Speaking for the Ancestors: The Reburial Issue in Britain and Ireland.
Personal thoughts concerning modern-day Druidic and Pagan theologies of burial,
life after life and the conflicting practices of archaeologists.
There are many different realities in the worlds of philosophy, religion and science, and my perception concerning the reburial issue is Druidic, and concerns esoteric concepts of time and space. Such realities are not at once obvious to the museum curator or the archaeologist in the field. I speak for the ancestors and guardians of the land, those spirits not currently represented in the archaeological record. It is this awareness that leads myself to the conclusion that the ancestors and guardians residing at sacred sites are either concerned, saddened or angry about the disturbance of their sacred places of rest such as Avebury, Stonehenge, Newgrange, Emain Macha, Tara et al. Other sites in Wales have also had their ancestors disturbed by archaeological investigation, such as Tinkinswood Long Cairn and Dyffryn Arddwy, and at Maes Howe and other sites, the ancestors remains have suffered the indignation of centuries of desecration and theft of their skeletal remains and grave goods.
We Belong to the Earth, She Does not Belong to Us
I do not believe that Druids or Pagans own these sites, anymore than archaeologists do, and neither Pagan nor archaeologist should be able to treat sacred spaces as tools for their own authority and dominance as the Roman and Viking plunderers once did in the past. The Earth - the goddess, is our mother, and not an object to be owned or plundered. The sacred burial is a functioning part of the body of the goddess or to use New Age terminology, an energy chakra. It therefore serves a purpose in the present as well as having meaning in the past. It does not have a singular role as a burial place. Ownership is not the issue here, but respect and representation.
Multiple Roles of the Sacred Burial
When the resting places of 'the dead' are viewed as houses of the ancestors, the visitors perspective of them changes. If the ancestors live at these sites, and are concerned about the way they are treated, these ancestors (let’s call them people) have a right to be represented and respected. As Druids and Pagans, this is our job as guardians of the spiritual. It is our job to keep sacred what is sacred, to protect and honour our heritage. As mediators, we should communicate between the reality of the Otherworld, and this physical reality. The psychic or shaman does not own this site due to their ability to listen, hear and feel, but simply acts as a bridge between seen and unseen realities, in the same way the grave or mound or sacred site is a bridge between this world and the next. The Druid or Pagan shaman can use their gifts as 'harmonic bridges' to communicate between the realities of science and religion, between the realities of archaeology, land developers and Pagan Druids.
So, the sacred site and the burial has three main roles in Druidic and Pagan philosophy (1) it is the spiritual heart of the goddess, (2) it a house of the living ancestor, and (3) it is a bridge between this reality and the Otherworld. To this list we might add a fourth role: that of a meeting place in space where the ancestors of the distant past can be greeted. We might even add a fifth, that of relic and reliquary. I am sure there are many more meanings that are individual to each Druid, Pagan, ancestor, tourist, farmer or archaeologist, all of which are relevant in their own right, but it is the importance of considering theological possibilities with which I am concerned.
The Sacred Marriage of Initiation
There is another ill-considered relationship between the Pagan/Druid and the sacred houses of the ancestor. Through the ceremony of initiation, the neophyte enters not only the family of present day Druidry/Paganism, but also the greater family of collective Paganism past and present. The sacred space of ritual activity exists not only in this world, but also in the past and the present in a reality of no time, or holistic time. It is a space of harmony and power, and in Jungian psychology, this could be called the collective mind. Initiation is then a 'cultural affiliation' between that which was and that which is. The initiation solidifies the past and present through the initiate, and the essence of the ancient traditions live on.
Ceremonies held at sacred sites such as stone circles, chambered barrows and hill top enclosures are ceremonies that work with the spirit of the place, the guardians, the ancestors, the goddess. Not the spirits of the past, but spirit people and deities present today. Through initiation, the ancestor becomes a part of my spirituality, and I become part of their family, and the greater family of the Gods.
Native American Thought
My beliefs concerning the relationship between the transcended spirit and the skeletal remains are in line with Native American tribes people, who believe the bones of the ancestors are not simply artefacts, but people, that the physical connection of the skeletal remains with the sacred site is a bridge that allows the ancestors to return to help the living today. Excavation without reburial therefore takes the heart and soul of a group away, as well as removing the living ancestor from their proper home.
