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This list is devised by combining the Ancestral Remains cared for by the NMA, those listed or referred to in various reports (Department of Culture, Media and Sport (UK) 2003, p. 8; British Museum 2013, pp. 1–2; Natural History Museum (UK) 2014, p. 4; Deutscher Museumsbund 2013, p. 9) and those reported by other researchers (Pickering 2020, pers. comm.).

The standard boxes referred to in this section are made from archival card, have no glues for metal components and come in 2 sizes. One is designed to hold cranial remains, and the other post-cranial remains. (Further information about these boxes can be found in Section 3.4.)

TypeDescription Recommended storage
Skeleton, not articulated (complete or nearly complete) A complete or nearly complete skeleton would include, at the minimum, a cranium or cranial fragment, the pelvis, vertebrae and the long bones of the arms and legs. It may also include a mandible (lower jaw), ribs, shoulder blades and some or all of the other smaller bones. These bones are able to be held in one or more standard boxes. [3]
Mummified remains (complete or nearly complete, assumed to be naturally articulated) These are remains which have sufficient dried tissue adhering to the bones to hold them in their natural relationship to each other. Depending on how the mummification occurred, culturally or environmentally, it is possible that many of the physical features of the individual may still be visible. Alternatively, there may only be a small amount of connective tissue holding all or just some of the bones of the individual together. It is highly likely that this type of remains will require a custom-made, museum-standard box.
Skeleton, artificially articulated (complete or partial) These are bones which have been reassembled by a collecting institution using metal rods and wires to hold them in their original relationship to each other. Frequently it is either not possible or not the policy of an institution acting as a Keeping Place to remove the articulating structure without Community approval. The remains will have the dimensions of the original individual. This type of remains will require a custom-made, museum-standard box.
Decorated remains These remains, both skeletal and mummified, have been decorated as part of the mortuary practice of their Community. The decoration may involve non-anatomical material such as shells, fibre, wood and/or over-modelling with clay to recreate the appearance of the ancestor. This decoration is important and must be preserved. These remains can usually but not always be held in a standard box.
Mummified remains (head, individual limbs or other partially articulated remains) This type of remains represents only part of an individual. These remains can usually but not always be held in a standard box.
Skull, cranium, calvarium and calotte The cranium is the upper part of the skull without the presence of the mandible, and the calvarium is the brain case of the cranium without the facial section. The calotte is a dome shape in the top of the cranium, usually removed to give access to the interior of the skull. These bones are able to be held a standard box.
Skull, cranium, calvarium, calotte, mandible and post-cranial remains (disarticulated) Post-cranial remains are any of the bones below the base of the cranium, e.g. bones from the torso, arms and legs. This type of remains will usually fit into one or more standard boxes.
Post-cranial remains, mandible and dentition (small) These are small bones such as those of the upper and lower jaws, teeth, hyoids, hand and foot bones, and small vertebrae. These can be held in a standard box or, where an individual is represented by only a single bone or a very small number of bones, they can be held in drawers in closed cabinets. Depending on the nature of the remains, they can be wrapped in tissue to keep a set of remains together.
Post-cranial remains (large, not articulated) These are larger skeletal elements such as the long bones of the arms and legs, the pelvis, ribs, and/or a full spinal column. These can be held in a standard box or, where an individual is represented by only a single bone or a small number of bones, they can be held in drawers in closed cabinets.
Post-cranial remains (articulated) These could represent any section of the body but are most likely to be hands and feet. These may fit into a standard box depending on the stature of the individual, but it is possible they will require a custom-made box.
Burial packages (bones or ashes wrapped in paper bark) A burial package is an individual’s bones/ashes collected and wrapped in paperbark as part of a Community’s mortuary practice. This might require a custom- made box.
Unidentified skeletal element These are usually fragments of bones which have been found together. These can be held in a standard box or, where an individual is represented by only a single bone or a small number of bones, they can be wrapped in tissue and held in drawers in closed cabinets.
Commingled remains (small) Usually these are the small bones of the hands or feet, or teeth, which cannot be assigned to any individual’s other remains. These would usually be grouped based on their most recent provenance. Depending on the number, they can be held in a standard storage box or wrapped in tissue and held in drawers in a closed cabinet.
Commingled remains (large) These are large bones or fragments of bone, frequently degraded, which have been found together or grouped together by a previous collector and cannot be individuated. These can either be held in a standard box or held in drawers in a closed cabinet.
Hair samples These are cut lengths of hair, which would be held in archival envelopes. If there is any tissue associated with them they would be treated as mummified remains. If a sample is related to an individual in the Store they should be stored with that person’s remains. Otherwise they can be stored in a standard box or in a drawer in a closed cabinet.
Blood samples [4] These would usually be held in small, stoppered phials and may well be little more than a powdery residue. Any labelling should be documented. If a sample is related to an individual in the Store they should be stored with that person’s remains. Otherwise they can be stored in a standard box or in a drawer in a closed cabinet.
DNA samples These are samples created from the bone or tissue of an individual. They would be held in small, stoppered phials. It is essential that any labelling on these phials be documented. If a sample is related to an individual in the Store they should be stored with that person’s remains. Otherwise they can be stored in a standard box or in a drawer in a closed cabinet.
Histology slides These are very thin sections of tissue or bone which have been stained and mounted on microscope slides for analysis. If a slide is related to an individual in the Store they should be stored with that person’s remains. Otherwise they can be stored in a standard box or in a drawer in a closed cabinet.
Objects incorporating Ancestral Remains (other than sorcery objects) These are most likely to be water carriers made from crania. Usually these can be stored in one of the standard sized boxes.
Sorcery objects incorporating Ancestral Remains These objects are considered to be ‘sensitive’ and it may be desirable to store them separately. This would be a Community rather than a Conservation decision. [5]
Grave goods Grave goods are any item recovered from a burial place. They can include traditional and Western-made items. Where possible they should be stored with the individual they are associated with. Depending on the nature of the grave goods, they could be stored in the same box as some or all of the associated Ancestral Remains, or held in a separate standard box and stored alongside the box(es) containing the person’s remains. Or they may require a custom-made, museum-standard box which should be stored with the remains if possible.
Casts (small, medium and large) Casts are usually plaster, or occasionally plastic, copies of skeletal elements, the brain or the interior of the skull. They should be stored in a manner similar to the original element they represent.

