Appropriation (?) of the Month: Who Should Benefit from Ancient Human Remains?: Legal, Ethical, and Economic Challenges

the choir of Leicester Cathedral looking east, in Leicestershire, England. King

By Alexa Walker

On February 4, 2013, the University of Leicester announced that the bones of King Richard III (1452-1485) had been unearthed from beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. 

The discovery of the king’s remains has started a 21st century battle between the English cities of York and Leicester over the rights to display and possess the long-dead monarch’s bones.

The competing claims of ownership between the two cities highlight several key issues. First, determining ownership of human remains is an increasingly complicated task because of the growing number of descendent communities (identifiable by DNA) and stakeholders. Secondly, further complications arise due to the immense economic profitability of human remains as archaeological heritage. This is exemplified by the hugely successful exhibit of Ötzi the Iceman in the South Tyrol Museum (Deem 2009). Finally, as demonstrated by the impassioned claims of the king’s descendents in York, there is the highly divisive issue of following the wishes of the dead at the expense of modern claims of ownership. King Richard III’s descendants claim that the deceased monarch wished to be buried in York, where he spent much of his childhood and received the majority of support during his short reign (Alleyne 2013; Rath 2013). It is evident that determining ownership of human remains is an enormously complex legal, ethical, and political issue, along with economic interests relating to museums and cultural tourism.


King Richard III: treacherous murderer or misunderstood king?

Born in 1452, Richard grew up at the epicenter of a fierce dynastic battle (Hipshon 2010). Commonly referred to as the Wars of the Roses, England was ravaged by fierce battles between the houses of York and Lancaster for the throne of England. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, rose to eminence with the sudden death of his brother, King Edward IV (Hipshon 2010). At his untimely death, Edward IV left behind a kingdom at the brink of disaster with a son, Edward V, too young to rule and a country struggling to recover from internal strife. Power struggles ensued with the eventual usurpation of the throne by Richard, now King Richard III, and the imprisonment of young Edward V and his brother in the Tower of London. 

Crowned at Westminster Abbey in 1483, King Richard III faced continual threats to power, most notably from a young Henry Tudor of the house of Lancaster (Hipshon 2010). The Battle of Bosworth, the conclusion to the Wars of the Roses, saw King Richard III defeated and killed by the army of Henry Tudor (Hipshon 2010).  Later analysis showed a total of 10 injuries occurring around the time of death, including numerous vicious, and probably fatal, blows to the head and sinister evidence of humiliation injuries (University of Leicester 2013).  For over 500 years, the body of King Richard III lay in an anonymous grave beneath the Church of Greyfriars, eventually covered over by a parking lot.

Image at top: the choir of Leicester Cathedral looking east, in Leicestershire, England. King Richard III is expected to be buried in Leicester Cathedral in 2014. Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When the University of Leicester announced to the world on February 4, 2013, that they had discovered the king’s body, many parties became eager to resurrect the true character of the king and reassert their connections to the deceased monarch. The 21st century battle over the king’s skeleton offers a unique opportunity to examine the precedents surrounding stakeholder and descendent communities claims over ancestral remains, as few official protocols exist.  The discovery of Ötzi the Iceman demonstrates the lack of clear ethical and legal precedents for determining ownership of human remains as well as the economic privileges of ownership.


But he’s my mummy!

Discovered in 1991 by Erika and Helmut Simon who were hiking in the Ötztal Alps, Ötzi was first believed to be a recently deceased mountaineer.  Almost immediately upon exhumation it became clear that was not the case.  As Ötzi’s prominence continued to grow, so did the number of parties eager to claim their share of his fame.  

Erika and Helmut Simon demanded recognition of their role in discovering Ötzi in the form of a ‘finder’s fee’, which in Italian law, equates to 25% of the estimated monetary value of the item (Deem 2009). After a series of protracted court battles, the Simons were awarded $250,000 from the provincial government of Bolzano (Deem 2009).  While the Simons felt that they had regained their status as the official discoverers of Ötzi, the debate raged on between Italy and Austria as to who would own and permanently house the remains.

Ötzi had initially been taken to the Austrian University of Innsbruck. However, after it was established that the discovery location was actually about one hundred meters on the Italian side of the border, Italy’s claim prevailed. Ötzi now rests in a state-of-the-art freezer room, on his own floor, in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.  

The public display of Ötzi’s remains in the museum brings in a significant number of tourists both to the museum and the city each year. It is estimated that tourists pay about 3.2 million US dollars each year in admission (Deem 2009). Furthermore, Ötzi’s famous facedown arm askew silhouette has been found on a virtually endless variety of merchandise from to T-shirts to coffee mugs and, perhaps most notoriously, as a tattoo on Brad Pitt’s left arm. As evidenced at other heritage sites, ownership of archaeological heritage brings with it an enviable opportunity to profit economically.


