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More on the reburial of British human remains

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The campaign for the Ministry of Justice to reexamine their license requirement for archaeological human remains continues, and today I thought I’d focus on one of the aspects I thought was most interesting about the Guardian open letter that I spoke about last post. One of the things that struck me upon looking through the list initially is that only a few of the archaeologists listed (Charlotte Roberts, Simon Hillson, Andrew Chamberlain)  focus on analysis of human remains to look at indicators of disease and nutrition, environmental/genetic traits, or trauma. Several more are interested in the commemoration of death, the position of graves on the landscape, or otherwise examining human burial practices. However, what many of these archaeologists are (Colin Haselgrove, Tim Darvill, Richard Bradley, Mike Parker Pearson, Barry Cunliffe, Geoffery Wainwright) are some of the foremost broad thinkers in British prehistoric archaeology for the past 30+ years. There are also representatives of archaeologists studying more recent British archaeology, but the focus on prehistory makes it clear that this letter is at least in part a response to the pagan groups that have been calling for the reburial of ancient non-Christian remains.

And it appears they are right to be concerned. Despite the Ministry of Justice’s earlier assurances that the license requirement was a non-issue and that archaeologists could continue to apply for extensions, a letter from the MoJ to a Druid group indicates that the MoJ plan to permit the reburial of Stonehenge remains. The letter states that after permitting an additional 5 years of analysis on the Stonehenge remains, the “religious views of the Pagans and Druids will be respected and the remains reinterred,” information not provided to any archaeologists affiliated with the remains until that blogpost was made. This basically seems to me to be an endrun around the issues of which stakeholder community in Britain gets to decide what happens with prehistoric patrimony – despite the fact that an English Heritage study in 2010 regarding other prehistoric remains recommended keeping prehistoric remains in curation due to the irreversibility of this choice and the fact that such retention is overwhelmingly supported by the British public.

Mike Pitts, one of the few professional archaeologists involved in the letter-writing process, has a great blog with several updates about the state of the reburial debate. He has a good point about the MoJ and its misunderstanding in terms of the completability of scientific research:

“The threat of reburial hanging over remains will have important repercussions for archaeologists’ ability to conduct research, affecting how grant-giving bodies will assess applications and how museums will consider accessioning material into their collections (would you wish to embark on an expensive three-year PhD in the knowledge that, when you start, there is a requirement that your subject of study has to be destroyed at the end of your second year? For that matter, would you wish to continue the research with an extension on reburial, knowing that when you had finished your degree, the remains would be destroyed, and that you would then be unable to do more research on the material, and that no one else would ever be able to confirm or refute your work?). Research conducted on newly excavated remains is often little more than a condition statement, a study to announce the recovery of material that future archaeologists will wish to examine. It is never conceived of as a “complete” analysis, as there can never be such a thing”

There are plenty of archaeologists out there who write their Masters or PhDs on material excavated in the 1920s or before – reinterpretation is one of the biggest functions of archaeologists. A lot has changed since much of the famous material at Avebury and Stonehenge was excavated (methodologically and technologically, but just as important is the theoretical development that has occurred), and it seems arrogant to assume that will not be the case in 40 years from now.

If this was the US and these were prehistoric Native remains, I don’t think the benefit-to-science argument would hold water in the same way it does here. No matter what the scientific benefit, it would be immoral to insist on excavation and analysis of remains if by doing so you were perpetuating an historical system in which one group of people is treated as objects of curiosity rather than individuals with full rights. A clear cultural or genetic ancestral group would change this balance, and would provide a manner by which claims to the remains could be assessed for their moral and historical validity. However, the members of pagan groups are no more genetically related to the remains as are many other Western European populations, and culturally there is a period of disruption for a good 1000 years between the decline of Iron Age paganism and its revival in the 18th century. No doubt the pagan groups’ religious convictions are genuine and strongly-held, and they have been actively seeking the reburial of remains for several years now. However, this seems to be an attempt to privilege one small group’s religious practice over the cultural patrimony of the majority, and I don’t really see the justification for doing that.

