English Heritage’s recent “Consultation on the Future of Human Remains in Avebury Museum” (prompted by a suggestion by one Druid group that the remains should be reburied) has generated a certain amount of heat but little light, hardly surprising since the issue is a matter of opinion and opinions inevitably vary. The results and perhaps far more importantly what (if anything) English Heritage will do about them are yet to be announced.

We hope the decision will be in accordance with certain realities:

Crucially, no-one can show they have significant or special ancestral ties to the ancient inhabitants of these islands and no-one can demonstrate they have spiritual beliefs or ritual practices in common with them. Consequently, no-one can claim a greater right to be heard or heeded than anyone else and there are absolutely no parallels to be drawn with, for instance, the treatment of the remains of Native Americans where one group claims a special authority. In our view therefore the decision should contain no acknowledgement, even a token one, that Druids or pagans have a “say” beyond what their numbers relative to the whole population afford them. This is not an “anti-pagan” viewpoint. Rather, it is a perception that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists ought to be justly represented in a communal decision. We, as humans, must decide collectively how ancient human remains are to be treated. What is decided cannot validly reflect the special viewpoints of any individual belief group, even in a “token” fashion.

English Heritage has highlighted two possible options and our views on those are as follows:

1. Reburial (either in a way which makes the remains unavailable for further examination or in a way that ensures they will be).

For us, either form of reburial is a non-starter. The original burial places are impossibly lost or disrupted. We have no right to assume reburial in approximately the same place in approximately the same way would accord with the wishes of the dead. If we cannot reinstate them precisely we have no right to reinstate them at all for who can say that we would not be guilty of error and even greater insult? “Laid to rest in their native land” is a seductive but modern and dangerous concept. We have no right to assume that rest was what they sought or if they did how they saw it being achieved or even that Avebury was where they wished to be buried the first time. If we do not know we should not pretend otherwise.

2. Retention in the Museum in a way which shows respect for CoBDO’s beliefs, for example for by providing access for ceremonies.

Once again, we see this as a complete non-starter. Or to be more precise, the way it is phrased is quite wrong. The issue is not respect for CoBDO’s beliefs it is respect for the dead and, as we have said, it is a decision that we as humans must decide collectively and which cannot validly reflect the special viewpoints of any individual belief group since no group can demonstrate special authority in the matter.

As if this wasn’t a sufficiently maladroit piece of drafting, we also have the extraordinary reality that CoBDO themselves take great exception to it! As they say about this option: “CoBDO feels that this shows no respect for our beliefs whatsoever. Indeed it  is more than insulting. We do not believe that there are any druids or pagans  who wish to perform ceremonies with the bones of once living people, whether  ancient or modern”.

This is not to say there are not individuals who do wish to however and it is therefore perfectly fair that such people should be afforded the opportunity to hold ceremonies or otherwise honour the dead. It is simply very unfortunate that this has been suggested as being “in a way which shows respect for CoBDO’s beliefs” rather than “all beliefs”. For instance, the Unification Church might have written asking to be given facilities in museums to practice their “ancestor liberation ceremonies” and there would certainly be no reason to refuse them (or consult about it).  

Thus, it seems to us the Consultation bears much similarity to a porcine listening device. Two main options are highlighted – reburial (which we doubt could ever be seriously contemplated) and retention (for a reason which the organisation named as wanting it finds offensive!)

What about the obvious, fair, non-offensive and viable option? Should that not be highlighted? Let this matter be decided with regard to the needs of the community as a whole, and let not the text of the decision involve even a token nod towards the beliefs of individual groups or any element of reading the minds of the ancient dead. In our view “Access for all to honour the dead” with no embellishments whatsoever is the only fair solution for the living and the only available one for the dead. Seven words only. We await the actual decision with interest to see if it contains more!