Monday, 18 November 2013

Blurred Lines: Human remains or collectibles?

I’ve always assumed that buying and selling human skeletal remains is illegal in the Netherlands because it’s illegal to buy and sell human organs. Of course I’m aware that hospitals/universities/schools receive human remains, but I always thought that those came from donations, or that when they were bought by these institutions that exceptions were made for them because they acquired them for the purpose of research and/or education. Apparently I’m wrong!

A week ago I visited a flea market in Bleiswijk, the Netherlands. Although I mostly visit flea markets to buy badly restored objects (so I can take them apart and see if I can do a better job) I somehow can’t help but gravitate towards the objects that have been acquired from our former Dutch colonies. I never buy any of those objects (because of their unverifiable provenance, and well, because I have no use for them) but there’s just something indefinable about their exotic nature that intrigues me.

The skull on the picture comes from Papua and
is/was on sale for € 550,-. (copyright: ILF)  
Normally I just see the kind of exotic objects that I expect to find, such as wooden statues, necklaces with cowries, sometimes ritual daggers, etc. However, this time I saw a stall with a few very unusual ‘objects’, namely two authentic (I was allowed to check) human skulls! I was intrigued, but mostly alarmed. The owner of the stall was very open about his merchandise and allowed me to take this picture of the skull. (In fact, he suggested that I pose with it, but that was just a bridge too far for me…)

At home I decided to do some research online. To my surprise buying and selling human skeletal remains as well as importing these is completely legal (unless of course you know that they’ve been illegally excavated from a cemetery or have been stolen from a morgue)! In fact, if you’re an (amateur-) archaeologist and find human remains during an excavation you can keep them. Apparently you’re only morally, not legally obligated to rebury human remains found during an excavation.

With the recent changes in the law concerning human remains in England (incl. reburying human remains within 2 years after archaeological excavation) it seemed unlikely to me that the Dutch law hadn’t changed. However, I haven’t been able to find anything about such a change (although I will keep looking). And in the meantime, human remains can be bought on Marktplaats (the Dutch equivalent of Ebay)…

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