EDIT – Dennis Price has a case for reburial here, focusing on the remains from sites like Stonehenge. His basic point is that he’s only advocates that individuals recognized as ‘ancestors’ (ie prehistoric people buried in the Stonehenge area) should be reburied. He might be moderate compared to some in the Druid community – Honouring the Ancient Dead state that they support reburial in all but ‘truly special’ cases – but also this point doesn’t really address what the MoJ have done. The MoJ status quo applies to all human remains, of any period or affiliation, and seems to stop the curation of many sets of remains excavated after 2008. The letter in the link I referred to above (posted ontl the same blog) seems to strongly suggest that the MoJ’s license policy is being influenced at least in part by Druid requests for reburial. So, if he wants to write to the MoJ saying that they don’t support the blanket reburial requirement for licenses, that would be great.

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Written by diggingellen

February 10, 2011 at 6:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. In the specific case of Stonehenge, I think that you could approximately meet some of the Druids’ requests at the same time as greatly improving the visitor experience at Stonehenge (as befits a world heritage site).

    The major problem with Stonehenge is that it sits within a triangle of busy roads, the closest of which is the A344 (and you take your life in your hands crossing that one), and the more distant one is the A303, with a visitor centre plonked unceremoniously a couple of hundred yards away. Atmospheric the whole ensemble ain’t.

    A possible solution would be to take a tip from the Irish Newgrange complex and put the visitor centre a good distance away from the site; I would suggest about a kilometre to the south-east as that takes you below the local horizon from Stonehenge. To get to Stonehenge from there, you’re going to need an underpass under the A303, but that’s the limit of the heavy engineering needed, apart from closing the A344 at the junction with the A303. Build a visitor centre with a turf roof and site the car park behind it, and plant lots of trees around and in the car park as further camouflage.

    This then makes the existing visitor centre and underpass under the defunct section of A344 redundant. This, however, is a very useful bit of infrastructure because the underpass area is the only bit of land close in to Stonehenge where there is no existing archaeology; the subway cut through it all when built. Remove and grass over the A344 from the old junction to the subway, but before you do build a controlled storage bunker in the footprint of the existing subway and visitor centre.

    Here is a solution to troublesome druids; a place where you can “rebury” remains under controlled circumstances in a spot where doing so doesn’t disturb existing archaeology and will not be disturbed, but where you can still get at them again. What I’m envisioning is heavy stainless steel containers on stone or concrete shelving in a deep, cool cellar-like environment, with limited scientific access by permission only.

    This sort of thing has the advantage of being relatively cheap, relatively simple and generally acceptable to most people without giving scope for costs to multiply during building.

    What do you think?

    Dan Holdsworth

    February 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    • Hi Dan,
      Thanks for your comment! I don’t know enough about Stonehenge as a site to judge whether the visitor’s centre/reburial would be a workable plan. As an outsider it looks like a lot of the bumps in the visitor’s centre thus far has been that everyone is jumping in for a piece of the action, so getting agreement so far is problemmatic. As far as the remains go, reversible reburial has been done but more commonly the remains have been actually buried rather than in a vault context. A vault would make it more logistically convenient for them to be removed for further research, but I’m not sure to what extent that would satisfy pagan calls for reburial, as they are a very diverse group in their specific views.

      I would like to emphasize, though, that in most cases there isn’t a place on the site where remains could be securely reburied in a reversible manner – to do so requires a good amount of drive and infrastructure. The problem I have with the MoJ ruling is that it’s a blanket requirement with the understanding the reburial is always the good option, which I don’t agree with.

      diggingellen

      February 11, 2011 at 3:52 pm

  2. Ellen,
    On the subject of reburial in your Blog you make a number of points to which I would wish to reply.

    My name is Frank Somers, I am a Stonehenge Druid and one of the Druids that is actively campaigning for the return of the Aubrey Hole 7 ancestors to Stonehenge.