Back to King Richard III

As with Ötzi, one party has laid claim over the remains of King Richard III.  The University of Leicester states that they were given the license to excavate, that they discovered the remains of the king, and that the king died and was buried in Leicester.  Therefore, they feel, it is well within the city’s right to claim ownership.

Indeed, Leicester officials have already made arrangements for the king’s bones to be buried in Leicester Cathedral in 2014. Consequently, a museum dedicated to the discovery and identification of King Richard III is planned to open in the same year. As seen with the museum of South Tyrol Museum and its acquisition of Ötzi’s remains, there is the immense potential for economic benefits.  In fact, there has already been a spike in the number of visitors to Leicester Cathedral that is being attributed to the so-called “Richard III effect” (BBC 2013).  Since the discovery of the king’s remains the number of visitors to the Leicester Cathedral has increased from 40 and 50 a day to an astounding 500 to 1,000 visitors (BBC 2013). [1]  It is evident that Leicester and its cathedral will continue to enjoy an upswing in tourism as the result of housing King Richard’s remains.

However, with the sensationalism of the discovery and the rising popularity of the king, more parties have come forward eager to claim Richard’s remains.  Nine of King Richard III’s descendants, comprised of 16th and 17th generation great nieces and nephews, have released a statement expressing their desire for the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty to be buried in York.  Moreover, these descendents claim that it is not merely their wishes but also that of King Richard to be interred in York.  In a statement they say (Alleyne 2013):

“We believe that such an interment was the desire of King Richard in life and we have written this statement so that his wishes may be fully recognised and upheld.”

Through Facebook and Twitter and a petition with over 23,000 signatures, the people of York are making their wishes heard for King Richard III to be returned to his home.  Comments from an online petition clearly indicate that the people of York feel a close connection to the king and a ready willingness to stand up for what they believe are his wishes to be buried in York Minster (Care2 Petition Site 2013):

“Respect his wishes. York Minster.”

“He deserves to be close to Middleton Castle and the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. This is our heritage.”

“Please let Richard the third be buried in York so that he can rest in peace. It would be morally wrong to leave Richard in Leicester where he had no choice or say in the matter. His heart was in York and that's where his remains should be.”

King Richard III’s descendants introduce another pivotal dimension to determining ownership by asking a simple and yet immensely consequential question: what were the wishes of the deceased? There is evidence of Richard’s great affinity for York but his descendents claim that the king expressed his desire to be buried in the city. And yet a spokesperson for the Minister of Justice has sided with Leicester by stating "no one except the license holder, i.e. the University of Leicester, can decide where the remains end up" (Troughton and Warzynski 2013).

The Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, has gone so far as to exclaim that the “bones of Richard III would leave the city over his dead body” (Troughton and Warzynski 2013). It’s apparent that neither city is ready to give up the fight for the remains of the king. But where do the wishes of King Richard III fit in? What is needed to establish the wishes of the deceased?  Do the wishes of the dead hold greater or lesser consequential value than who holds the license to excavate?  These are questions that will undoubtedly continue to create ethical divisions and tensions in this case. 

The discovery and subsequent battle over King Richard III’s skeleton has illustrated the immense complexity of determining claims of ownership over human remains. Accompanying the ownership of the deceased monarch’s remains is the lucrative profitability of tourists flocking to the burial site to pay their respects. The case of Ötzi the Iceman demonstrates the immense potential for economic benefits that comes with ownership of archaeological heritage. The debates surrounding the remains of both Ötzi and King Richard III illustrate a lack of sophisticated theoretical and legal precedents to deal with an immensely complex situation. Many questions remain, such as, how best to deal with issues of ‘ownership’ over human remains and how to ensure that the wishes of the deceased, and their descendents, are given equal consideration as the lucrative profitability of archaeological heritage. 



Alleyne, R. 2013. Bury him in York, say Richard III’s descendents. The Telegraph.

BBC News. 2013.  Richard III effect sees Leicester Cathedral visitor numbers soar.  

Deem, J. M. 2009. Finders Fee Lawsuits: Provincial government of Bolzano finally agrees to pay 150,000 Euro settlement to Erika Simon

Hipshon, D. 2010. Richard III: David Hipshon outlines the career of the most controversial king ever to have occupied the English throne. History Review, 66, 32

Rath, K. 2013. Richard III burial ‘should not be finders keepers.’ BBC News.  

