Friday, 9 March 2012

A Dissenter graveyard

In Manchester, there is a defunct Unitarian church, and next to it a graveyard where many Unitarians and their dissenting predecessors are buried.

Asda want to build a car-park on it.

A local group, Friends of Swinton Unitarian, has been formed to protest the loss of this piece of heritage.

I thought this whole issue was rather illuminating of the issues around ancient 'pagan' burials.

How this is different from reburying ancient 'pagan' burials
  • the burials are considerably more recent; direct descendants may still be around
  • if the burials need to be relocated, the rituals with which they would have been interred are still extant
  • there is still a Unitarian religion with direct and unbroken descent from the Unitarians of the 19th century and their dissenting predecessors
  • the graves are still in situ and we don't really need another supermarket - the remains are not being dug up for rescue archaeology purposes
The Unitarian response

The response to this from contemporary Unitarians is also interesting and sensible.

In the UK Unitarians group on Facebook, one member commented:
Graveyards and cemeteries are for the living. That we live in a time when we don't see a graveyard as sacred space and don't value them is to my mind a real shame. This is not about where the bodies may be buried but about the meaning of this space. Our history should not just be confined to written or electronic records but should be around us for all to see. If this becomes a debate about where bones are buried, I think that we are missing a more profound issue about the value of sacred space within our communities.
I think the history is important. The fact that there were separate dissenters' graveyards is a significant aspect of British history. Also, this is a green space in the heart of a city, which is another reason for caring about it. And there may be individual graves of historic significance, as well as the whole thing being a bit of our history. But I am heartened to see that most commenters have said that the living are more important than the dead, and that the history and the sacred space are the most important aspects.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Cultural continuity?

People from other religions, and occasionally archaeologists, refer to contemporary Pagans as "neopagans". I personally find this condescending. I have outlined the reasons for this before, in a blogpost entitled "Stop calling us NeoPagans".

I think the reason "neopagan" bothers me so much is (1) the other terms that the prefix "neo"appears in; (2) the fact that no-one ever refers to Protestants and the like as "Neo-Christians"; (3) it implies a lack of authenticity - why can't people be Pagans (as long as we don't claim to be direct heirs of ancient pagans, because there are both similarities and differences); (4) it's usually said in a snidey way.

I am not saying that there is cultural continuity between contemporary Pagans and ancient "pagans" (who did not self-identify as pagan - the term was applied to them by the early Christians).

The only connection between contemporary Paganism and ancient polytheisms is that we honour the same deities. The philosophical basis of the Pagan revival is different - even in the case of reconstructionist Paganisms. Our philosophical basis is either reconnecting with Nature, or recovering the lost wisdom of the past. The philosophical basis of much of ancient polytheism was mainly propitiating the deities. Of course there must have been those who participated in the rituals out of love of the deities, and because they wanted to connect with the world-soul, but these were probably in the minority (as they sadly are today in most religions).

The rituals of ancient polytheisms, and the reasons behind them, are largely lost to us. What understanding of death did the Iron Age Celts have? We simply don't know, because they didn't write it down. Nor do we know with what rituals they disposed of their dead, even if we can see the results. Our knowledge of the Iron Age priesthood known as the druids comes mainly from the propagandist writings of Julius Caesar, as Ronald Hutton points out in his excellent book The Druids. (Presumably also in Blood and Mistletoe, but I haven't read that yet.)

Information about what the Saxon and Norse rituals were like is considerably better, and so Heathen reconstructionists have far more hope of producing something accurate.

Obviously there is also no unbroken line of initiatory descent from ancient polytheisms (unless you trace it through the Christian church, ironically enough). And the genetic link between contemporary Pagans and ancient pagans is shared by every other inhabitant of the British Isles.

So contemporary Pagans cannot claim exclusive jurisdiction over sacred sites or human remains, because everyone is the heir of the ancient past. But when someone wants to desecrate a sacred site (as when some Christians wanted to place a rock with Alpha and Omega carved on it in the middle of Maybury Henge), then we should have a voice alongside others who would want to prevent such a thing from happening.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Guardian article about human remains

Liz Williams, science fiction author and druid, has written an article in The Guardian Comment is free  entitled How to honour the ancient dead: The pagan debate about the treatment of ancient remains sheds light on our own beliefs as well as those of the past. It is an excellent article and well worth a read. I would like to add that Pagans for Archaeology is entirely opposed to the reburial of British human remains (although some of our membership may be undecided, that is our original founding position statement, for reasons outlined previously). Anyway, well done Liz, good article. The comments are interesting too, albeit sprinkled with the usual militant atheists dismissing all beliefs as "woo". There are some good comments from archaeologists and also a discussion about the repatriation of remains from other countries (such as Australia, New Zealand and the Americas). Native American and indigenous Australasian remains are much more recent, and often come from named individuals with living relatives. They were often collected under colonial rule, and the people who want them back generally haven't changed their culture that much, so there is cultural and genetic continuity. In the case of the much older British human remains, there is no cultural continuity between them and contemporary Pagans, and everyone in Britain (including the archaeologists) has genetic continuity from them. Therefore I think the repatriation of these remains is an entirely different issue, which should be decided by the indigenous groups concerned.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

museum accessibility

Tiffany Jenkins has just reviewed the redevelopment of the Museum of Scotland. I found it fascinating that the kids she went with noticed that the museum had been dumbed down, and that she had great difficulty finding out where a large spider-crab that was on display came from and how big it was - simple facts that you would expect to appear in its caption. Also, the museum has introduced those awful audio-guides, which I personally dislike intensely.

