How might we reach agreement over what might happen to ancient human remains, those currently in the care of museums and universities and those yet to be excavated? This question is being asked once more as CoBDO West request that the remains of people excavated within the Avebury complex be reburied. Our relationship to the Land, to the Ancestors, to the ideas of ownership and responsibility as well as the needs of our own personal identity all intimately inform this issue.
‘The Land’ is a dangerous concept particularly when it’s linked to lawful claim. How much blood has been spilled to claim a few meters of earth? CoBDO West maintain that the land is ‘the Earth Goddess’ and that ‘Druids are the guardians and representatives of these living spiritual landscapes.’ (2008:5). As a Dianic witch I have no trouble in agreeing that the Land is also the Goddess. As a druid, a witch or anything else, I don’t consider druids or anyone else a representative of the land. Both ‘representative’ and ‘guardian’ have paternal overtones that I’m uncomfortable with. The Avebury landscape, being a World Heritage Site and coming under the jurisdiction of English Heritage (EH) and National Trust (NT) is particularly well maintained and I’m grateful for their care of the landscape for the sake of educating people about our shared past. Other than that, the Land speaks for Herself. How we hear Her is about us rather than Her.
CoBDO West say the Ancestors ‘are everyones family and belong to us all’ (2008:6) and are clear that they claim no special genetic inheritance to the Avebury remains. They note that ‘. . . all people indigenous to Europe have a ‘close genetic claim’ (ibid.) which, while scientifically true, spiritually excludes every non-caucasian. And since, through the genetic inheritance argument, all caucasian people have equal dibs on the Avebury remains why shouldn’t Mrs Freda Smith of Tiverton be able to assert her right to put all ancient human remains in her airing cupboard? She has exactly the same access to the Otherworld as any Pagan who claims that they know how to deal with these remains.
Other groups who have fought for the return of the remains of their ancestors from museums are significantly different from those British individuals calling for something similar. Pre-colonial peoples were decimated by Europeans. The bones and goods of someone who died 5,000 years ago are very different from the bones and goods of people who can be remembered by name and who may have been murdered by colonists. In the past museums and collectors kept and displayed these items to demonstrate European superiority over indigenous people through the demonstration of ‘primitive’ culture or under the guise of ‘ethnography’. (Simpson 1996, Cooper 2007) something that modern British museums do not do. Even so, in the US where the repatriation issue is perhaps best developed it is specific about ancestry and cultural affiliation, the 9,400 year old remains of Kennewick Man do not belong to Native Americans. (See Slayman 1999) For added interest a far right Asatru group also claimed and were given religious rights over the remains. (www.tri-cityherald.com/kman/) Some Native Americans are adamant that they do have rights to these remains on the basis of their songs and stories.
Songs and stories, beliefs and feelings are important to Pagans and have a long lineage. Dion Fortune, one of the mothers of modern Paganism, writes
There are many old customs connected with the passing of a soul which have their roots in psychic fact and are not merely superstitious. Some, of course, are pre-Christian in origin and their usefulness has passed away. . .Fortune's inheritor as far as death ritual is concerned, is Dolores Ashcroft Nowicki:
It would seem that there has never been a time when humanity did not believe in a life, or at least some form of existence, after death . . .the word ‘exist’ gives us a clue to one of humanities greatest fears concerning death which is, will we exist in a form we can recognise as ourselves? Will we be able to say ‘I’ and know that ‘I’ to be the personality were were in life?Pagans do not yet have a theo/alogy of the soul or the spirit, we don’t know where or how the exoteric personality is boundaried or expressed; we don’t know what happens to that putative soul, or how or where or when or for what purpose. We do not know what that ‘I’ is in ourselves let alone in the ancient dead. Some Pagans have a tradition of the Summerlands (an invention of 19th Century Spiritualism) in the direction of the setting sun and a place of joy, reunion, pleasure for the dead. Some Pagans count Annwn as their place of the dead or some other, unspecified place of pleasure and relaxation, but no one seems to be certain what we do there after resting and enjoying ourselves or even how potential reincarnation may occur. I don’t, do you? More important than a lack of theo/alogy is the lack of agreement between Pagan groups over almost everything, including whether the written Brehon laws include a death penalty or not. This a strength rather than a weakness: most of us can live with the tension of not knowing and continue to be firm in our faith.