Unless they are identified as unstable, all skeletal and mummified remains and objects incorporating remains can be held in the General Storage Area (see Sections 3.1 to 3.3). Their main requirements are a stable RH centred around 50%, temperatures which fluctuate by no more than 10°C daily, and as little vibration as possible. Moisture and vibration are the greatest risks to their long-term survival. For the purposes of storage, remains can be grouped into the following categories.

3.1.1 Skeletal Ancestral Remains

Experience at the NMA suggests that the vast majority of Ancestral Remains, excluding casts, will be skeletal (see Appendix 1 for percentages). Bone has two major components – the mineral hydroxyapatite (c.50% by weight) and the structural protein collagen (c.48% by weight). The remaining c.2% is usually only present in fresh bone and is of little relevance to Ancestral Remains (O’Connor, 1987:6). Depending on the environmental history of the remains, it is possible that they may have become de-mineralised if they have been held in wet, acidic conditions. This will lead to a softening of the bone. Remains held in a wet environment where the pH is between 6 and 8 or where the mortuary practices have involved high heat may have lost some of their structural protein which would make the bones brittle. Wet conditions are also likely to have facilitated some mineral substitution or bacterial attack on the collagen leading to staining and/or surface pitting.

Wet bone is also subject to abrasion. This is particularly noticeable in bone which has been buried in wet sand. Where the bone has been completely saturated and then dried there is likely to be delamination, the extent of which is often dependent on how many cycles of wetting and drying have occurred.

Generally speaking, however, bone has a high likelihood of surviving in a structurally stable condition and frequently will show very little evidence of damage, other than staining, to the naked eye. Provided such remains are kept in a Store where the RH is stable and the temperature is not extreme there is unlikely to be further damage.

Storage requirements

Skeletal remains will usually, but not always, enter the Store as individuals. They should be held in acid-free boxes and packed with acid-free tissue. Buffered tissue should not be used because its high pH can have a detrimental impact on the collagen in the bones. More than one box may be required to house an individual and these boxes must be linked by the labels on the boxes and their records on the database. However, where an individual is represented by a small number of skeletal elements, other than cranial, they are usually stored in drawers in closed cabinets. The drawers should be lined with some form of Conservation-standard cushioning material, such as polyethylene foam sheeting.