    I am greatly astonished and disappointed by the liberties taken with truth by the Archaeologists and Public Bodies involved to this point in their representations of our point of view. You refer to extreme positions in your blog and I do agree with you that there are two possible extremes which can be held regarding the current situation:

    The first extreme is the one taken by the Archaeologists that you can dig up human remains, study them or put them on display indefinitely and that this be beyond contestation on legal moral religious or cultural grounds. This seems to be the extreme position that is shared by the senior archaeologists who signed the open letter in the Guardian, Mike Pitt on his blog, and the scientific advisors to the DCMS.

    The other possible extreme would be that no ancient dead could be removed from the ground except for immediate reburial, and that no scientific study may be undertaken, and that the rights and dignity of the dead would outweigh the interests of any narrow scientific curiosity. Yet despite the existence of ‘Pagans for Archaeology’ with their strong links to Bristol University and the suggestion in their choice of name that there are ‘Pagans against archaeology’, there are no Pagan groups actually against archaeology that I know of.

    The position of HAD which you would perhaps place in the most extreme position within the current debate is one far closer to the middle ground than you suggest. HAD would agree that the ancient dead can be dug up and researched but that after two years, as per the requirements of law and decency, they should be reburied.

    The premise that all possibility of capturing ‘data’ would be lost to science if the current MoJ application of the Burial Act continues is ridiculous. Firstly, there is no barrier at all to you digging up and studying these remains. Grave goods are not in contention so you keep these. You have two years in which to X-ray, 3D model, Photograph, Sketch, examine microscopically, take samples for chemical and radiological examination, and retain samples for future analysis. Reburial in sealed containers would ensure that remains would survive without further decay for many hundreds of years.

    Even under the current law, the MoJ are willing to grant extensions to the Section 25 licence terms, an exercise that in practise is mostly just a rubber stamping exercise and you get what you want.

    A question only arises when a particular set of human remains have special value in situ for a community or religious group. This is the situation that presented itself in August 2008 when archaeologists from the Riverside Project received scheduled monument consent to dig Aubrey Hole 7 at Stonehenge. The Druids present, and I was one of the organisers, turned out to prepare the ancestors for temporary removal. We supported the purposes of study. However we were not party to the terms and only became aware on the day that the scientists had absolutely no intension of returning them to us.

    We were deeply shocked and aggrieved. I asked Julian Richards and Mike Pitts if we could perhaps negotiate to at least have returned to us some significant portion of the ancestors remains after the study. We were told that we were just a rabble who’s opinions did not matter.

    The director for Stonehenge, Peter Carson, couldn’t understand why we were making ‘such a fuss’ since, he pointed out to me, the Section 25 licence required reburial within two years. I wondered how, if that is so, our museums are stacked to the rafters with human remains and I wrote to the MoJ. I asked the MoJ for a copy of this particular licence, and ask about their process for evaluating extensions to the licence and how we might register out objection in this instance to any being granted.

    We asked for a meeting with Mike Parker Pearson and Julian Richards from the Riverside Project and it was agreed that Mike would keep us informed on the progress of the study, and should he wish to apply to extend the terms, that we would be informed by him beforehand. During the first two years of study by Sheffield University the only updates indicated that progress was being made and that they expected to complete in good time. We were not aware that these important ancestors were only being studied by one part time student.The promise to inform us of a request to extend was not honoured.

    Arthur and Kass, Druids, spent many a day asking people visiting Stonehenge if they would like to sign our petition for the timely return of the ancestors. Roughly one million people visit Stonehenge over a year, but we were only there for around one in five days on average. Probably 75% of the 200000 visitors do not speak English, they arrive in coaches and are parted from their tourist dollars before being whisked away to their next destination. We did not survey every individual as they passed through the turn styles, so only those who came over to talk with us had an opportunity to sign.

    I estimate that of the roughly 50000 people with time, curiosity and good English that passed through the turn styles while we were present we spoke with just over 5000 people and that all but a handful signed. Those who signed included archaeologists, university professors and even a curator from the British Museum. We asked their nationality and religion, and remarkably we were supported by people from nearly fifty countries and as many religions.

