Neo-Pagans Demand Reburial

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.

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In the US, the Native Graves Repatriation Act requires that a direct kin relationship be established between the human, religious or funereal artifacts in museum collections and those making claim for their repatriation. If I decided to start worshiping in a Pueblo kiva as neo-pagan Amerind shamen, I would not be able to make a claim for the remains of those ancient peoples I sought to emulate. I understand that the laws pertaining to human tissue in British Museums do not apply to remains that predate 1000 PE. Hence a celtic bog sacrifice is inelligible for repatriation to modern descendants, should any such be proved, or to neo-pagan druids (much as I enjoy single malt as a sacrament). The fact that some in authority in Britian seem equivocal on this issue speaks to a crisis of confidence and conviction of hyperelative proportions.

Very interesting to learn about that AD 1000 boundary. Years ago I suggested that same idea in a discussion of the Kennewick Man debacle.

I was alerted the other day to the fact that in Australia they have 'Keeping PLaces', which as far as I can make out, are cultural centres where ancient artifacts, and possibly human remains, are kept together, available to be seen by the public, as well as giving access to archaeologists - is this a valid model for use elsewhere, and can they offer a real compromise - in some cases - wherein both sides are treated more'equally', and to their mutual satisfaction?

There's a word for "cultural centres where ancient artifacts, and possibly human remains, are kept together, available to be seen by the public, as well as giving access to archaeologists". We like call them "museums". Anybody know the difference in practice between Australian museums and "keeping places"?

Interesting perspective on a complex issue.

As an Australian archaeologist I should point out some of the major differences between museums and keeping places. The most significant is that that keeping places are controlled by members of the community in question, and indeed, the facilities are generally located in the communities themselves (there are hundreds across Australia). The overall point of these centres is community control of their heritage in order to break away from models where institutions such as museums solely set the conditions on access to or display of such materials. Museums are hallmarks of the colonial project.

Over here, the majority of museum collections (in terms of cultures and histories anyway) were obtained during the early colonial/invasion period and indeed skeletal materials were often robbed from recent (i.e. ca. 18th and 19th century) burials. Living descendents of those people rightly have a claim to control those materials (as would anyone who found that their immediate ancestor�s skeletal remains were on a museum shelf). Further, in cases where the remains may be thousands of years old, the recovery and control of the skeletal remains is still an important issue because of the destructive and violent character of invasion of Australia and the disgraceful manner in which the remains were taken. Points about these remains being of importance to �all humans� are rubbish: it is more their heritage than yours or mine (a point recognised in legislation across Aust) and the only reason we want it is to further our comfy academic careers. Communities very rarely hear the results of this research.

So in short, keeping places are vital because they allow control in a situation where such control/autonomy has been denied for generations. They are not museums in the traditional sense because museums rarely are able to sensitively dead with the goals of people with direct connections to or interests in the objects/materials they wish to display. Keeping places can, and do. I thoroughly encourage you to visit one next time you are in Oz.

Love the blog, long time reader first time commenter etc.

By Mick Morrison (not verified) on 12 Mar 2007 #permalink

Interesting, thanks for the info and for your praise!

What are storage conditions like at a typical Keeping Place? If you excavate millennia-old human bones and place them in a Keeping Place today, is it likely that they will be retrievable, available for research and in good shape a hundred years from now? For how long has the oldest Keeping Place operated? Is it doing a good job?

Yes those are important points. Many hold archaeological materials and ethnographic collections so conditions in these tend to be secure, de-humidified, and so on: essentially mini-museums. Established museums often assist in establishing the facilities and tend to have agreements which I guess contribute to concerns such as yours about long term storage. I couldn't tell you how long the oldest has operated though; given that Aboriginal people were not recognised as citizens till the late 1960s I suspect probably from the late 70s. Access to materials is open generally to researchers who are prepared to talk about their research objectives, the point again being community control. But this is increasingly the case with archaeological research more broadly in Australia where community concerns are paramount in developing research projects. But that's another topic!

By Mick Morrison (not verified) on 13 Mar 2007 #permalink

Please don't lump all Pagans together and assume that we are all irrational and archaeologically and scientifically illiterate. The individual in question certainly does not speak for me. I also doubt that he even knows what postmodernism is.

I have been an advocate of keeping places as an appropriate compromise solution for quite a while. Thanks to Mick Morrison for the interesting information about them.

Regarding Piotr Bienkowski, he was misquoted, or quoted out of context. He was only talking about the relativity of scientific and religious views of what (if anything) happens to the consciousness after death, an issue which is obviously relevant to the issue of human remains.

Aha, that's reassuring to learn about Bienkowski. I'd really be more worried if he claimed to know for sure what happens after death. Though using Ockham's razor, the answer is clear.