Reburial at Highworth

Location: Highworth
Archaeological Unit: Highworth Historical Society
Era: Stone Age
Status: Completed Project
Tradition: Other
Objective: Reburial

Content: 

While some local communities, such as Melbourn in Cambridgeshire, have to fight to be able to show the respect they wish towards the ancient dead exhumed in their parish, others are managing to do so with a beautiful autonomy. From the outside, such differences appear confusing. The case in the small town Highworth in Wiltshire is an interesting one, and worth exploring.

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The skeletal remains of at least four individuals were reburied at Highworth Cemetery on 21 June 2007. Two of these ancestors are Bronze Age partial skeletons, around 4000 years old, that were found during building work at Wrde Hill in Highworth in September 1977. Both were in a crouched position, with hands across the chest. Excavation was haphazard: no formal dig was carried out, local amateurs and enthusiasts working on the site, sometimes late into the night in order to accommodate the builders who asserted severe pressure. Partly damaged by the diggers, the remains, including a skull, pelvic and other bones, were taken into the care of Highworth Historical Society, and have been kept by members of the Society over the years. It appears that the whole of Wrde Hill may have been built on an old burial site as more remains were found close by, the bones going to the Devizes Museum and possibly to Swindon Bath Road Museum (records are not clear).

The full Romano-British skeleton, locally known as Yorik, was exhumed from a garden in the town in 1965 when the householders were burying their pet dog. When the bones emerged the police were informed, but were not interested. Local amateur archaeologist, Mike Collins, exhumed the remains, together with Mike Stone, curator of Chippenham Museum, with the help of Chris Chandler who was then senior archaeologist for Wiltshire. However, nobody seemed to want the remains, which stayed in the care of the householders until they moved house, when Yorik was passed to the Historical Society. Never accessioned to a museum, Yorik has been on display a number of times over the years, at festivals and local exhibitions.

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The other remains reburied on 21 June were found in a medieval enclosure ditch at Haresfield locally, in the late 1970s. These, also excavated by Mike Collins, have been dated as late medieval. As some of the bones are thought to be human, the Historical Society felt they would take no chances and treat them as if they were.

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Indeed, it was only when members of the Historical Society attended a course on storing and archiving artefacts that they felt they really ought to do something about these remains. They sought expert advice from a local Records and Archaeological Service. Following the Human Tissue Act and the publication of the DCMS Code of Practice, the Society understood they would not be able to provide these ancestors with what was now required. In part they were misinformed, believing that elements of the HTA legislation applied to these remains; HAD is aware of a good number of museums and other small heritage organisations that are equally confused.

Misinformed or not, however, the Highworth Historical Society discussed the issue and came to an agreement that all the human remains in their care should be reburied. Highworth has no museum. If it had, and could have afforded the adaptations to keep them, the reburial may not have happened – particularly of Yorik. However, speaking to Jo Clark, the Society’s secretary, I got the impression that her inclination was towards reburial. This was ‘the honourable and decent thing to do’, the ‘correct’ thing, she said, choosing her words carefully in order to find that which most accurately expressed her inner moral voice. ‘The Society decided that it would be appropriate if the remains were re-interred in the area in which they were originally lain to rest … We believe this is a fitting end for these men who probably lived and worked in or around Highworth many centuries ago.’

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The important issue here was that the society was under no pressure from anyone to retain the remains. They felt it was entirely their choice. In their opinion, the bones had been contaminated by too many hands to be of any scientific value. Local museums were not interested. Reburial was the natural decision in order to ensure there was decency and respect.

The remains were reburied at the town’s local authority cemetery, land with beautiful views of the Wiltshire countryside, not consecrated by the Church. The short nondenominational ceremony was conducted by an elder of the United Reform Church using beautiful non-religious words that honoured the lives of these ancestors, acknowledging them still to be a part of the Highworth community. They were treated as people, or ‘persons’ in the philosophical sense, not objects. Wrapped in locally produced woollen cloth and laid in three environmentally-sound willow baskets, the remains were buried in one plot, beside an ancient trackway in an older part of the cemetery not currently used for burial. A headstone marks the grave with an inscription that describes those buried, ending with a quote by Christina Rossetti, ‘Together all, yet each alone’. With the remains were buried some locally sourced mead, honey and a bread roll, as ‘sustenance for the journey’. Each has a 2007 copper coin from the Royal Mint and leaves from seven plants sacred in the Druid tradition: vervain, henbane, primrose, pulsatilla, clover, mistletoe and wolf’s bane (monkshood). Every effort had been made to ensure there was a profound sense of respect. Indeed, in many ways, the burial felt not dissimilar to that of someone who had recently died. There were tears on the cheeks of some who had gathered.

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Many museums worry about the price of deaccession and interment, using this as another deterrent to the process of reburial. In this case the funeral director did not charge for the event at all, nor did the local authority charge for the grave space. The gravedigger’s fees were cut by two thirds to £100. The monumental masons donated the headstone, the minister charged no fee, and the flowers came from the local Floral Art Society. Indeed, the total cost, including the baskets, a little oasis for the flower arrangements, was no more than £210.

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What are the lessons for HAD when it explores the possibilities of reburial with archaeologists and museums?

In one sense, this case is not typical, since the remains were held by an autonomous local society, rather than by an archaeological field unit or a museum. In other senses, however, there are significant lessons. Highworth powerfully demonstrates the strength of local feeling towards reburial of human remains, especially those with no demonstrable scientific value. It also shows that reburial need not be an expensive process: other parts of the local community in Highworth, including the local authority, became inspired by the idea of reburial and willingly provided practical assistance at no or considerably reduced cost. This is surely the key inspiration not only for HAD but for all museums and heritage organisations considering reburial: if the local community is involved in the decision-making process and the practical arrangements for reburial, then the value of reburial, even (or especially) of much loved local remains, is broadly crucially understood, and will be much inspired by local support.

Emma Restall Orr, June 2007

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