    You state in your Blog that our effort to see the ancestors returned to Stonehenge is “this seems to be an attempt to privilege one small group’s religious practice over the cultural patrimony of the majority, and I don’t really see the justification for doing that.”.

    I would suggest that only small group who are seeking privilege over the cultural patrimony of the majority is that of the archaeologists.

    HAD, in my opinion correct assert that the religious and moral consideration is not inferior to that of science. My own opinion is that where contested the arguments of both sides should be taken into full consideration and a compromise acceptable to both be sought. Throughout our Stonehenge campaign to have the ancestors returned we have acknowledged that science has a role to play, that it should be allowed a reasonable period in which to study human remains, and that we would like a dialogue to seek a workable accord regarding the Aubrey Hole 7 Ancestors.

    On the science side there has been no willingness to give ground.

    Instead diversion tactics have been employed, the old boys club has been brought to battle readiness and the media savvy archaeologists have not missed a change to mislead the authorities or the public regarding the legal position and its effects, or regarding our intensions as we have clearly stated them.

    You do not ask a Christian Bishop if he is a genetic descendant of Jesus before digging up the Cathedral grave yard, and in fact you would not miss the opportunity to seek his blessing before getting the shovels out. You also do not ask the Christian Bishop to prove to academic scholarly standards that the new testaments upon which his theology are based are in fact eye witness accounts or dismiss them because of a period of oral transmission and elaboration. You do not ask him to prove that the services which he holds today are in exact accordance with the ceremonies held by Jesus and his followers. Clearly, no scientist in the west would do this as we were all raised in a culture immersed in the dogmas and ideals of Christianity.

    So I regard it as deeply suspicious that where Druids are involved in our worship that is inclusive of our ancestors and genius loci that you will not allow us as the current incumbent pagan tradition to speak for our ancestors without first giving a DNA sample and defending our history between the Iron Age and the 1700’s.

    If you examine your argument objectively I believe that you will observe that it is prejudiced and deeply biased against pagan beliefs.

    The needs of future generations are being defended by the Druids just as much as by yourselves with your ‘data collection’. We are seeking to ensure that future generations may worship at the great temples of prehistory, surrounded by their ancestors and inspired by their spirit, intelligence, achievement and their immediate proximity.

    Stonehenge would be greatly diminished by the permanent removal of the ancestors who founded it.
    It is probably worth pointing out what all archaeologists should already know about these ancestors: They themselves revered their ancestors and we are continuing this living tradition.

    Frank Somers

    February 11, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    • Hi Frank,
      Thanks for your comment! This will take a certain amount of digesting, so I’m going to address some of your points now and consider others. In some ways I understand where you’re coming from, and some of your arguments about the normative nature of Christianity and its implications for non-Christian religions in Western nations ring true. In other ways, I think you are mischaracterizing the positions of some archaeologists.