3.1.2 Mummified Ancestral Remains

Usually mummified remains have both bone and tissue components and, if they have been deliberately mummified as part of a Community’s mortuary practice, they may also be decorated.

The tissue is a proteinaceous material composed of collagen and keratin which will swell and lose its structure if waterlogged, or shrink and split in extreme, dry conditions (Singley 1988, p. 79). It would be unusual for tissue to have survived from a wet environment in Australia – this type of survival is usually associated with deposition in acidic peat bogs and requires expert, highly interventive treatment such as substitution of the water by polyethylene glycol, to ensure it does not dry to a powder. Tissue is also subject to biological attack from micro-organisms and fungi in damp conditions.

Ancestral Remains containing tissue were usually collected from very dry environments. Tissue may also have survived if it has been treated in some way, such as by smoking, as part of the mortuary practices of a Community. While its appearance is likely to be significantly changed by its environmental history, that same history will have released any tensions in the structure of the tissue making it stable as long as it remains in a dry environment. Storage in museum facilities with poor environments may have exposed dry tissue to moist conditions which can introduce or reactivate destructive, biological organisms. Such remains may require treatment before they can enter the storage area but as much as possible such treatments should be non-invasive, for example, freezing or anoxic treatments for pests, and UV treatment for moulds.

Storage requirements

Ancestral Remains which are mummified or contain adhered tissue should be boxed, even if the individual is represented by a single bone. They should be held in acid-free boxes and packed with acid-free tissue. Buffered tissue should not be used because its high pH can have a detrimental impact on the collagen in the bones.

If the remains appear to be unstable, the box should be lined with plastic, desiccants added and the plastic lining sealed. This will ensure that the RH remains low and enables these remains to be stored with the skeletal remains. Mummified remains should be put on a maintenance list for regular checking. If there is an odour associated with the remains but no evidence of deterioration, bags of activated charcoal should be included in the box to absorb the smell.

3.1.3 Casts

Casts of Ancestral Remains can be stored in the same way as the skeletal remains. They are likely to be fragile but do not have any additional requirements.

3.1.4 Fluid-preserved specimens

These are likely to be held in an unidentified preservative and sealed in glass or perspex containers. The most common preservatives are either alcohol-based or glycerol-and-formalinbased. However, all manner of other preservatives have been used including ship’s rum or embalming fluid. Unless accompanying documentation states the nature of the preservative there is little that can be known without opening the container. Fortunately this type of remains is not likely to be numerous. Before being placed in storage the seals need to be checked and, though they already have their own storage container, they do require a specialised area and storage system (see Section 3.6).

3.1.5 Other types of Ancestral Remains

These include biological samples, hair samples, and objects incorporating Ancestral Remains. Where these are associated with other remains of an individual they should be stored together. The unlikely exception to this might be biological samples which come from a research organisation where they have been held under conditions which allow them to still have scientific value. Depending on the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community leaders, these may need to be stored in an appropriate, dedicated freezer. Otherwise they too can be stored with an associated individual in the General Store Area.

Where there is no association with other remains, these would usually be stored in standard boxes or in drawers in closed cabinets.

Footnotes

[3] In the NMA Keeping Place the remains of some individuals are split across more than one standard box, with the boxes stored together side-by-side. This approach was taken to enable the remains to be held in the shelving system in the Store. If desired, unarticulated complete, or almost complete, skeletons could be held together, either in one custom-made box, or a decision could be made to have a third size of standard box which would suit this purpose. If the latter is chosen, a section of either the open shelving or the compactus should be designed to hold that size of box. The dimensions of the shelving in the Materials Store would need to be adjusted if this option was chosen (see Section 3.4).

[4] Biological samples such as blood samples, DNA samples and histology slides must be stored under very specific conditions to retain their original scientific value. It would be extremely unusual for those conditions to have been met by a collecting institution.

[5] At the NMA, human remains that have been incorporated into sorcery objects are kept in the Secret Sacred Store rather than in the Human Remains Store because their use as sorcery objects tends to be more of an issue to Community members than their existence as human remains.

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