Avebury Reburial Consultation - response
February 2009

Dr J Blain, the Sacred Sites project, February 2009
Contact project@sacredsites.org.uk
or J. Blain at 07919 556371

On balance, my feeling and the considered response of the Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights Project (after consultation with my colleague in the project) is that the remains should stay in the museum (with their grave goods) for the present, but that their presentation needs to be carefully negotiated with regard to spiritual views, to the issue of how 'respect' is constituted and to how remains are conceptualised by different religious and secular traditions.

What follows are comments on the process followed by those on the substance and possible outcomes. I write these both as a research methodologist and as an academic researcher of 'sacred sites', paganisms, and the British reburial issue.

  1. The proforma is not helpful.
    1. It directs attention to very specific points (blood-relationship) and hence away from the wider points of community consultation and of the different worldviews, including views about 'ancestors' and 'death', that form part of British multiculturalism.
      It focuses attention on the 'claims' of the druid group.

    2. Further, some questions of the proforma are decidedly ambiguous. It exemplifies some of the problems I teach students about. Indeed, I'm thinking of using the Likert Scale questions 1, 2 and 3 as examples of what NOT to ask if a researcher wants to get valid numerical data!
      Both these questions make a statement about views or beliefs apparently held by EH and the NT, and ask the respondent if they agree literally read, this asks the respondent if they agree that EH holds these views. It is presumably intended to ask the respondent whether she/he or their group also holds these views. (There is also an issue of an authority-claim and hence leading questions here.) These questions are badly designed and data from them should be treated with suspicion.

    Getting into the substance:

  2. The process is based in the DCMS guidelines, and this was agreed to by the parties concerned. However reliance on the guidelines introduces and indeed depends on the discourse of 'claims' which may be unhelpful. The guidelines deal with repatriation requests and with ways to adjudicate whether a 'claim' is made by a group with connections to the remains, and whether these connections should be seen as legitimate. The DCMS guidelines indicate connections as involving genealogical descent, cultural community of origin including continuity of belief, customs or language, and country of origin.

    The Draft Report (section 3) points out that genealogical relationship with the Kennet Avenue and Windmill Hill remains is likely to be generally shared across much of Europe, stating that, 'We agree that the members of CoBDO presumably share this relationship; however we take the view that this is not a direct and close genealogical link in the sense meant in the DCMS Guidance'. Equally there is said to be no direct link of 'culture' or language. However while the CoBDO group may be no more related to the Avebury child than any other dweller in these isles, they are equally no less so, and what is omitted here is the attempt to take on a worldview that could be seen as (and may be conceptualised by the CoBDO group as being) closer to that of these 'ancestors' with whom CoBDO allies themselves, than today's separation of life from death. The point here is that CoBDO in order to make a 'claim' need to demonstrate a connection which cannot be substantiated or evidenced.

    The issue of 'culture' is problematic within anthropology and within transitional and shifting communities of today. Nevertheless these remains, like the Avebury stones, form part of the cultural as well as physical landscape of Avebury for visitors, residents, and spiritual pilgrims alike. The stones and remains are part of folklore and story, in changing narrations that are influenced both by archaeological investigation and by spiritual and person acquaintance. 'Culture' may need some rethinking in these contexts.

  3. The spiritual or religious significance of the remains to CoBDO is articulated in their request. This indicates a worldview which relates remains (and gravegoods) to landscape. There is nothing to demonstrate that this type of approach would have been shared by the people of the Kennet Avenue and Windmill Hill remains; nevertheless it is an attempt to explore concepts of personhood and environmental connections that differs from current mainstream approaches in Britain and may be in part informed by perceptions of 'indigenous' philosophies elsewhere. Druidry is a religion, or perhaps better an association of spiritualities, of today, with its own historical roots and its own particular ancestry. A largely animist spiritual philosophy, combined with an idea that death represents a very gradual removal of 'people' from the physical world, leads to a view of bones or cremated remains as 'people' who are still within that world. Mainstream approaches in England would see issues of respect for the dead as something that matters to the living. (Interestingly, in Scotland there is a 'right of sepulchre' that pertains to the dead themselves.)

