Respectful Terminology Recommended for Discussion of Human Remains

Respectful Terminology Recommended
for Discussion of Human Remains and Funerary Objects
in Archaeological Compliance


The Arizona State Museum is responsible for administering the Arizona Antiquities Act (AAA), A.R.S. §41-1531 and A.R.S. §41-841 et seq., and the statutes that provide for the respectful treatment and disposition of human remains and specific classes of cultural items encountered on state and private lands, A.R.S. §41-844 and A.R.S. §41-865, respectively. Pursuant to these statutes, one of ASM's core responsibilities is to ensure that human remains and other protected cultural items are treated with respect and dignity from the moment of encounter to repatriation. The Rules Implementing the Arizona Antiquities Act define “respectful treatment” and provide structure and guidelines for discovery situations to ensure that remains are cared for appropriately upon their encounter or disturbance. Burial Discovery Agreements provide further detail on legally required and culturally appropriate protocols for situations involving disturbances of human remains.

One of the ways that compliance professionals can reinforce proper respect, behavior, and treatment in their work is through the use of respectful language when referring to and interacting with ancestral remains and their belongings. The table below, which was developed in conjunction with our tribal partners, highlights some of the small but significant terminology changes we can make to redefine our interactions with ancestral remains and the descendant communities with whom we work. ASM advocates for the use of this language in preparing compliance documents that may deal with human remains and protected cultural items, including communications to the Repatriation Office and tribal colleagues when reporting disturbances of ancestral remains.


analyze/analysis document/documentation
collect (bone or funerary object) gather (ancestral or cultural remains)
cremains cremation, primary/secondary cremation, or cremated human remains
discover encounter/expose/disturb
grave/burial funerary/mortuary feature
grave goods/items/objects/artifacts/accompaniments funerary objects/belongings
human skeletons ancestral remains/human remains/individuals
lock (in a room/lab/cabinet) secure
remove/excavate/exhume (burial or individual) recover (ancestral remains/individuals)
sacred objects sacred ceremonial objects
skeletal sample group of ancestral remains/group of individuals
skull cranium
store/pack/box up house/housing
subadult juvenile
transport escort
animal burial animal mortuary feature