thinking about archaeology

Listening to Pagans

Here are two photos of Pagans thinking about prehistoric human remains, under rather different circumstances, but both within the same world heritage site: at Stonehenge (above) and Avebury (below). I put these up because this evening I will be talking about a Pagan reburial request on Night waves (BBC Radio 3, 9pm), with Piotr Bienkowski (the Manchester Museum) and Emma Restall Orr (founder of Honouring the Ancient Dead).

We are expecting any time soon to hear the results of a survey conducted by English Heritage, into public attitudes towards the idea that ancient human remains should be reburied rather than curated. The survey was occasioned by a request in 2006 from a Pagan group, the Council of British Druid Orders, that the National Trust and English Heritage should give it some iconic prehistoric remains excavated around Avebury. It would like to dispose of the remains according to its own undisclosed rituals. The scale and stature of this survey promise to make it significant and influential, whatever the result.

The Avebury photo shows Cobdo members respectfully holding a ceremony outside the Alexander Keiller museum in Avebury (where long ago I was the curator) in January 2007. At Stonehenge is Arthur Pendragon, once described in the local press as “senior Druid and prospective independent Parliamentary candidate for Salisbury”, manning his campaign to achieve full public access to the stones at all time. Behind him is Pagan anarchy.

It was summer 2008, and Mike Parker Pearson, Julian Richards and I were about to open an Aubrey Hole close to the stones. Some 50 cremation burials are known to have been found at Stonehenge, but at that time only a few were accessible for study: most had been reburied in 1935 in Aubrey Hole 7, which had originally been excavated in 1920. Our principal aim was to recover these bones for analysis and dating (see photo of the dig here).

English Heritage had allowed some Pagans to hold a ceremony at the Aubrey Hole before the dig began, but the procession was disrupted by other Pagans before it could leave the car park. A noisy standoff ensued, with drumming, shouting and waving of tall sticks, and as we tried to explain the excavation’s purpose, one Pagan was heard to say, “Blood will flow”. Later one of us was asked if we would “dig up our granny”, and in a prominent feature in the regional press Arthur soon called us “grave robbers”.

Hopefully tonight there will be no fisticuffs! But these are emotive issues and the discussion should be interesting.

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