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.
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.