Troughton, A. and P. Warzynski. 2013. Richard III set to be buried in Leicester as university makes final decision. The Leicester Mercury

University of Leicester. 2013. Osteology.  

Care2 Petition Site. 2013. Time for King Richard III to come home to York.  

Suggested Readings:

Bowitz, E., and Ibenholt, K. 2009. Economic impacts of cultural heritage- research and perspectives. Journal of Cultural Heritage 10(1):1-8.

Fforde, C., J. Hubert, and P. Turnbull (eds.). 2002. The dead and their possessions: repatriation in principle, policy, and practice. Routledge, London.

Fowler, B. 2000. Iceman: Uncovering the life and times of a prehistoric man found in an alpine glacier. Random House, New York.

Kaufmann, I.M., Rühli. 2010. Without ‘informed consent’? Ethics and ancient mummy research. Journal of Medical Ethics 36(10):608-613

Logan, G., and T. More. 2005. History of King Richard the Third (A Reading Edition). Indiana University Press, Indiana.

[1] Not surprisingly, debates have erupted about whether the deceased king’s remains will be available for viewing by the public, presumably for the price of admission to the cathedral or museum. Regardless of the circumstances of the burial, it is certain that Leicester will enjoy a spike in cultural tourism as a result of housing the now famous king’s remains. 



Richard is part of Leicester's heritage, so leave him be.

Richard III has been part of Leicester's heritage for over 500 years so it would be immoral to remove him from this city, He did not have a will or testament. He may have wished to have been buried in the place where he was killed so he would be remembered for his brave charge at Henry Tudor. Whether we like it or not, King Henry VII was happy with Leicester being the place of Richard's burial. His family and friends didn't seem to object either. I don't believe that a group of Richard III enthusiasts should have the right to remove his remains from the Parish in which he has lain for all this time. Whether they are collateral descendents or not, they are not important enough to make that decision. We should respect our history and stop interfering with it because of sentimental reasons. . We knew his wishes were to kill Henry and remain King of England. Richard should remain in Leicester, the heart of the Country he loved.

Taking issue

I feel that I have to take issue with some of your assertions. Firstly the Richard III "usurped" the throne. Richard was presented with information that the princes were the issue of a bigamous marriage, and therefore illegitimate. They therefore had no legitimate claim to the throne. The offspring of his next brother were debarred by their father's treason against Edward IV, and likewise debarred. He was offered the crown by the Council. His brother, Edward, had usurped Henry VI, who was still the anointed king, but no-one refers to him as an usurper. The Princes were not imprisoned in the Tower, the Tower was then a royal palace, as well as a prison, and they were lodged in the royal apartments, the appropriate lodging for a soon-to-be-crowned prince. Whilst the iceman has been claimed by tow countries, he is still an unidentified individual, and has no known living descendants, either direct or collateral. The Pro-York campaign is supported, in the vast majority by people who don't live in York, and seek only to bury a king of England in a place appropriate to his - albeit perceived - wishes. His plans for a huge chantry chapel there being the strongest evidence for such. There is no such evidence that he would have wished to be buried in Leicester. The fact that he was a king of England means that no one city can claim "ownership" of his remains. This should be a matter for national discussion, and should not have been left to the university of Leicester to decide, and the licence only gives the university the authority to reinter unidentified human remains. Richard is not unidentified, and should therefore be treated completely separately from any other remains found in the Greyfriars site. His final resting place should not be treated as a tourist exhibit, but as a royal tomb, and be granted the same level of honour as that of his Tudor vanquisher, whose remains are interred in a purpose built mausoleum which he added to Westminster Abbey, at a cost to the nation, in today's money, of £9 million. He should be brought to the city he called "home" and that city is York.

Very Interesting Questions Raised

Very interesting questions raised in this piece. Very fascinated by the idea that we have a window of time beyond which we no longer consider the dignity and wishes of a deceased human-being to be of significant consideration, especially when compared to ownership of an historical artefact and the economic benefits that come along with that ownership. With the passage of enough time, we tend to forget or ignore that this was once a living human-being who deserves the respect and dignity that we would normally attribute to the deceased. A very complex ethical quandary and one worthy of considerable thought. - Shawn

Reply to 'Very Interesting Questions Raised'

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Shawn.  While doing the research for this piece I came across this paper which it sounds like you might be interested in:

Kauffman, I.M., and Ruhli, F.J. 2010. Without 'informed consent'? Ethics and ancient mummy research. Journal of Medical Ethics, 36(10): 608-613.

This article discusses some of the issues that I touched on in the piece and that you bring up in your comment about weighing the wishes of the deceased against modern demands.  I found the authors' discussion about medical privacy and publishing the personal medical data of the deceased particularly interesting.