Bring out Your Dead: People, Pots and Politics

By Brothwell, Don | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Bring out Your Dead: People, Pots and Politics


Brothwell, Don, Antiquity


When Davis and Thurman produced in 1865 their massive volume on aspects of the ancient skeletons excavated from British tombs and cemeteries, they had no interest in Victorian colonialism or establishing which early population was the most 'primitive' or 'savage' or 'inferior', although they did recognise differences in cultural dynamics (with the Romans getting top marks). The term "race" was used for long barrow people, Romans, Saxons and others, simply to refer to populations in a time and cultural frame. I say this to dispatch the idea, common in archaeology and the media, that these early scholars were only interested in establishing hierarchies of inferiority by reference to skeletal material. If anything, Victorian science was disadvantaged by the ever present class consciousness of the times, but these early scientists did try to avoid such influences.

Today the skeletal material assembled in museums for well over a century is threatened, some of it probably with extinction. We live and excavate in a time of people power' and are alerted to the possibility of giving offence by exposing and removing skeletal material for study. Greek political theory, at least at the time of Aristotle, considered separate factions subservient to the rights of the whole. In our own modern society, reliant on scientific discovery and progress, political manoeuvres can still diminish the importance of science in the furtherance of short-term expediency and human relations. This "ethical situationalism" does not inspire the confidence of scientists in their political masters, and nowhere is scientific cynicism more in evidence than in the relationship of politics to the study of human evolution and variation.

On defining "indigenous" and "repatriation"

Strictly speaking, the only indigenous people are those still living in the area in which our species evolved, whether that was Africa, Asia or wherever. I hope that will not start a scrap as to who is the most indigenous of them all--calling on dreamtime, oral traditions, mythology, petroglyphs or whatever. But, of course, we are all indigenous somewhere and in our own way. My own ancestors--and I may be sliding a little over time, family memory and genealogy here--were probably spread on both sides of the Humber (Yorkshire), for many miles, in their hunting and collecting days. Indeed I am seriously thinking of gathering some elders of that region together to claim the Iron Age people of that area (and possibly the Saxons too). I am making this point to emphasise that the repercussions of these repatriation documents could be complex and extremely widespread. This is by no means a post-colonial issue, but will develop more and more into regional sensitivities, variable local and emotional factors, religious and regional political issues. Even hybrid groups, with perhaps few 'tribal' genes left (as in some New World and Tasmanian groups) will stand and be counted as true indigenous people. With the casting off of established scientific fact by regional peoples, because it is not relevant to their belief systems, life--or perhaps I mean death--becomes an exceedingly complex matter. Much discussion, and no doubt compromise, will be needed in the future.

Regarding the term "repatriation", it seems in some respect an unfortunate one to use in archaeology. It is fine for the living to be repatriated and returned to their homelands (not always with much pleasure), but what does it mean archaeologically? It can simply mean return into guardianship and appropriate curation, with access for serious scientific investigators. It can mean reburial (which usually results in accelerated decay in a changed microenvironment). The material may be cremated, with or without proper consideration of the burial beliefs of ancient people. For instance, many years ago I protested to the precursor of English Heritage at the Christian burial of Neolithic skeletons (the wishes of the land-owing farmer). …

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