's leading experts on Neanderthals at London's Natural History Museum and the head of archaeology at Oxford University, Helena Hamerow.   Continued...