Association of Polytheist Traditions
A Live Issue:
Ancestors, Archaeologists and the 'Reburial Issue' in
Copyright © by Jenny Blain and Robert J Wallis 2006
This paper is a companion to one that appeared in British Archaeology in September 2004. There, we were trying to help archaeologists understand pagan views of landscape, sacredness, 'heritage' and some aspects of the 'reburial issue'. Here, we're trying to show something of the issues faced by heritage management, and maybe archaeology more generally, with regards to pagan claims to 'indigeneity": and at the same time to open some questions relating to reburial and ancestors. We know that many pagans are discussing these issues, and there are many views: here as elsewhere, pagans do not speak 'with one voice'/ How indeed could we do so? Paganism is not one 'thing' but a wide ranging association of religious traditions, emerging from different worldviews.
Currently, archaeologists worldwide are engaging with calls from indigenous communities for the repatriation and reburial of ancestral remains. As, co-directors of the Sacred Sites, Contested Rights/Rites Project, we (Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis) are examining contemporary pagan engagements with prehistoric archaeology in Britain, and so we turn our attention to a reburial issue closer to home: how heritage views and pagan views differ, and sometimes agree, about how human remains and associated artefacts are excavated and curated.
At the summer solstice in 2004, English Heritage facilitated 'managed open access' allowing an estimated thirty thousand people into the Stonehenge environs, the fifth consecutive year such an event had occurred. Two years later, in 2006 with the solstice on a weekday, there were around 21 thousand people present. Earlier in 1998, 16% of people expressed 'spiritual motivation' as their reason for visiting Avebury, the World Heritage Site twin to Stonehenge, and 11% said 'personal meditation' was the purpose of their visit. Figures such as these are starting to show the heritage industry that pagans are serious about their attachment to 'sacred sites'; as a focus of increasing attention and tension, and therefore that interest in archaeological sites and the past from Britain's contemporary pagans warrants serious academic scrutiny.
In 2001 we started an academic project, based on previous work: so now the Sacred Sites, Contested Rights/Rites project, co-directed by an archaeologist, Dr Robert J Wallis (Richmond University), and an anthropologist, Dr Jenny Blain (Sheffield Hallam University), and recently funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council, RES-000-22-0074), has spent the past five years attending to theoretical and pragmatic on-site issues of how British prehistoric archaeological sites have been renamed 'sacred sites' by contemporary pagans who engage with them spiritually and by heritage management itself which has had to negotiate these issues. In doing this, we have been exploring practical and theoretical issues of paganisms and identities in today's society, meanings of 'sacredness', beliefs and practices. We are working within an academic environment. We are trying to explain pagan practices, to those within that environment. We're also picking up on how heritage personnel, and archaeologists, themelves regard paganisms and view pagan practices at sacred sites. Their use of the discourse (of the 'sacred site') is interesting. David Miles (Chief Archaeologist, English Heritage), while involved with pagans at the excavation of 'Seahenge', said that he accepted Seahenge was a 'sacred site'. And Clews Everard, until recently site manager at Stonehenge, used 'sacred site' as a term which might develop dialogue between the interest groups involved in 'round table' negotiations over summer solstice access and other ritual occasions (pers.com.). The Sacred Sites project has examined the renewed currency of 'sacredness' in archaeology and pagan discourse, and the interface between them. The issues raised have implications for, most obviously, archaeologists who excavate and interpret sacred sites, and heritage managers who curate (re-present, manage and conserve) them. The implications extend to anthropologists interested in constructions of identity in contemporary Britain, local communities, the hospitality industry and, of course, pagans.
