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.


Zbigniew Schnackenpfeffer said...

Well, outrage is a profitable business. No one can deny the moral highground of loudly proclaiming “respect” so that all the press can hear it. Can they? I seem to remember that “disgust” had a similar vogue, not too long ago.

Anonymous said...

Well done! I've been following the debate via the Assoc of Polytheistic trad connference in 07, and the HAD conference in Leicester in 09 and gradually deciding my feelings didn't align with HAD regarding re-burial. The case Joan Wytte at the Boscastle Witchcraft Museum, where display of her skeleton had no intrinsic merit: the retention of boxes of poorly identified finds in museum basements where they were collected for collection's sake both seem to me to be valid cases for reburial with respect. Otherwise, research and appropriate display of documented remains I'm happy with.

Titus said...

An intelligent, measured and enlightening argument. Excellent article, thanks.

Caroline Tully said...

And what I'm _really_ wondering about regarding HAD is how it is that the Babylonian plaque dubbed ‘The Queen of the Night’ is - as HAD say on their website - "stone age" and "Druid"?