Respect for Ancient Human Remains, Manchester

17 Nov 2006

In late 2006 Manchester Museum and HAD co-hosted a conference on the philosophy behind the care of ancient human remains. Below is a report of the day written by Martin Evans, or download the papers from the Manchester Museum website. At the end of the conference Emma Restall Orr and Piotr Bienkowski delivered a paper with some practical advice regarding human remains.

Conference Report

On 17 November 2006 HAD, in partnership with Manchester Museum, held a Conference entitled “Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice”. The Venue was Manchester Museum, and it ran from 9 am through to 6 pm. The main focus of the conference was the philosophy of the care of human remains within the museum community. Despite a number of objections about the conference from certain other institutions, the conference was well attended by over 70 people, the majority of whom were museum professionals or students. The ages of the delegates covered a wide spectrum, although it was encouraging to note that a significant proportion, perhaps the majority, appeared to be under 30 years old. Whilst HAD struggles to establish its case amongst the current hierarchy, perhaps the future generation of museum leadership will be sympathetic to our concerns.

Some concerns were raised throughout about the practicality of implementing a wider consultation that included the concerns of the pagan traditions and the potential loss of knowledge that may arise from the repatriation and reburial of human remains. However, attitudes of most of those raising these concerns ranged from conciliatory to positively sympathetic. Only one person stuck to the line of retaining all human remains in perpetuity for fear of losing potential research material. It should be noted that during the course of the day, some delegates expressed slightly more worrying attitudes outside the conference rooms and were overheard by the author of this report, including one that indicated her dismay at losing the authority of the museum if, as was being discussed, they involved groups like HAD in the consultation and decision-making process.

The day started with an introduction to the conference, the reasons for holding it and the purpose of HAD within the overall process. It was noted within the introduction that the first piece of advice sought from the DCMS Human Remains Advisory Service concerned pagan Saxon remains. Professor Piotr Bienkowski, co-host with Emma Restall Orr and one of the more active advisers to HAD, made the argument that the DCMS guidelines were already outdated and needed to consider claims originating in the UK and concerning ancient human remains over 500 years old.

After the introduction Professor Bienkowski went on to deliver his own paper “Persons, Things and Archaeology: Contrasting World-views of Minds, Bodies and Death”. In the paper Professor Bienkowski illustrated the different positions that some people take and how they often dismiss the views of other people as being wrong. The metaphysical concepts of dualism, materialism, idealism and animism were explained, and the how the abstract notion of consciousness applies to these philosophical concepts. He noted that most pagans take an animistic point of view that causes conflict with the materialistic viewpoint of the majority of scientists, including museum professionals and field archaeologists. This point was illustrated by a conversation between a field archaeologist, called John, who had just excavated a human body and another person, Janet, who was asking what would be done with the body. John maintained that the body, whom he referred to as it, would be stored for an indeterminate period for research despite the fact that receiving any funding for research was highly unlikely. Janet took the view that the body should be reburied. Professor Bienkowski went on to discuss the shift in museums’ thinking and how he considered that the arguments had been won to provide a wider consultation and inclusion in decision making. Nevertheless, despite the guidelines from the HTA regarding consent and the recommendations of the DCMS regarding consultation, there had been little practical change so far. He also tackled the position taken by many academics regarding the proofs they required for genealogical descent and how they often dismiss pagan claims as romantic, suggesting that it suited the museums to insist on meeting their obviously impossible criteria. Genealogical evidence is notoriously difficult to provide: the Civil Register did not come into effect until 1837 and most parishes did not record births, deaths and marriages prior to 1534, and the vast majority of parish registers from this time have also been lost or destroyed. Professor Bienkowski also wondered if the criteria that museums apply to human remains from former colonies are based on a truly ethical approach and intercultural understanding, or if society’s political guilt at the behaviour of our forefathers affects those decisions, making some repatriations merely exercises in ‘political correctness’.

