Friday, 17 October 2008

Not all Pagans want reburial

An article has appeared in the Swindon Advertiser about the reburial consultation.

Not all Pagans want reburial. The large membership of this group (currently 171, and that's with no advertising) is evidence of that. I have put forward the specifically Pagan arguments for not reburying before:
Respect as remembering - the 'memory' discourse
  • Funerary monuments
  • Elegies
  • Hávamál
  • Popol Vuh
  • Memory as part of identity, knowing where you have come from
  • Ancestors as individuals with stories
  • The sense of archaeology and history as contributing to identity
Reburial involves a permanent loss of access to the bones for study. As archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson says in his letter to English Heritage (pdf):
The study of human remains is central to our growing knowledge of human evolution and to our understanding of human lifeways (diet, mobility, health etc.) as well as the diversity and development of funerary rites and rituals.

Prehistoric remains are of special significance for investigating Britain’s past because it is now apparent that the vast majority of prehistoric people were disposed of in ways that have left no archaeological traces. This means that those human remains that have survived from these unrecorded times are all the more significant as rare and irreplaceable testimony of past lives. In the absence of written texts, our knowledge of prehistory is entirely reliant on archaeological material, of which human remains represent one of the most important sources. When it comes to learning about the people themselves, their remains are of paramount importance for finding out about how they led their lives.
I can only conclude that the people who want these remains reburied are not actually interested in learning about the life-ways of past people.

And you can't say, "well rebury the remains after they have been studied", because techniques for study are constantly improving, and we can learn more from the remains in the future; Prof Parker-Pearson continues:
There have been considerable advances in the scientific study of human remains over the last 20 years, and the rate of innovation in applicable methods and techniques is continuing. Within the short span of my own academic career since 1990, I have seen hitherto undreamed-of developments in the ability to recover ancient DNA from skeletons, the measurement of isotopes to reconstruct ancient diet and mobility, the study of diet from microscopic study of wear traces on teeth, the radiocarbon dating of apatite crystals within cremated bone, and the ability to identify evidence for mummification in skeletons from post-mortem alterations to bone tissue, amongst many other techniques.

Those innovations continue. Archaeological scientists are currently developing new techniques to extract information on starches locked up in the calculus that forms around teeth. The narrow range of elements used in isotopic studies is being widened to address more questions about past lifestyles, as in the case of the Alpine iceman. Dating techniques are likely to be refined and improved. Better understanding of morphometric and non-metric traits will improve our understanding of past population affinities. It is patently clear that there will be new and improved analytical methods and techniques in ten years’ time and beyond.
The research project (see the report appended to the letter) looking into these particular remains is very valuable in discovering more about how the Beaker People lived and whether they were invaders from somewhere else, and relies heavily on studying the actual human remains.

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