Friday, 31 July 2009

A sacred mountain

BBC: In pictures: Kyrgyzstan's sacred mountain

The mountain in Kyrgyzstan has several mosques, tombs, petroglyphs, and sacred caves, and has been held sacred by several different religious traditions.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

We are all Africans

We Are All Africans
All non-African females are descendants of L3 line from Africa, and males have Y chromosome M-168

Nayan Chanda
Businessworld, 21 July 2009

Sweden’s well-known author Lasse Berg often begins his book talk with an attention-getter: “I am glad to see so many Africans in the room”. it invariably makes his (largely blond and Nordic) audience turn around to see where all the Africans are. Of course, Berg means everyone present. The author of Dawn over Kalahari: How Man Became Man proceeds to tell the story of how all humanity emerged out of the so-called dark continent and populated the earth.

The startling 1987 discovery of our common origin by Allan Wilson and Rebecca Cann by studying mtDNA (the maternal DNA) from samples dispersed all over the world led Newsweek to run a cover story with an image of an African Adam and Eve. In the ensuing years, massive amounts of genetic research has laid to rest any doubt about our African origin. While all non-African females are descendants of L3 line from Africa, our earliest common father was one with a Y chromosome marker, M-168.

The scientific evidence that we share the same African ancestry has been around for over two decades. Yet, in speaking about this to audiences across four continents, while presenting my book Bound Together I have encountered great surprise, and some scepticism.
Similarly, I read somewhere that about 25% of the European population could be descended from Julius Caesar. We really are all related.

This is not startling to me - it's something I have been aware of for ages - but I guess if you didn't believe in evolution or understand its implications, it might seem startling.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

A cover-up?

Bartholomew's Notes on Religion reports that a section showing early Greek Orthodox Christian priests defacing the Parthenon has been deleted from an animated film of the Parthenon's history after the Greek Orthodox Church complained.

The Parthenon
The Parthenon
If there is historical evidence of this defacement (which certainly occurred in other cases where temples were converted to churches, such as the Pantheon in Rome, the temple of Minerva in Assisi, and the church of St Lawrence in Rome) then it should be included in the film. There is no point in trying to airbrush out events after the fact.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Excellent news

Congratulations to Ronald Hutton, who has been appointed a Commissioner of English Heritage.
Barbara Follett, the Minister for Culture, announced today that Professor Ronald Hutton has been appointed a Commissioner of English Heritage. His term of appointment runs from 1st October 2009 to 30 September 2013.
According to the University of Bristol:
The commission has overall charge of the affairs of the official national body concerned with heritage, and its members act as statutory advisors to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (and so effectively to the government) in all matters that involve the understanding and conservation of England's past. As such, the appointment carries with it a broader responsibility of acting as an advocate for the importance of history in national life. It will commence in October and last for four years with the possibility of renewal.
This is fantastic news, and a well-deserved honour.

Who does PfA represent?

There is a spectrum of views about archaeology and human remains among Pagans. Paganisms are not dogmatic, so individual Pagans are free to make up their own minds about issues. It is possible to generalise about some Pagan beliefs, but even then one can only safely say, "Most Pagans believe..." (and Pagans are uncomfortable with the word "belief" as it implies dogmatism and an unwillingness to change one's mind in the face of new evidence).

Pagans for Archaeology is a group of people who have signed up to this statement. Whatever I write that is additional to that statement can only be taken as my personal view; it does not represent the views of all members, and certainly not all Pagans. In practice, I find that most members of PfA, and many other Pagans, do agree with the stuff I write; but that cannot be taken for granted unless they have explicitly assented to it.

That is why, when I am asked for the views of Pagans for Archaeology on a particular topic, I write to the members to ask them for their views on it; and when there is a consultation on an archaeological matter, I inform members so that they can respond to it personally.

The other parts of the spectrum are represented by HAD and CoBDO.

CoBDO want all remains reburied after they have been studied.

HAD is an attempt to build a consensus around the issue of human remains. Many of its members want reburial, but they are about compromise and negotiation, and want to be able to perform ritual around the disinterment and re-interment of remains, and to be consulted about museum displays of remains.

Pagans for Archaeology is opposed to reburial (this opposition was part of the statement signed up to by members) but many of its members want to see better displays in museums.

