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Request concerning photogrammetric analyses in the MSCA IF project “Iceland: Physical Anthropology, Composition and Evolution” (2018/292)

On 24th September 2018, The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains received a request from PhD Kimberly Plomp, Faculty Department of Archaeology, Classic and Egyptology, University of Liverpool, concerning photogrammetric analyses in the MSCA IF project “Iceland: Physical Anthropology, Composition and Evolution”.Plomp’s project is funded by Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship (MSCA IF).Listed as collaborators are Prof. Keith Dobney, Department of Archaeology, Classics, and Egyptology, University of Liverpool; Prof. Mark Collard, Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University; Prof. Neil Price, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Uppsala; and Dr. Hildur Gestdottir - Department of Archaeology, University of Iceland.In addition to the committee’s form for ethical evaluation of research on human remains, these documents were sent: project description, an ethical assessment and a permission from Institute for Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo (signed by Prof. Svend Davanger).The permission to use the material from the Schreiner Collections, signed by Prof. Svend Davanger, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences (IMBS), Faculty of Medicine (UiO) states that: “The Institute of Basic Medical Sciences hereby approves the performance of photogrammetry technique and subsequent geometric morphometric analysis on adult crania, including fragmented pieces, provided that approval is obtained from The National Committee for Research Ethics on Human Remains”.The request was evaluated by the committee in its 7th December 2018 meeting. The committee concluded that more information and a more thorough ethical self-assessment were needed before it could evaluate the request properly. On 13th December 2018 Plomp was asked to: provide specifications about the skeletal material included in the study and the selection criteria, clarify whether permission from the museum collections with ownership to the material had been sought, investigate the provenance of the Inuit material, give more thorough ethical reflections on studying groups connected to a history of oppression, humiliation and stigmatisation, and consider the use of a method similar to a method associated to race biology (craniometry). On 14th March 2019 the committee received a response from Plomp to the committee’s review together with a list of crania from the Schreiner collection she will include in her project. The committee reviewed Plomp’s response and sent the evaluation to Plomp 1st April 2019. On 27th May 2019 Plomp sent a revised request, which was evaluated by the committee and sent to Plomp on 21th June 2019.

The 14th March 2019 request

Plomp’s project is an archaeological migration study aiming to explore the ethnic composition of the initial population settling on Iceland in the period AD 870-930. Plomp holds that since Iceland was settled through individual migration events, unlike the rest of Europe, “Iceland represents a unique opportunity to investigate how migrations and geographic isolation may have influenced modern European variation”. Plomp also aims at exploring how migration and subsequent isolation impacted the biocultural diversity of the Icelandic population. Plomp seeks to accomplish these goals by studying crania from the skeletal remains of the archaeological populations from Iceland, Norway and Ireland. Cranial shape and shape variation will be analysed using 3D geometric morphometrics.

Plomp’s more specific objectives are to:

1) explore patterns of cranial variation of archaeological populations from Iceland, Norway, and Ireland; 2) identify relatedness between populations based on morphological patterns; 3) identify changes in cranial shape occurring in Icelandic populations that relate to climate; and 4) investigate the biocultural impact of genetic isolation and genetic drift on cranial morphology. These aims will be accomplished by: 1) using 3D shape analyses to capture the cranial shape of archaeological populations from Iceland, Norway, and Ireland; 2) performing an inter-population comparison of cranial shape to identify characteristics that may indicate population affinity between Iceland and the suggested origin populations, Norway and Ireland; and 3) performing an intra-population analysis of samples contemporaneous with the initial migrations and those dating from after the settlement of Iceland to identify differences and similarities in cranial shape related to genetic drift and possible transitions in climate. 

The material for the analyses is crania from archaeological populations from Iceland, Norway and Ireland. The crania will be studied in 3D images that will be captured through photogrammetry. In the analysis of the 3D images, the crania are to be assessed for patterns of shape variation. Identification of similarities and differences between the facial and cranial shapes of the different population groups will be studied through principal components analyses (PCA), canonical variates analyses (CVA) and discriminant function analyses. The relationship between cranial shape and genetic and cultural background is to be investigated by exploring the shape variance. Biological sex and age will be determined based in standard osteological methods of the skeletal remains.

The material for this project is described as being 51 Iron Age individuals, 110 Viking Age individuals, and 59 Inuit individuals from Greenland. These individuals are part of the Schreiner Collection at the Institute for Basic Medical Sciences at the University of Oslo. Plomp states that she will not include any crania that are owned by other museums. 

