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Should bones of ancestors at Stonehenge be displayed publicly?

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: November 21, 2013

When the new visitors' centre at Stonehenge opens next month it will include a display of the ancient bones of people buried near the stones. This has been opposed by some pagans and has led to a bitter debate within the pagan community. Will Rathouse, who is himself a pagan and wants to see the bones displayed, fears the dispute is now threatening to damage the unity and wellbeing of the country's pagan community

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The issue of whether the bones of the ancestors at Stonehenge should be displayed publicly, or reburied, threatens to divide the pagan community, and it should not, argues Will Rathouse.In less than a month's time, the new visitors' centre at Stonehenge will open, and inside will be the real human remains of our ancestors who were buried near the stones.

There will be protests from some pagans and druids, notably King Arthur Pendragon, about this. He has launched a public campaign against this, both in the courts and with protests.

He's trying hard to build support and force the issue. The legal avenues might now be exhausted, but he and his followers are still trying to pressure English Heritage into agreeing not to display the bones, and return them for burial.

I have spent the past five years researching this issue. I am studying at the University of Wales and my thesis is looking at the relationship between paganism and archaeology. I am a pagan, and would describe myself as a Brythonic polytheist pagan. I am also an archaeologist.

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As an archaeologist and a scientist, I've read a lot about the benefits to society in general, and to science, of keeping the bones of our ancient ancestors. In one example, research into post-menopausal women and osteoporosis was greatly advanced, thanks to a large store of pre-Christian era bones from archaeological digs in this country.

Aside from the science question, the issue of the morality and decency is, for me, very nuanced. I find that when I see a skeleton, this visual connection of seeing the bones of the ancestors helps to strengthen the spiritual connection. It demystifies death, and having a genuine human skeleton allows children to see primae facie evidence of death, of life and of the people who built, used, lived or died at Stonehenge. Having it shoved into a closet and mystified isn't very healthy.

King Arthur Pendragon and his followers say that displaying the bones in public offends common decency, as if there were some sort of universal standards of decency, and he often compares the treatment of ancient bones found in Wiltshire with arguments over the fate of remains of American Indian ancestors and Australian aboriginal ancestors.

This view is based on a political discourse where those bones have been taken, used and displayed by white immigrant communities, and the argument of those aboriginal peoples is one based around regaining control. It's highly problematical to assert or transpose this onto pre-historic Britain and present day society in Britain.

Overall, my research into this subject has led me to the conclusion that there's a fairly quiet majority of British pagans who don't care particularly about the issue, or actively want the bones to be displayed.

In 2008 and 2009, when this argument first came to prominence over the bones of a young girl found within the Avebury complex, English Heritage conducted a poll which found most people generally wanted the bones displayed. The number of pagans taking part in that survey was actually higher than the national average.

Back then, the Council of British Druid Orders asserted its position, and it's one I have a lot of time for. It said ideally the bones of ancestors should be reburied, and that this should be done on a case-by-case basis with the agreement of archaeologists.

I have a huge amount of respect for Arthur. He puts himself in harm's way for others and was very important in getting Stonehenge opened up again in the years following the 'Battle of the Beanfield'. But to me he has gone from defending the rights of religious freedoms to asserting his right over everyone else's.

The British Druid Orders want to find consensus and compromise and if not, to have a plurality which accepts the differing views of others – in short, to agree to disagree.

Arthur's view is dogmatic in its absolutism: that it is universally wrong to display the bones of ancestors. It is the absolutism that depicts those who disagree as evil and nasty, and I can see this coming through in language his supporters and he uses.

When the Stonehenge visitors' centre opens, Arthur will be picketing. He has said any pagan who crosses his line and goes into the centre will be "scabs" and "blacklegs" and he threatens to excommunicate them. I find it interesting, and a little bit amusing, as if he were speaking for, or in control of 99.9 per cent of pagans in this country. It's ludicrous to suggest he can kick people out of paganism.

On online forums, where I have debated with him and his followers, I am called a "liar", "enemy", "spy" or a "dark necromancer". It seems this issue is getting too contentious for the unity of the pagan movement. My biggest argument against his stance is that coercion and picketing is contrary to the spirit of pluralism – that sense of 'otherness' – which pagans hold very dear. My view is that if you don't like seeing bones on display, don't go and see them.