The other aim in setting up PfA was to make links with archaeologists and heritage and help them understand that not all Pagans want reburial and there is a spectrum of opinion, of which CoBDO is definitely not representative.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Great minds think alike

Since we're on the subject of invented histories, Chas Clifton has posted about Druidry and made-up history. He writes:
It is the "crisis of history" again. Can your religion get respect when it is based on non-existent "history"?
The subsequent discussion in the comments is interesting, too. Actually pretty much all religions have a mythical origin story, but some are more plausible than others. And since Pagans like to think of ourselves as reasonable people, having made-up histories is not consistent with our self-image. Religion doesn't need to have an ancient pedigree to be valid; it's your personal response to the great mystery of existence that matters, and how you live your life, and how you deal with the community (which includes other-than-human people, of course).

"Stolen" festivals?

I am frequently disappointed by the number of Pagan blogs and websites still banging on about Christians stealing our festivals. In fact, many of the modern Pagan festivals were "retro-engineered" from Christian ones. But in fairness, it must be pointed out that the reason we don't have continuity with ancient paganisms is because they were stamped out by Christianity (though the transition was not always violent, I know).

Although we honour the same deities as the ancient paganisms, there is a lack of continuity between us and them. We do not make sacrifices to propitiate them; and we are also the heirs of Enlightenment science and individualism, and the Romantic movement, and all the other historical events of the intervening centuries, especially the current environmental crisis. We must create a religion for our own contemporary needs, not a quasi-historical re-enactment of an imaginary past.

Admittedly, when people talk about a festival "stolen" from us by the Christians, they are referring back to the (now debunked) scholarship of the fifties and sixties which assumed that Christian festivals were overlaid over ancient pagan ones (which, in the case of Christmas and Hallowe'en, is actually true). So modern scholars need to get their work out there where it will be read by the general public. Ronald Hutton has done an excellent job of this with his books, of course, but he is the exception to the general rule.

The eight festivals celebrated by contemporary Pagans have their roots in ancient practice, but all eight were not celebrated by any one group, and the modern meanings are different. There are some excellent articles on the Association of Polytheist Traditions website debunking some of the claims about festivals.
Of course, many contemporary Pagans have read Ronald Hutton's Stations of the Sun. If you haven't, you should, along with his latest one, The Druids, and The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The case for retaining human remains

The case for studying remains
  • Osteoarchaeology can tell us a great deal about past people, both populations and individuals: what they ate, what diseases they had, where they lived, how far they travelled, what they worked at, where they were born. Putting all this information together for a large number of people gives us a picture of a whole society and the lives of individuals within it.
  • Associated grave goods can also give us a picture of what mattered to the individual who was buried there. Grave goods should remain with the skeleton where possible, as they are an integral part of the assemblage, and may have been intended to accompany them into the afterlife.
  • The more knowledge we gain about people of the past, the more it perpetuates their memory. People of the past wanted to be remembered, that's why they built monuments in the landscape. Also, ancient texts such as the Hávamál talk about a person's name living on after they die (another indication that people in the past wanted to be remembered).
  • There was a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity in the past, and because human remains can tell us where people came from, this prevents fascists from claiming that Britain was ever inhabited solely by one particular ethnic group.
The case for displaying them in museums
  • Neolithic long-barrows were not private; people interacted ritually with the remains after they had been placed in the mound.
  • It helps to perpetuate the memory of the dead person.
  • Museums are Pagan shrines; the name means "temple of the Muses" (okay so the proprietors of the museums may not see it that way, but we can choose to do so).
  • It helps us to understand their culture and connect with them.
  • It might help us to come to terms with death.
The case for not reburying
  • In many cases, the original burial context may have been lost or destroyed. The Zuni (or A:shiwi as they refer to themselves in their own language) people of New Mexico see no point in reburying remains, because disinterring them destroys the sacred context of the original burial
  • Looters might steal the grave-goods or the bones
  • We don't know what ritual the dead person might have preferred (though HAD have composed a useful ritual for instances where museums want to rebury ancient pagan remains)
  • The remains should be stored for future study (analytical techniques are improving all the time)
  • Reburial means that we will no longer have access to the knowledge and memory of the person, and will quickly forget them
  • It is difficult to know which group of contemporary Pagans should receive remains for reburial, since we do not have cultural continuity with pagans of the past (who may well have had very different beliefs from us about the soul and the afterlife, and definitely had different practices from us).

