Some of you may have read that the infamous, contemporary Arthur Pendragon (who apparently likes to think of himself as the king of the Druids), was attempting to take legal action in regards to cremated remains found around Stonehenge. He argued that removing them from the site was disrespectful and that they would likely be placed in a museum and never returned to their original resting place.
I must admit, I used to have some mixed feelings about placing exhumed bodies in museums. I saw my first bog body in person in Toronto a few years ago. I had reservations about photographing the body. I wasn’t sure what to think of it. I was less bothered in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, which is strange because the bodies there are often medically rare (oversized colons, bodies turned to soap, unusual deformities, etc). I felt a little sick to my stomach in front of a wax collection of eye injuries, but I digress… I suppose it’s because most of those bodies were donated to science. This past year I visited the National Museum of Ireland’s archaeology collection, which included the largest sample of bog bodies I’d ever seen. This time I did not feel bothered at all beyond a faint relief that we don’t practice that form of sacrifice anymore*. Otherwise, the bodies were tastefully laid out in their own private areas. The exhibit had the feeling of an open-casket wake. Everyone spoke in hushed tones, there was soft lighting, and you could tell that most people were in deep thought about life, death, decay, and human nature**.
I can get on board with Mr. Pendragon’s concern that bodies in museums should be treated with respect, but we live in an era where the opposite is hardly true. It’s easy for me to say that about British and Celtic bodies because they are my ancestors. I cannot speak for other cultures and heritages in regards to their own remains. I’ve come to see the exhibitions as good things. As a Pagan, I’m not alone in my sentiments. Especially as someone who values and wants to continue learning about what my ancestors really did and believed. Our body of knowledge will grow too slowly, if at all, without good archaeology.
And is exhuming bodies for archaeology really all that disrespectful to Indo-Europeans? While it’s hard to know for sure, I’ve read about some recent theories surrounding Stonehenge which suggest the people who used it had a belief in an afterlife. The Celts, when they came to Britain***, definitely believed in a continuation of life. The lore tells us they believed in Otherworlds and there is evidence that they believed in some sort of soulful transmigration. I wonder if they would mind archaeologists studying their bones? So many ancient people were obsessed with immortality and that came when your name and story lived on. The bodies in museums have visitors everyday. While many look with a mixture of fear, disgust, and religious bias, I’m sure there are others, like yours truly, who go to honor the ancestors – even if it’s only by learning their stories.
I’m glad Mr. Pendragon’s battle did not get very far. I think there are bigger battles for modern Pagans to fight.
* Although the constant childish behavior in our government makes me wonder if resurrecting the tradition would be such a bad thing. (I kid, I kid…)
** Seeing bog bodies in person is really something else. You should make a point to find an exhibit. They really make you think…
*** However and whenever that was… I’m not interested in discussing that here…or even now. I don’t know enough to have a meaningful dialogue.