Sunday, 25 April 2010

Rock art symposium

On Saturday I attended the bi-annual Rock Art symposium at the University of Bristol. The theme was the underlying mechanisms of rock-art: the political, social, economic, landscape, acoustic, musical factors that affect its production; and the story and poetry associated with it. Rock art, opines George Nash, the convenor of the conference, turns space into place. In order to appreciate it fully, we need to look at the context of sites in the wider landscape.

I missed the first paper of the conference due to arriving late, but the second paper, by Jamie Hampson, was about rock-art in the Kurnool district of India. One widely-noted aspect of rock-art is the superimposition of one image on another; Hampson believes that this is because the superimposed image may be intended to draw power from the image underneath. Another frequently-occurring motif is the depiction of more than the usual number of fingers, which may be due to altered states on the part of the artist. Likewise the depiction of intermediate species is not due to poor draughtsmanship, but may be due to altered states. The nearest tribal group to the people who produced the rock art of the Kurnool district are the Chenchu forest people; it would be good to speak to them to ascertain the meaning of the Kurnool rock art, which depicts tigers, deer, humans, other animals, hands and feet, and geometric forms, using shapes in the rock surface to enhance the art. The most frequently depicted animals are not necessarily the most sacred ones - for instance, we know from San (Bushman) mythology that Mantis is very important, but he is not depicted in their rock art. It's also possible that the artists placed their art near mineral seepages in the rock, so that the mineral would run over the drawing and "absorb" it into the rock. (The spirits are usually held to dwell in the rock itself.)

The next paper was presented by Christopher Chippindale, and entitled Music, archaeo-acoustics and rock-art location in the Copper Age of Valcamonica, Italy. He made the cery important point that when looking for either acoustic properties of sites, or for astronomical alignments, one must ask whether there are more such effects at ancient sites than would arise by chance? Not all alignments or sounds arise intentionally; so one must look for more than one site with an acoustic effect or an alignment to be sure that it's not just the product of chance. He and his team examined sites in Valcamonica (a region which is rich in rock art) and found three anomalous rock art locations. Most rock art in Valcamonica is on the curving lower slopes of the valley. These carvings were on vertical cliff-faces near flat ground. The researchers discovered that all three sites had spectacular echoes.

The next paper was by Paul Devereux, and entitled Rock Art: Underlying Mechanisms. He talked about the varied functions of rock art as way markers, territorial marks, and indicators for hunters. Distinctive natural places are widely regarded as interfaces with a world of spirits, who live in rocks, cliff-faces and underground. He talked about various sites around the world where lithophones (ringing rocks) occur naturally; they are frequently associated with rock art. Places where rock art is located are distinctive for many different reasons: shape, sound, veined rocks, water, echoes, lithophones. The natural sounds produced by such places can be quite powerful and affect brainwave patterns (as outlined in Cook et al, 2008).

The next paper was by Aron Mazel; Time, Colour and Sound: exploring the rock art of Didima Gorge, South Africa. He was initially sceptical about archaeo-acoustics, but after hearing Paul Devereux's paper at the last rock art symposium in 2008, decided to investigate acoustic effects in the Drakensberg region, which he has been studying for the last 30 years. He found that there are thirty times more paintings in the Ndedena Gorge than anywhere else in the Drakensberg, and more ritual- and trance-related pictures in the Northern Drakensberg (where the gorge is situated) than in the Southern Drakensberg. Waller (2003) found that natural sound at decorated locations was at greater decibel levels than at undecorated locations. Further, according to Rifkin (2009), percussive sound is used worldwide in ritual to facilitate movement between mental states. Ndedema is related to a Xhosa word 'Dum', to call or to roar. The gorge echoes with thunder and lightning, and when the bees swarm there, the sound is amplified to a roar. There is a painting of bees swarming in one of the caves. The San were living in the gorge in the 1870s and one of their bow and arrow kits was found there in the 1920s. According to ethnographic evidence from the Kalahari, where the San still live, bee-swarming time is a good time to go into trance. Therefore there is very likely a link between the rock art, natural sounds and trance states.