A member's response to Arthur's picket

Another response to Arthur's protest at Stonehenge, from Dianne Green (quoted with permission):
I do not enjoy the new demobcracy which appears to take more notice of a vociferous minority than the quiet majority is my response to the Stonehenge protest by Arthur Pendragon. But those who disagree do need to speak up and this is a useful avenue.

I have been very concerned over the insistence on reburial for some time. I, and those whom I have chatted with, mainly Pagans, think that it is acceptable to display human bones in museum settings, respectfully and in context. The human being has gone on and only a shell remains. This argument also applies to ancient remains, which can give us so much information, now and in the future, about these people. It does gives them some vicarious immortality as their lives may be, partially, reconstructed. I loved the making faces part of Meet the Ancestors.

Pagans do not all believe that same things; that is almost a definition of being pagan; individuality and free thinking. Many share their spiritual beliefs with an great interest in their heritage and do support the archaeologists in their search for knowledge. Ancient remains are not personal; great, great, great great ancestors are within, say, a few hundreds of years. I noticed this recently when I felt uncomfortable about seeing the body of a large pigeon, which it was not practical for me to rebury. (Distance and a bird phobia.) When I went by after a few days the bird had been reduced to a partial skeleton, recognisable as it resembled the carcase of a chicken. This did not bother me; the bird, as a living and dying entity, had gone. Remains were just that, remains. I wonder if our ancestors felt the same. It was acceptable to carry around and deposit bones from times past, generalised ancestors, but a known person could be buried under the house where they had lived or in a grave. We just do not know their beliefes, societal or personal.

Reburial also brings many problems in its wake. Who has to pay, where should the remains be placed, how and by whom should any ceremony be conducted? So far I think that neo Druids have claimed the right to interpret the beliefs of the long dead, but no one knows. If any group were to be preferred over others as instruments of reburial it could cause controversy. Christian ministers have reburied those found in Christian contexts; there are no practitioners around to speak for the long dead and, without their name being intoned, or a familiar language spoken, who can say if the spirit, called back by the energies of reburial, might not linger.

It is a terribly complex topic and rouses many heartfelt passions.
Context: Arthur's 7-month protest at Stonehenge is mainly in response to the excavations of human remains by the Riverside Project, but also about the re-siting of the visitor centre.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Any common ground?

There's an excellent article by Dr Corinne Duhig, an osteoarchaeologist and a Pagan, in the latest issue (Summer 2009, number 72) of The Archaeologist, the official organ of the Institute for Archaeologists, in which she cogently makes the case for the diversity of burial practice and afterlife beliefs among both ancient pagans and contemporary Pagans. She too wants to honour the ancestors by telling their stories, which is what osteoarchaeology can do so well.

Oddly, however, whilst the article cites Pagans for Archaeology's interview with Emma Restall Orr, it makes no mention of the fact that Pagans for Archaeology is opposed to reburial (though hopefully our name would give readers of The Archaeologist a big clue).

But it is still an excellent article, and I hope it will contribute to making archaeologists aware that not all Pagans want reburial.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Arthur's protest

My response to Arthur's protest at Stonehenge

Context: Arthur's 7-month protest at Stonehenge is mainly in response to the excavations of human remains by the Riverside Project, but also about the re-siting of the visitor centre.

English Heritage held a consultation about where to put the new visitor centre and it is a difficult decision because just about everywhere around Stonehenge is archaeologically sensitive. I responded to that consultation, and Arthur could also have done so if he wished (maybe he did, I don't know). The new location was announced in May 2009, and it takes time to build things, so I am not quite sure of the need for that part of Arthur's protest.

Also, as English Heritage is a quango, it is not "the government".

As far as the remains in the Aubrey Holes are concerned, they were removed from their context and jumbled up in the 1930s (according to what Arthur said), so I am not too sure of the need either to retain them for study, or to rebury them. Presumably if they are being retained for study, there must be something that can be learned from them. Apparently they were in excellent condition and are being studied.

