Thursday, February 08, 2007

Pagans Want Some Bones Back

Borrowing the rhetorical tools developed in North America, British Pagans are becoming increasingly vocal on the issue of "ancestral remains."

British pagan groups are increasingly asking for human remains and grave goods from pre-Christian burials to be returned to them as well. The presence of what they see as their ancestors in dusty drawers or under harsh display lights is an affront to their religion. To them, the bones are living beings, whose existence is bound up with their religious descendants and the sacred land.

I am friends with some of the British Pagan academics who have been pushing this issue hard. On the other hand, ask any geneticist: lots of people, most of them not capital-P Pagans, are descended from those ancient ancestors.

So let us admit that these demands are to a large extent a stunt. We are dealing with self-appointed spokespeople here. David at the Cronaca archaeology blog has other comments.

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Blogger Yvonne said...

Yes, it's an interesting issue. I personally feel that memory is a more important way of respecting the ancestors than reburying them and thereby forgetting them again. I am therefore an enthusiast for archaeology. However, there are plenty of archaeologists who regard all Pagans as totally irrational and refuse to even open a dialogue about this issue.

The more academic end of the respect campaign at least acknowledges that there are numerous solutions and compromises to be made, and they are not demanding reburial in all cases, merely asking for more consideration and respect of ancient bones.

My preferred solution is the idea of "keeping places" which has been used in Australia, where both indigenous people and archaeologists have access to the bones. (Of course in England we're all indigenous, so the issue is not complicated by the colonial legacy.)

2:51 AM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

I have observed this controversy mostly from this side of The Pond, although I was present at one shouting match between British Pagans and English Heritage's archaeologists.

What I notice is that the Pagans have more or less adopted the North American indigenous rhetoric all of a piece. And it does not all work there.

For one thing, these are the remains of almost everyone's ancestors, so how can a few Pagans claim to speak for them? No wonder they are considered to be irrational.

And since most contemporary Pagans live in the post-Blavatsky era and believe in reincarnation, that fact would seem to undercut their emotion as well.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think you're too dismissive of the (admittedly unrepresentative) Pagans' concerns. The idea that one can just dig up bones and use them how one sees fit seems to me bound up with a body/spirit dualist worldview.

In the British Museum there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of Egyptian mummies; it is just ghoulish - what possible scientific or educational purpose are they fulfilling (mind you, I am not suggesting that they should be returned to modern, Muslim Egypt - I don't know what should be done).

Why is the scientific worldview privileged so strongly?

The "indigenous" argument, developed in Australia and N. America, cannot be applied directly to England, but it is not absolutely inapplicable, as urban English people are the descendants of peasants dispossessed in the Enclosures. The arguments about bones are thus interconneced with those about the rights to access land.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Chas S. Clifton said...

In North America, the native cultures can claim cultural continuity (in many cases) with the bones in the museums. And they have their own land for reburying them.

But in Britain, the contemporary Pagans want to leap over centuries of Christianity to claim a fictive cultural continuity with the ancient ancestors. Do they have any more right to do that than the nearest Church of England clergyman?

10:17 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

"the contemporary Pagans want to leap over centuries of Christianity to claim a fictive cultural continuity with the ancient ancestors. Do they have any more right to do that than the nearest Church of England clergyman?"

Assuming that it is indeed fictive, I would agree that modern Pagans have no more right than the local vicar. However, we are not up against vicars but against bigoted scientific materialists, who refuse to acknowledge even the potential for validity in any worldview other than their own. The issue is one of the defence of animism, and I am surprised so many Pagans are hostile to this. I actually think many vicars, especially Anglo-Catholics, are likely to be sympathetic. The issue is also connected with that of who speaks for the landscape - professionals, land-owners, or ordinary people with emotional attachments.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have no right to rebury human remains with modern pagan ceremonies.
You have no idea what the original burial practices were.
You are having a go at the so called bigoted scientific materialists yet you are just as bad as them in your views.
Not all pagans want human remains reburied so I guess their views don't count but your bigoted view does.
It might interest you to know that not all Native Americans want to rebury their ancestors human remains either and want them studied scientifically.
You are not the only one in this country. Your world view isn't the only one. At the time of those ancient burials there must of been many world views also. The varied burial practices of the time suggests this.
These people are my ancestors too as well as yours. They are ancestors of many of the British population so any decision is not yours alone, or any archaeologist but of the population of the British isles.
Nowadays most human remains are found during road works etc.
Archaeologists don't go around digging up bodies for the hell of it.
They did in the past but things have changed.
Archaeologists are respectful of human remains.
More needs to be done but as with everything lack of money gets in the way of doing any-thing positive.
And if these humans remains were to be reburied then instead of just burying them in a hole in a graveyard as has been done with a modern pagan ceremony find out as much information about the burial as possible.
If the remains came from a long barrow and you are so insistent about burying them then why not make a full scale long barrow to house the remains. If it was a round barrow do the same. Remember to note in what position the remains were found and position them exactly the same. Did they have grave goods?. If so make exact replicas to be placed with the body. Was there evidence of food?. If so what kind. For instance in some beaker burials the beaker has residues of some form of drink. To do things properly this drink must be recreated. What time of year was the body buried?. Pollen analysis can help here.
Of course the actual ceremony is a complete unknown.
If you are insistent on human remains are to be reburied do it properly and out of your own pocket. Bury them exactly how they were found and if not in the exact spot then somewhere nearby if possible. If that also means building a long barrow, a stone circle or a roman mausoleum so be it.
If you do not wish to learn about your ancestors thats fine, your choice. But why should you deny the majority of the British population that knowledge.

6:32 AM  

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