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Pompeii and Herculaneum are undoubtedly two of the most prolific and valuable archaeological finds of the ancient world. Both sites, due to their preservation in the hardened volcanic tufa and undisturbed tonnes of ash expelled by Vesuvius in AD 79, have yielded an abundance of archaeological artefacts which include human remains. Archaeologists, historians and museum authorities now face a critically urgent question of ethics concerning the excavation, scientific study and display of human remains which has been accepted practice for many years.
Ancient romans believed that for a soul to rest peacefully in the afterlife, the body had to be given a proper burial or cremation, although in modern times very little respect has been paid to the unfortunate and untimely victims of Vesuvius. The excavated sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum have passed through both royal and government ‘ownership’ over the years where artefacts were given away as ‘gifts’ and the revenue raised was more important than cultural sensitivity.
In 1982 the council of Australian directors passed a resolution that human remains would not be displayed to the public, however, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the ICOM ‘Code of Professional Ethics’ did not comply with the proposed ban, instead encouraging ‘sensitivity’ to community reactions. About 2. 5 million people visit Pompeii annually, making it the most popular tourist attraction in Italy.
This popularity has existed for the past two hundred years and it was common practice for the human remains to be posed in disrespectable, macabre scenarios for the entertainment of tourists and royal visitors. There was no consideration or respect shown for the tragically deceased populations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. “human remains were presented as being in situ, and were sometimes manipulated or arranged to create a theatrical effect” (Estelle Lazer). Therefore, the question must now be asked, are the human remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum still being treated as nothing more than profitable curiosities?