P.5: And Who Owns Ancient Remains?

Reburial' has been a central issue for archaeologists and anthropologists in the USA, Australia and elsewhere where the lobbying of indigenous communities for the repatriation and/or reburial of human remains and artefacts held by museums (and other institutions) has met increasing successes. In the USA, NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act 1990) and in Australia the 1988 South Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act mark examples of policy which have enabled some indigenous communities to make legal claims on 'their' pasts. For archaeologists and anthropologists the implications have been immense. 

However increasing numbers of contemporary Pagans, neo-Shamans, Druids and others 'feel' they are native to the British Isles. And so they may claim to be 'Celtic” as they 'know in their hearts' they are Celtic. There are also Pagans, contemporary Heathens in particular, who make ceremonies to honour Anglo-Saxon and other northern 'ancestors'. Others still feel that through ritual, particularly at sacred sites, they are identifying themselves as 'spiritually' allied with the prehistoric peoples who built ‘sacred sites' such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Seahenge. Closeness to the sites particularly denotes, for them, an affiliation with the prehistoric communities which constructed the monuments. Thus, issues of 'ancestor' welfare, i.e. concerns over the archaeological excavation and storage of human remains and artifacts, are now gaining in popularity. 

But even a British Archaeology news article discusses the 'Public Disquiet Over Digging of Graves', referring specifically to an excavation at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Suffolk. One remark is rather striking: 

How short a time do we have to be buried before it is permissible, even acceptable, for grinning archaeologists to dig out our bones, prod among our teeth, disperse our possessions, take the head off our horse and lay us, not to rest, in boxes in museums?(British Archaeology, November 1997: 5) 

In the article this criticism is levied at 'Britain's planning culture which appears to treat cemeteries, especially out-of-use non-Christian cemeteries, with little respect'. It seems people other than Pagans also express a sense of responsibility to these 'ancestors'. 

Even so, it is neo-Shamans and their Druid and Pagan associates who are most vocal on the issue of reburial - increasingly so - and who are taking active roles in effecting change. Such interests seem to have been directly influenced by claims to the past by indigenous communities, particularly the high public profile of Native American repatriation and reburial of human remains and artifacts, in 2000 Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum returned a Wounded Knee massacre Ghost Dance shirt to the Lakota. 

With their own interests in indigenous peoples and drawing on such a precedent, Pagans have framed their approaches to British rebuttal in language similar to that of Native Americans. For example British Druid Order member Davies writes: 

Every day in Britain, sacred Druid sires 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 I speak for the ancestors and guardians of the land, those spirits not currently represented in the archaeological record ... The Druid or Pagan shaman can use their gifts as 'harmonic bridges' to communicate between the realities of archaeology, land developers and Pagan Druids ... Druids should join together and encourage debate between archaeologists and museums in the reburial issue. (Speaking of the Ancestors, The Druids Voice, nr. 9, Winter, 1998/9: 10-12)

At first glance, individual neo-Shamans and Pagan groups do not have agreed core beliefs or practices, let alone centralised 'spiritual' beliefs concerning disposal of the dead. Nonetheless, in the 'time of tribes', the reburial issue is gathering momentum. 

A 'Stonehenge Masterplan' has been under discussion. A liaison group which includes representatives from the Highways Agency, the National Trust, English Heritage, Friends of the Earth, the Pagan Federation, the Ramblers Association, CPRE, local government, farmers, etc. has been established to discuss the future of Stonehenge. 

Of course it has not been established if Stonehenge indeed was something like a “church” as Druids today seem to think. Although aligned to the springtime Sun, as most old farm houses in Europe, many archeologists seem to believe that where other stone sites were burial ground, that Stonehenge was simple a marriage site. 

For a more bizarre current topic see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_yorkshire/3023194.stm


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July 2, 2003






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