Thursday, 16 April 2009

Interview with Emma Restall Orr

PfA: What is your role in HAD?

ERO: In many ways my role is simply one of co-ordinator, receiving requests or queries and passing them on to those whose expertise or location is more appropriate to the situation. On another level, as founder and the volunteer who has been working longest in the organisation, I am the one who deals primarily with core issues - consultations, conferences and so on - rather than local issues.

PfA: What got you interested in the ancient dead?

ERO: My interest in the dead, death and dying has been lifelong. Though for some it provokes feelings of negativity and pessimism, for me the subject is one that inspires. Here there are often expressions of true courage, generosity, love and appreciation, especially where we pause to one side of the rush of living. So working with the dying and grieving is a part of my daily life as the manager of a natural burial ground. As a Pagan my spirituality further inspires my interest, not just in the circles and cycles of time, of emergence and evanescence, but also in the long flows of human history and ancestry.

PfA: Do you feel a kinship for the people of the past?

ERO: Running immediately on from the previous answer, yes, I feel a profound kinship. I am aware that the ancient dead, no less than those who have lived more recently, provoke in me a deep sense of community, and with it a duty of care. If we think of kinship as blood ties, then I would comfortably say that the chances are that I am indeed related to ancient British dead, but blood isn't everything. There is a profound sense of kinship through community, tribe and landscape - through everything with which we have significant relationships. I feel utterly connected to all those people who have lived on these islands, who sat by the rivers as I do, who watched the skies changing, who grew their food in this mud, who walked the stony tracks that I walk.

PfA: What is your view of human remains?

ERO: As an animist, I perceive and experience human remains as enspirited, in other words, as still humming with the stories of the individual, their community and their landscape. It doesn't matter if the remains are 4000 years old or from the twentieth century, they retain a connection to the living, and thus deserve the consideration of a member of the community to whom they are related - and by 'related', I mean those with whom they have some relational link, whether closely through blood or cultural commonalities, or more broadly through a shared landscape and long history.

PfA: What is HAD's position on retaining human remains for study?

ERO: HAD's position is one that primarily calls for consultation, so that all who have a significant interest in the specific remains in question are given the opportunity to express their views and add to the decision-making about the remains. In this way, those for whom scientific value is key are given an equal standing with those for whom other values are paramount - the spiritual, theological, cultural, social anthropological and so on. On this basis, each case is different, provoking different responses and requiring different consideration. Where there is not adequate contextual information about human remains (and a vast number of such bones are in museum and archaeological stores across Britain) the argument for retention is weaker than where context is clearly documented.

Another key issue for me, however, is the question of the value of what is discovered through study. To take an example, the Natural History Museum in London asserted that the Tasmanian aboriginal culture would, in the future, thank the British scientists for the work they intended to do upon the aboriginal remains, even though the aboriginal repatriation group were expressing no interest in current or future scientific finds. To someone whose conviction in the value of Western science is unshakeable the aboriginal attitude may seem narrow-minded; however, to those whose worldview and values do not depend upon scientific perspectives, the NHM's words can be seen as cultural arrogance expressed through the assertion of what is just another belief system. HAD is keen to ensure that this sort of imbalance is not perpetuated, alternative worldviews and emotional and spiritual values being included as valid criteria, on an equitable footing, in decisions about human remains.

PfA: What do you think about the way human remains are displayed in museums?

ERO: Personally, I find display of human remains in museums problematic, as I know do many Pagans, social anthropologists and others. I would always be happier with casts replacing the original remains, with photographs or graphics being employed where useful and respectful. The visceral experience of feeling connected with remains that have been so isolated from their tribal, environmental and natural context is powerful for me, to the point of being physically nauseating. A part of me always longs to remove the remains, returning them to the mud of the earth to allow them to continue their natural process of dissolving into the cycle of death and transformation.

However, my own view is not that which HAD's collective voice expresses. HAD's Guidance for the Display of Human Remains in Museums is an interesting document, put together in the usual HAD way - through a process of consultation and input from Pagans and museums' staff, finding a way of coherently weaving the different voices into one document that was agreed by all contributors. It is worth having a look at.

PfA: Do you think there is a role for Pagans in archaeology? How do you think the heritage sector should engage with Pagans?

ERO: Absolutely. I think that Pagan perspectives - in all their diversity of theology and philosophy - are important in all areas of life, and not simply from the biased standpoint of being a Pagan myself. Because to the majority of Pagans, heritage, history and landscape are considered sacred, either inherently or indirectly, their position in archaeology has to be of immense value, whether as commentators or as archaeologists themselves. This is particularly so if they are shaking up established views and assumptions. That isn't to dismiss traditional thinking, but provocation to think, to consider more deeply or from alternative perspectives, is enormously valuable and especially within a discipline that is founded on exploration and interpretation - and Pagans are often good at taking that role.

My feeling is that organisations in the heritage sector would (and indeed do) benefit from open and easy discussions with those Pagans who are expressing an interest in the human remains and artefacts in their custody or care. Those museums, archaeological units, and even local historical societies and the like, who have included Pagans in discussion have gained from the input of ideas. After all, Pagans are often the perfect target audience for these bodies: people who are passionate about the past and its place in the present. Their insight can bring a depth and breadth to museum displays, archaeological interpretation and community engagement that would otherwise not be there.

It is a real shame that some heritage organisations have closed ranks against the Pagan community as a whole in response to the reburial requests made by a small Druid group in the West Country. That kind of fearful reaction is wholly unhelpful and is to everyone's detriment - museums, Pagans, and other communities. Thankfully, most organisations are more than happy to do what they can to find the time to listen, to talk, to share.


Anonymous said...

Well explained Emma, and this is not just a pagan issue, as a member of the public I would simply prefer to see ancient human remains left where they are found where ever possible. Archaeology has its place and will have plenty of evidence from digs at places where they have permission to build or make roads through ancient sites. Please leave as many ancient burial sites alone and untouched where ever possible. Not everybody has a morbid curiosity to look at naked ancient human bone.

Yewtree said...

Thanks for your comment Anonymous. I am glad you found Emma's comments interesting.

The interest of archaeologists in ancient human remains is not merely "a morbid curiosity to look at naked ancient human bone", but an attempt to find out more about how people lived in the past by using scientific analysis to ascertain what people ate in the past, how far they travelled, what diseases they had, and so on. Without archaeology in general, and osteoarchaeology in particular, we would know almost nothing about ancient people, and would still be thinking that they were primitive and brutish, as was believed in the past. Archaeology has increased respect for ancient people, not decreased it.