Morality of the Preservation of Historical Atrocity

It is a great imperative to preserve the histories of nations, and it is a great imperative that past injustices be amended. There are times in which these two imperatives become mutually exclusive, and in these times men are often lead to inaction, or to the greatest of folly in blind haste.

These imperatives clash when the preservation of artifacts that contain human remains, or tie directly to historical atrocities, becomes an issue. The community in question will commonly demand the proper burial of human remains, or the destruction of artifacts made with human components. Scientists and historians demand that these things be preserved for cultural and scientific purposes. The party required to make the decision reaches a dilemma: To throw away a chance to see our heritage, or to disrupt our present by disrespecting the effects of that heritage? Many have no difficulty neglecting history, and some have no difficulty neglecting science as well. Few are able to look past their own cultures’ beliefs, and many easily overlook the beliefs of other cultures. What would the common man do, and what is the ideal solution?

One example of such a situation involves Native American remains in America. Archaeologists have been excavating Native American remains for anthropological research, and Native Americans currently alive have criticized their methods. Much change has already been instituted by the passage of Public Law 101-601 in 1990 (Ferguson 63). Early American archeology, taken part in by European settlers, acted primarily to dehumanize Native American culture by attempting to show that it lacked the potential for development. They portrayed Native American cultures as unchanging and primitive. This outlook and interpretation was, no doubt, a way of justifying the theft of Native American lands.

After the Holocaust, many artifacts remaining from Nazi death camps have come into circulation. Some of the artifacts actually contain human remains, such as soap made from human fat, buttons made from bone, or lampshades made from tanned skin. Many of these artifacts are preserved in museums, and many more reside in private collections. There is often much objection whenever one of these items comes up for sale. There is a large number of people who object greatly to the sale of products made from human flesh, and just as many who feel that these items are disrespectful to the victims of the holocaust and should be properly buried or destroyed. Most Holocaust museums do not contain artifacts made from human flesh, but do carry artifacts related to the atrocities of the Holocaust. This is not frowned upon primarily because the people harboring the artifacts are the descendants of the victims themselves, and some were even alive at the time. They are supported in their endeavors because they are preserving a heritage and memorializing the victims.

This may be a large deciding factor in the decision about whether or not it is right to preserve an artifact. What is being accomplished by preserving this piece of history? In the case of the Native American exhumed graves, the gain is totally scientific. Sacred rights are being desecrated for the benefit of inquiring minds. In the case of Holocaust museums, the artifacts are being preserved to pass warning to the world that this tragedy could occur again. No one seems to hold the position that haunting pasts need to be put to rest if their memory serves to strengthen the community that was originally damaged. The issue at hand is not the right of the dead, but the rights of the living to respect their dead.

Another discrepancy between the Native Americans and Archeologists was that Archeologists had no respect for Native Americans when it came to excavating the graves of their ancestors. The remains were excavated for craniology, to the end of proving that the Native Americans were intellectually inferior (Ferguson 65). As a result of these problems, many restrictions have been placed upon archeological research by the United States. Specifically, the Archeological Resources and Protection Act requires excavators to obtain the permission of Indian tribes before excavating on their land. Many archeological sites have been placed directly under control of Native American governments, which is an important step because the Native Americans have widely varying beliefs and ethical standards and do not act as a single unit culturally or politically. These factors have led to legislation demanding the reburial of excavated Native American remains. The re-burial of excavated remains prevents them from being studied further, and minimal information can be drawn from them. In Rhode Island this is an issue that arises frequently. In 1998, Jamestown school officials planned to build a school addition due to dramatic overcrowding; twenty years earlier, fifty-nine native American graves had been excavated in the target area (Robinson 404). Extensive archeological surveys were conducted to locate a suitable place to build an expansion without upsetting gravesites. During the testing, one grave was disturbed and promptly reburied. Caroline Wright recalled the discovery of burial at a farm that would later become Jamestown school property. She addressed the Jamestown historical society in 1971, displaying the fact that not all Native American remains were promptly reburied in a respectful manner:

Now, on a day in October, 1963, some of Jack Smith’s men were in there digging, and standing by watching was a fellow named Roy Johnston. . . . he was young then and, as a distributor of the Providence Journal, he had learned a lot of odds and ends, as people who have to do with newspapers are apt to do. While he was watching, the men dug against something and, going deeper, found bones … but the general reaction of the diggers was “Oh well, these are just some of Devil Dan’s Victims.” (Now remember, I don’t think old Mr. Watson had victims, but this was what was quoted to me at the time.) “No,” said Johnston, “These bones are flexed. They are Indians,” whereupon the men began digging in real earnest with the idea that there was monetary value attached to this find and that instead of water lilies, they could sell Indians to the summer people. (qt. in Robinson 405-6)

In the commerce and trade of WWII artifacts, few are considerate of the Jewish people's position. Items bearing swastikas and SS logos are proudly displayed in historical museums, and even in the homes of private collectors. Remnants of the Nazi movement still remain today and are forever trying to gain whatever influence they can. The KKK, Aryan Nation, and Neo-Nazi’s may not be a significant threat to any nation, but they are a powerful roadblock on the way to racial equality.

In the case of Native American governments overseeing the excavation of their own land, the purpose of the operation is for a people to learn more about their own history. The Native American tradition of passing on history through word of mouth has resulted in many gaps in their understanding of themselves. Many tribes consider this to be favorable, and prefer to view themselves in a more mystical sense, and these tribes refrain from excavating their ancient gravesites.

The difficult discrepancy between the Native Americans’ wishes and the drive of science and history to gain insight into a culture is not easily resolved. United States law has addressed it, in the respect that the rights of the Native Americans have been protected, and the goals of the Archeologist are respected by the tribes only when it is convenient to do so (such as when new development threatens a tribal burial ground and the bodies must be moved) (Ferguson 68).

The Jewish people, on the other hand, are not so lucky. It would be unconstitutional in America to prohibit the sale of historical artifacts between private individuals without a more concrete basis. This issue would seem to have less urgency, but this illusion is created only by the fact that the problem has gone unsolved for a long time and the outspoken opposition has lost attention.

Despite many political, ethical, and cultural strains, there is one very important falling out between the two concerned parties. Many of the Historical victims have a different conception of life than the scientific archeologists and Historians. The Native Americans consider the world to be a mystic place, and the Archeologists’ work acts to dispel this illusion. The survivors of the Holocaust are interested in ensuring that no such thing can ever occur again, but many private collectors are only interested in glorifying the war itself. These conflicting interests are ultimately the cause of the dilemma. Should a person attempt to make a decision in consideration for all parties involved, then that decision would be an impossible one. The only possibility is to determine who is less entitled to their position. It would seem that, in most cases, the people who were directly affected by the incident in question are deserving of the first say in matter, and that the position of the other party must be enacted only in it’s practical nature because their opinion is superseded by that of the person more directly affected.

In the Case of the Native Americans, the Native Americans’ wishes to preserve the sanctity of their ancestors supersede our right to abduct their remains. Practically, the Native Americans preferences cannot outweigh the potential to learn from these artifacts. The result would then follow that unearthed gravesites should be studied with the greatest care not to disturb the sanctity of the location, and that those bodies should be reburied according to the wishes and customs of the Native American people. Ideally, the Native Americans themselves should be in charge of Archeology on their own lands (Which is already true in some places). When this occurs, consolidating both positions into a single direction of action relieves the dilemma.

In the case of WWII and Holocaust artifacts containing human remains, or which were directly tied to torture, the situation is more difficult. Because there is no department or company in charge of these items, it is impossible to put the Jewish descendants of the victims in charge of the situation, as in the case of Native Americans. The Jewish people's wishes to respect the memories of their grandparents come before others’ wishes to glorify the war. The opposing position in this case has no practical ground. Therefore, morally, trade in WWII artifacts concerning Nazi Germany and the Holocaust should cease. Practically, however, civil liberties allow free trade in the United States. In some countries, trade in WWII memorabilia is against the law, solving the dilemma. There does not appear to be a solution to this particular instance of the dilemma in the United States.


Ferguson, T.J. “Native Americans and the Practice of Archeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25 (1996): 63-79.

Robinson, Paul A. “One Island, Two Places.” Interpretations of Native North American Life ed. Michael S. Nassany. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2000.

Smith, Tom W. “A Review: The Holocaust Denial Controversy.” Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 59 No. 2 (Summer, 1995): 269-95.

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