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  • battlechief  |  November 30 2013, 9:06AM

    Polls Apart After a recent poll in the Western Daily Press where 97% of their readers voted against displaying the Dead and only 7% in favour of the views expressed and the best efforts of The Archaeologist in a white frock; We see that yet again EH are out of step with their outdated research and claims that People wish to see the genuine remains on display; As was also borne out by other more recent polls Source https://theses.ncl.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/10443/1344/1/White%20%2011.pdf Giving Up the Dead: The Impact and Effectiveness of the Human Tissue Act and the Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in English Museums By Liz White Information collated from "The White Survey" NOVEMBER 2011 Museum consultation as part of the White Survey showed the following statistics in answer to the question put to them about the use of "replicas" in their collection, we can see from the response that a large percentage (over 70%) would consider this, and over 37% of respondents already do curate replicas. "Museums were asked, in light of current concerns over the retention of human remains, Whether they would consider using replicas. Thirty-seven (24%) museums stated that they already use replicas, 40 (25%) museums stated that they would not, 76 (48%) museums stated they would consider using replicas and four (3%) museums did not to respond. Museums that use none, some and all of their human remains for research purposes are represented within all of these categories." Source http://tinyurl.com/ndn8p4k Life and Reburial in Cambridgeshire (2006) undertook a survey which lasted for 4 months and generated over 220 responses from people attending events and local museums. This is a fairer consultation than English Heritage English Heritage carried out, because the options were broader. The most interesting part of the survey was that 70% of the respondents stated that the skeletons should be reburied at some stage.

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  • battlechief  |  November 29 2013, 1:13PM

    We are Not, and never have been against the study of our Ancestors remains. What we are against is the desecration of our premiere temple, Stonehenge. We believe that they should be returned, to their intended Final resting place after study. Not, as the Archaeologists wish; to box them up and keep them 'stored' for future generations for scientific research or as English Heritage believe to put them on display for commercial gain. We believe that once 'studied' Human remains (of whatever faith) should be re-interred. Let those we lay to rest-Stay at rest. What can future generations possibly learn from Cremated Human Remains that has not already been learned from the seven years of study? And what can visitors learn from skeletal remains on display in the name of education? Since the invention of the moving picture and, more recently the children's cartoon each and every child of pre school age knows what a skeleton looks like. Modern technology makes it possible to display accurate 'copies' and representation without the need to display 'The Real thing' No, we say, rebury the Dead. As Druids we believe in honouring the Ancestors. The very Giants on whose shoulders we sit. Like the Archaeologist we believe those buried around Stonehenge were instrumental in the building of and the culture of those who went before us, but unlike the Archaeologist we believe as such we owe them the common decency and dignity to respect the wishes of those who Laid them to rest. We believe the Ancient Dead (our collective Ancestors) have as much right to be Left in peace as do the recent dead and that the cultural wishes of those that laid them to rest is as valid as any belief structure practiced to this day. For too long have we, Pagans and Druids been silent on this matter, we can no longer see our beliefs and that of our forefathers swept aside in the name of Science and Education. It was the Proto-Druids, the Pre-Christian Priest Caste who built Stonehenge, the very people who's work and knowledge inspire modern science and education who were buried in the environs of Stonehenge, honoured by their peers and culture to be laid there. We do not think it to much to ask that they should be put back….. © 2013 King Arthur Pendragon /|\

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  • oldmoth  |  November 26 2013, 3:33PM

