February 6, 2007

More on the requests for restitution of pagan bones

Posted at 11:22 am in British Museum, Similar cases

Further coverage of the request by pagan groups for the return of bones held in Britain’s museums.

The Guardian

Give us back our bones, pagans tell museums
· British curators asked to relinquish relics
· Scientists fight to save link to pre-Christian peoples
James Randerson, science correspondent
Monday February 5, 2007
The Guardian

British museums have become used to requests that foreign treasures be repatriated. Greece has persistently requested the return of the Parthenon marbles, while some administrators have agreed to return the remains of Australian Aborigines. Now the pressure is coming from closer to home.

British pagan groups are increasingly asking for human remains and grave goods from pre-Christian burials to be returned to them as well. The presence of what they see as their ancestors in dusty drawers or under harsh display lights is an affront to their religion. To them, the bones are living beings, whose existence is bound up with their religious descendants and the sacred land.

“This is quite a big issue for museums around the country, but one that was not being discussed,” said Piotr Bienkowski, the deputy director of Manchester Museum. “Discussion had been deliberately clamped down in some circles.”

Many scientists counter that, because of numerous influxes of people into the British Isles, it is impossible to identify the cultural or genetic descendants of Anglo-Saxon pagans and older peoples. They say handing back the bones for reburial would be a betrayal of a museum’s duty to society and a loss to science.

But requests from pagans for reburials are becoming more common. The Natural History Museum, British Museum, Leicester Museum, Manchester Museum, Devizes Museum and Duckworth Laboratory at Cambridge University have all been in dialogue with pagan groups. Last week, the Council of British Druid Orders demonstrated outside the Alexander Keiller Museum in Wiltshire for the reburial of a child skeleton excavated from Windmill Hill in 1929. The council is in dialogue with English Heritage and the National Trust about the issue.

“We would like people to reconsider their relationship with the bones,” said Paul Davies, reburial officer for the council. “We view them as living people and therefore they have rights as people. Because the ancestors can’t give their consent in this way, the council speaks for the ancestors.”

Many scientists are furious at the idea that future generations will not have access to material that might deliver great insights into the lives of ancient Britons. “What would be lost is quite simply the only direct source material we have to find out about people in the past. There is nothing more direct than the human remains,” said Holger Schutkowski at Bradford University, who is head of the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology. “There is no evidence that today’s pagan groups have any direct and uninterrupted linkage with belief systems in the past … So I think it is an unjustified claim.”

Researchers are still smarting from the decision by the Natural History Museum and Manchester Museum to return human remains to Australian Aboriginal groups. While that debate was charged with overtones of post-colonial guilt at the often appalling circumstances in which bones were taken from indigenous people, some in the pagan community take a more conciliatory tone. “It is not about claims for reburial or repatriation,” said Emma Restall Orr, of Honouring the Ancient Dead, which recognises the value of some research. “We are talking to them to see what is possible rather than standing up with banners.” Her group recognises that information from scientific work can be valuable, but she wants to see bones with the least potential for study returned.

Other pagans are less impressed with what science has to offer. “Any story that is reconstructed from that data will be an imagined past, which usually turns out to be a blueprint of the present imposed upon the past,” said Mr Davies. The druid council is not against studying human remains per se, he said, but does object to their retention in museums. “They are not samples, they are bits of body, they are bits of people, bits of spirit.”

Some scientists say modern pagan groups have no right to represent the bones. “They would like to see themselves in a position where they can represent prehistorical remains in Britain, but this is just not the case. They are actually not speaking for anybody,” said Prof Schutkowski.

His view is far from universal. Some in the museum community say it is unfair for scientists to impose their world view on pagans. “We think that there is actually an intellectual argument for pagan claims to be taken seriously,” said Prof Bienkowski, “It is a different world view which, actually, like the scientific world view can be neither proved nor disproved. It is actually our responsibility to take those views into account.” What right, he asks, do scientists have to speak for the bones either?

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