    Not all Druids share CoBDO's awareness of the 'personhood' of human remains, and not all pagans hold animist views. Nevertheless, increasing numbers do, interactions with 'living landscapes' shape dimensions of pagan understandings of self and other, and these worldviews are part of the multivocality of British spirituality today. The CoBDO focus on the Avebury child arises from the proximity of group members to the area and detailed knowledge of the landscape, from visiting, walking and processing in the avenue and henge, meditating, celebrating, developing ways of knowing the landscape and its inhabitants that are 'other' than the scientific or systematic investigation and theory construction of archaeology. This knowledge is local and specific.

    (There has been some tendency within mainstream institutions to discount pagan and other 'alternative' belief systems and standpoints, often with ridicule. This consultation indicates that EH and the NT regard these standpoints with at least some respect, and bodes well for future negotiations around the reburial issue.)

    Other pagan groups and individuals, though, may equally have local and specific connections with the Avebury remains, through being part of the local community for periods of time varying between a few months and a lifetime. They do not all call for reburial. The CoBDO call cannot be representative of either local or national/international paganism, simply because paganisms are very varied in their nature and in the worldviews shared by adherents. The issue of respect for ancestors all ancestors, those ancestors of others or of ourselves, and of ancestors in a social and cultural sense and not only a physical sense -- is one that those pagans I know or know of, through research or in person, share, and that furthermore is inherent in principles of pagan traditions. The statement by the CoBDO spokesperson that the remains are 'living' is a forceful statement in keeping with pagan and animist understandings, to be seen as a position on a continuum, not simply dismissed as 'irrational' within scientific worldviews.

  4. In light of the above, the DCMS procedure is problematic. It allows for 'claims' but not for philosophy. Where all parties hold some (genetic, cultural) relationship to the human remains at issue, the DCMS framework, designed for a different context, seems unwieldy and may encourage the development of fixed positions rather than negotiation. The presented material, though, is interesting because of its juxtaposing of expressions of interest -- spiritual and scientific - of those closely associated with landscape and skeletal material. The Draft Report (rightly in my opinion) sets aside the 'evidence' from the CoBDO petition and from the Museum visitor questionnaire, as interesting but not conducted using methodologies enabling assessment of their material. To be considered as quantitative evidence these would require information on representativeness and on target populations; as qualitative, an analytic and theorised presentation including contextualisation of the comments and detailing of the discussions.

  5. In the remaining material, we have a series of statements of interest, some written in more scientific terms than others, the Cleal report, the letters and summary and the CoBDO request. I note that there is no independent presentation of perspectives in which bones are 'living', which one might otherwise (or in contexts elsewhere) might expect to find. The balance of the presented material, in my view, presents a case for the importance of the material for scientific research; in particular, Whittle emphasises limited or non-destructive sampling, sensitive handling and treatment, and dissemination of knowledge gained to a general public, not only the academic community. This is the most persuasive argument I have found in this material. There is much less case made for the public presentation of the skeletal material, though educative value is mentioned.

  6. Given all the aforesaid, my recommendation would be that for the foreseeable future, the skeletal material should be retained in the museum; but not necessarily on public display.

I would suggest that further study involving methodologically sound attempts to investigate and theorise views within the general public (including both pagans and archaeologists) should inform further negotiations. I would suggest that further study might inform sensitive and respectful ways to present material. I would advise that pagan interactions with the remains and associated artefacts are not only (indeed not mostly) those of formal 'rituals'. I would suggest also that discussions of presentation and respectful treatment should involve groups and individuals expressing an interest: and that we should eschew the discourse of 'claims' to this material.

And I would further suggest that this dialogue should continue between interested parties, not in the discourse of 'claims' but of 'expressions of interest' -- as I understand the HAD presentation to this consultation has also presented. In a situation where all -- or none -- have direct connections to the remains, we need to make decisions on specific bases and with sensitive accommodations to the interests of others, living and dead.


Dr J. Blain     j.blainATshu.ac.uk    jenny.blainATfreeuk.com
PG Lead and Research Lead, Sociology, Politics and Policy
Programme Leader, MRes Social Sciences
Applied Social Sciences, Faculty of Development and Society, Sheffield Hallam University
Collegiate Crescent Campus, Sheffield, UK S10 2LD
0114 225 4413     07919 556371
http://www.sacredsites.org.uk


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