Research on human remains vs. preservation of skeletal collections

During the last couple of decades, human skeletal remains have become increasingly popular as research material in Norway. This has caused greater pressure on the skeletal Collections, and the importance of regulating access to material has become increasingly important. As a biological anthropologist and a researcher I would like to have access to every skeleton there is; imagine what questions could be investigated and which answers could be found. At the same time, I see that if everybody should have free access to every skeleton and be allowed to carry out any analyses they fancy, the material would deteriorate quickly and its value as research material would decrease. So, how do we find a balance between getting important research done and still preserving the material in the best possible way? This is no easy task, and a task which has become increasingly difficult with the introduction molecular methods with their destructive nature.

So, what¬†is being done to¬†solve this problem? A couple of measures have been implemented, the first of which was the establishment of the national ethics committee called “skjelettutvalget” (the skeleton committee). This committee has been operational since January 2008 and anyone who wants access to human skeletal material will have to have their research project assessed by this ethics committee.

The first thing you’ll have to consider is when you would like to have your project assessed by the committee. The committee wants projects to be assessed as early as possible, and preferably¬†during the development phase. This is, however, more complicated than it sounds. When developing a new research project there is always¬†uncertainty as to whether it will be funded or not. Without having any numbers to back this up, I am sure the majority of projects fall through due to lack of funding. Often the competition for funding is so fierce that it is hard to realistically believe that you will actually get the money. Should you¬†have your project assessed before funding is secured? I guess the answer must be yes. This means that the ethics committee will have to assess quite a few projects that may never materialise but, on the other hand, if the project is not assessed until ¬†funding has been received and is not approved, what happens then? Basically, you’ve got funding for a project which can’t be completed. I must admit that I haven’t always been the best at following this advice. When I applied for funding for this project I knew how tough the competition was and it was difficult to believe that I would actually get the funding. Because of this I didn’t have the project assessed when I should have. This meant that when I got the good news about the project being funded, I was in a slight pickle. There¬†were only two months until the¬†project should start and it was only two weeks until the next meeting in the ethics committee. It was basically too late to submit my research plan for that meeting but I was lucky and it was accepted despite the late submission. The next meeting was three months later and it would have caused me a lot of hassle if I had had to wait for that. I will try not to have this happen again. When I have a new project, I will have it assessed as early as possible, no matter what I think the chances are of getting it funded.

It should be said that whether you get your project approved or not, you will still have to enter discussions with the institution keeping the skeletal material. It is the curating institution which has the final say and the practicalities of getting access will have to be agreed with them. That said, with a positive review from the ethics committee this should not pose too much of a problem, but if your project is not approved by the ethics committee it will be close to impossible to get access to the material you want.

Another measure which has been implemented recently comes from the museums which are responsible for the skeletal collections. Although the ethics committee will weed out projects which are not sound, I think the new regulations implemented by the museums will prove even more effective in preserving the precious skeletons and I also think this will be very positive for the researchers as well. From now on, the museums demand that all raw data shall be handed over to the museum soon after the research is completed and all publications based on the material will also have to be submitted to the museum soon after publication. This means that data already collected can be reused by other researchers and new questions can be investigated without having to cause further damage to the collections. My sincere hope is that the museums will find a way to make the raw data freely and effectively available to researchers and that it will be easy to find any publications relevant for the different skeletal collections.

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Immigration and mobility in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway
Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen
E-mail: stian.hamre@ahkr.uib.no

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