Repatriation and reburial are large concerns these days for museums with a colonial past. Human remains looted from Aboriginal Australian cemeteries were for instance recently repatriated from a Swedish museum. But not only indigenous peoples in the usual sense of the word are making demands. The Guardian reports that British neo-Pagans are increasingly starting to demand reburial of prehistoric human remains. These adherents of newly constructed paganesque belief systems claim a special affinity with, and thus right to, the remains of selected ancestors.
I don’t think neo-paganism is any more silly than Christianity or Islam, but I do think it’s really, really, really silly. Religious nuts of any stripe should keep to their meeting halls or moonlit groves and leave the archaeological record to people willing to study it in as objective a manner as possible. Neither the neo-pagans nor us scholars are in any sense the spiritual heirs of prehistoric people. But the neo-pagans want to bury finds that allow scholars to learn something about what these people’s lives were like. Very likely, the results will not tend to corroborate neo-pagan beliefs.
I’m disgusted to find post-modernist hyperrelativism among the arguments for reburial. Paul Davies, reburial officer for the Council of British Druid Orders is quoted as saying “Any story that is reconstructed from that data will be an imagined past, which usually turns out to be a blueprint of the present imposed upon the past”. It’s hardly surprising that someone who is capable of believing in modern druidry has that perspective. But Piotr Bienkowski, deputy director of Manchester Museum echoes these same ideas: “We think that there is actually an intellectual argument for pagan claims to be taken seriously, … It is a different world view which, actually, like the scientific world view can be neither proved nor disproved. It is actually our responsibility to take those views into account.”
The scientific world view can be neither proved nor disproved? I assume that Professor Bienkowski looks both ways before crossing the street, because he knows that cars exist and are dangerous. He is thus, like all professed epistemological relativists who manage to survive in urban areas, basing his practice on the realisation that the scientific world view is in fact largely correct. I wouldn’t want to be a Manchester osteologist so long as Piotr Bienkowski works there.
Thanks to Steve Forden of the Queen Mary University of London for the link.