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human remains

Skeletons under excavation in a threatened site.
There are many burials, especially those that pre-date the medieval period, which only come to light when they are disturbed unexpectedly. The form of the burial varies through time and place but the disposal of the dead can range from an isolated cache of cremated bone to a complete skeleton laid out in a stone-lined coffin. Sometimes, in boggy areas, the soft tissue may also survive. The nature of the burial can reveal valuable information about the individual’s stature, health, role in life and cause of death. Recent advances in scientific analyses can reconstruct details of diet and life history of the individual and his or her parents and sometimes can identify where the dead person was born.

If burials are discovered on a development site by archaeologists hired by the developer or by workmen involved in construction then it is the developer’s responsibility to inform the police. The cost of handling ancient burials in such circumstances generally falls upon the developer, supervised by the local authority

If you discover human remains you should immediately report this to the local police. Do not touch the remains and avoid disturbing the ground in their vicinity because the evidence from either a modern scene of crime or ancient burial is equally fragile. It might save time if you also report the find to the Local Authority’s archaeologist or local museum but the police will consult with the Local Authority’s archaeologist if they suspect your discovery is an ancient burial

When ancient burials are found outwith a development site, the local Authority’s archaeologist will contact Historic Scotland to respond appropriately. If the remains are considered to be important then Historic Scotland will manage the situation through its Human Remains call-off contract.

You can see some examples of reports on the discoveries of human remains on the Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports (SAIR) website. Examples include an urn burial at Glennan in Argyll and Iron Age burials at Loch Borralie near Durness in Sutherland.

Contact us

Archaeology Strategy Team
Heritage Management Directorate
Historic Scotland
Longmore House
Salisbury Place
Tel: +44 131 668 8811

PDF icon Related Document

This operational policy paper is intended to set a simple framework for archaeological work managed by Historic Scotland.

The Treatment of Human Remains in Archaeology [pdf, 281kb]

Related External Links