September/October 2022Vol. XXXV No. 1

Response to “Project Indigenous MIT”

Heather Lechtman

To:       David Shane Lowry

From:  Heather Lechtman; director, Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology [CMRAE]

Date:   14 June 2022

Hello David Shane Lowry

I write in response to your contribution published in the May-June 2022 issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter: “Project Indigenous MIT”.

What surprises me is that you made no effort to contact me or any of my CMRAE colleagues to introduce your broad mission at MIT and to enlist our help in accomplishing your goals.

As archaeologists, we deal with the human past during as much of its development as we are able to study and in as many locations on this earth as we can access. As teachers, a primary goal is always to introduce our students to the immense variety of human cultural and social developments so that they are sensitive to how people all over the world have faced the challenges we all face – and how and why they have or have not succeeded in the face of such challenges.

I have no idea what your sources of information about CMRAE are or have been, but I will point out flaws in the data you present on page 3 of your Newsletter article concerning CMRAE.

CMRAE is not an MIT department. It is a center [Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology], organized as a consortium of seven educational institutions in the Greater Boston area: Boston U., Brandeis U., Harvard U., U. of Massachusetts, MIT, Tufts U., Wellesley College, and including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. MIT administers the center; each institution chooses a member as its representative.

CMRAE is not housed within Course 3 (Materials Science and Engineering). The center was established in 1977 with funds granted by the National Endowment for the Humanities in response to an application submitted jointly by Professor Walter Rosenblith, then Provost of MIT, and Heather Lechtman. Given the multi-institutional   makeup of the center, a decision was made to house it in the MIT Office of the Provost. The director of CMRAE reports directly to the provost.

CMRAE is first and foremost a center devoted to the education of graduate students in the field of archaeological materials. The subjects we teach are designed and taught by faculty from the member institutions (thus far, from Boston U., Brandeis U., Harvard U., U. of Massachusetts, MIT), and graduate students enroll from these institutions.

During our 45 years of graduate teaching, CMRAE has offered the annual, two-semester subject ‘Materials in Ancient Societies’, 43 times. When bone is the material under study, the course includes one semester devoted to human osteology and a second semester that concentrates on animal remains (zooarchaeology).

CMRAE has taught the material subject ‘bone’ three times: in 1993, 2001, and 2005. In 2005 CMRAE requested human remains for the course from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The human remains are not Native American. The investigation of these remains was led by Professor Javier Urcid, currently the Director of Graduate Studies at Brandeis University and a specialist in the field of human osteology. The Alptanes, Iceland human remains were handled with extreme care and kept in a secure space at MIT. No samples of any kind were removed. The human remains were returned to the Peabody Museum at the end of the MIT semester. 


Cynthia Barnhart, MIT Provost                                                                                                         
Jeffrey Ravel, History                                                                                                                              
Jeffrey Grossman, Materials Science & Engineering                                                                  
Caroline Ross, Materials Science & Engineering                                                 
Dorothy Hosler, Materials Science & Engineering                                                                         
Max Price, Materials Science & Engineering                                                                                
Stefan Helmreich, Anthropology                                                                                                       
Javier Urcid, Brandeis, Anthropology                                                                                                             
Michèle Morgan, Peabody Museum, Harvard, Curator of Osteology and Paleoanthropology


ADDENDUM  24 June 2022

In his contribution to the MIT Faculty Newsletter, David Lowry refers to NAGRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a United States federal law enacted on November 16, 1990. The act establishes the ownership of Native American cultural items excavated or discovered on federal or American Indian tribal lands after November16, 1990.

NAGRA requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated American Indian tribes, Alaska Native villages, and Native Hawaiian organizations. Cultural items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.

The act also requires each federal agency, museum, or institution that receives federal funds to prepare an inventory of remains and funerary objects and a summary of sacred objects, cultural patrimony objects, and unassociated funerary objects.

The act provides for repatriation of these items when requested by the appropriate descendant of the American Indian tribe. This applies to remains or objects discovered at any time, even before November 16, 1990, whether or not discovered on tribal or federal land. The act allows archaeological teams a short time for analysis before remains must be returned. Once it is determined that human remains are Native American, analysis can occur only through documented consultation (on federal lands) or by consent (on tribal lands).