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Ancient human remains have ended up on the black market, but where do they really belong?

By Elizabeth Rayne
ancient skull

Around 2,500 years ago, a young Scythian woman died in the frozen wilds of Siberia. She remained buried until archaeologists came upon what was considered a rare find in 1993, moving the mummy to a museum for study and display. That ignited a raging controversy.

The question of what should happen to ancient bones and mummies has never had a straightforward answer. Some are against scientific study and display, while others insist that they give up their secrets. Then there is the opposite scenario in which these remains end up on the black market. Recently, an undercover LiveScience reporter posed as a collector in a Facebook group where a looter who had stolen an ancient skull from Tunisia was selling it for $550. The investigation revealed more about the questionable ethics of the black market for human remains.

What does any of this even have to do with the Scythian mummy, unofficially named “Princess Ukok”, though evidence suggest she was more of a revered storyteller than a royal? It is proof of the ethical dilemmas associated with human remains outside the grave. Whispers of a haunting started when the plane carrying the mummy to a scientific institute in Nobosibirsk, for study and preservation, hit unexpected turbulence. Princess Ukok became the subject of a debate over whether her body should be returned to her grave post-study. After years at Novosibirsk, she was moved to a special mausoleum near her original burial site and displayed in a glass sarcophagus.

That is still not enough for some. Despite the the study’s contribution to the often mysterious history of various Scythian tribes, there have been calls for Princess Ukok and her grave goods to be returned to their eternal resting place. Russia has now banned archaeologists from the area where her burial mound was unearthed.

“We were really upset when they introduced this ban. It meant curtailing this historic step forward,” said archaeologist Natalia Polosmak, who first discovered the mummified Princess Ukok, in a NOVA documentary. “That is a shame.”

If there was so much tension over a legitimate scientific study, what is there to be said about ancient body parts being sold on Facebook and other shadowy corners of the internet as curios?

Facebook, Instagram and other social media have been actively shutting down sale groups for collectors who feel that something like a Peruvian bound skull (skulls that had been bound at birth have recently been a hot item) is the ultimate prize. The Discovery series Oddities once featured a death enthusiast who displayed the hand of an Egyptian mummy on a shelf as the gem of his collection. The problem with ancient bones as opposed to more modern specimens is that anything thousands of ears old could reveal previously unknown things about humanity.

Unlike modern specimens that are often of dubious origin (such as a stillborn fetus in formalin that was actually for sale online), ancient specimens hold a special sort of value. There are some archaeologists and anthropologists who feel looters and collectors of such pieces are depriving science of potential discoveries. Others in the same field, like some of those involved with Princess Ukok, are convinced that even handling these remains for strictly scientific purposes is disrespectful, never mind displaying an unwrapped mummy or a fully articulated skeleton in a museum.

Even scientists are banned from touching anything in certain sites like the cave of Grotte de Cussac in France. Eline M.J. Schotsmans, lead scientist in that investigation, had previously told SYFY WIRE that the French government’s restrictions were preventing her team from finding out how exactly the Paleolithic people who once buried their dead there carried out their funerary rites. She acknowledged there was only so much they could demystify without an excavation. Hardly anything is known about these people. The reasoning behind who was buried there and why, among many other questions, remain unanswered — but so does the question of whether study and reburial is actually ethical.

Museums themselves have been guilty of a sort of looting in the past. Many mummies and other artifacts from ancient Egypt were taken by the British and other countries during the 19th century. There was one that finally made the journey home to the Cairo museum from the US several years ago, but many, despite requests from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, were never returned. The 9,000-year-old bones of a skeleton otherwise known as Kennewick Man were finally given a proper burial in 2016, after years of being used for an investigation into the origins of humanity.

The way in which human remains are handled is another thing to consider. Victorian thrill seekers would unwrap Egyptian mummies in front of a live audience, with little regard for the funereal customs of the ancient Egyptians, who intended the body to be preserved eternally so the soul could return to it and use it in the afterlife.

“Once you have been buried, no one should disturb you,” said museum director Rima Eriknova, who was interviewed for the same documentary as Polosmak. “Yet as director of the museum, I am obliged to keep her here and display her. But nonetheless, I believe she should be reburied, returned to where she came from.”