Paganisms and archaeology today
Part of our task becomes interpreting 'paganisms' for the heritage- industry: that is, attempting to convince archaeologists and others that pagans are serious and sincere about their paganism, and that just as not all archaeologists think in the same ways, so do pagans differ. 'Contemporary paganism' covers an alliance of (more of less) nature- orientated religions, paths or traditions ranging from polytheism and animism to duo or even monotheism; that is, it is not a singular religion or centrally coherent belief system. The pagan paths most familiar to archaeologists are Wicca, Druidry (well-known for its interest in Stonehenge as well as the European Iron Age past) and Heathenry, and some archaeologists, of course, are themselves pagan, often Druid or Heathen. To those unfamiliar with pagans, our interests in cultures and spiritualities of the past may appear, at first glance, laughable, spurious, inauthentic and romantic; and indeed some pagans may romanticise 'the past' in order to 're-enchant' their lives in an increasingly secular society. But an increasing number of archaeologists are now realising that paganism is far more complex than tabloid stereotypes: many pagans are deeply committed to their religious practices and take their interest in prehistoric 'ancestors' very seriously. Pagan archaeologists may report that their interest in 'the past' arose from their paganism, and pagan worldviews are increasingly attracting the attentions and imaginations of people in today's Britain. So there is a growing awareness among heritage personnel that pagans' interests in the past need to be engaged with and taken seriously, by those whose professional interests lie with the past.
Yet some archaeologists do still express considerable antagonism towards 'pagans' or 'Druids' - saying, for instance that they just get in the way of excavations and that they interpret things 'wrongly' or ask questions (awkward questions, we wonder?).
Not all pagans 'visit' sacred sites, but those that do may do so in a way which goes beyond simply 'visiting': such places may be where the presence of ancestors, gods, goddesses, wights and other nature/spirit beings is felt most strongly, and where communication with these other- than-human persons' is particularly effective. The places may be considered, simply, as 'home'. Rituals and ceremonies, however simple or elaborate, may take place at any time, though they are most obvious at these sites during 'pagan festivals', such as Beltane, Summer Solstice, Samhain, Winternights, Winter Solstice or Yule (pagans do not all mark the same festivals), which celebrate, at both individual and community levels, the turning of the seasons and subtle changes in people (human and other-than-human). Seasonal Heathen, Druid or other pagan rites happen at hundreds of archaeological sites across the British Isles and Ireland, and indeed other parts of Europe, as well as Australia and the US. Also to be considered is the phenomenon of 'Goddess Tourism', experienced by its clients as pilgrimage to important sites worldwide, and constituting a substantial industry (just as do organised pilgrimages to Christian shrines). Avebury, Stonehenge and Callanish are major focuses of this branch of the tourist industry.
While most rites leave no trace of their occurrence, others may have a significant impact on sites. Instances of graffiti and fire damage have been reported, as we and indeed many other pagans have remarked on, at Avebury, and have photographed, alas, at Castlerigg in the Lake District. Most seem, like the Castlerigg events, accidental, a result of 'not thinking about' the effects of heat on turf and stone, particularly wet stone. Some extreme and deliberate examples include a group named 'Friends of the Stone' which ignited ersatz napalm at Men-an-Tol in Penwith, Cornwall, and more recently the daubing of yellow gloss paint on the Rollright stone circle. It is not clear which pagans are involved in these latter instances, or whether pagans are involved at all: what is at issue is that it is pagans who are being linked with such events, and why this should be so.
We are trying to explain to the heritage industry that such incidents are atypical of pagan engagements with sites, since pagans tend to have reverence for 'places of power' and many tend also to agree with the 'preservation ethic' of heritage discourse. To show their respect, some pagans leave votive offerings, increasingly in some places, from flowers and mead, to more enduring 'ritual litter' such as candles, incense and crystals. Such material is common in West Kennet long barrow (where tealight heat is cracking orthostats) and at a wide variety of other 'sacred sites', especially stone circles and related megalithic monuments. In the end, someone has to clear up the material remains of pagans rites: in general, this job is seen to fall to National Trust and English Heritage site curators (though always assisted by anonymous individuals who saw clearing up sites as their own form of offering, taking along their own 'sacred sacks' for the 'sacred litter' they knew they would find there); however, over the years, groups such as SOSS (Save Our Sacred Sites) and ASLaN (Ancient Sacred Landscape Network) have established, in at least some archaeologists minds, that pagans are concerned and active participants in site litter-clearance. The promotion of suitable site etiquette is obviously a concern, and conservation-conscious pagans promote the maxim 'leave only footprints', borrowed from the Country Code and environmental/heritage groups in Britain and the US. Nonetheless, pagan engagements with the past extend beyond the day-to-day use of sites for ceremonies - increasingly, pagan discourse engages with the meanings of sacred place, how ancestors engaged with them, and of course 'reburial'.