The next paper was on predicting pastoral movement in South West Libya by Maria Guagnin. She is studying the rock art of Messat Sattafet in Libya, near the Wadi al-Hayat. There, due to changes in moisture levels over the millennia, the variable patination of the rock art by manganese deposits from the rising waters of the nearby lake dates the rock art into four phases. There is a high density of rock art in the bays of the former lake (now dried up). These bays could be used as hunting traps to drive animals into; and the routeways where a lot of the rock art is near could be to do with the transhumance patterns of the pastoralists of the region. Having plotted about 100km of canyon wall, the team are now in a position to predict where more rock-art is likely to be, and plan to go back to find more.

The next paper, presented by Ruman Banerjee, who is working with Ramon Viñas, was on the rock art on the Levantine coast of Spain. The representation of women in this rock art could represent the emergence of a matrilineal society during the Iberian Neolithic, as women are depicted differently, with protruding breasts and long skirts. There is also a possible shamanic scene at Cabre d'Aguilo, which contains a depiction of a man giving head to another man, possibly a god, with bulls transforming into deer either side of them.

The next paper was by Anne Eastham, and was entitled Pathways and Property: a case study in the uses of prehistoric standing stones in North Pembrokeshire, Wales. This was about the re-use of stones in new contexts, as pilgrim way markers, grave markers and Christian crosses. She used comparative data from Brittany and Ireland.

The last paper was by Mike Eastham, talking about the difference between symbolic art and depiction. He pointed out that you can get information from art that simply depicts something without any inferences from culture; for example, a picture of a mammoth is recognisable as a mammoth, but we don't know if it symbolised anything. To understand symbolic art, on the other hand, you need to know the cultural motifs it employs. People who look at cave art often assume that it depicts shamans, magical hunting scenes and so on; but it might not have any of these meanings.

All in all, a fascinating conference.

Pagan festivals

I found a useful US Navy page with the exact dates of the equinoxes and solstices for several years to come.

Wiccan festivals
Imbolc / Candlemas : February 1st/ 2nd
Spring Equinox : March 20th (2010) / 21st (2011)
Beltane / May Eve : April 30th / May 1st
Midsummer : June 21st (2010 and 2011)
Lammas/ Lughnasadh : July 31st/ August 1st
Autumn Equinox : September 23rd (2010 and 2011)
Samhain / Halloween October 31st/ November 1st
Yule : December 21st (2010) / 22nd (2011)

Druid festivals
Samhuinn : October 31-November 1
Winter Solstice (Alban Arthan or Alban Arthuan): Dec 21st (2010) / 22nd (2011)
Imbolc : February 1-2
Vernal Equinox (Alban Eiler or Alban Eilir): March 20th (2010) / 21st (2011)
Beltaine : April 30-May 1
Summer Solstice (Alban Heruin or Alban Hefin): June 21st (2010 and 2011)
Lughnasada : July 31-August 1
Autumn Equinox (Alban Elued or Alban Elfed): September 23rd (2010 and 2011)

Heathen Festivals
Different Heathen communities and individuals celebrate different cycles of seasonal holidays based on their cultural affiliations, local traditions, and relationships with particular gods. There is no fixed calendar of Heathen festival dates. The three Heathen festivals most commonly celebrated in the UK are Winter Nights - usually celebrated in October or November, Yule - a twelve day festival that begins around the time of the winter solstice, and a festival for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre in the spring.

Religio Romana festivals
There are loads of these; and different practitioners seem to celebrate different ones.

Friday, 23 April 2010

What is Englishness?

National Trust: St George's day has got us thinking - if you're English (or if you just want to chip in) what does it mean to you to be English?
Things that are quintessentially English for me: diversity, fair play, daft humour, Doctor Who, Monty Python, subversion, radicals, Nonconformism, individuality, landscape, the National Trust, cream teas, lazy Sundays, Shakespeare, Gerald Gardner, Thomas Hardy, the Golden Dawn, Scouts, Vimto, picnics in the rain, tea & biscuits, eccentricity, amateur dramatics, antiquarians, Gilbert & Sullivan, gin and tonic, punting, suffragettes, Flanders & Swann, JRR Tolkien, Robin Hood, cloth caps, Marmite, beer, Brontës, Quentin Crisp, punks, and moaning about the weather, the state of the economy, and all that sort of thing.

