The National Secular Society has released a response to the The National Trust and English Heritage holding a public consultation on the proposed reburial of a neolithic skeleton found at Avebury that has been dubbed “Charlie”. An issue raised by The Council of British Druid Orders (and a CoBDO splinter group) on the grounds that these remains represent their spiritual and genetic ancestors, and that it is ‘disrespectful’ to treat them differently from exhumed Christian remains. Unsurprisingly, the NSS takes a dim view of these demands, and the deference shown to them by The National Trust.
The NSS believes that the National Trust and English Heritage have abdicated their clear responsibility to the nation to turn down the requests from the Council of British Druid Orders (CoBDO), an unelected and unaccountable group, for the reburial of ancient human remains at the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury. It is important that the demands of one small group are not allowed to overwhelm those of the general public and interested groups, including those of scientists seeking to understand and to spread understanding of the lives of our ancestors in prehistory. Rather than take issue with the theology of the various “druid” groups represented by the CoBDO, the NSS wishes to stress the danger of creating a precedent in this case, whilst also refuting any claims that one specific religious group has over important scientific material which is the property of everyone.
The NSS goes on to call the demands, and the process of CoBDO setting itself up as “indigenous” spokespersons “an act of political expediency” rather than stemming from any real grievence. This particular criticism is echoed by cultural sociologist Dr Tiffany Jenkins in a recent article for Spiked.
CoBDO is an organisation which represents some Pagan groups. The request fronted by Paul Davies claims a genetic relationship with the human remains that are aged between 4,000 and 5,700 years old. But the demands are less about old bones than about winning affirmation of the legitimacy of Paganism from cultural organisations. These are, fundamentally, claims for recognition.
In the end, if the demands by some modern British Druid groups are met, it will raise a host of issues about the future of archeology in the UK and who exactly gets to speak for remains that are thousands of years old. Even if there was proof of some sort of spiritual link between these bones and modern Pagan practice, is CoBDO (or ‘CoBDO West’ for that matter) the organization that British Pagans want representing their interests and views? While secularists and scholars can be needlessly snarky about this issue, they do raise awareness of some important problems with these issues of identity and ownership. There has to be a better way of introducing a measured Pagan perspective to these debates than to allow scattered (and often self-appointed) individuals to claim the authority to speak with our collective voice.