Reburial and ancestors
The 'reburial issue' is one which heritage management has had to negotiate elsewhere. The politics of the reburial of prehistoric human remains and associated artefacts has been a 'hot topic' in the US and Australia. The example of Kennewick Man in the USA illustrates how the claims of contemporary Pagans - however controversial - have been included alongside those of archaeologists and indigenous groups. In this famous case, not only were claims made on prehistoric remains by both local Native American communities and a local pagan organisation, the Asatru Folk Assembly (unusually, among pagans, being right-wing), but also both groups were granted access to the remains to perform ceremonies which honoured the 'ancestor', while the scientific analyses of the physical anthropologists were halted by law. This was a complicated case, too complex to examine sufficiently here, but it certainly evinces the way in which both indigenous groups and, now, contemporary pagans, are making claims to the past, including reburial - with ramifications for pagans and archaeologists in Britain.
On the one hand we have 'repatriation': for instance, a Ghost Dance shirt brought to the UK by Buffalo Bill was returned in 2000 to the Lakota (Sioux) by Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum, to the accompaniment of considerable publicity; then, in 2001 the Royal College of Surgeons revised its policy on considering the return of human remains following requests from indigenous groups; and, a working group set up in 2002 to examine 'the current legal status of human remains within the collections of publicly funded Museums and Galleries in the United Kingdom', has made recommendations (Human Remains Report, November 2003) for dealing with requests for the return of human remains, notably the assessment of claims by an independent expert panel - greeted with approval by the World Archaeological Council. This working group did not, however, make explicit recommendations with regard to British prehistoric material.
On the other hand, some British pagans, drawing on such indigenous claims and, indeed, on the response of the working group, have been calling for the 'return to the earth' or reburial of some (not all) prehistoric remains. They are not alone in this call, nor is their voice a 'fringe' one., Archaeologists and museum curators are discussing unease among members of the public when seeing prehistoric human remains (for instance on forums such as a British archaeology email list) and some reveal considerable sympathy for the call for (at least) their removal from public view. Pagan calls, though, go further, regarding context and philosophy of reburial as well as a need to 'remove' the remains from public view, with reports in the national press and pagan magazines (e.g. 'Pagans Angry at Christian Burial' in The Times [24.10.99] and articles by Davies and Shallcrass in the BDO purblication The Druid's Voice in recent years, discussed below).
Through rituals, pagans may identify themselves as spiritually allied with the prehistoric peoples who built the monuments. Rites at megalithic tombs and related sites - from Mesolithic pits (in the Stonehenge car park) to bronze age round barrows along parts of the Ridgeway - involving potential communication with prehistoric 'ancestors' in particular, prompt participants to feel a responsibility to ancient peoples and the 'sacred sites' themselves. In turn, not only have pagans been collaborating with site managers in site welfare, such as picking up litter and removing chalk graffiti; they have also begun to address issues of 'ancestor' welfare; i.e. concerns over the archaeological excavation and storage of human remains and artefacts, and indeed challenging the excavation process itself. Archaeologists excavating at Avebury in recent field seasons, for example, have had to deal with interest - some of it negative with regard to the excavation, some of it positive- from local and other Druids and pagans. Even a small, very shallow, excavation at the Nine Ladies on Stanton Moor - attempting to find out the extent of erosion cause by visitors' feet! - attracted considerable questions, some potentially hostile, about the 'right' of archaeologists to disturb the circle's ambiance and its relationship with the landscape.
In the meantime, yet another working group (Church of England and English Heritage, 2005) has produced a report on Guidance for Best Practice for Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England. This emphasises the need for treating any remains found with 'dignity and respect', but very obviously works within a Christian worldview - such was its remit.
