Discussion continues. Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly MP wrote to the Guardian to say our concerns are “wide of the mark”: “In any case where retention [of human remains excavated for archaeological purposes] is justified, especially those involving important discoveries, human remains would never have to be reburied.”
It is very good to see the ministry “has come to the conclusion that the existing legislation can be applied more flexibly”, and we welcome discussion. But what is this about “justifying” retention? Archaeologists who are talking to the ministry need to be firm on this: we cannot have a universal test of whether or not ancient human remains should be retained. Such a test can only come from unknown future research, when someone has a question they think can be resolved through studying human remains that are curated in museums – and if one specimen fails that test, it might pass that of the next researcher’s. To coin a phrase, research can never be completed.
There is some interesting blog discussion. Ellen Chapman is sympathetic to our case. Dennis Price raises the question of Pagan demands for reburial, and asks if they are connected to our letter to the Guardian? I’ve seen that issue raised elsewhere, and I can understand how the confusion might have arisen. The answer is very simple: there is absolutely nothing that links Pagan interest in reburial with the MoJ’s.
The former is a moral question, and surfaced because some Pagans (though far from all: Pagans for Archaeology have asked people to write to their MP in support of our case) believe they have a special spiritual affinity with certain ancient people. This affinity, they say, gives them the right to have control over what should happen to the remains of these ancient people, and they believe that should entail their reburial, and removal from the realm of scientific research.
The Ministry of Justice’s requirement that ancient remains should be reburied is a legal one, and results from an interpretation of the Burial Act 1857. The requirement applies to all historic and ancient remains, not selected ones. We’re not entirely clear why the act has been interpreted in this way, but it seems to be due to thinking of ancient remains in the same way as modern ones, as suggested by an MoJ statement quoted by Reuters which refers to “health and decency laws”. In other words, Pagans want to rebury because they think ancient human remains still exist in the context in which they were originally buried; while the MoJ wants to rebury for the opposite reason – that the remains exist in the contemporary world and should be judged as if they were modern.
Put like that, our position is that they are neither – or both. They are material remains adrift in the present, and neither modern sensibilities nor imagined ancient beliefs offer a relevant home. On the other hand, they are relics of real people. We should treat them with respect – because we are human, and they are physical links with humans. And one way we can show that respect is to interrogate the remains to help us tell the stories of people who lived before us, to create memories and foster an understanding of other cultures.
• The photo shows an Anglo-Saxon grave in a cemetery near Winchester, excavated by Simon Roffey and Phil Marter, attached to what they argue is currently the UK’s oldest known hospital, pre-dating the Norman conquest in 1066: see the new British Archaeology