Saturday, October 28, 2006

Academic perspectives

Most of the academic perspectives are on the issue of reburial of indigenous American human remains, but people are starting to address the concerns of druids and others in Britain, especially Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis.

Druids and neo-shamans as marginalised voices - some have argued (e.g. Wallis 2000) that druids represent marginalised perspectives and that mainstream archaeology is a hegemonic perspective as it identifies with science. This argument has also been put forward by various authors about Native Americans. I certainly feel that there are some in the archaeological community who dismiss other perspectives out of hand, but by no means all. Wallis (2000) points out that we should not dismiss marginalised voices or fail to take their spiritual perspective seriously just because they are outside the rationalist paradigm. Indeed not, but realistically, there will probably have to be a compromise on this issue.

Ethics of reburial - these revolve around remembering the dead, respecting their last wishes, not undermining their life's project. One very interesting article examines the ontological status of the dead, and concludes that they are less than human but more than objects - they are former human beings, and as such, worthy of more respect than mere things. We need an ethical code that understands and includes other cultural perspectives. The issue of reburial is not an ethical conflict but a conflict of cultural values (Goldstein and Kintigh 1990). The veneration of the dead is highly variable and culturally determined. For example, in the Neolithic, people put bones in burial mounds and got them out regularly to interact with them in ritual.

Cultural affiliation and genetic descent - the basis for claims upon bones in America and Australia and other colonial and post-colonial contexts is that the current indigenous people are genetically descended from and culturally affiliated with the ancestors whose bones they are. In Britain, this is different - both the archaeologists and the druids can claim equally to be descended from the ancestors, so cultural affiliation comes into play, along with ethical issues as outlined above. But (as Cantwell 2004 points out) cultures are not unchanging monolithic structures; they morph over time, and the idea of cultural affiliation implies that they do not. Also, even though claimants are primarily motivated by respect for the ancestors, other political and cultural factors and outcomes are inevitably brought into play, some of which may be positive and some of which may be negative.

Scientific & medical benefits of excavating human remains (Randerson 2004) - analysis of bones excavated at Wharram Percy showed that osteoporosis was just as prevalent in the Middle Ages as it is now - which suggests that we need to look beyond lifestyle factors for the causes of this disease. It was also discovered from the Wharram Percy remains that there was a higher incidence of left-handedness - probably because it was a pre-literate culture. Both of these findings were due to new techniques.

Cultural benefits of excavating human remains - we can discover our ancestors' lives - arguably this benefits them (de Baets 2004), as then they are remembered, and it benefits us (Cantwell 2004), as it may enable to us to live more harmoniously and sustainably.

About the project

I am currently working on a project on reburial of ancient human remains. A few years ago, my position on this was broadly that ancient pagan skeletons should get the same respectful treatment as old Christian ones. But what do we mean by respect? Reburial? Repatriation (if they come from abroad)? Memory? Appropriate ritual?

More recently, I have come to think that remembering the dead is just as important as treating their bones with respect, and therefore I am opposed to a blanket diktat to rebury all ancient remains. I object to the loss of archaeological data, because I believe that it is important to remember and reconstruct the lives of our ancestors, from both a spiritual and a historical point of view.

Both my husband and I have been Pagan for a long time and interested in archaeology and history for a long time. I have always felt inspired by the Paganisms of the past, and am therefore interested in the lives of the people who held these beliefs in the past, partly because they are intrinsically interesting, and partly because we can learn from their experiences and traditions how to live sustainably, honourably and harmoniously. We cannot totally reproduce their way of life - we live in a new set of circumstances and with different challenges. But it is useful and interesting to look at the lives of people who lived fully immersed in a 'pagan' paradigm (I put that in quotes because they may or may not have had an idea of a distinct religious tradition separate from life in general, or in contrast to other religions.

It also seems to me that they built conspicuous monuments in the landscape because they wanted to be remembered (at least in the Bronze Age, when barrows for individuals were put up (even though secondary burials were added later).
Our days are ended. Think, then, of us.
Do not erase us from your memory, nor forget us.

Popol Vuh, sacred book of the Quiché Maya, quoted in de Baets (2004)
Also I think that most archaeologists (in the UK at least) are motivated by respect for and interest in the lives of the ancestors - cf the TV programme Meet the Ancestors with Julian Richards, which was clearly motivated by interest in and even compassion for the ancestors, and certainly evoked these emotions in the viewer.

I wish to research the views of a cross-section of Pagans, to establish what their views on this issue are, and what sort of discourses are being brought into play. I am aware that there are some more moderate advocates (of compromise options and selective reburial), so I want to talk to them.

For this initial project, I will be doing five anonymised face-to-face interviews with a cross-section of Pagans (maybe from one specific tradition, I don't know yet - depends who I can get).