Do androids dream of ethical leaps?


by Alison Atkin and Dave Errickson


Is it okay to share photos of skeletons on social media? How do we ensure osteological methods remain reliable as they become increasingly digital? Do we need to regulate the availability of digital reproductions of human remains?


Individuals who work with human remains, from archaeologists to museum curators, have long been aware of the many ethical considerations that come with their work. In order to assist them in making decisions in their daily work, whether performing skeletal analysis or developing a new public exhibition, numerous professional bodies (e.g. BABAO, AAPA) have developed guidelines and policies to ensure best practice.


However, due to the evolving and expanding disciplines it has become increasingly common to find yourself faced with a situation that is not covered in these documents; with the increased adoption of digital techniques, a gap has developed through which many digital issues have been falling. In response to these situations, many researchers have attempted to interpret and apply current standard guidelines for physical remains to digital media (e.g. blogs, social media, online videos, 3D documentation and printing). Furthermore, they’ve also reached out to peers and colleagues for advice, which has lead onto wider conversations about the lack of guidance in this digital age of osteology.


There are a large number of people who have the same issues, the same questions, and the same conversations. This realisation lead to the matter being raised at the annual conference for the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology in September 2015 by Alison Atkin in a presentation titled, ‘Digging the Digital Dead: Discussing Best Practice for Future(istic) Osteoarchaeology’. The aim of the presentation was to gather all of the momentum into one effort and establish a working group. With the support of conference delegates (including those attending digitally as well) we (Atkin and Errickson) have created the first step to address these issues by starting a mailing-list: DIGITALOSTEO


The current aim of the mailing-list is to gather common themes, ahead of a workshop, so that we can better advise amendments to existing guidelines and policies. In two weeks the group has gathered support with more than 75 members joining from a range of specialist disciplines and has thus so far generated discussion on a range of perspectives through shared examples. In addition the working group has started to collect together a range of concerns pertaining to ethical considerations in digital osteology.
While the working group is in its early stages, it is clear that as a discipline we have seen the need to address the ethical considerations of our digital work. We as a group would urge and welcome others to join us in this process (no matter what your osteological context is), to share your experiences and help us consider your views and concerns in this early process.