Plomp will carry out the analyses in the collection and will not remove any skeletal remains from the collection. Further, Plomp states that she will provide the photographs and 3D scans to the University’s archive, as well as to an online digital archival service, which will be made open access if the University agrees.

Plomp considers several ethical aspects of her research project. First, respect for remains and descendants: The material is archaeological and there are no known descendants. Further, Plomp underlines that she is “a trained biological anthropologist with decades experience handling archaeological human remains” and concludes on that basis that the skeletal remains will be treated with the utmost respect. Second, respect for groups: Plomp writes that being a biological anthropologist, she is well aware of the impact that biological anthropological research can have on the identity of living populations, and that she considers her scientific responsibility during her research. Plomp states that her research “will not subject vulnerable groups, or anyone, to undue burdens, nor will contribute to the degradation of human beings from any time period”, and that she is “aware of the history between the Sami people and the University of Oslo and physical anthropology (Evjen, Acta Borealia 14(2), 1997) and as such, I will not include any skeletal material pertaining to the Sami in my research”. Third, on the material’s origins, Plomp states that: “There is no reasonable concern that the remains used in this project were sourced in an unethical manner. This collection has been used in many previous research projects which would have been approved by the Norwegian Ethics Committee”. Finally, on the aspect of destruction, Plomp underlines that her methods are non-destructive and non-invasive. Further, with the use of photogrammetric method, this project will produce 3D scans of the crania that can be given to future researchers’ use.

The committee’s evaluation of the 14 March request

The committee concluded to not recommend carrying out the research as it was designed in Plomp’s project description and ethical self-assessment of 14 March 2019 due to a need for more investigation and more thorough ethical reflections on several aspects, particularly connected to guidelines nos. 2, 4, 6 and 8 in Guidelines for research ethics on human remains.

The committee had some concerns regarding ethical reflections on “Respect for other groups” (guideline no. 4). In the 14th March response, Plomp stated that she would not include any Sami skeletal material nor undertake research on skeletal material that is under dispute or requested for repatriation by the descendant population. However, it was not made clear how it can be ruled out that the skeletal material from Iron and Viking Age, in particular in the northern parts of Norway, is of Sami origin, or, at least, from hybrid graves. This should be addressed more thoroughly. Further, Plomp writes that there are many ethical concerns related to research on human remains, particularly research on groups with a history associated with oppression or humiliation by the majority society, and that her “research considers and minimizes these concerns by focusing on archaeological material where a considerable amount of time has passed since burial, and thereby not including identified persons”. It is very good that Plomp raises the consideration for identified individuals in research projects. However, the main concern in Plomp’s research is rather to show due consideration for the groups the remains represent. Given that Plomp will study human remains of the Inuit population (a population group that have historically been mistreated and marginalized), ethical issues on respect for other groups (see guideline no. 4) should be addressed more fully.

Plomp’s method appears to be a more advanced way of executing craniometry, a method widely used in physical anthropology in the first part of the 20th century with strong connections to racial biology. The committee do not believe that Plomp intends to conduct such research. However, researchers are not only responsible for the intended results and desirable consequences, but also for considering possible problematic or undesirable consequences and weighing up the various possible or probable consequences (see guideline no. 6). Plomp writes that her results will not “provide any information that can be used to discriminate against a population or ethnic group and will not place any hierarchical value on individuals or ethnic groups”. Further, that “new projects that focus on human variation from a biological standpoint and in no way allow for political or biased interpretations or use of their data, could help mend the relationships between anthropologists and the public”. These statements are not further elaborated on. When cranial measurement is the basis for a project about ethnical composition of populations, including indigenous peoples with a difficult history connected to physical anthropology and craniometry, the choice of method and material selection should be object of a more thorough ethical reflection.

The material’s provenance, i.e. the circumstances surrounding the material, and the site of the discovery (see guideline no. 8), is not taken into consideration, except for statements such as: “There is no reasonable concern that the remains used in this project were sourced in an unethical manner”. Plomp writes that she has not “been able to determine if an agreement between the IBMS and the Inuit people of Greenland has been made regarding research”. Since Plomp does not specify the material selection in her study, it is difficult for the committee to evaluate the provenance of the material. However, much of the material in the Schreiner collection was acquired in the 19th century and in the first part of the 20th century in a manner that involved encroachment on the rights of individuals or groups. The provenance of the Inuit material in particular, should be investigated before the material is made object of a research project. Plomp was also advised to investigate if permission should be sought from a body representing the Inuit people of Greenland. If there is a possibility for some of the material from Norway to be of Sami origin, permission to include it in research must be sought from Sametinget.

