The new Stonehenge Visitor Center – Display of the ancient dead

Recently in the news was the discovery of a skeleton in a Leicester car park. This is how it was reported by the BBC:

A skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park has been confirmed as that of English king Richard III.

Experts from the University of Leicester said DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family.

Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester, told a press conference to applause: “Beyond reasonable doubt it’s Richard.”

Richard, killed in battle in 1485, will be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral.”

This astonishing discovery of an English King was of great interest to scientists, historians and the public and responsibly many tests were conducted to find out about the health of this King before he died and the nature of his wounds. Doubtless the good people of Leicester could have opened a museum and drawn in tourist dollars by displaying the remains of this unfortunate ancestor, however this is not to be. This is a Christian period King and so his dignity and rank are being respected, and he is to be given a dignified burial befitting his status in life at Leicester Cathedral.

Death is not so peaceful for many of the great founders of our people who were born to pre-history or who chose to be other than Christians. For them, abandonment in boxes in museum and University basements, endless scientific analysis removal and destruction of body parts, or worst of all – BEING DISPLAYED – in the name of education but essentially to draw in the punters to museums and visitor centers.

In 2008 Sheffield University River Side Project excavated human remains from Stonehenge. These particular remains had already been disturbed by science in the 1920’s, stored under an archaeologists bed at home, then for a few years in a potting shed, before being mixed together in a sack and reburied into ‘Aubrey Hole 7’ at Stonehenge. The licence given by the Dept of Justice to remove these remains was under a Victorian law that allowed for the reuse of graveyards and the removal and re-interment of the bodies within two years as close as possible to the place of original burial.

Who were these people? Prof Mike Parker Pearson describes them as the ruling elite of Britain, or members of the priest cast, at the time of Stonehenge. The Druids at the time were OK with the idea of our priestly ancestors remains being studied for a brief time so long as they would be returned to their resting place in Aubrey Hole 7 and afterwards left in peace. We were reassured by English Heritage and the Riverside Project that our fears these remains would be taken from Stonehenge indefinitely were groundless. They pointed us at the licence terms.

I contacted the Dept of Justice to find out about these ‘Section 25’ licences as they are known. I asked them why it is, if all archaeological removals of human remains from the site of their discovery are issued under this same licence, that ancient remains are rarely reburied and our Universities and Museum stores are literally overflowing with them. The answer was that in many cases an extension would be requested, granted, and then no further track of them was being maintained.

A peculiarity of English law is that no-one actually can own a dead body. Not the state, not the family and not the scientists. To steal away a body isn’t therefore illegal as no-one had possession of it. Towards the end of the two years of authorized for the study of the Aubrey Hole 7 remains, I discovered that Sheffield had applied for an extension of five years. In their justification they stated that no-one today would regard these ancestors as sacred. What!? After two years of Druids expressing anxiety about the loss of our sacred ancestors they were surely joking. Apparently not.

I wrote a 37 page objection to the extension on behalf of ‘Aes Dana Grove’ and also to represent the views of another group ‘The Loyal Arthurian Warband’. This was effective in so far as it resulted in the Dept of Justice granting a five year extension but stating clearly that at the end of that time, the Druids wishes should be respected. A victory, if honored. Yet the archaeologists were outraged at this and have demanded a change in the law in their favor. Mis information was spread about our being anti science and ignorant.

With the imminent completion in 2013 of a new Stonehenge visitor center we note that English Heritage plan to display the human remains of ancestors removed from the Stonehenge landscape by archaeologists over the decades of desecration and more professional excavations of recent years.

A spokesman for English Heritage said: “The remains of three human burials found in the landscape will be displayed with ample explanation along with archaeological objects, providing visitors with a direct connection to the people who lived and worked there.

“We believe they have a rightful place in the exhibition and their presentation, treatment and storage will follow strict guidelines set out by the UK Government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Visitors will also be made aware of the display before they enter the exhibition.

“Visitor research also shows that the vast majority of museum visitors are comfortable with, and often expect to see, human remains as part of displays.

I’m not convinced that English Heritage have anything more in mind than maximizing revenue from the new visitor center. In my opinion it is wrong to put the remains of human beings on display, it is offensive and lacking in respect for the very people whose achievements the visitor center is supposed to celebrate. To inform and educate we can show video and replicas of the remains without any need to desecrate someones rest and make of them a macabre display for the entertainment of casual tourists. It also robs Stonehenge of part of its enduring magic.

The greatest draw to Stonehenge is its magic and mystery. The science of how heavy the stones are or how they were moved comes a very poor second to the tourist or the pilgrim. It would surely be far more wonderful to display to a visitor “here is an exact replica of what we found, the original was reburied with honor at Stonehenge, by the mysterious Druids and others who still follow the old religion today’. The visitor would leave feeling impressed that England is still a magical country with a spiritual and respectful people. Instead, they will see us treating our sacred ancestors as a commodity with which to raise money.

They will leave wondering how such a once great people as the British have fallen so far.



About druidsong

Frank is a 'Stonehenge Druid' who's work and teaching in this spiritual tradition has established him as one of the leading lights within this ancient tradition today

Posted on May 11, 2013, in Reburial Campaign, Stonehenge and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Greetings Druid song ~ “Visitor research also shows that the vast majority of museum visitors are comfortable with, and often expect to see, human remains as part of displays.” This is total non-sense the poll that was used for this was taken mainly outside of museums. People who are already happy about seeing this sort of thing. Perhaps if they were asked ‘would they mind in the name of common decency if the human remains were removed and holographic images used as a replacement?’ the poll would look different.

  2. Greetings Hypatia, thanks for your comment. In my opinion if you commission a survey then the company conducting it will fundamentally be trying to please you. They will only pose the questions that you agree to be posed, and the sample size of the survey will be as small as you wish it to be. As you suggest, if the questions are weighted then so will be the response.

    As a theoretically publicly accountable quango English Heritage is supposed to discharge its duties in as impartial a way as possible and always in the public interest. Is English Heritage impartial? My experience is that the majority of its advisers, experts and governors have an interest in Archaeology, Museums and History and so it is of little surprise to me that they seem to a give support in favor of these interest groups at cost to spiritual community.

    It is difficult to argue against decisions that, if accepted at face value, claim to be in the interest of the greater good having been made after taking advice from eminent scientists and a survey of the public. This is especially the case when the spiritual and moral argument is presented by representatives of our community that look and sound eccentric to some and possibly appear unhinged to others.

    1500 years of the seeding suspicion in the public mind about Druids, our spiritual values and credibility also counts against us and we must be mindful of this when presenting ourselves to a non-pagan audience.

    That said, it is part of British culture to be tolerant of minorities and sensitive towards the values and beliefs of others even if we do not share them ourselves. This allows us to live together in harmony. If I live in a remote place with no neighbors it might be perfectly acceptable for me to play music loud late at night. If I live close to a couple with a young child who might be sleeping, even if they have the only child in the street and the majority of people nearby would prefer to party all night, we would apply restraint upon ourselves as we recognize the value in respecting others.

    This principle should apply to the issue of the ancestors. To a minority of people the display and commercial exploitation of ancestral human remains is disturbing, upsetting and deeply offensive. The majority of people may not have an opinion on the matter at all, yet I would suggest that if told about the great distress this causes us, and that alternatives exist by which the display of actual human remains is unnecessary that the majority would choose the option least offensive to those that care. This is in our nature.

    Why didn’t the survey reveal this to English Heritage? I would suggest that the answer to that lies in the questions asked and the context if any provided.

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