What things do you think are quintessentially English, and why? (please state if you are English or not in your comment - it's interesting to know how we perceive ourselves and how others see us).
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
~ from To a louse by Robert Burns

PhD studentship

'Seeing the sacred in the museum: exploring the significance of religious
and secular subjectivities for visitor engagment with religious objects'

Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College, University
of London, in collaboration with the British Museum

The aim of this doctoral project will be to explore the ways in which
visitors engage with religious objects at the British Museum, focusing
particularly on whether it is possible to identify ways of seeing or
engaging with objects that relate more generally to religious and secular
subjectivities. Drawing together current research in material religion and
museum visitor research, the award-holder will undertake original empirical
work that will both add to our understanding of the performance of religious
and secular subjectivities in public cultural spaces as well how museum
evaluation work might engage in new ways with religious dimensions of
visitor experience.

The studentship is available from 1 October 2010, and the award-holder will
benefit from the wide range of postgraduate support available at Birkbeck as
well as from the experience of working closely with colleagues at a
world-leading museum. The studentship covers full fees and a maintenance
allowance at standard AHRC rates for central London institutions. Potential
applicants should check their eligibility for the award before submitting
their application

The deadline for completed applications is 1 June 2010, with interviews
planned to take place before the end of June. Further details about the
studentship (including how to apply).

Gordon Lynch

Professor of Sociology of Religion and Director of the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society

Birkbeck College
University of London
26 Russell Square

+44(0)20 7631 6658

This is a very timely project, and it would be very interesting to see the results. I hope that they will be published.

I contend that museums are sacred spaces - inspired by the Enlightenment love of knowledge, and named after ancient shrines of the Muses, they are clearly quasi-sacred. We approach these shrines of knowledge with hushed voices and reverent steps.

The only problem with museums is that objects are frequently presented out of context (although the British Museum generally gets this right) or labelled in an inaccessible way by curators who try to be arty.

To contemporary Pagans, everywhere is sacred because the divine/deities is/are immanent in the world; but to some Pagans, some places are more sacred than others. Perhaps because museums are not generally regarded as sacred, it has not occurred to Pagans to view them as sacred; but to me, they are, along with libraries, because knowledge and reason are vitally important, and they confer freedom of thought.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Guest post by Bo: Let the dead bury the dead

I lay awake recently turning the recent victory for archaeological research at Avebury over in my mind. It seems to me that the background hum, as it were, to the development of the 'reburial controversy' is the unexpected growth of an anti-intellectual streak amongst modern UK Pagans, particularly among druids. This, I think, essentially constitutes a delayed outbreak of recidivist footstamping at Ronald Hutton's flinging back the grubby curtains of fakelore to let the light into the dank caravan of pseudohistory. I'm not sure that this reactionary backsliding is necessarily conscious, and Hutton himself as always has done a splendid job of remaining on cordial terms with all sides. But I detect a general sense from some parts of the British Pagan spectrum that something has obscurely been taken from them, an undertow of anger at the perceived whittling-away of whatever mystique they felt they once possessed. Thus, the controversy about the excavation and retention of ancient human remains is a kind of flashpoint for a much more inchoate sense of aggrieved belittlement amongst a small section of self-identified Pagans.

This sense of disgruntlement has dovetailed unfortunately with the disturbing New Labour fondness for desecularising public discourse in the UK, persuading policy-makers, as Blair might have said, to 'do God.' Today's constant, nauseating invocation of 'Faith' is in part a misguided response to Muslim sensitivities (often more perceived than actual), which have been the dynamo for such legal precedents as have come to pass. In my opinion, the correct response to a developing multifaith society should be an absolute insistence on the secularism of the public realm, as in France. But the British, alas, have always preferred the incremental, well-meaning fudge to the crisp articulation of unbending principle. As a result, we have allowed a situation to develop in which the state forks out money for Papal visits, allows female Muslim medical staff to wear disposable sleeves instead of washing their forearms like everyone else, and in which, I might add, a tiny bunch of druids can waste thousands of pounds of public money.

