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?