Sites being utilised by Druid and Pagan groups therefore rely on the spirit of the place with which we celebrate and remember ourselves. To believe in the living presence of the ancestors is to therefore acknowledge the life and meanings within the bone that is not inanimate, but of spirit. Many Pagans and Druids believe in the spirituality of all things, stones, trees, mountain, air, fire, sun, river, sea, as well as animal spirits and ancestors. Consider then the spiritual value of the ancestor’s skeleton in comparison to a tree, stone or wooden table for example. All these things are alive (for even death has a life of its own!) but the bones of the 'dead' not only hold the energy of the life force that was, but also of the life force of that person who is still alive, in another invisible but perceivable reality. The Druid and Pagan greet the ancestors through ceremony at such sacred sites, and the psychic can greet the ancestor on another level through meditation (ideally at the place of internment where the relationship is intimate). It makes perfect sense... the bones are living people and should therefore be respected as people and ceremonially reburied.
What are the Benefits of Reburial and Scientific Study?
Considering this, should archaeological excavation or land development around sacred burial sites be allowed at all? The answer is simple. Archaeologically recovered data is knowledge, and knowledge is power. Power should be equally shared, and indeed, site reports are (usually) produced, and if the general public is lucky, reports are worded in a comprehensible manner and made available. But where does this leave the living ancestor? Maybe the shaman should ask the ancestors permission, and explain that they are to be exhumed and taken away to a laboratory for radiocarbon dating (which would reduce their bone fragments to a unrecognisable pulp). If I was an ancestor residing at a sacred site, I wouldn't feel very happy about that. Having said this, I do believe that Pagans can, and have benefited from investigation conducted upon sacred sites.
A second important consideration is that of the nature of the human psyche that requires and constantly seeks knowledge and learning. I conclude then, that even if the ancestors are unhappy about being disturbed, that they too are not totally separated from our realities, and the human race generally might benefit from such knowledge acquired through the process of exhumation.
Even if Druids or Pagans conclude that excavation after excavation after excavation only satisfies a morbid curiosity and serves no obvious purpose (cf. the recent Seahenge debate), the reality is that archaeological excavation will continue, no matter how well we attempt to protect these places. A more reasonable path to follow is to encourage the equality of relationships between the ancestors, archaeologists and Druids. It is not simply a question of whether science can tell us anything about esoteric realities, but that one group should not dominate another through squabbles over ownership. I believe reburial, would not interfere greatly in archaeological investigation into the past, but would serve to guard against the ancestors being permanently displaced. It naturally follows that Pagan Druidry would also benefit generally from such respectful action.
At this point, I turn (unhappily) to the comparative treatments of Christian and non-Christian burials. While I consider the negativity that exists between some Pagan Druids and Christians tedious, I must however reflect upon such conflicts between these traditions in archaeology in order to present my argument...
Christian burials are sometimes excavated, studied in a variety of ways, and then reburied afterwards. This happens at sites that are currently being used as places of worship, as well as sites that are no longer used and in ruin. In North America, archaeologists often rebury Euroamerican skeletal remains while Native American people have to suffer the indignation of having to ask the permission of the museums, institutes and archaeological trusts.
Given this fact, and the arguments presented above, any request by Druids and Pagans for the reburial of prehistoric or Iron Age remains is by no means outrageous or fanciful in any way. As Druids and Pagans, all we should ask for is that respect and equality be shown for the ancestors.
I believe that as practising guardians of esoteric lore, modern-day Pagan Druids should join together and encourage debate between archaeologists and museums in this reburial issue, concentrating upon a single site that is currently used by various Druid Orders and Pagan groups. Avebury springs to mind, but I know there are many sites in the English Midlands, Wales, Eire and Northern Ireland and Scotland to consider. Once our beliefs as Pagan Druids are known to archaeologists generally, any refusal to co-operate can be viewed as ethnocentric, and appropriate action should then be taken, action that should be carried out on behalf of the ancestors, and not the Pagan or Druid Order. Good examples of this are the on-going ‘negotiations’ over Stonehenge and Seahenge; where a variety of Druid Orders are focusing upon problems surrounding such sites in the interests of culture and spirit of place.
Conversations with many Pagans and Druids have led me to the belief that while individual concerns are generally harmonious (that things need to change), in no way is there a clearly defined collective belief in how this should manifest, or how liberal or militant any debate or action should be.
There are several possibilities that spring to mind, (1) simple debate through archaeological, anthropological and Pagan publications, (2) one to one conversations with museum curators and excavators, (3) asking for reburial, (4) demanding reburial, (5) reclaiming human remains from museum cases, and (6) other direct action such as protest and picketing... the list is endless. At this point, I would like to inform the reader that in Canada, tribal lands under threat from land developers have been defended with firearms, and less militant tribal activists have picketed many excavations in Canada, the United States, and Australia. Such is the emotional power evoked by such issues. In New York, Afro-Americans halted land development when a black slave cemetery was unearthed, although it took quite a lot of demonstrating and campaigning to do so.