This reminded me of another issue with museums that I identified about five years ago, and even wrote to curators' mailing lists about.

Museum displays frequently have poor usability and accessibility, namely the way they label their exhibits. Frequently there is a number next to the object, and this refers to a panel with explanatory text. This is OK for small objects where there is no room to add captions next to the objects, but frequently it is employed for large objects, where the aesthetic value of the object is often seen as more important than its meaning.

Unfortunately this makes it very difficult for people with dyslexia to enjoy the exhibition, because by the time they have transferred their gaze from the exhibit to the interpretation panel, they have forgotten the number, and have to go back again. I myself am not dyslexic but frequently have this problem anyway! In one museum we visited, there was a costume exhibition, and the distance between the numbers and the explanatory text was so great that a lady who was both short- and long-sighted had to change her glasses each time.

The solution is simply to place a short explanatory caption next to the object (e.g. 14th C English spoon), and a longer piece giving the context below or beside the display case.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Medieval graffiti website

The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey is pleased to announce that their website is now fully updated and revised. The new site now contains the first elements of a visual catalogue that showcases some of the more interesting and unusual discoveries made by the project. It is currently organised by parish but, as the site expands, we hope to make all the information searchable by subject as well as by site. The new site also contains a link to the new Medieval Graffiti twitter feed - which allows you to learn about new discoveries as they are made. Real-time church archaeology.
Some churches have apotropaic marks and other esoteric graffiti, which whilst not actually Pagan, derives from the pagan worldview which the Christian order inherited. To quote Ronald Hutton:
medieval and early modern Europeans constructed their world-picture out of materials taken from both Christianity and ancient paganism, making a mixture of both which they believed to be a form of Christianity.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

PfA and HAD

A comment from "Anonymous" appeared in the comments following Caroline Tully's recent interview with Ronald Hutton.

It alleged that Ronald Hutton is "behind" Pagans for Archaeology. He's not some eminence grise, you know. Ronald Hutton is not associated with Pagans for Archaeology; I asked him to be a patron and he gracefully declined, on two grounds: (1) to preserve his neutrality; (2) because it would imply that he endorses everything we do (whether he does or not). I founded Pagans for Archaeology, and have asked two Pagans who are interested in archaeology to help me run the Facebook group.

Anonymous further alleges that PfA is seeking to undermine HAD. Far from it; we have cordial relations with HAD, and I regard HAD as the moderates in the reburial debate, as they are only calling for reburial of some remains, not all remains, and are building dialogue with the heritage, archaeology and museum sector. I have had cordial conversations with Emma Restall-Orr on the subject of reburial, and interviewed her on the Pagans for Archaeology blog. The extremists in the reburial debate are CoBDO (West), who want to rebury all remains.

Pagans for Archaeology represents those Pagans who do not agree with reburial, and who are interested in archaeology, and want to improve relations with the heritage, museum and archaeology sector.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Faith heritage trails

Many different faiths and cultures have made a mark on Britain, and this should be celebrated. Today I visited the amazing Hindu mandir in Neasden, which was very beautiful. But there are many places associated with different faiths.

The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies is gathering a Hindu archive which explores Hindu influence in Britain and beyond.

Hindu heritage sites include The Maharajah's Well in Berkhire, the tomb of Rammohun Roy in Bristol and the Chattri near Brighton (which is dedicated to Sikh and Hindu soldiers who were cremated there).

The first Indian restaurant in England was opened in 1810 by Sake Dean Mohamed. The oldest surviving Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy, was opened in 1926.

Some information on Muslim heritage, including blue plaques and old mosques, can be found on the British Muslim heritage site. A history of Muslim science is on the Muslim Heritage website.

Sikh heritage in Britain is celebrated on the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail website.

The BBC has some information on Buddhism in Britain.

The Institute of Jainology has a list of Jain temples in the UK.

Jewish heritage can be explored on the Jewish trails website.

Inspired by the Jewish trails site, I also started a Pagan trails website, which needs contributions.

There's a Unitarian heritage trail in London. Also the Humanist Heritage website mentions several Unitarian sites connected with the early history of Humanism. The Unitarian Communications blog has now gathered a list of Unitarian heritage websites.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Aggregates Levy will no longer fund archaeology & environment

DEFRA have just announced that the Aggregates Levy, which was previously used (in part) to fund rescue archaeology and environmental projects, will now go straight to the Treasury and not be used to restore the environment.

Damian Carrington writes in The Guardian environment blog:
Having united the Socialist Workers Party with the National Trust, the UK's department for environment (Defra) has pulled off another unlikely pairing: the Mineral Products Association (MPA) and the Wildlife Trusts.