    Hmm lets address a couple of points- "It demystifies death, and having a genuine human skeleton allows children to see primae facie evidence of death, of life and of the people who built, used, lived or died at Stonehenge." It's true we are disconnected from death these days, we die mostly in hospitals and then we are taken way by undertakers and have no hand in the last journey of our loved ones. But do you really think that looking at bone and ash will help children understand death? Perhaps you would like to take them to a local hospice for an educational day out to visit the dead and dying, no, of course you wouldn't, would you......... "In one example, research into post-menopausal women and osteoporosis was greatly advanced, thanks to a large store of pre-Christian era bones from archaeological digs in this country." These would be the bones hidden in dusty museums and research labs then. No one is saying you cannot now or ever have access to a retained sample but there is no need to retain every single bone ever dug up. Rebury with the dignity with which their direct relatives afforded them, what gives you the right to dig them up and keep them? I note that the remains for Richard III are to be reburied, in fact everybody seems to be falling over themselves to do so because he was a King. It would seem that he is to be reburied with due reverence and dignity, but that it dose not apply to the common people. Nothing changes, even in death!!! "My view is that if you don't like seeing bones on display, don't go and see them." There not going to Stonehenge to see bones, they are going to see "STONEHENGE"!!! EH will have them on prominent display, so what are you saying, keep away from Stonehenge? "he (Arthur) often compares the treatment of ancient bones found in Wiltshire with arguments over the fate of remains of American Indian ancestors and Australian aboriginal ancestors. This view is based on a political discourse where those bones have been taken, used and displayed by white immigrant communities, and the argument of those aboriginal peoples is one based around regaining control. It's highly problematical to assert or transpose this onto pre-historic Britain and present day society in Britain." It is only problematical because you wish it so, there is no difference between their honouring the Ancestors and ours. The oppression by the early church and the time that has passed has weakened it in the eyes of the academics so they give us no credence, branding us as loony tree hugging hippies. Not that I mind being branded by the way, your conditioning makes you label and catalogue everything so you can control and deal with it. As Pagan's we don't agree with each other on every thing, indeed we all follow different but similar paths to the Divine/Spirit/God/Goddess but honouring the Ancestors is common to most paths. So whether it's here, America or Australia makes no difference. I'm sorry Mr Rathouse your personal attack on Arthur is dirty and dose you and your argument no credit or service, if you have to stoop to this tactic to advance you view it only proves to most people that you must feel very insecure in it. I believe Arthur has the moral high ground and a sound and compassionate understanding of the feeling within the Pagan community, it would seem you do not. BB

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  • battlechief  |  November 25 2013, 9:32PM

    RESPECT My Father and I had a good relationship while he was alive, and we talked of most things, including death. I would joke about his slight stature (5'2" wet through) as he himself referred to his size. I would say that upon his demise that I would have him stuffed and stand him in the corner of the hallway as a hat stand, to which he quite understandably took offence. He, referring to my originals (dirty old Levi's) would say that he, "would not be seen dead in them" to which I would reply; "Don't bet on it, who do you think is going to bury you?" He was not amused. Needless to say, I didn't have him stuffed, nor was he buried wearing my jeans. He was (after, twenty seven years service, man and boy) buried in Aldershot Military Cemetery and after the ceremony a corporal of the parachute regiment, wearing his (No 2's) dress uniform, played last post over the graveside. My Mother whose cremated remains were later interred along side him commented at the time, on how proud she believed he would have been at his 'send off' as did the rest of the family. It was generally agreed, by all present that 'I had done him proud', as had the British Army. How do you think he, she or I would feel if in some time in the distant future his skeletal remains were to be found behind glass and ogled at by the general public in some future museum with a plaque that read something along the lines of 'Aldershot Rifleman' not unlike that which reads 'Amesbury Archer'. Or her cremated remains were to be placed in a cardboard box catalogued and numbered and allowed to gather dust in some storage unit, sub-contracted out by some future museum facility? Likened to the plans for those taken from Aubrey hole seven at Stonehenge. I knew him, and I knew her and I surely know myself. And do you not also know the answer, the answer, as any one reading this, who still has a heart, may surmise as to what his, her or my reaction might be? So why then, do we allow the desecration of our Ancient Ancestors Graves? No, let those we lay to Rest-Stay to Rest. Return 'our' Ancestors to what should have been their final resting place. King Arthur Pendragon /|\

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  • wendilynemrys  |  November 25 2013, 7:57AM

    If we look at the ACTUAL burial practices of the population who BUILT Avebury and Stonehenge, for a long time period they put their ancestral bones on display in places like the West Kennet Long Barrow. Defleshed and disarticulated bones could be visited by the family members. The population who built these monuments were neither Druids or Celts, so why should such groups have any more of a say in how they are treated than anyone else. Being a descendant of both Pre-Celtic and Celtic British populations, I say go ahead display the bones, as long as it is done with respect, and as long as we can visit them, burn a little incense, leave some flowers, and have a picnic in their honoured memory. The ancients were not shy about death, they knew it was part of life, and should be acknowledged as such. Not hidden away like something shameful, or something to be feared.