Further, Plomp’s 14th of March response included a list of crania from the Schreiner collection. However, the list contained only numbers (probably referring to catalogue numbers) and no information about the crania. The committee could not on this basis assess how representative the material chosen for the study was, nor to which degree it will lead to an achievement of the objectives put forward (guideline no. 6).

The 27th May 2019 request

The overarching aim, objectives and methodology of Plomp’s project as described in the 14th of March 2019 request have not changed. However, Plomp has made changes related to material, and addressed the ethical issues raised by the committee. The material outset is crania from 38 Iron Age and Viking Age Individuals. Thus, Plomp has narrowed the material substantially down and taken the Inuit material out of the study. A list of the crania with detailed information about each individual including provenance was attached to the request.

Plomp has written an ethical assessment where she considers her project related to all the guidelines in Guidelines for research ethics on human remains. First, Plomp states that the remains will be treated with discretion, dignity and respect by moving the remains as little as possible and handling them appropriately to minimize the risk of damage. The 3D photos of the crania are for research only and will not be shared online. Second, Plomp considers research on skeletal material of Sami origin and writes that since “the Sami people do not consent to the remains of their ancestors being used in research”, “no skeletal material pertaining to the Sami will be included in my research”. Plomp will only analyse remains which the Schreiner collection states are not related to the Sami people, and has excluded remains that were excavated in counties/provinces that are within the geographical boundaries of the Sami (Nordland, Nord-Trøndelag, Troms and Finnmark). Further, Plomp states that she would never undertake research on Sami skeletons because of the racist research being conducted on Sami people and Sami skeletal remains in the past, and “the knowledge that the modern Sami people do not consent to scientific analysis on the skeletal remains of their ancestors”.

Plomp assesses the ethical issues related to the similarities between her methodology and the 19th and early 20th century use of craniometrics. Although there are methodological similarities, the intentions and interpretations of the research differ considerably. When craniometric research in the 19th and 20th century was focused on “races”, today’s craniometry focuses on human variation related to ancestral background and “do not put any hierarchical meaning to similarities or differences in morphology between individuals and/or populations”. Plomp has chosen to exclude remains that belong to populations that have been victimized in 19th century craniometric studies (such as the Sami). Plomp acknowledges that there is a risk of her research being used or misrepresented, but that the risk is low, because “there is no biological reason to assume that the data would provide information that can be used to promote racist concepts”. However, regardless of the considered low risk, Plomp will make efforts to prevent the data being used in such a way: “I will only allow researchers from respected departments and institutions access to the data, as well as provide the housing institutions who evaluate research proposals, such as the IBMS, with the data. If somehow my data were to be used with malintent, I would publicly condemn the researchers and publishers responsible and make the real interpretations of the data widely available”.

Plomp will provide the 3D scans of the crania with the Institute for Basic Medical Sciences for them to share with future researchers, allowing access to crania to researchers more broadly and limiting the direct handling of the crania.

The committee’s evaluation

In the evaluation of the project, the committee takes its Guidelines for research ethics on human remains as a starting point. Guidelines for research ethics in the social sciences, humanities, law and theology forms the general framework for the committee’s specialised guidelines.

The committee finds the project’s aims and methods interesting and believe that many new results may be accomplished through the photogrammetric technique. Plomp has written a thorough ethical assessment and the committee considers the research ethical issues raised in earlier evaluations, addressed in an adequate way. The committee would, however, like to comment on Plomp’s decision to exclude the Sami and the Inuit material from her research project. The committee did not recommend the project as described in the request from the 14th of March being conducted, mainly based in a lack of ethical reflection on respect for the Inuit and the Sami population, and an assessment of the context and provenance of the Inuit material. However, the only solution to these issues was not necessarily to omit the Inuit and the potential Sami remains. Investigations on the provenance for the Inuit material and/or permissions from a body representing the Inuit people of Greenland, might have resulted in a permission from a legitimate representative of the Inuit people to carry out the proposed research. Further, the statement “the Sami people do not consent to the remains of their ancestors being used in research” must be contradicted. There is no unanimous opinion among Sami people whether research on skeletal remains of their ancestors should be carried out or not, and research on Sami skeletal remains have been carried out with the consent of Sametinget. However, due to the problematic history of research on Sami skeletal remains, research on such remains should be object of a particularly thorough ethical evaluation and permission to carry out the research must be sought from Sametinget.


The committee recommends the research on the 38 crania from the Schreiner collection, as it is designed in the project description and ethical self-assessment of 27th May 2019, to be carried out.