Some pagans have framed their approaches to British reburial in language similar to that of Native Americans and other indigenous communities. This is how British Druid Order member Paul Davies raised the issue in The Druid's Voice:
Every day in Britain, sacred Druid sites are surveyed and excavated, with associated finds being catalogued and stored for the archaeological record. Many of these sites include the sacred burials of our ancestors. Their places of rest are opened during the excavation, their bones removed and placed in museums for the voyeur to gaze upon, or stored in cardboard boxes in archaeological archives. I believe we, as Druids, should be saying "Stop this now. These actions are disrespectful to our ancestors. When archaeologists desecrate a site through excavation and steal our ancestors and their guardians, it is a theft. We should assert our authority as the physical guardians of esoteric lore. We should reclaim our past.
Davies's view clearly has an indigenous-inspired tone to it. Given that many pagans, including Shamanic practitioner, actively engage with indigenous spiritual practices (however contentious this may be, with implications of appropriation of 'indigenous' spiritual practices and meanings), such rhetoric is not surprising -some pagans perceiving themselves as 'new tribes' or in the phrasing we've used, 'new indigenes'. To Davies, the reburial of prehistoric human remains in Britain 'makes perfect sense; bones are living people and should therefore be respected and ceremonially reburied' (P. Davies in Druids' Voice 1998/9:11), and he outlines how pagans can get directly involved in this issue:
I speak for the ancestors and guardians of the land, those spirits not currently represented in the archaeological recordĚThe Druid or Pagan shaman can use their gifts as 'harmonic bridges' to communicate between the realities of archaeology, land developers and Pagan DruidsĚDruids should join together and encourage debate between archaeologists and museums in the reburial issue (pp:10-12).
Quite obviously, individual pagans and pagan groups do not have agreed core beliefs or practices, let alone centralised spiritual beliefs concerning disposal of the dead. Nor is their discourse on 'ancestors', in a multicultural Britain, clear-cut (and, of course, nor should we expect it to be). Some pagan groups, like some non-pagan groups, adopt attitudes to 'blood-and-soil' issues, in which particular 'ancestors' become important. (It should be noted that the Kennewick Man controversy in the US was linked to issues that had more than a hint of racism, with some of the pagans involved claiming the bones to be those of an ancient European and hence in some convoluted sense their ancestor.) Within religious studies in Britain, Anne-Marie Gallagher has explored how an assumption of kinship with a romanticised 'Celtic' distant past can lead to implicit exclusion. We (Jenny and Robert) have likewise looked at how a few heathens use concepts of separateness and indeed how the idea of neatly bounded 'peoples' each with their own unique 'religion' and 'pantheon' can rather easily slide into ideas of ethnic exclusion, cultural supremacy, and indeed racism. But it seems to us that the majority of pagans walk a liberal line of ethnic tolerance and inter- racial dialogue. Nonetheless, in the 'time of tribes', the reburial issue is gathering momentum and coherency. Stonehenge, within the context of the Management Plan and disputed proposals for a tunnel to replace part of the A303, has been a focus for the British reburial issue, an issue which has been raised at Stonehenge Project meetings - the liaison group established to discuss the future of the Stonehenge environs. There are calls for some of the remains found at Avebury to be reburied there. Devizes museum (to name but one) holds a number of bronze age remains from the barrows around Avebury and Upton Lovell: can these be returned to the earth?
One initiative (with which we're involved) is the organisation Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD), formed by well-known Druid Emma 'Bobcat' Restall Orr, as 'a British network organisation set up to ensure respect for ancient pagan human remains and related artefacts' (from homepage at www.honour.org.uk). This arose initially out of the controversies around Stonehenge 'options', but now is involved with a number of other issues including the protest camp at Prittlewell, where a Saxon cemetery is threatened by road building plans. Bobcat described to us its aim to facilitate 'clear interactions between archaeologists, historians, landowners, site caretakers, museums and collectors, and the pagan community':
The purpose of this interaction is clear and positive communication that will inspire a broader and deeper understanding of the sanctity of all artefacts (notably those connected with ritual, sacrifice, burial and human remains) sourced from the Pagan eras of the British Isles. HAD will be seeking assurances that there will be communication and consultation on matters relating to such artefacts and remains (pers.comm.)
