Monday, July 11, 2005

the unquiet dead

My letter to British Archaeology has now appeared online in the archives - in the full text of the letter I made it clear that I am a Pagan, but they edited that out - a shame as I was trying to show that it is possible to combine being a Pagan with an interest in archaeology and still have sensible views on what to do with human remains.

I think it is unfair that only Christian remains get special treatment and have to reburied within a certain time-frame. On the other hand, I understand the scientific need to study bones. And as I said in my letter, we do not know what the preferred religious practice of the dead person would have been. And many societies practised a form of ancestor veneration where they frequently got the bones out of the burial mound and interacted with them. So the scientists studying the bones could be viewed in the same light as this. However, if they are going to rebury them, it would be better to do it with the "wrong" pagan ritual than none at all. Since pagans are (and generally were) inclusive about their deities, it wouldn't cause massive offence to the dead person if it wasn't quite the right flavour. I thought the temperature-controlled and fully accessible burial mound was an ingenious solution - I suspect it was one of Nick's ideas, it's got that lateral-thinking feel to it that is the hallmark of his notions.

Here is the letter:

Restall Orr does not speak for all Pagans. Many I know are scientists, or interested in science, especially archaeology. Contemporary Paganism owes a massive amount to historical and archaeological research. How do we know that the ancient dead were practising the same kind of Paganism that we are? I think their remains should be treated with respect, but I am sympathetic with Sebastian Payne (Science, July) who points out that we may yet learn more from stored bones. Neolithic remains were not buried, but exposed for excarnation then displayed in burial mounds for descendants to perform rituals with – hardly an opportunity to rest in peace. Perhaps the bones could be stored in a burial mound (a national repository), consecrated by Pagan priestesses and priests, but with temperature and humidity controls to ensure preservation and access for study.

The letter was in response to this article by Emma Restall-Orr.

Completely unrelated item: I also found a letter I wrote to the Telegraph on gypsies (22 March 2005)