Criminals are stealing skulls and other human remains from graves to supply the largely unregulated online market for human remains, according to a Live Science investigation.
One reason for this trend: Facebook and Instagram make it easy to buy and sell human remains, and it’s often impossible for buyers to know where those remains come from because the trade is international and thinly regulated. In turn, the demand facilitated by these online markets fuels the need for more samples. Retired medical or anatomical specimens appear to be the most common remains on the market, but experts say taking remains from resting places to supply the trade is a growing problem.
“We’re seeing an increase in vandalism in churchyards,” Trish Beers, an osteologist and paleopathologist at the University of Cambridge, told Live Science. “We see some caches online and we need to contact them [the people working in the crypts] in response to what we believe is a security risk.”
Biers notes that this is happening in the UK as well as abroad. In 2018, 21 skulls were stolen from the ossuary at St Leonard’s Church in Kent, South East England, amid fears they could have been stolen to be sold on the black market. Kent Online (opens in new tab) reported at the time. Researchers are concerned that people may be targeting these types of places more often to obtain skulls.
Biers co-ordinates a working group at the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO) which investigates and provides public visibility into the sale and trade of human remains and the objectification and commodification of the dead.
“Police have contacted us about human remains coming from other countries,” Biers said. “I personally contacted you with photos of real tombs being completely dismantled.”
The Human Tissue Authority (HTA), part of the UK government’s Department of Health and Social Care, strictly regulates organizations that use human remains for medical treatment, post-mortem examination, education and training and public display, but not specimens that are purchased and sold by private collectors. A statement from the HTA is provided at the bottom of this story.
Remains from cemeteries
Some skulls are sold on the UK market with hair and tissue still attached. Live Science discovered posts on Facebook and Instagram that showed images of three skulls that still had hair. A reporter showed photos of these skulls to Joe Adserias-Garriga, an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Forensic Science at Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania. Adserias-Garriga conducts legal exhumations, in which bodies are exhumed — usually for legal cases or cemetery projects. He noted that the appearance of decay of the three skulls is similar to that found in cemeteries.
“When I open a casket, this is what I would normally see,” Adserias-Garriga told Live Science. The back of one skull had a mark with a piece of hair missing. Adserias-Garriga noted that this is a common feature of cemeteries, in which the back of the skull comes into contact with the coffin.
Adserias-Garriga estimated that the three skulls were from adults who died within the last 50 years or so. Only laboratory analyzes of the characteristics of the skulls can determine their age more precisely. Different environmental conditions produce different rates of decay and drying mummified remains can be thousands of years old and still have hair and tissue.
An Essex-based seller, who goes by the name Henry Scragg online, posted pictures of the three skulls in separate Facebook and Instagram posts on November 7, 2019 (opens in new tab), January 7, 2020 (opens in new tab)and February 12, 2021 (opens in new tab). Scragg did not respond to questions from Live Science, but the FAQs section of his website, called Curiosities from the 5th Corner, says: “All relics I sell are over 100 years old out of respect for the law and living friends and relatives, I would never sell relics with a known name, as this may disturb the living and this in my opinion is disrespectful. ”
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A 2020 Live Science survey found that looted skulls bought and sold in private Facebook groups. This included an admission to one of the groups that an American vendor had stolen a skull from the Sousse Catacombs, an early Christian burial site in Tunisia.
For this new research, Live Science spoke to a vendor who highlighted the problem of robbery and grave looting in the UK trade. Mattaeus Ball, an online seller based in Reading, said he now only deals in ex-medical specimens, but told Live Science that he became aware of the trade in looted remains soon after he started selling 15 years ago.
“I started looking around for human bones and very quickly discovered how dark they were,” Ball said. Ball claims he bought a skull from an American seller described as a “Civil War antique,” but a pathology student told him the skull actually belonged to a Native American, so he sent it back — buying and selling the remains of Oi Native Americans are illegal in the US Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (opens in new tab).
“There were people taking skulls from places they shouldn’t have taken them from,” Ball said. “Now it’s gotten to the point where there are grave-stolen items everywhere and everyone is selling them as ‘antiques’.”
Facebook and Instagram appear to be the most commonly used – and easiest to use – platforms for selling any kind of human remains, according to Damien Huffer, an osteoarchaeologist, interdisciplinary trafficking researcher and lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia who specializes in human remains. remains.
Huffer has tracked dozens of private Facebook groups selling human remains. Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, bans the sale of body parts and bodily fluids on its platforms. terms and policies (opens in new tab). Facebook groups occasionally shut down, but new groups take their place and commerce continues, according to Huffer. Commerce also moves in and out of different platforms.
A Meta spokesperson told Live Science, “We have removed the offending content to our attention and will continue to remove content in accordance with our policies.”
Sellers use private groups and public pages to promote their products, but discussions about prices and transactions usually take place in private messages. Vendors Live Science spoke with condemned the theft of human remains. Huffer noted that sellers occasionally call other sellers for suspicious remains, but that a body part from any source can be sold.
“It will always find a home if the price is right,” Huffer said.
This is Part 2 of Live Science’s online investigation into the UK trade in human remains. Live Science recorded 50 sellers across England and Wales who used Facebook and Instagram to offer human remains for sale between 2020 and 2022. You can read Part 1, which covered the legal desecration of human remains in a largely unregulated market, here.
Statement by the Human Web Authority
The HTA gave Live Science the following statement:
“The Human Tissue Authority’s remit is defined by the Human Tissue Act. This requires certain activities that use human tissue to be licensed and subject to the regulatory oversight of the HTA. The HTA regulates organizations that remove, store and use human tissue for research, treatment patients, post-mortem examination, anatomical examination, surgical training and public exposure. These activities require appropriate consent to be legally carried out. The HTA’s general Code of Practice A sets out the four Guiding Principles for the use of human tissue For purposes within the remit of the HTA The actions of anyone undertaking activities within the remit of the HTA should be guided by these four principles of consent, dignity, quality and honesty and transparency.
The public display of human tissue may be subject to regulation by the Human Tissue Authority in certain circumstances, depending on the age of the material and the period for which it was held.’