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  • Annien  |  November 24 2013, 7:26PM

    How sad is this? King Arthur Pendragon seems to want to turn the remains of our ancestors at Stonehenge into some sort of plastic, man-made curiosity to be laughed at. I speak here for no-one but myself. I owe no allegiance either political or financial to any organisation or individual. I have an interest in learning from and conserving the remains of our ancestors - and I can say with absolute absolute certainty that ALL remains held in an academic or properly operated facility are treated with the utmost care and respect. I know that, because I do it. I do not have a formal qualification, but am honoured to handle, and help prepare for conservation animal bone; flint; artefacts and human bone. I would never be able to - but what might the answer be if I asked any of the Ancients what they feel about current archaeological conservation. Those past people are helping us to learn about their culture; to learn about diseases that were common in a 'B.C.' era, and which we still have today. In a way, they also teach US about our own culture. I suppose I am more irritated because frankly, ANYONE that self styles themself a 'king' will guarantee to annoy me. Please Mr Pendragon, do not offer disrespect and a lack of dignity to our ancestors by insisting that they should be turned into plastic dolls. Annien On Twitter, I am @Ratbag51. I sign off quite often with 'Annie the Ancient Briton'.

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  • rhyshogan  |  November 22 2013, 10:24PM

    Surely there must be ways of replicating these bones if EH intends to display them so disrespectfully in this old fashioned victorian peep show. Or ar they courting the publicity in the hope of attracting more customers, however ghoulsih they be.

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  • AndyEyles  |  November 22 2013, 8:52PM

    Respect the dead, put the remains back where they belong! I don't want to see these remains at the visitor center, and many, many others agree.

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  • FlyingPurpleP  |  November 22 2013, 8:09PM

    One more comment on this article. the quote; "My view is that if you don't like seeing bones on display, don't go and see them." This is exactly what my company, and some others I am associated with are planning to do. We will not be 'encouraging' our guests to visit the new visitor centre at all whilst they acting like a Victorian Museum rather than a modern 21st century modern visitor centre as was their remit... But this option stinks and sounds like the 'my way or the highway' dogma Mr Rathouse was accusing Mr Pendragon of?

  • FlyingPurpleP  |  November 22 2013, 7:58PM

    As a independent professional tour guide and tour operator, this question comes up regularly whilst showing, mainly, overseas guests the World Heritage Site that incorporates Stonehenge and the other sites nearby. The general consensus seems to be... Take them out when research is required, but put them back to lay at rest and keep the site intact. Respect seems to be a key word here. Nothing seems to be gained by displaying charcoal remains at the the new EH Visitor centre, (or skeletal remains which are not part of this issue). Infact, instead of educating visitors to be interested in respecting ancient sites, I believe displays of this type actually encourage stereotypical views on old sites, that those who built them should not be treated with respect but displayed like the bearded woman at the medieval circus or a some short person in a Victorian peep show! AND this is not just a Pagan or Druid issue. Most of my clients come from strong Christian backgrounds, and I come from a mixed Christian/Muslim background myself. Lastly, to mix this issue with Skeletal remains in other museums is missing the point of the objection at Stonehenge. Stonehenge is an ancient monument and a world heritage site. The remains are part of that Heritage and to keep the site intact, they should be left where they were found. That's respect for the dead and respect for the living who consider Stonehenge a religious sanctuary or place of worship. As for dividing the Pagan community, it seems there are many 'new players' appearing on the scene purporting to be Pagans, to support English Heritage on this issue. I'm not suggesting that they are not who or what they say they are but do wonder why they are suddenly appearing now this issue is getting international attention? For those of us working in and around the actual site everyday, most just want the site intact and unity restored between the local pagans and EH... A simple solution: Rebury the remains in to the Augury holes, keep the site intact and the pagans and everyone else happy!

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      Should bones of ancestors at Stonehenge be displayed publicly?

      No: 93%

      93% of the vote

      Yes: 7%

      7% of the vote

      Poll is closed