The reburial debate

Two recent news articles have brought have highlighted the way in which archaeologists and museums treat human remains. Nine tattooed Maori heads have been Council of British Druid Orders have demanded that human remains on display in the archaeological museum at Avebury should be reburied.

This illustrates the complicated nature of the burial debate. Few would object to the repatriation of Maori remains. The demand for their return came from a body that can make some claim to represent the modern Maori community, and the modern Maori community themselves can make a clear case for being the direct ancestors of those people whose remains were taken. However, with the case of the Avebury remains, it is more debatable how far the Druids involved can make a clear case to represent the descent community of the prehistoric inhabitants. Even within the pagan community there are others who do not demand their reburial. The archaeologists who study Avebury are just as likely to be descended from the original occupants of the region as the Druids: how do we judge between competing claims to represent these dead communities? Indeed, is it possible for modern groups to truly represent the beliefs of the long dead?

From my point of view, those who demand the reburial of these early remains are as guilty of ‘colonising’ these past populations as the archaeologists. It is possible to argue that the belief that remains once buried should be kept buried is a relatively recent cultural construct. Despite medieval beliefs in bodily resurrection, in practice most medieval graveyards were continually reworked leaving huge piles of redeposited charnel. Should we aim to respect what past societies believed, or simply what they did in practice? It is noticeable that in Neolithic and Early Bronze Age society, there is good archaeological evidence (particularly from the Avebury region) that simple inhumation was not the dominant burial rite. Instead bodies were excarnated, disarticulated and circulated across the landscape. Arguably, by excavating and displaying the skeletal remains from Avebury we are closer to respecting the wishes of the dead community than those who would demand that they are reburied. What do you think?

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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  1. A contribution from Bill S.\”Astounding assumption to make that all prehistoric dwellers were believers in a Druidical belief system, or are they saying they are the custodians of all pagan belief systems? They have the arrogance and intolerance of most modern faith believers that they are right, and by definition everyone else is wrong. However is the discussion more to do with ownership and control, both physically and spiritually of these bones, the Druids seem to be applying modern values to ancient belief systems. \”


  2. It is understandable in some cases that one country, would like the remains back from another country that was holding them. It is a reasonable claim.But for this to be happening here, where the remains are and that the argument is merely whether they should be in or out of the ground seems absurd.quote:\”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\”An imagined past, yes, but is it any more imagined than the stories told through generations which have evolved so far from the truth? An ancient game of chinese whispers.At least by studying some form of evidence, some truth can be found.Whether it is what \’the ancestors themselves would have wanted\’, it no longer matters. They are not here to tell us what to do and modern society cannot speak for them. It is now whether these remains have any knowledge to give to us or future generations, which should be considered.


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