HAD is not calling for mandatory reburial, but is concerned to further dialogue between the interest groups and in particular establish consultation between these groups during excavations as well as the opportunity for pagans to 'make ritual in appropriate ways, honouring the spirits involved'. There are issues here of how 'appropriate ritual' is constituted, since we do not know what sorts of rituals, if any, were associated with these remains, and this is also something seen as problematic in some quarters of the pagan community, as discussed on the Association of Polytheist Traditions (APT) and BritWitch email lists. Clearly 'the pagan community' can never be in its entirety represented by HAD - we might rather speak of diverse and often conflicting pagan communities (Bobcat is in agreement, here). The aims of HAD to promote dialogue and respect seem useful ones to pursue.
Other pagans are pushing for more than respect for 'ancestors', the possibility of ritual, and dialogue on reburial. Philip 'Greywolf' Shallcrass asked a National Trust representative:
- if there was any possibility that priests used to working with the spirits of our ancestors could get access when such burials were uncovered and could make ritual for the spirits of the deadĚ He expressed his personal sympathy to the idea. Inspired by this initial contact, I wrote a letter to some appropriate folk in English Heritage and the National Trust. In it, I expressed my concern that any burials found might simply end up in boxes in a museum basement. I asked for access to burials on site when they were uncovered, for permission to make ritual before burials were removed, and also whether it would be possible to re-bury the ancestral remains after a suitable period of study. The National Trust are putting my letter forward to the next meeting of the Stonehenge Archaeology Group and I'm awaiting developments.
After further meetings of the Stonehenge Project, Greywolf had this to say:
I've come to focus on respect and reburial as my primary reasons for being involved in the talks. I don't like the idea of any remains that may be uncovered during the work ending up either in a museum display or filed away in a cardboard box in a storeroom. I have been, and will continue asking for any remains that are found to be treated with respect and then returned to the earth as near as possible to their original burial sites, preferably with any accompanying grave goods and with suitable ritual.
He explicitly states that respect and reburial is his main reason for involvement with the Stonehenge Project. While some archaeologists, especially osteoarchaeologists, might react with outrage, and while private landowners may find themselves in a difficult position on this issue (perhaps erring on the side of anti-reburial on their land),some pagans have been proactive in negotiations and have had some success in their campaigns. Philip Shallcrass (in The Druid's Voice, 2003) reported on his involvement in the reburial of an early Saxon woman in the Woodford Valley, near Stonehenge. Following excavations by Wessex Archaeology, and a period of scientific analysis, the Home Office agreed to a reburial. The District Council's Director of Housing and Health sanctioned the burial site in the near vicinity of the original excavations, after which Wessex Archaeology (who had legal and moral responsibility over what they had excavated) reburied the woman's remains. Clearly, calls for and negotiations over reburial are not only in evidence, but reburial itself, in this instance at least, is now in effect.
Negotiating the Issues
In November 2003, an event at the British Museum facilitated the ritual re-engagement of a London-based Maori community (Ngati Ranana) with various Taonga - 'treasures': what many in the west would misleadingly and too simply term 'artefacts' - including those collected during the well-iknown voyages of Captain James Cook. This case exemplifies how a mutually beneficial and dialogic relationship between indigenous peoples and the current curators of such 'sacred' artefacts might be successfully established. While indigenous communities may be able to (and are compelled to by, for example Federal legislation in the US) demonstrate genetic or cultural links to satisfy the law, addressing the extent to which pagans can claim British prehistoric remains are 'theirs' is (obviously to many pagans) to miss the point.