The reburial controversy is interesting, I think, because it presents us with the peculiar spectacle of a number of self-proclaimed druids taking a leaf out of the Muslims' book, so to speak, exploiting a political climate of nervous deference to 'Faith' groups. Again, note the recentness of this: if Paul Davies' notorious reburial demand had been received by English Heritage twenty years ago, one suspects that everyone in the EH office would have had a good laugh and then it would have been promptly scrunched up and thrown in the bin. No longer. Rather, we now have a situation in which a religious body---representing a tiny number of people---are able to cause a serious and expensive inconvenience by invoking their outraged religious sensibilities.

Pagan complaints about the excavation and display of pre-Christian human remains in the UK are a very recent phenomenon, arising since the turn of the millennium. For the first fifty years of the British Pagan revival it simply doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to get worked up about them. As suggested above, the publication of Hutton's pseudohistory-puncturing The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles in 1991 and The Triumph of the Moon in 1999 may well have something to do the emergence of the idea, which seems to me to have more to do, in most cases, with the development of divisive identity politics than with genuine religious feeling. If nothing else, the desire to have prehistoric bones reburied (or 'returned', whatever that might mean), reverencing them as tribal ancestors, is a way of impressing upon others one's visceral connection to the ancient past---the very thing to which Hutton had conclusively demonstrated modern Pagans have no substantive claim.

The first person to raise the issue of ancient human remains appears to have been Emma Restall Orr, a.k.a. 'Bobcat'. At the turn of the millennium Restall Orr was probably the most famous druid in all of history. She had, amongst other things, published one evocative and hugely influential memoir, Druid Priestess, and by 2002 she had both set up and appointed herself head of of The Druid Network, a large and influential organisation in Pagan terms. As this grew, and as she published further material (a second memoir, a guide to ritual, a book on Pagan ethics), she emerged as the centre of something of a cult of personality among druids, a phenomenon over which she may, to be fair to her, have had little personal control.

Restall Orr's attitude to Pagan ethics and polytheology, as articulated in her books and talks, became a powerful mixture of the sensuous evocation of the natural world and a slightly morbid Goth sensibility, much like an Alice Oswald poem sung by Diamanda Galas. Restall Orr's writing also inculcates a powerful distrust of knowledge and objectivity, preferring instead to evoke, very skillfully, the oceanic rush of submersive, boiling emotion. For this reader, this tends to make her style feel overheated: despite walk-on parts for blackbirds, oak trees, vixens &c, and for other druids both living and long dead, Restall Orr's writing is largely about Restall Orr. This is an observation, not a criticism. However, her huge influence led to her personal characteristics---even her favourite words, 'exquisite' and 'inspiring'---being widely affected by the UK druid community during the first few years of the new century. And, among those characteristics, two stand out: an understandable preoccupation with death and dying, and an austere seriousness of purpose which the unkind might mistake for the lack of a sense of humour.

It was Restall Orr, then, who began to raise questions about the retention of archaeologically-excavated pre-Christian human remains in UK museums, inspired in part by the politics of the repatriation of ancestral bones to native peoples around the world. She is, I think, not to be suspected of self-conscious bad faith; her strong feelings on the matter are quite genuine, and rooted in her perception of herself as a 'native person' and as an alleged psychic, for whom the spirits of the ancient dead are apparently as real, if not realer, than the living inhabitants of her home near a well-to-do Cotswolds market-town. It is clearly an issue which is close to her heart. However, and this is my key point in this article, I find it very hard to believe that this is true to the same extent for the majority of other druids and Pagans who have followed Restall Orr's lead in campaigning for reburial or for a more nebulous 'respect' for ancient remains. I fear the phenomenon of 'imitative emotion' is at play here: that is, the tendency of groups to learn to desire and feel certain things because they see others whom they would like to emulate desiring and feeling them. (We are all vulnerable to this phenomenon; after all, upon this psychological rock is built the great church of Marketing.) In my experience, the resulting induced emotions either display a certain unconvincing tinniness, or betray an instantly recognisable note of hysterical groupthink. Thus, whilst I am not accusing Restall Orr of cynical manipulation, it is a fact that she is one of the most admired and imitated of British Pagan leaders, and thus those who respect her deeply were all too ready to take up her tune.

