Honouring the Ancient Dead – article

The following article was first published in British Archaeology journal number 77, July 2004.

Placing human bones in boxes, says Emma Restall Orr, disrespects our ancestors.

What distinguishes archaeology from grave robbery? It’s a question I asked as a child, confused by the enthusiasm of a museum guide showing our party someone else’s treasure. I’m not sure I’ve yet found an answer. Is it about the passing of time since the burial was made? Or, as with war and terrorism, simply whether or not your actions are backed by an acceptable government?

When later I discovered there are hundreds of thousands of human bones in museum basements, ostensibly to enable further study, I was bewildered. That these stores of bones continue to grow surely makes it an issue that must be addressed. It is at the heart of my work as a priest within the modern Pagan Druid community.

Let me pose an idea: how would you feel if it were necessary, on every dig, to be in contact with an organisation concerned with the spiritual aspects of the work?

Such is the situation under negotiation for the new road proposals at Stonehenge. The project team, including the Highways Agency, construction contractors, landscape architects and archaeologists, have acknowledged Stonehenge to be a working temple for modern Pagans, and sacred for many others. Should the work go ahead, all site personnel will be briefed about the sanctity of landscape and monuments. Archaeologists will talk to Pagan priests who will feed information back into their faith communities worldwide. Rituals to ease environmental and ancestral spirits will be made, and if archaeologists unearth human remains there will be clear consultation between all parties, including Pagan priests, as to their fate.

Stonehenge may be exceptional as an archaeological site; for Pagans the issue of the ancient dead is the same wherever their remains are found.

The root of my spirituality is reverence for nature. Its practice is the forging of sacred relationships within humanity and the environment. As an oral tradition, Druidry does not anchor itself with scientific or historical facts; instead it breathes, shaping itself through stories ancient and modern.

Attitudes towards the ancient dead are a significant part of the clash between Paganism and fact-searching archaeology. Within Paganism, the dead are revered. Where known, their actions are honoured through stories retold, their wisdom remembered. We breathe their breath, singing the same songs, crying the same tears in the same wind and rain, as we live within the same powers and patterns of nature. As abuse of nature damages an environment, so to dishonour our ancestors is to shift natural patterns. Problems ensue.

Real care may be taken by archaeologists working to find the stories, but the lack of respect is exposed when bones are placed in boxes. When Pagans speak of reburial, they are not demanding marked graves lauded over with occultism or magic. They seek simply the absolute assurance of respect. In my opinion, reburial of every bone shard is not necessary: ritual is.

At Stonehenge, should human remains or burial/sacrificial artefacts be found, priests will be called. Appropriate prayers and ritual will be made to honour the dead, their stories and gifts to the gods. Once finds are catalogued, reburial will be considered by all relevant parties.

It is my sincere hope that the relationships and agreements now being forged at Stonehenge will set a precedent that will provoke and inspire the archaeological community. Our society can only benefit from archaeological exploration if its work is carried out with a deeper respect for the ancient dead.

Emma Restall Orr is a founding member of HAD and a member of the HAD Council.