First, dialogue between heritage management and pagan 'new-indigenes' is already in action at several sites including Stanton Moor, Thornborough Henges, the Rollright Stones, and most noticeably, Stonehenge. While each of these is different, the first two - Stanton Moor and Thornborough - show how pagans and heritage management may recognise that sometimes they are fighting the same corner: their interests (protecting heritage or sacred space) coincide against quarrying proposals. Recent pagan-heritage negotiations over the British 'reburial issue' at sites of prehistoric burial and their associated artefacts, too, suggest similar - respectful - processes are in effect. Just as pagans do not all leave tea-lights and drip wax over ancient monuments, archaeologists do not all treat prehistoric burials or cremated remains lightly. Current archaeological publications stress 'respect' - an example being Mike Parker-Pearson's The Archaeology of Death and Burial, which has an appendix on guidelines for practice devoted to the respectful treatment of remains.
And second, the issue here is not one of 'repatriation' or exclusive 'ownership' of remains or artefacts. In other places, indigenous people - having to prove indigeneity by (let's face it) neo-colonial requirements, are required to stake an exclusive claim based on kinship or land use from 'time immemorial'. Most pagans, whatever their claims on the past, generally do not, and cannot, claim an exclusive relationship to 'the ancestors'. As a Heathen friend points out, in Britain we are 'all mongrels'. In a sense, rather than our ancestry determining the relationship to landscape, it is how we see the landscape that affects whom we see as 'ancestors' - including those who have been on the land before us, those who have made the trackways and the stories that we now re-experience.
And, this issue gets still more complicated. On the surface, it's about an 'objective' academic/heritage discourse versus public understanding; or of (scientific) authenticity versus (perceived 'wacky' pagan) inauthenticity. We think that both issue and perceptions are much more complicated There are not two groups or two discourses but diversity in spiritual practices, understanding, and relationships, and many voices need to be heard. Academically we can say that the issue is of multivocality, maintained through many discourses that convey spirituality as well as forms of knowledge and power.
On which note: some more reactionary archaeologists may perceive they have the power - and obligation - to make such charges of inauthenticity because 'scientific' archaeological claims are perceived to be more objectively substantive than pagan interpretations, and because pagans have no 'unbroken line' to the past. But increasingly within archaeological theory and practice (in line with current social sciences and humanities research methods generally) there is a recognition of many 'ways of knowing' about the past, and a recognition that the past and its stories are 'for' people today. Archaeology is about interpretation, and interpretations are created within political and spiritual contexts, for a purpose. In the current politically aware and interpretative climate of archaeology, with its emphasis on community engagement, dialogue, and 'public archaeology', there is need for archaeologists, heritage managers and others to be self-reflective, accountable and transparent, and for them to open up their research/data to external scrutiny. So the issue is really whether archaeologists are prepared to address social pluralities that include paganisms, and negotiate and dialogue with pagans, rather than dismiss them as 'fringe' and 'eccentric'. Clearly, some are: indeed museum staff and archaeologists are asking for input, seeking guidance, seeking to understand worldviews. Currently The Manchester Museum is planning a conference to bring together pagans, archaeologists and museum personnel, with an object to offer 'practical guidance for museums and archaeologists considering reburial as an option' according to its initial draft programme.
And in turn, there is need for pagans (of what ever persuasion) to appreciate complexities of the reburial issue. Remains and artefacts are taken from the earth. Can we always just put them back? There are, on museum shelves, bones whose previous context in landscape is now destroyed: built on and in, quarried away, changed through the numerous processes in which humans engage with landscape. Where should they go? Today little excavation is carried out for its own sake, but these is considerable rescue archaeology - excavation to gain knowledge before a place is removed for building purposes or a landscape irreparably altered.
Even if there is a place to which bones, or a cremation urn, can be returned, what of the artefacts placed with these remains - for a purpose? If they are replaced in a barrow, what happens if they are located by a metal-detector? If they are retained by the museum, is the purpose of reburial then served? And, are there ways in which having artefacts 'on view' increases the respect shown to the cultures and peoples of our past?