To this end, she set up Honouring the Ancient Dead, a Pagan advocacy group lobbying for the 'dignified' treatment of ancient human remains excavated in the UK. Restall Orr is a smooth political operator, and one suspects that she has been aware from the start that her organisation must be seen to be adopting an attitude more dove-like than hawkish. She has avoided the easily-disprovable claims which the less adroit partisans of reburial have blundered into making, noting carefully that modern druids have no continuity of identity, practice, or language with the ancient druids, or indeed with any ancient pagans at all, and that neolithic bones, for example, are the remains of people who are the genetic ancestors of 95% of the UK population, not just Pagans. Paganism, after all, is currently a religion that one elects to follow, rather than being born into---at least for the most part.

HAD went on to have some notable early successes, including the temporary 'repatriation' of the Iron Age bog body Lindow Man to Cheshire. ('Why is this Cheshire man in London?' asked Restall Orr.) The exhibition of the body in Manchester Museum caused ructions, as the display referred extensively to the 'controversy' about the display of ancient remains and said very little about the archaeological reconstruction of Lindow Man's life and unpleasant death---an omission which prompted an annoyed article in British Archaeology. Restall Orr was prominently featured in the 'polyphonic' exhibition talking about what Lindow Man means to her; many felt the inclusion of a modern Pagan at the expense of more informative archaeological content was inappropriate. Another widely-derided 'voice' included in the exhibition was a piece by a local woman who had been a small child at the time of Lindow Man's discovery, complete with the sentimental impedimenta of her recollections of 1984---including a prominently displayed Care Bear.

For all this, Restall Orr was displeased by the display of the body. So distressed is Restall Orr by the alleged 'lack of respect' shown by the exhibition that she writes:
'leaving the gallery, I felt as if I’d just witnessed an assault, a cat killed by a passing car lying dead on the empty road, a child slapped into stinging silence by an incapable parent.'
This (rhetorical?) disinclination to distinguish between the past and the present, the imaginary and the actual, and the dead and the living, is very characteristic of Restall Orr's writing. The lack of proportion in this piece is almost eerie; after reading it, I had to have a look at Jane Clarke's heartbreaking account of adopting an orphaned baby girl from India, just to remind myself of what emotion felt for living people by other living people looks like, as a kind of experimental control. Set next to Jane Clarke's piece, Restall Orr's evocation of her own undifferentiated affect reads very oddly; the squalling tone of the piece ('What flooded through me here was a rage drenched in grief') makes it, I think, the first instance I've seen of something looking like genuine religious mania in a modern British Pagan. What's so odd about its emotional content is the fact that Restall Orr's sympathies have nothing to do with the actual death of Lindow Man, who, like the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived, came to a sticky end. Her rage-drenched grief is for the fate of the corpse of someone who died nearly two thousand years before she was born. More brutally, one wonders if her powerful and apparently compulsive identification with the cadavers of ages past does not represent, on some level, a kind of grief for herself. Of course we should be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the people whose ancient remains we view; I think it's quite appropriate, for example, to find something very poignant indeed in the casts of the bodies of people smothered by ash at Pompeii and Herculaneum:

The viewer who cannot make that link of imaginative sympathy with these long-dead people who suffered horribly as they died might rightly be charged with being emotionally deficient somewhere. But the tenor of Restall Orr's writing about the display of human remains shows her, in my opinion, to be in the grip of some more idiosyncratic emotion.

After the apparent success with Lindow Man, responses were marshalled by those who failed to find HAD's arguments convincing. It was led, with satisfying symmetry, by another woman: the redoubtable Yewtree of Pagans for Archaeology. By nature and inclination more concerned than Restall Orr with the living, as well as being fearsomely articulate, Yewtree has made a concerted effort over the last four years to question the assumptions of the reburial partisans from a Pagan perspective, acting on the quite correct suspicion that most British Pagans do not, in fact, sympathise one jot with the aims of HAD or its satellites. PfA's basic statement can be read here; note that as a body it explicitly opposes reburial.

