Ethics Quiz: The French And Indian War Remains

Fort Henry

Nearly 70 years ago, Fort William Henry, the fort overcome in 1757 battle portrayed in the film (and novel) “The Last of the Mohicans,” was reconstructed on the banks of Lake George in New York.

There, French forces led by General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm defeated the British, who were then, in many cases, slaughtered by the Indian tribe allies of the French as they attempted to retreat. Whether Magwa really ripped out the heart of the British commander, I do not know.

But I digress. Over the decades, the remains of many British combatants have been discovered in and around the site of the fort. Some of the remains have never been reburied, and were displayed for decades. Eventually the bones were studied by anthropologists, and yielded many details about colonial life in the era of the French and Indian War.

260 years after the fall of Fort William Henry, some of the bones are still at Arizona State University, where they are available for research. Other bone fragments unearthed by anthropologists in the 1990s and sent for study at the University of Waterloo in Canada were returned to the fort eight years ago, and lie in a box in a storage area. The company that owns the fort, known as the Fort William Henry Museum, says the bone fragments are being properly cared for, and that it is trying to balance the value of scientific research with respect for the remains of the dead.

“Most researchers would prefer, if ours were the only opinions that mattered, that the skeletons never be reburied,” one researcher told the New York Times. “The reason that we would prefer the remains not be reburied is not to accumulate them, but because science does not stop progressing despite the best efforts of some politicians.”

Others argue that the remains ought to get a a decent burial after all this time has passed. “How much information you gain should not outweigh the wishes of people asking to bury the remains,” said Sharon DeWitte, a member of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. “We should be treating these bodies with respect.”

Interestingly, while there are laws in place that require eventual burial of Native American remains, no such laws govern the equivalent skeletons of other races when they are unidentified and used for anthropological study.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Should the skeletons be buried if they still have research value?

And if so, why?

Two notes, without revealing my thoughts on the matter. The Times article makes a point of noting that the box in which the fort’s skeletons are currently residing is a “Staples” box. This is a classic example of how reporters signal their biases and manipulate reader emotions. Is there any reason why a Staples box is more disrespectful than any other kind of container?

I was also fascinated by the researcher’s jibe at politicians: “Science does not stop progressing despite the best efforts of some politicians.” I assume that’s a jab at climate change skeptics, but if, as the researcher admits, science keeps progressing, does that not support the skeptics’ argument that what is called “consensus” and “scientific fact” is not as certain as it is being represented by the climate alarmists?

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The French And Indian War Remains

  1. This might be a Too Soon situation.

    There’s no one calling for the remains of Ice Age nomads or Vikings to be reburied, after all. Any politician that demanded Lucy or some other so-called Missing Link be reburied would be roundly mocked.

    Imagine the outcry if Holocaust victim remains were being examined.

  2. Why do these situations require a yeah or neah outcome. Is it possible to inter the remains in a manner that allows access for qualified research?

    Theoretically, burial is only one method of providing a respectful resting place. Why not create a research mausoleum in which reverence is displayed simultaneously with the ability to perform needed research. The Staples box may indicate the writer’s bias but it also provides a basis from which we can evaluate other options.

    As for the science progresses comment I took the opposite impression. Climate science is deemed “settled science” which is exactly opposite of the researchers statement.

    It is easy to agree that the climate is changing because it always has over the eons. What climate scientists have not proved and cannot prove using the scientific method is that man’s use of fossil fuels is the proximate cause of any current warming trend. The best they can do is correlate x with y.

  3. I think the simple answer is that depends.

    There any a lot of laws in the context of digging up graves that often vary between state and context. The United States pretty much has a statue of limitation on 100 years for excavation (not to be confused with common graverobbing). I imagine this is because it is far outside any claim a family member might have. Jack alaudid to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act which protects remains on federal or tribal lands. These rules were essentially created to protect the living. The purpose of their creation is what I believe is at the heart of understanding if the act is ethical or not. The first question I would ask: who does it hurt?

    Arguably, it does not hurt the dead. Some cultures believe it does because what happens do your remains after death might affect your afterlife. Muslims, for example, believe in a physical resurrection of the body on the day of judgment. Therefore anything that might desecrate the body such as an autopsy, embalming, cremation, or even digging up the body would put their resurrections in jeopardy. While this might be easily avoidable if you know who specifically you are digging up, it could have lasting ramifications on the culture.

    This is really who is hurt in the digging up of the bodies: those who have ancestral or cultural ties to burials and the dead themselves. This is often why when archaeologist prepare to dig, they have to jump through red tape to make sure no one was hurt/offended in the process. The American Association for Physical Anthropologist (AAPA) code of ethics says “It is inevitable that misunderstanding (SIC), conflicts, and the need to make choices among apparently incompatible values will arise. Physical anthropologist are responsible for grappling with such difficulties and struggling to resolve them.”

    I think the question we need to ask here is the benefit worth it? If that is the case it seems to be a matter of utilitarianism. There are benefits to digging up bones or really engaging in archaeology in any form. Studying bones have provided historical research, but they have also helped understand how communities operated. I remember an old episode of Bones that showed a small family of three from two species of human were essentially killed because of that. Wither or not the episode is true, it illustrates one of the benefits in study.

    There are also medical reasons to study old bones. Normal osteological assessments look for things like sex, age at death, stature, and any specific trauma and/or disease. Older bones might give markers of changes in the human body which would help identify possible future changes. In the time of Napoleon, the average height was 5’5” making Napoleon (5’6”) slightly average (many people believe he was short). The average height for a male today is 5’7”.

    Personally, I think this is just the ick factor. Death anxiety (worrying about ones death) thanatophobia (fear of death), and necrophobia (fear of the dead) are extremely common fears in all cultures. Death is the one thing no one on earth can escape. It will come for us all at some point. Perhaps we just want it to have more meaning than our short existence here on earth which may be why we go to extreme lengths to take care of our dead.

    As far as this statement ““Science does not stop progressing despite the best efforts of some politicians.” I think that needs its own assessment. Perhaps Dr. Frankenstein would agree, but I shutter to think what science could do without any regulation.

  4. Just my two cents regarding the bones from the Fort William Henry site:
    This does not have to be an either/or situation. Surely the research anthropologists know that there are ways of respectfully preserving the bones in a sealed crypt which could serve as a public memorial to the sacrifice of the soldiers and militiamen, as well as ensuring that their remains do not deteriorate further. This would allow for the possibility of future removal for additional research if warranted. (Surely no one is calling for their actual reburial in the earth?) These remains of fifteen individuals were apparently buried where they fell in battle or were covered by the burned remains of the fort as it was reclaimed by nature. The bones were incidentally disinterred during the reconstruction of the fort. It isn’t as though they were deliberately dug up from a cemetery and callously carted off to be studied. The only realistic alternative disposition should be if the British government were requesting the return of the bones to be interred in a military cemetery over there as “unknowns” from the war (The Seven Years War, as they refer to it.). This presumes none of the remains were identified and therefore no known descendants are involved.

    • Your thinking on this strikes me as balanced, reasonable, and respectful of the dead as well as helpful to future scientific inquiry.
      So what aggrieved group do you think will find this sort of solution intolerable?
      I can’t think of one, yet I know that they’re out there!

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