Emma Restall Orr/Bobcat was next on the platform, delivering her paper titled “Human Remains: The Acknowledgement of Sanctity”. She thanked everybody for coming and was glad that they were giving her the chance to deliver HAD’s position and her expectations for dialogue within the debate. Bobcat explained why, when and how HAD was set up and what purpose it served in the wider debate. She addressed the issue of why museums and archaeologists should recognise HAD’s claims to be included in the consultation and decision making regarding human remains. She explained that whilst the focus was on pre-Christian burials or those identified as pagan, HAD was concerned with all our ancestors regardless of religious or spiritual affiliation. Bobcat also inferred it would be easier for museums and archaeologists to talk to HAD rather than deal with the potential of direct action from other pagan groups, although she did point out that HAD does not necessarily represent every pagan perspective. Bobcat discussed the viewpoints of the pagan groups that HAD would seek to represent and how they ranged from objecting about any excavation work to those that value the knowledge that can be gained from further study. She illustrated that by informing the conference of HAD’s structure and how that consisted of a Theology Council that included representatives from a variety of pagan traditions and an academic advisory board that included members with non-pagan viewpoints. Bobcat also pointed out to the audience that pagans are the fastest growing spiritual community within Britain and that the ONS were working on a better system for identifying pagans for the next census that would, if the trends in other countries following similar changes in the way they collect statistical census information, demonstrate paganism to be larger than some accepted religious groups. She pointed out that whilst paganism is diverse it does share some common ground amongst its traditions, in a similar way to the plethora of Christian denominations. Bobcat also indicated that whilst HAD would be an advocate for certain pagan groups or individuals, it is HAD’s intention to encourage local participation.

Next to take the stand was Dr. Melanie Giles of the University of Manchester who delivered a paper on “Archaeology of Human Remains: Paradigm and Process”. She provided a background on the various bodies that have been found in the bogs in the UK and Ireland, that included how they had been found and the information that had been gleaned. It transpires that because of the state of preservation of the bodies that are found in the bogs, they are subject to investigation by the police and in one case they managed to extract a confession from someone who had dumped his wife’s body in Lindow Moss, although it was later discovered that the body they had found was nearly 2,000 years old. It was unclear whether the unfortunate woman’s body was ever recovered. Dr. Giles went on to discuss how these bodies are displayed and conserved. She raised several points on including the rights for reburial, if grave goods should be kept separate or kept alongside the bodies, and what the expectations of most people were once the information about the bodies had been recorded. Apparently a majority, around 79%, expect remains to be reburied, although a similar number also expect some bodies to be retained for display. The paper also covered the theories about the original intentions of the tribe or individual involved: murder, punishment or ritual. Dr. Giles talked about how the remains could be humanised with appropriate display and a multitude of stories that may explain the life and death of the person. She also raised questions about how reburial is to be dealt with, what is appropriate in terms of place and the rites that will be performed.

After Lunch Dr. Jenny Blain and Dr. Robert J. Wallis delivered a joint paper titled “Sanctity of Burial: Pagan Views, Ancient and Modern”. After identifying themselves as “Heathen” they discussed the different pagan viewpoints of modern pagan traditions and how they contain some common ground in relation to person, community and relationships with both human and non-human elements. They discussed the evidence for continuity of viewpoints relating them back to historical evidence, in particular the Sagas from Northern Europe. Dr. Blain and Dr. Wallis also discussed the clues to ritual and attitudes towards burial that are found in archaeological digs. They discussed the difference of opinion found amongst archaeologists with regard to practices and findings and told the conference that pagans were also involved with archaeological, anthropological and historical studies, including some very high profile figures. Dr. Blain and Dr. Wallis concluded the talk with a discussion about the sacred landscape and how various sites have importance to people.

Sarah Levitt and Laura Hadland followed with a paper on “Museum Human Remains: Duty of Care, Consultation, Consent”. Sarah Levitt, who is on the HAD advisory board, delivered the first half of the paper discussing the responsibilities of museums towards the local population, and how Leicester City Council have been responsible for championing inclusion. She discussed how most museums are actually run on public money and therefore have a duty to consult with the people who effectively pay their wages. Sarah Levitt illustrated how effective this had been in Leicester and how community involvement included very diverse groups and how faith communities were the backbone of this, suggesting that faith was an unavoidable issue outside the austere community that were involved in the museums. She suggested that, by embracing these community groups, people were more likely to make use of museums and feel less hostile when faced with the inevitable changes that accompanied new building and roads, in that preserving the culture and heritage was seen as worthwhile, particularly when people had a say in the whole process. The second half of the paper was delivered by Laura Hadland, curator of history. She argued that more needed to be done to secure the dignity of the human remains within museum collections and was quite frank about the state of some of the remains they had in storage and the conditions they were held in. She was also described the poor state of documentation and how many of the remains didn’t have adequate documentation, therefore negating any usefulness in further research. Laura Hadland also decried the way many human remains were displayed, and questioned if any thoughts of dignity had been given to them. In conclusion she suggested that there had to be a very good reason to retain the remains and what should be done with them.