One wonders if Restall Orr expected her sacerdotal intuitions and assumptions to be questioned, used as she is to camouflaging a certain personal autocracy with emollient gestures towards consensus. The public rhetoric of HAD itself tends towards the articulation of emotional pain, which reflects a clever triangulation on Restall Orr's part, herself in favour of universal reburial. But by raising the issue of pre-Christian remains, Restall Orr, alas, galvanised the lunatic fringe of the druid community into beginning active and confrontational campaigns for reburial---those imitative emotions once again. This fringe consists of 'CoBDO', that is, 'The Council of British Druid Orders', their splinter-group 'CoBDO West', and the 'Loyal Arthurian Warband'.

Once museums up and down the land found themselves faced with charged emails and letters of protest, not to mention people turning up in robes, a strikingly beautiful Latin American ex-model in a wheelchair and black velvet must suddenly have seemed like the voice of sweet reason. It was slyly done, and yet again I ask you, especially if you are not British, to remember the uncertain atmosphere of deference to religious sensitivities and worry about causing offence which came to obtain in the UK public sector in the early noughties. It could well be that the chance to 'show sensitivity to Faith-based groups' was welcomed by museum managers with targets to meet and boxes to tick. This skillful act of triangulation allowed HAD, in all its glory, to oyster-knife its way firmly into British archaeological discourse and debate.

It may have surprised Restall Orr to find, thanks to Pagans for Archaeology, that a lot of druids and Pagans actually had quite different feelings on the matter of ancient human remains, and were prepared to say so, loudly. Numbers are difficult to ascertain as HAD does not release its membership or volunteer figures; nevertheless, from inside knowledge, it is likely that PfA's membership of several hundred is quite a few times larger than that of HAD. At any rate PfA's support---with a large conference last year fielding speakers including Ronald Hutton---shows that a considerable proportion of British Pagans disagree with the aims of the reburiers and their use of what they see as emotive and misleading language.

Opposition to HAD and its ilk has advanced on a number of fronts. The first has been a lacerating analysis of Restall Orr's oddly limited discourse of 'respect', according to which only very limited periods of scientific study followed by prompt reburial can possibly comprise a 'dignified' and 'honourable' way in which to treat ancient human remains. Restall Orr is good at putting an articulate spin on this, but it is at heart an untenable view. Ultimately it represents a kind of argument from 'common human decency' (CoBDO have actually been foolish enough to use this phrase in this context), a notoriously variable and culture-specific value. Yewtree and others have articulated an alternative and more considered discourse of respect: respect as the rediscovery and perpetuation of memory, respect as learning about the lives of people who lived in the past, respect as evocation of historical realities. Furthermore, archaeologists have pointed out that at least in the neolithic, bones placed in long barrows were frequently exhumed and ritually interacted with by the community, by their descendants; the idea that our concept of 'decency' regarding the dead can be mapped onto the pre-Christian inhabitants of Britain is simply an anachronism.