I disagree with the automatic assumption that respect means reburial. Osteoarchaeologists do treat remains with respect, and respect can also mean perpetuating the memory of the ancestors.

Also I think people should refrain from saying, "As Pagans we believe..." because Pagans do not all believe the same things.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

PFA conference success

The Pagans and Archaeology conference at the University of Bristol was a roaring success.
  • The first paper was delivered by Ronald Hutton, and explored the way in which one generation's archaeological orthodoxy was the next generation's fringe archaeology. Ley-lines were once all the rage with the up-and-coming generation of archaeologists.
  • Next, Josh Pollard explored the common origins of Paganism and archaeology in the Enlightenment and their shared interest in the past, and asked how better dialogue could be had.
  • Andy Letcher explored where the concept of Paganism as a fertility religion had come from (a trope that is rapidly losing ground amongst scholars of Pagan Studies, but is still current with some archaeologists).
  • Will Rathouse surveyed the field of relations between archaeologists and Pagans, from collaboration to conflict.
  • Graham Harvey explained the animist view of ancestors (which can include other-than-human people as well as human people).
  • Yvonne Aburrow gave a paper on the different discourses employed by those who want to retain human remains in museums, and those who want to rebury them. There are many discourses involved, but the most striking difference between the two groups was that those who are opposed to reburial are interested in the individual stories of the past and want them to be remembered, whereas those who want reburial are more concerned with a holistic view of the landscape and a timeless past.
  • Tiffany Jenkins explored how a crisis in the Enlightenment project that underpins the role of museums had opened the door to claims for repatriation and reburial.
  • Martin Smith explored the ethical issues around human remains, explained some of the fascinating things that can be discovered by scientific analysis of them, and pointed out the highly ethical treatment of bones by osteoarchaeologists.
  • Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis gave an overview of their Sacred Sites, Contested Rights / Rites project, and explained their response to the Avebury Consultation on human remains.
Afterwards lots of us went to the pub, and then some of us went for a curry.

Heritage protection reform dropped

The Heritage Protection Bill for England failed to be included in the Government's Draft Legislative Programme for 2009/10 announced in June 2009. This indicates that it is very unlikely to be included in the legislative business of the next Parliamentary session. The Council for British Archaeology are understandably disappointed, though English Heritage has indicated that many of the reforms can go ahead without it.

This legislation would have unified the two separate systems that currently exist and made the process of protecting heritage much simpler and more effective.

Apparently it's been pushed off the agenda by financial reforms.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

New toolkit for heritage

Community Heritage Toolkit Now Live on CAF

A new resource for community archaeology and heritage groups has just
been made available via the CBA's award-winning Community Archaeology
Forum (CAF).

The Community Heritage Toolkit was created by Rosie Crook of Working
Heritage and derives from a workshop titled 'Whose Heritage is it
Anyway?' which was co-organised by the CBA and English Heritage in
Castleford in 2005. The Heritage Toolkit contains numerous step-by-step
suggestions of fun, interesting and affordable ways of engaging groups
and communities with their local heritage, including using oral history
and film, exploring old photographs and even excavating molehills!

The Toolkit, which forms part of the suite of Advice and Guidance pages
available through CAF is just the latest addition to the growing
website. As well as providing advice and signposting visitors to
potential sources of funding, CAF is also a place where groups can
publicise their own projects and activities by creating their own pages.

With 49 projects already listed, ranging in geographical location from
the North of Scotland Archaeological Society and the Unst Archaeological
Group to the St Newlyn East Excavations in Cornwall, this section of the
website is also constantly growing, with recent additions including
pages from the South Somerset Archaeological Research Group, and the Ram
Hill archaeology project in South Gloucestershire. Users can add their
own material to the site after a simple registration process that can be
accessed via CAF's homepage. In addition, there is an email discussion
list for those with an interest in community archaeology, which can also
be joined via the homepage.

The layout of CAF will be modified and improved later in the year, as
part of the intended outcomes of research currently being carried out
into how the CBA can support community archaeology across the UK.
Details of this research can be found at the Community Archaeology
Research page and via the Community Archaeology Support Officer's blog.

Existing projects and resources will be migrated to the new website, so
please don't be put off adding information now if you have something you
wish to tell us.