How should an archaeologist treat the dead? Is there a significant ethical distinction between an archaeological find such as a piece of pottery and an archaeological find such as a human skeleton such that the archaeologist is obliged to distinguish between the proper treatment of the possessions of now deceased people and the proper treatment of the remains of the deceased people themselves? Further: is there a significant ethical distinction between objects or bodies deposited in a manner recognisable as a deliberate attempt to preserve, memorialise or otherwise ensure a certain state for some deceased person and his/her possessions (say, a context recognisable as a grave containing grave goods) and some other context, such that the archaeologist is once again obliged to distinguish in her assessment of the proper treatment of these two kinds of find?
Some recent discussions of such questions have focussed on the general question whether it is possible to harm the dead and, whatever the response to this questions, what the consequences should be for archaeological practice. I do not wish to pursue that particular question, although it seems to me that there is little reason to believe that the dead can be harmed in any sense; it is reasonable to think, in fact, that it is misleading to talk of ‘dead people’ since a person is best thought of as being essentially alive. What you might excavate in a grave is not a dead person: it is some of the material which once was present in the living body of a person. Nor do I wish to pursue in any depth the question whether, regardless of the fact of the matter in the debate over whether the dead have interests and can be harmed, we are obliged to treat them as if they did because of the interests of living persons who are, or think themselves, somehow the descendants of the deceased. It seems to me that, in this case, there is indeed a good reason to treat excavated human remains in a particularly sensitive way, but it is important always to be clear that the reason for doing so is that such treatment fosters or prevents harm to the interests of some living persons.
Be that as it may, a further question stikes me: should archaeologists be interested in ensuring that when we now bury our dead we do so in a way which would help future archaeologists? If so, what would that involve? And would the conscious attempt to leave evidence mean that the evidence, once found, is interpreted in a particular way?