      First off:
      “The premise that all possibility of capturing ‘data’ would be lost to science if the current MoJ application of the Burial Act continues is ridiculous.”
      Your use of “all possibility of capturing ‘data’” here is a bit hyperbolic – obviously there is a lot of data that can be captured in two years, so reburial after two years doesn’t make a collection useless to archaeological science. However, I categorically disagree with your suggestion that the MoJ licensing has no impact on the archaeological potential of remains. I discussed this a bit in a comment on Eternal Idol, but here’s my take on the analysis of human remains. Generally when collections are recovered in an academic or contract archaeology context, there’s an initial summary of the remains done. An osteoarchaeologist will *choose* their methods (because there are many different methods for almost any type of analysis) and do a general sweep to characterize the population: aging, sexing, any infectious disease, arthritis, nutritional deficiencies, asymptomatic traits on the skeleton that can provide insights into an individual’s genetic background or environment, etc. There might be X-rays or other types of recording done, but such things are expensive and might only be covered in (especially contract) budgets if there is something unusual. At that point, if the remains go into curation, this is the first step in their analysis rather than its completion. If a researcher is, say, studying the distribution of arthritis in the Iron Age in SW England, they might identify the set of remains as one appropriate for their study and examine the remains with a more detailed or updated methodology – they might have a different scale for what is classified as ‘light’, ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ arthritis, they might be looking at joints that are sometimes overlooked in arthritis (hands for example), or they might be comparing the incidence of arthritis with a new way of examining muscle markings on the skeleton that have the ability to provide information on activity levels. Then another researcher might come along who wants to examine the incidence of sinusitis over time, and looking at sinusitis requires the use of an endoscope to look inside the sinus cavities, which is not generally part of a basic skeletal report. The presence of many different ways of looking at skeletons means that it’s not possible to do a full analysis in the first two years and have a collection from which no further information could be gleaned. Often for rigorous analysis it’s necessary to examine all the collections in a particular study using the same methods, so that you’re comparing apples to apples so to speak. The MoJ licensing laws means that if a researcher comes along 5 years after a collection was excavated and thinks it would be perfect to use for their research on, say, trauma, they will be limited to the existing reports. These reports might not describe the location of bone breaks or the shape of weapon trauma adequately for the research that person is doing, and if there are X-rays they might not be taken from an angle that is useful for the person’s specific question.

      I say all this not to argue that the value of such potential research outweighs all else, but simply to disagree with your suggestion that the MoJ licensing change has no impact on the extent and type of information that can be gleaned from human remains.

      I don’t think that science trumps all, as I emphasized in this post. I do support repatriation and reburial in certain contexts. In terms of more details on my views here, I will copy part of a comment I made on Eternal Idol:

      “However, deciding who constitutes a “descendant group” is a complex process – many people obviously have strong opinions regarding what should be done with these remains and consider them “theirs” in a religious or cultural sense. How would we decide who constitutes the descendant group in this case – people who live in the vicinity of sites where remains are excavated? Honouring the Ancient Dead? Pagans for Archaeology, who seem to support the curation of human skeletons? The wider British public? As the reburial debate in the UK is a much more recent one than in the US, Canada, or Australia, there is even less definition regarding how any potential descendant community would be recognized.”

      I would add to this, how do we tell navigate different public opinions on these issues, like the survey results you obtained at Stonehenge versus those obtained by English Heritage in the survey I discussed above? My interpretation of the different results is that, at most, the British public in general supports curation when the question is asked broadly (the EH questions were targeted towards human remains in general not a specific set of remains, though the consultation was about Avebury) and supports reburial when the question is asked regarding a specific group of remains, as I presume your Stonehenge survey was.

      To get back to the recent kerfuffle that inspired this post, the manner in which the MoJ has changed its requirements and interpretation of the Burial Act is pretty unilateral. I’m not aware of public campaigns to rebury British remains that are not pagan-affiliated, so it seems to me that if the MoJ is reacting to anything with this change, it’s reacting to pagan requests. However, the manner in which it’s doing this affects remains that are not Druidic and were never buried with any ancestral reverence (ie the Vikings that were decapitated and thrown in a pit). By assuring archaeologists that the license requirement would be revisited on one hand and assuring pagan groups that the remains would be reburied on the other, the MoJ is being impenetrable in the same manner you accuse the archaeologists of being. In this case, I do believe as I said above that this development is “an attempt to privilege one small group’s religious practice over the cultural patrimony of the majority.” A significant part of my reason for this opinion is the manner in which MoJ has made this change without wider consultation within government heritage groups (English Heritage), without public debate, apparently in response to pressures by some pagan groups. If any sort of right by British pagan groups to seek reburial is to be recognized, it should be done in the public legislative context as NAGPRA was done in the United States – at least that way there would be some transparency and public engagement.

      diggingellen

      February 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm

  3. […] I had every intention of writing a blog post yesterday, but got swept up by some comment threads instead!  There’s been an interesting and productive back and forth between me and Dennis Price (as well as many other interesting comments) over at Eternal Idol, and I’m happy to have received some feedback on my last post here. […]


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