The issue is the pocketing by the Treasury of about £20m a year in taxes from the aggregates industry – gravel and sand quarrying – that had until now been spent on conservation schemes.
"I can't understand why the government has cut this funding. The money comes from a tax that encourages industry to reduce the amount of quarrying, and the industry is happy to see this money used to put something back, for nature and people," Jeremy Biggs told me.

He is director of Pond Conservation, which, along with the RSPB and others, has joined the campaign to reverse the cut. "Cutting the aggregates fund will reduce the quality of habitat restoration after quarries are worked out, and seems unbelievably short-sighted and counter-productive."
Yes indeed, it's quite an achievement to have united such disparate bodies.

And a commenter on his blog, Xemxija, writes:
A small part of the Aggregates Levy was given to English Heritage to distribute in order to fund excavations when unexpected finds were made in quarries, and to analyse and disseminate the results of these excavations.

In general the quarry companies have been quite accepting of the 'polluter pays' idea - that if they are destroying natural environments and archaeological remains then they must make a contribution towards recording the archaeology and restoring the landscape (although not surprisingly, as the effects of the credit crunch have bitten deeper, they have become less and less happy).

It is extraordinarily grasping of the government to just keep the small part of the Aggregates Levy which went to English Heritage and to English Nature. It transforms the Levy from compensation for damage caused to a simple tax.

And it makes it very clear to the quarry companies that despite what the government says, it places it very little value on our environment and heritage.

What you can do: write to DEFRA and to your MP, pointing out that the Aggregates Levy was a valuable contribution to the environment and to rescue archaeology; that it was only a small proportion of the total Aggregates Levy; and that it is an expression of the principle that the polluter pays to clean up after themselves.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

We've broken the 4000 barrier!

Facebook stats for this week:


Pagans for Archaeology
2372monthly active users23 since last week
4020people like this58 since last week
157wall posts or comments this week4 since last week
239visits this week6 since last week

Monday, 7 February 2011

Write to your MP

Please write to your MP and to Kenneth Clarke, Secretary of State for Justice to complain about the 2008 reburial legislation. Here is a sample letter - please add your own thoughts:

I am writing in support of the letter from forty professors of archaeology regarding the 2008 reburial legislation in The Guardian on 4 February 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/feb/04/reburial-requirement-impedes-archaeology?intcmp=239

I am a member of an organisation called Pagans for Archaeology. We're Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past. Without archaeology, people would have little or no understanding of the peoples of the past. Pagans for Archaeology has more members than any other group purporting to represent Pagans on the issue of human remains (we currently have 3855 members).

We are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone. We want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people. The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology has a code of practice for handling and storing human remains, which is very respectful.

I would support a return to the simple, well-tried system practised up to 2008 which permitted the retention, study, curation and display of excavated remains as appropriate.

Yours sincerely
[Your name]
Member of Pagans for Archaeology

You can find contact details for your MP and Kenneth Clarke at WriteToThem.com (don't paste an identical copy of my sample letter into Write To Them, as they block identical emails).

Update
ASDS Archaeologists and the 1857 Burial Act
This website provides a background document, a letter to archaeologists and a template and instructions that can be used to send a letter to Ken Clarke. Please send your support for the campaign against the two-year reburial legislation to the government. Please also cc or forward your email to BurialLaw@uclan.ac.uk as ASDS are attempting to document the whole thing.

Dem bones not gonna walk around

An article in The Guardian on Friday reports that 40 archaeology professors have written to Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, to complain about the new reburial legislation which requires human remains to be reburied after two years:

Human remains from Stonehenge and other ancient settlements will be reburied and lost to science under legislation that threatens to cripple research into the history of humans in Britain, a group of leading archaeologists says today.

In a letter addressed to the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, and printed in the Guardian today, 40 archaeology professors write of their "deep and widespread concern" about the issue.

The dispute centres on legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008 which requires all human remains excavated at digs in England and Wales to be reburied within two years, regardless of their age. The decision, which amounts to a reinterpretation of law previously administered by the Home Office, means scientists have too little time to study bones and other human remains of national and cultural significance, the academics say.

"Your current requirement that all archaeologically excavated human remains should be reburied, whether after a standard period of two years or a further special extension, is contrary to fundamental principles of archaeological and scientific research and of museum practice," they write. Signatories include Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London; Stephen Shennan, director of University College London's archaeology institute; and Helena Hamerow, head of archaeology at Oxford University.

Read more: Legislation forces archaeologists to rebury finds

Guardian (UK), Friday 4 February 2011

Ian Sample, science correspondent
(what a great name for a science journalist!)

Hat-tip to Caroline Tully

Monday, 10 January 2011

Modern Answers to Ancient Mysteries

York Archaeological Trust presents a one-day conference:
Modern Answers to Ancient Mysteries

Saturday 19th February 2011
Fountains Lecture Theatre - York St John University

To complement the opening of the new galleries at JORVIK in 2011 - investigating new ideas about some of the objects unearthed in the Coppergate excavations - this conference brings together speakers from across Europe to reveal their most recent archaeological research on an intriguing range of subjects, from prehistory to the 19th century.

Pre-booking essential. For more details call 01904 615505. Or book
online