Professor Elizabeth Slater of the University of Liverpool delivered her paper next, “The Benefits of Scientific Study and Analysis of Human Remains”. Opening her paper, Professor Slater suggested that all hominids ought to be considered under this umbrella as they were our ancestors as well. This argument subscribes to an evolutionary theory rather than a creationist theory. Empirical evidence for the evolution of humans is still scant and largely unproven. Many faiths have stories concerning a creator god, including plenty from pagan traditions. Debate on this subject rages on, as with much historical theory. Perhaps the only thing that can be said with any authority at present is that scientists have to take many things ‘on faith’. Professor Slater then went on to describe the techniques used to determine the information they could get from human remains, indicating that much of this was visual, but, in some cases invasive and destructive techniques were used. She admitted that many of these techniques were unreliable because of the wide variance in results. She also suggested that the information about an individual was largely conjecture and real information was likely to be about the community not the person. In order to make this more viable, large numbers needed to be examined. Professor Slater then went on to suggest that these techniques were really only legitimate when the provenance of the human remains wasn’t in doubt, and that the conditions that human remains were kept in did not lead to contamination of potential evidence. When questioned if the large body of unprovenanced remains that lies in museum storerooms is worth keeping, Professor Slater stated that it was not. She also questioned if all research was of real value, saying that in order to retain bodies the answers sought should be of real benefit, particularly if destructive examination is allowed.

To finish Professor Piotr Bienkowski and Bobcat delivered a paper on the practical solutions that may be pursued by all institutions, and included reference to some of the solutions that can be found in the Guidance document issued by the Church of England and English Heritage. The current laws and best practice were raised and a plea for more inclusion in all stages of the process of consultation and decision making were made. The Stonehenge Road Project, that led to the formation of HAD, was cited as an example where government, contractors and faith groups have followed this process. Bobcat suggested that this approach was less likely to result in conflict or direct action. Leicester’s model of focus groups was already being adopted by some museums, including Manchester. As regards best practice, they suggested that each museum set up its own consultative groups and treats each case separately. Some of the issues discussed were the treatment and, when appropriate, display of the remains, access to remains including allowing rites to be performed, the numbering or naming of remains, publicity and reburial. When it came to naming remains there were two schools of thought, Professor Bienkowski suggested that some care be taken not to trivialise whilst Bobcat seemed to accept that nicknames were quite natural (e.g. Lindow Man is affectionately referred to as ‘Pete Marsh’). Bobcat stated that this was similar to the way we all got our names, after the places we come from, the things that we do or our appearance, althoughProfessor Bienkowski was concerned this may appear flippant and disrespectful. When it came to reburial the idea of a ‘mausoleum’ was raised, suggesting that this would serve both purposes, museums and faith groups, allowing access for ritual but also preservation in case of advances in technology making further research desirable.

The day finished with a drinks reception, where the delegates could discuss the proceedings in an informal manner, although several delegates had to leave in order to catch public transport. All in all the conference was a resounding success, the case for greater inclusion was well made and HAD’s claims to be included in the overall process seemed to be readily accepted. It is worth noting that several of the leading institutions were not represented and many professional bodies declined participation in the discussion. However, as the dialogue continues, attitudes will undoubtedly soften and the stoic defence of their position by these organisations will increasingly be seen as unjustified and untenable. Failure to recognise an ever growing pagan population will only serve to increase tensions, although it was never suggested that pagans, who hold a multitude of differing concerns, should be handed control, simply that our concerns are as valid as anyone else’s and should receive the same levels of consideration.

Martin R Evans (HAD: Research and Administration Assistant)