During his report to the Florida Historical Commission on July 31, 2013, Director of the Florida Division of Historical Resources Rob Bendus reviewed the Division’s and Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s position in denying an archaeological research permit to forensic anthropologists at the University of South Florida for the excavation of human remains at the cemetery of the former Dozier School for Boys in Jackson County. It troubles me that Secretary Detzner is having to defend his decision against an onslaught from the Tampa vicinity–his position is sound given the preservation mission of his agency, the purpose of the Archaeological Research Permit process, and the very clear position within the profession of archaeology regarding the treatment of human remains.
If this were 50 years ago, I doubt any archaeologist would bat an eye at the prospect of digging up a cemetery containing graves of individuals whose names are lost to time. It was, in fact, done all the time, 50 years ago. It should be no surprise that the typical subject was the Native American. Notoriously, during the Depression, Federal work programs fielded crews of hundreds of unemployed workers to help archaeologists excavate mounds and other sites across the Southeast, and hundreds of human burials were excavated and put in boxes for later study, which often never happened. After World War II, and up into the 1980s, Federal, State, and University based archaeological programs routinely excavated human burials and added them to collections in repositories ranging from the Smithsonian Institution to State Historical Societies to University museums. Private individuals as well delighted at excavating Native American graves and displayed collections in storefront windows and in private homes. At the time, these native people had no voice. They were not unlike the young men buried at Dozier. And because they had no voice, archaeologists thought it was OK to excavate (and maybe study) and store these human remains.
But the Native American community has found their voice, and has successfully advocated for the respectful treatment of their dead. This has resulted in the adoption of Federal laws to protect Native American Graves, and in the creation of laws in states such as Florida that make it policy to treat all human remains with respect. This included leaving them undisturbed unless there is compelling scientific reason to do otherwise, and securing the agreement and cooperation of descendants or descent groups. When human remains are disturbed during construction or through natural processes of erosion, a specific and respectful process is triggered through state and, in some cases, Federal laws.
In the course of the past 30 or 40 years, as Native Americans and other traditionally disenfranchised groups have found their voice, they have brought anthropologists and archaeologists along with them to a new understanding of the proper treatment of human remains. Where unmarked graves of historically disenfranchised groups were once seen as fair game for archaeological study, this is no longer the case. Although none would disagree that much could be learned from the excavation of any cemetery, prehistoric or historic, and from studying the human remains and burial practices, the ethics accepted by the professional archaeologist today gives precedence to leaving graves undisturbed and allows excavation only when disturbed through construction or nature, or under the most extraordinary circumstances. I doubt, in terms of archaeological knowledge, such extraordinary circumstances exist at the Dozier School for Boys, no matter how unfortunate the story of these young men may be. If it is a story of crime, then while archaeological methods might contribute to an investigation, it is not research covered under the archaeological research permit process. I applaud Secretary Detzner, Director Bendus, and State Archaeological Mary Glowacki for understanding this and for standing by what to me is the proper decision to deny USF a state archaeological research permit for excavation of human bodies from the Dozier School.
I experienced this change in professional ethics regarding human remains first hand, and am personally dismayed that some anthropologists at the University of South Florida, in a program for which I have great respect, do not appear to understand this history and the current position of archaeological ethics regarding human burials. If there was a crime committed at Dozier to which exhumation will bring true justice, then by all means this should be pursued, but to suggest that a criminal investigation be conducted through the archaeological research permit process shows a lack of understanding and a serious lack of respect for those buried at Dozier. It is ironic, I think, that these boys may have suffered at the hands of the state when they were alive, and now, as they lie buried, the hands of a state university once again threaten their peace. A more fitting use of state resources would, in my opinion, be to apply the non-invasive research already completed to delimit the cemetery, mark all graves, and place a fitting boundary wall and monument to those interred in this cemetery.
William B. Lees, PhD, RPA
Executive Director, Florida Public Archaeology Network, University of West Florida
Member, Florida Historical Commission