If bones are replaced - what happens to the places where they are put, and how do the meaning of such places change for pagans? To illustrate, we can consider that notable monument frequented by thousands of pagans in a year, West Kennet Longbarrow in the Avebury landscape. If we can collect and replace the bones found there (some were of course destroyed), what happens to the monument? Currently visitors go past the great blocking slabs and into the chambers of the tomb. Do we replace remains, remove the concrete and the roof window, and re-seal the tomb? Some would see this as only fitting, but for other pagans the monument is currently a 'temple' where they make ritual, for instance taking advantage of the interesting acoustic properties of the (reconstructed) chambers. In the period in which the barrow was in use, it was not sealed, and there are indications of ritual taking place within it and in the forecourt of the tomb - what is possible in today's climate of opinion? These are hugely complex issues and.
Sacredness vis-à-vis Science
The 2003 Human Remains Report has met with its detractors. Views expressed include, at an extreme, those expressed online by Jenkins (2003), who points out, (quoting from p.7 of the report) that 'the affiliation of remains, as defined by the committee, extends 'beyond families' ties' to someone from the same 'country, culture or belief group' - in sum, anyone who might fall into the category of 'cultural descendants'. For Jenkins, this is a serious problem, denying the claims of scientists for the study of skeletal material. Similarly, this online critique suggests that according to the report, 'Every molecule, hair and fingernail is seen as sacred until proved otherwise'.
We see the report as having opened up a considerable debate, with room on all sides to explore the contested territory of what is 'sacred' and how 'science' may negotiate with the sacred. Today, indigenous peoples are joined by many British people - including pagans and archaeologists - in indicating that 'sacredness', rather than perceived 'objective' and universally applicable scientific knowledges, should be the default position: that indeed '[e]very molecule, hair and fingernail' is sacred, and so is the earth around. Prehistoric burials involve the deliberate placing of a 'person' (however variously constituted) within a landscape (also culturally constructed in some way). We cannot know the particular interpretations of that landscape, or the person's relation to it pertaining at the time of internment of skeletal or cremated material, or the meaning behind the burial or how a particular culture at a particular time conceptualised 'personhood'. We do know that there was an intention which, from comparison with ethnographic records and indigenous accounts today, suggests a consistent 'sacred' relationship. By interrupting the association of person, land, and grave-goods, we are intervening in that relationship.
We do not negate claims of scientific knowledge, nor do we automatically support the case for reburial put by Davies, Shallcrass and Restall Orr. We do suggest that the 'spiritual' evaluation of respect for British prehistoric remains is every bit as pressing as that for overseas indigenous claims, and we posit that science should have to make a particular case for the retention, in the private or public eye, of such material. In the wake of the report on Human Remains, we anticipate seeing similar recommendations for indigenous British material in the near future: and in the wake of the Church of English/English Heritage report, we anticipate an extension of the current idea of showing 'respect' into an appreciation of how that may be demonstrated or received within different worldviews.
This is an issue on which pagans will hold many differing views. It seems to us important that the issues are addressed and debated. So we close with a question to readers. Does this issue matter? If so, how does it fit with the worldviews that you hold? We welcome any thoughts and ideas.
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Davies, P. 1998/9. Speaking for the Ancestors: The Reburial Issue in Britain and Ireland. The Druid's Voice: The Magazine of Contemporary Druidry 9 (Winter): 10-12.
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Harvey, G. 1997. Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism. London: Hurst and Co.
Parker-Pearson, Mike. 1999. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Sutton Publishing.
Shallcrass, P. 2003. Respect and Reburial in Action. The Druid's Voice 2(2): 26-28.
Wallis, R.J. 2003. Shamans/neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans. London: Routledge.
Wallis, R.J. 2002. Waking the Ancestors: Neo-shamanism and Archaeology. In: G. Harvey (ed.) Shamanism: A Reader 402-423. Routledge.
Jenny Blain and Robert J Wallis run the 'Sacred Sites, Contested Rights/Rites' project, looking at how pagans and others relate to British prehistoric landscapes. Various papers are online at www.sacredsites.org.uk and they can be contacted at projectATsacredsites.org.uk.
Their book from the project was published by Sussex Academic Press in 2007. Details are at http://www.sacredsites.org.uk/shop/
Jenny Blain is Speaker of the Association of Polytheist Traditions
This article was earlier Printed in White Dragon no. 49, Lughnasa 2006, pp 15-19.