The second prong of the campaign against HAD and its hangers-on hinges on disputing the claim that contemporary Pagans should have some kind of special say in the fate of excavated pre-Christian human remains. Restall Orr, who is nobody's fool, knows that any claim of continuity with the pre-Christian people of 1500+ years ago is inviting ridicule in a post-Hutton world, and has argued in interviews that Pagans are not entitled to a special say, but are entitled to have their special interest in the matter acknowledged. (This argument was put forward in June 2007 in a religion discussion show called Heaven and Earth.) Again, slickly done; but I am not at all clear what the practical difference is supposed to be. Down at the woolly end, other heads have been hotter. Take Paul Davies, of the splinter-group whose campaign to have the neolithic child's skeleton from Avebury museum reburied finally failed last week. His original demand for the bones cast himself in the role of, say, an aboriginal elder coming to repatriate the remains of a tribal ancestor stolen from his resting-place by wicked colonial imperialists in the 19th century. Both CoBDO West and the original CoBDO tried to claim some kind of continuity of religious identity, although the logical thrust of their argument is frankly rather hard to follow. From the CoBDO website:
The fact that the little girl (?) whose remains lie in the Alexander Keiller Museum was found in the ditch at Windmill Hill, a major satellite of the Avebury sanctuary complex, clearly signifies association, on behalf of herself and/or her parents, with the ancient native pagan belief structure which the Avebury sanctuary complex itself represents, as this was unlikely to have been a random burial.
Although it might be stated that we have no clear idea which specific native religion she or her parents adhered to, as we do not know the names of the various faiths practiced at that time, nevertheless the term pagan is the best umbrella designation we have for those of pre-christian religious persuasion.
As the modern incarnation of these several belief structures and pagan pre-historic cultural pursuits, druids and pagans who likewise revere the sanctity of the Avebury complex, in this day and age, are descendants in belief of that same belief structure that not only led the megalithic builders to construct Avebury, but has also led countless generations subsequently to revere the Avebury complex and the sanctity it represents.
Whilst is may be true that 'pagan' is 'the best umbrella designation we have for those of pre-christian religious persuasion', 'pagan' and 'Pagan' are not the same. What on earth does it mean to say that you are the 'modern incarnation' of such 'pre-historic cultural pursuits'? Isn't there an obvious difference between 'pagan' in the everyday sense of 'to do with pre-Christian religions', and 'Pagan' meaning Wicca, Druidry, and other movements of recent origin---a familiar difference which is being crudely elided here?

Of course, Restall Orr's invocation of 'special interest' is a colossal own-goal, because anyone who visits a museum and involves themselves may be said to have a special interest. It's nothing to do with Paganism or one's religion. In the absence of any priviledged genetic connection to the ancient bones (above and beyond that of the rest of the UK population), and in the further absence of any provable continuities of religious belief and practice, the 'interest' of Restall Orr is no more and no less 'special' than that of the local schoolgirl who comes to sketch the bones for GCSE Art, or of the amateur archaeologist interested in the neolithic. In a fair society, no one's 'special interest' trumps anyone else's: and more specifically, why should the views of Davies or Restall Orr qua Pagans be privileged above the views of other Pagans which are diametrically opposed to theirs?

Thus the debate has had one positive outcome, which is to make it very clear that HAD does not speak for the Pagan community as a whole, a distinction which inevitably was not clear to the mainstream media reporting on the Avebury fracas. Many Pagans were seriously displeased at being associated in the press with a tiny group whom they perceived as courting public attention, when, for the majority of Pagans, their view on ancient human remains is congruent with the pervasive secular one.

Finally, Restall Orr should be thanked for opening up the area to moral debate. The ethical issues are, in my view, in a sense both complex and simple. I am still not sure how it is really possible to disrespect the long-dead. We walk on them everyday; a proportion of our bodies is made of the recycled molecules of ancient corpses. Human remains are not people; they were people, and they are now, if you like, 'ex-persons'. I doubt that any modern British Pagan seriously, theologically, believes that the exhumed dead are at present actually suffering, despite the claims of Paul Davies, who mentioned 'Charlie's' 'plight' in an newspaper interview. This is part of what reads so oddly in the emotional splurge of Restall Orr's Manchester piece: cui bono? Who is supposed to benefit from all this? Is it the late, lamented corpse? Or its ghostly shade?

