In various places on the internet (particularly in Facebook) recently there have been heated discussions about ancient remains and what we do with them. Arthur Pendragon, leader of the Loyal Arthurian Warband, wants to see them reburied. He is particularly passionate about those remains referred to by some as the “guardians” of Stonehenge as described on the Loyal Arthurain Warband Website.
Honouring the Ancient Dead is an organisation that advocates respect for ancient remains and in the words of the website “Respect is a key word addressed in HAD’s Definitions document. In essence, respectful interaction requires that we engage with the ancestors – including the bodily evidence of their lives – as persons, not objects. Furthermore, the fundamental expression of respect for a dead person is to allow them to rest in peace.” To me that last statement seems to be quietly in favour of reburial but I am aware that as an organisation HAD seems to walk a consultative path treating each case individually.
Pagans for Archaeology are another strong voice on these issues. They are not in favour of reburial but do want remains treated with respect. They favour retention of remains and provide a very clear case for retaining human remains.
So where do I sit on this issue which for some is a very emotive one?
I’m not in favour of blanket reburial but neither am I in favour of automatically retaining all ancient remains either. I’m not comfortable with ancient remains being displayed out of context in museums but can see the educational value of doing so in as accurate a copy of the original context in which they were found as possible.
I personally do not think that an aspect of the deceased person’s spirit remains with the bones that long after death and in fact I rather hope it doesn’t. If there is an aspect of spirit tied to the bones then I would think being out of the ground and being remembered would be better than being forgotten in the earth. I personally feel that the physical remains of a person long enough after death to be called ancient are simply matter, like all matter they have energy within them and spirit but not the personality or spirit of the former person.
Should remains be treated with respect? Yes, of course, and I am well aware that the majority of scientific staff interacting with ancient human remains will be treating those remains with great care and respect. But everything in this world should ideally be treated with respect in my opinion as we are all connected. Science has shown us how closely related we are to all life on this wonderful planet of ours and we should try and treat all life with respect.
Should ancient remains be studied? For me that is a yes. We have learnt so much about our ancient ancestors from studying their remains even in some cases being able to build models of what their faces and bodies might have looked like in life. How can this possibly be a bad thing? But do we need to keep all ancient remains accessible for further study? Of that I am not sure. I’m not sure reburial is the answer either. Once remains have been removed from their original burial location they have been disturbed and nothing can undo that change. Some might even say that it was in their destiny to be discovered and removed and so we should honour that destiny. Suffice it to say that however well meaning and respectful a reburial might be we do not have enough information about the practices of ancient communities to know how they would have wanted their remains to be buried or indeed reburied if they even thought about such a thing. Perhaps storing them carefully and respectfully with whatever goods or other remains were found with them is the best we can do. Certainly I think keeping remains together with whatever else was found with them, keeping the stories together, is much better than spreading things out into different locations.
So basically I’m a bit on the fence. I can see why some are in favour of reburial of ancient remains and I can see why others are in favour of retaining them for study. I simply don’t think that we can have a one size fits all approach to ancient human remains. Even treating remains with respect means different things to different people. What I would like to see is more people listening carefully to the different views and trying to remain calm when discussing these issues.