The Reburial Issue in Britain

Article excerpt


The dead are back. Like a horde of irritating poltergeists the human remains of the ancients have returned to harass us in the form of the reburial issue; perennial source of postcolonial guilt and undergraduate seminar material. Only this time there is an unusual twist: the remains in question are British. The Council of British Druid Orders (CoBDO) has requested the reburial of a specific group of prehistoric human remains from the collection of the Alexander Keiller Museum. In response English Heritage have carried out a consultation, amidst considerable publicity and public debate (Hole 2008).

The reburial of British human remains by Pagan groups is an interesting and important issue, and one that should be considered in more depth. To do so I will move away from CoBDO, whose confrontational approach is uncharacteristic of the highly diverse Pagan community in Britain, and focus on the organisation Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD). HAD is a lobby group for the British Pagan community with council members drawn from a wide range of organisations. Its general aim is to promote Pagan input in the treatment of pre-Christian human remains from archaeological sites in Britain. My discussion of the reburial issue in this paper examines the writings of HAD members, and related material drawn from the HAD website (e.g. Restall Orr 2004, 2005; Wallis & Blain 2004). Through a close reading of these works I have tried to highlight the key areas of agreement and disagreement between HAD and the archaeologists' perspective, albeit my own necessarily personal one. This includes a brief discussion of ethical problems and perspectives on the dead as individuals. This paper approaches the subject from a perspective which complements that recently published by Duncan Sayer in Antiquity (March 2009: 199-205) and in a climate where consultation on the reburial of ancient human remains is currently topical (English Heritage 2009).

Most archaeologists are instinctively dismissive of superstition-based approaches to past material culture (e.g. Moshenska 2008a). On the other hand there is an element of critique within the HAD narratives that is worthy of our attention. The financial constraints of cultural resource management have often led to rushed, overly formulaic archaeological research disconnected from both its wider landscape and its human context of local communities. In common with many Pagans I would like to see more involvement of, and consultation with, local communities, non-professional archaeologists and other interested parties, in the interest of making archaeology more socially relevant, responsible and democratic (Moshenska 2008b).

Paganism and honouring the ancient dead

Despite its original pejorative meaning the term 'Pagan' has been reclaimed as a convenient umbrella term for new religious movements which emphasise spirituality, harmony with the natural world and an interest in ancient sites. Wiccan and Druidic movements have made up a large proportion of this movement, which has grown considerably in the last 50 years. During this period there have been occasions when Pagan interest in archaeological sites has brought them into conflict with archaeologists and heritage managers, including acts of intimidation, violence and vandalism on both sides, most notably at famous sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Seahenge (Bender 1998; Schadla-Hall 2004). Most of these conflicts have emerged over disputed access to sites; it is only recendy that the treatment of human remains and artefacts have been contested.

In this context the formation of HAD can be seen as a positive development born of a desire to influence the practice of archaeology in Britain, a willingness to discuss it in respectful terms, and a reasonable expectation of reciprocity. However, it can also be seen in less charitable terms as an attempt by privileged Westerners to claim the same concessions gradually being granted to oppressed indigenous groups in Australia, America and elsewhere (Hole 2008). …