Grateful dead

Observations on human remains

Weighed down by ethical, cultural and political dilemmas over what to do with human remains, museum curators have called in Druids. This month, Manchester Museum will host a conference on "Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: philosophy and practice". It is jointly organised by Piotr Bienkowski, the museum's deputy director, and Emma Restall Orr, head of the Druid Network and founder of an organisation called Honouring the Ancient Dead (Had).

"Acknowledging that European pagans do have a remit is something we in Manchester care deeply about," Bienkowski says.

Had's council members - "pagan theologians", as Restall Orr describes them - seek to ensure that the remains of "pagan races" in Britain are treated with respect. They take their cue from the indigenous peoples' groups in Australia and America that have pressed for the "repatriation" of human remains, mostly dating from colonial times. For Ancient Britons, Had suggests "repatriation", or at least relocation to their "tribal landscape". Writing about Lindow Man, whose preserved remains were discovered in a bog near Manchester and placed on display in the British Museum, Restall Orr asks: "Why is this ancient Cheshire man in London?" That the question can be seriously asked is a measure of how far the politics of repatriation have permeated museum curators' concerns. Government guidelines indicate that there should be continuity of beliefs, customs and language from remains to claimants, and observe that claims for remains over 500 years old would be unlikely to succeed.

Bienkowski retorts that things have moved on since the guidelines were published last year. He rejects the distinctions between recent and ancient remains, between overseas and British claims - and between scientific archaeology and pagan spirituality. "Neither is more or less rational than the other," he declares.

The pagans are making the most of the opportunity to get themselves taken seriously. Restall Orr doesn't claim to be able to demonstrate ancestry, and acknowledges that Lindow Man would probably find today's pagans as alien in culture as today's molecular biologists. But she does point out that many modern people share the kind of pantheistic world-view expressed by Had.

It's hard to imagine that Manchester Museum's cultural-relativist struggle would have reached its present pitch if it didn't have such reasonable and agreeable pagans as partners.

And it's harder still to imagine what Lindow Man would make of the ritual welcome that Had plans to give his remains when they are "returned" on loan from London to Manchester Museum.

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