The heart of the moral issue seems to me to be that the living, who can change their destinies, grow, and suffer, are simply more important than the dead. The genuine needs of the living---for education, for a sense of their own history and that of their country, even for space to be buried themselves---must always trump such needs as the dead may be said to have, because the dead as persons do not suffer or change. They can be damaged, but not harmed. Any moral individual would consent to the bones of a beloved relative being dug up if it would somehow save the life of a child. With the long dead, whom no one living has remembered for millennia, and in the absence of genuine cultural continuity with those currently living, my own feeling is that beyond a basic respectful acknowledgement of our once-shared humanity, the needs of the living are paramount. By way of 'respectful acknowledgement', I would see something like a small notecard appended to every display of ancient remains, reminding the viewer that these dry bones once lived as they do, as more than adequate. (This is precisely what the Boscastle Witchcraft Museum has in the case of a skull dipped in tar which it has on display.) The needs of the living, on the other hand, include the needs of osteoarchaeologists to have access to well-stored and catalogued remains preserved from deterioration, in anticipation of the new scientific techniques which will undoubtably be developed. It also encompasses the needs of the public to learn about how people lived in the deep past---people who are, after all, every bit as much their ancestors are they are those of a tiny number of druids, who seems to have a lot invested in their cultural enfranchisement and offical recognition of their importance. This moral imperative extends to time and money; in my view, the smallest injustice or cause of suffering in the world of the living has a greater claim over the time and energies of the 'spiritual' person than the reburial of the most poignant of ancient skeletons. If you have donated five pounds to a charity that works with abused children or the eldery, or campaigns for the protection of the enviroment, if you have ever planted a tree or rescued a cat or done someone a single act of kindness, then, in my opinion, you have performed an act the ethical content of which outweighs everything that HAD has ever achieved or ever will. Indeed, when the 'pagan' dimension is taken away, HAD seems to lose interest, for all its vaunted ethics; there have been no noises from HAD on the sad fact that 72 infants were buried in a mass graves in Southwark last year, including one which was dug up and dragged away by a fox. Perhaps they are not old enough, and druids can only wax sentimental about infant corpses after a few thousand years have passed; or perhaps actually caring about people---and poor people at that---is less rewarding than communing with the tortured spirit of the ancient bones.

On that note, it may interest the reader to know that I have written to the relevant bodies, as it happens, to see if I can discover the precise cost to the taxpayer of the Avebury Consultation under the Freedom of Information Act. It would be very tempting indeed to take that information and present it to HAD, CoBDO and the Druid Network, asking if their members would like to match the amount in donations to a charity----the wonderful Camilla Batmanghelidjh's Kids Company or the NSPCC, perhaps---which works to help living children, rather than those who died millennia ago.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Strange rumour

It has just been brought to my attention that there is a rumour going round that PfA and HAD are joining forces, with PfA becoming part of HAD.

Certainly this has been suggested to me by several members of HAD, but I have always said no, and will continue to say no.  I still haven't been HAD.

Pagans for Archaeology is an independent body representing those who are opposed to reburial and who support archaeology and museums. Its position is therefore incompatible with HAD's view, which is that reburial is one of a range of options (and presumably the preferred option) for dealing with ancient human remains.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Respect is...

  • using your vote in elections, because people in the past died for the right to have a vote (especially if you're a woman)
  • respecting the Earth you walk on and our fellow beings that live on it (both human and animal - i.e. real people not imaginary ones)
  • remembering your ancestors and honouring their contributions to the present (not burying their remains in some obscure place and then forgetting about them)
  • honouring knowledge and wisdom wherever it may be found
(please add your own ideas of respect in the comments)

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Avebury remains to stay in museum


After consideration of evidence and extensive consultation, English Heritage have decided that the prehistoric human remains in the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, should be kept in the museum for the benefit of public access and understanding.

These Neolithic human remains were excavated in the Avebury area by Alexander Keiller between 1929 and 1935. In 2006, Paul Davies of the Council of British Druid Orders requested their reburial. English Heritage and the National Trust followed the recently-published DCMS process in considering this request, and went out to public consultation in 2009 on a draft report which set out the evidence and different options.

English Heritage and the National Trust have now published a report on the results of this consultation, and a second report on the results of a public opinion survey. Our summary report concludes that the request should be refused for four main reasons:
  • the benefit to future understanding likely to result from not reburying the remains far outweighs the harm likely to result from not reburying them;
  • it does not meet the criteria set out by the DCMS for considering such requests;
  • not reburying the remains is the more reversible option;
  • the public generally support the retention of prehistoric human remains in museums, and their inclusion in museum displays to increase understanding.
This is excellent news, and a victory for common sense. Many thanks and well done to all the members of Pagans for Archaeology who responded to the consultation. And congratulations to the National Trust and English Heritage for not bowing to pressure from a tiny minority of Pagans, who represent an even smaller minority of the general public.

Keeping remains in museums is not "disrespectful" - it is a way of making the real story of the individual and their community known and honoured in the present.