CoBDO West maintain that reburial is a ‘Loving and respectful act for the sacred relics of our ancestral remains and both morally desirable and spiritually important.’ We know that we have a tendency to deify the dead to ‘not speak ill’ of them but we don’t know if any of the adult remains in the Keiller Museum belonged to rapists or child abusers or torturers. We don’t know if their remains are worthy of respect. If we accept that it is ‘moral’ to keep the dead buried just where they are, forever, then we better get ready to give over all our land to them. What do we do when yet another Anglo Saxon cemetery is discovered during development? Build over them? Take them somewhere else for reburial? Where? How many bones do we make room for? Do we include any boats they may be buried in, and how do we propose excavating and then transporting these delicate objects? (Or are Anglo Saxon remains not as Ancestral as Neolithic?) How do we protect remains from other Pagan groups who believe they have a greater claim to guardianship and representation?
If we decide we want to create cemeteries for the ancient dead then I wonder why we haven’t been able to create cemeteries for ourselves. In the 50 years that Paganism has been active in Britain we have not been able to sustain one single group that caters for our own dying, dead and bereaved.
The storage and display of human remains will always be contentious but I’m far happier to know that they are being catalogued and stored in a controlled environment than I am with the idea of whoever writes the floweriest poetry or shouts loudest and longest being given responsibility for them. Particularly when these individuals and groups in fact do not represent the Druidic attitude to ancient human remains. Simply because they say they do does not make it so. I haven’t heard about the enormous uprising of Druidry in outrage over remains we have known and cared about for decades. I wasn’t aware that Druidry had special authority over other Pagan groups or when this may have become orthodoxy.
Of course, Druidry and other Paganisms have never claimed any special rights over anything. We have a particular way of articulating the relationship all people have with the Land and Ancestors, but the idea that a small group that has no lineage or relationship with a past we can have no conception of can claim to represent the ancient dead or the land comes too close to bringing Paganism into disrepute. We need to continue to discuss the matter but in terms of theo/alogy rather than in terms of our rights or what the voices are telling us. When we have a coherent and shared concept of what happens to that eternal, transcendent part of ourselves, or even what that part might be called, or even if that part exists, then we can present a cogent argument that goes beyond ‘It would be beautiful.’
What do ancient earthworks and prehistoric stone monuments of our ancient ancestors signify? What do huge chalk figures communicate? How do we understand the barrows and cysts that punctuate the landscape? The best guess - like everything else we believe we know about the ancient past, coming from archaeology - is that these are statements of ownership. A great big White Horse carved into the Ridgeway is a statement of well organised power. The movement of enormous stones across many miles can be done for love but after all that effort you’re not going to agree to someone else coming along, taking your stones down and putting them somewhere they prefer. Indeed, our bodies return to the Mother after death and we become the Land but why build such imposing monuments into the landscape, and why did the shape of these tombs change over time? “We are here. We are the land. We own the land.” Our Ancestors did not come from Atlantis, they were as red in tooth and claw as we are today and perhaps more straightforward in their desire for appropriation and recognition.
— Clare Slaney
Ashcroft Norwicki, D. (1992) The New Book of the Dead. Aquarian Press.
Cooper, K (2007) Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and Practices, Altamira Press
Council of British Druid Orders (CoBDO West) (2008) Request for the Reburial of Human Remains and Grave Goods, Avebury http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/upload/pdf/Appendix_1_CoBDO_request.pdf
Fortune, D. (2005) Dion Fortune’s Book of the Dead. Weiser Books.
Kennewick Man Virtual interpretative Centre (2008)Tri-City Herald, Associated Press
Simpson, M.G. (1996) Making Representations: Museums in the Postcolonial Era. Routledge.
Slayman, A.L. (1999) Kennewick Man: NAGPRA on Trial. Archaeological Institute of America