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by Nigel Swift

It’s surprising this issue is back so soon as earlier this year there was a public consultation following which EH and NT said it was a no-no and that the vast majority of the adult population “support museums that wish to display and keep human bones for research purposes”.

And once again the idea has arisen that it’s something to be resolved mainly between druids and archaeologists. But if that was true, what was the public consultation about? No, surely druids and archaeologists are junior stakeholders and the general public are the main owners of both the ancient bones and the ancient sites from whence they came – and the public, it seems, are very clear they don’t want their two assets re-united.  In fact, they don’t want them removed from another of their assets, the museums!

Perhaps the recent awarding of charitable status to the Druid Network as part of a recognised religion has caused confusion? It will soon in our local Tax Office when they get my request for the cost of the Twix I gave to a tiny  person at my door on the holy day of Halloween to be treated as a charitable religious donation. But apart from that there’s been no real confusion caused: it has been pretty much conceded that druids can’t claim any more ancestral connection to these bones than the rest of the population and the other claim to a special hearing,  “shared belief and practices  with the ancient people” is actually also no more demonstrable by druids than the rest of us. How can that be said? What about all those rites and ceremonies? Well, the only consistent thing that is really known about the burial practices of the ancients is that they probably buried the departed with reverence and (maybe) hoped the interments would remain undisturbed – which is broadly what everyone believes nowadays. All that has happened is that wider society has shifted its views somewhat and now thinks the inviolability of graves and bones doesn’t necessarily have to last “forever”.

The fact that a minority of people (indeed a minority of pagans!) now disagree with our majority thinking, including the majority of pagans’ thinking, has morphed over time is neither here nor there. They have every right to put the opposite case and try to convince everyone of it (it’s a basic right called Democracy, invented by early pagans to their eternal credit!) but they don’t have any rights beyond that.

This is not to say those who think reburial is right are not “right”. Who can say what is right in this issue? It is simply to say they have no more rights in this than the rest of the community, just a vote or a right to be heard. I might well think (to take the argument to extremes) that all those bits of Catholic saints in cathedrals ought to be re-buried  or that Napoleon’s (alleged) penis ought to be shipped from New Jersey and back to Boney, but still I would have only a one sixty millionth of a share in the British “view” on the matter, not a speck more and certainly not a half share! The only way I could claim extra clout is by showing I had a lifestyle uniquely close to that of the saints or else family ties uniquely close to the Emperor of France,  – both of which would be a tad hard in my case but no more difficult than for a modern person to establish equivalent links of either sort with respect to prehistoric Bronze Age bones.  Having no DEC (demonstrable extra connection) – to invent a term that needs inventing – surely truncates our rights to a say in what actually happens simply at a level commensurate with our numbers and no more, even though we have an absolute, nay inviolable or even sacred right to say what we think ought to happen. This is basic political and moral philosophy, something that is a lot older than Archaeology and which outranks it in the affairs of men as it is our only bulwark against minority rule!    (IMO….!)

I think these issues need to be addressed better for two reasons:

First, in a new book by Tiffany Jenkins, “Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections” it is suggested that Museums are increasingly getting cold feet about exhibiting human bodies and body parts – despite surveys showing the public is fascinated and quite untroubled by such displays.  

Second, according to Mike Pitts and others the Ministry of Justice’s 2008 legislation insisting that bones must be reburied after two years is putting archaeological research in Britain at risk: “Suppose one of our palaeontologists found the remains of a million-year-old human,” said archaeologist Mike Pitts of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.  It would be a truly wonderful discovery and would transform our knowledge of our predecessors. But, according to the Ministry of Justice ruling, we would have to take that fossil – when we had only just begun to study it – and put it back in the soil. It is utterly absurd  

Indeed, if I’m right that the minority has no right to special pleadings and English Heritage is right that the vast majority of people support retention of ancient bones and if further surveys show the public is untroubled by their display in museums it is indeed “utterly absurd”. Should not the Ministry of Justice and the Museums listen to “The People” rather than to “those with a minority view and a commensurately minor right to influence the decision, not an inordinate one”? English Heritage and the National Trust have both grasped the nettle and said (effectively) giving a sympathetic hearing to a minority is all very well but bones in the Avebury Museum won’t be re-buried, for very good and democratic reasons. Isn’t it time their lead was followed by others?


November 2010

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