Pendragon has been involved in a series of legal disputes over Stonehenge, mainly relating to limitations on visiting the ruins, which he claims violates his freedom of religion. However, this current case involves human remains that were discovered at Stonehenge that Pendragon believes are members of a “royal line” or “priest caste” and should be returned as soon as possible.
The remains were discovered in 2008 and gave archaeologists a new theory to the purpose of Stonehenge, perhaps it was a graveyard. The remains, dated to be about 3000 years old, could indicated that Stonehenge was used as a ceremonial graveyard for about 500 years.
The true purpose of Stonehenge may remain a mystery forever, but this discovery, along with many others are revealing a great deal about the monument and the surrounding area.
Aside from a funny headline, this story actually brings up two important issues that are worth some discussion.
The first relates to who built Stonehenge and potentially, who has ownership of it. Obviously Pendragon believes it was built by Druids and they have guardianship over it now.
The second, perhaps more importantly, is what do we do with buried remains that are thousands of years old that offer insights into ancient culture and society but are claimed by cultural groups? In this case we have Druids claiming ownership of the remains found at Stonehenge but a related instance would be ancient human remains being found in North American that are claimed by First Nations peoples.
We can be very certain on one thing. Druids did not build Stonehenge. The Druids were a priest caste of the people known as the Celts. According to radio carbon dating, Stonehenge was built over a thousand years before the Celts migrated to England. In terms of ownership, the Druids have no real claim to it, which of course is true of any group of people. Under what reasonable circumstances can anyone claim to own or have guardianship over Stonehenge, except for the current organization that protects and administers the site, the UK government.
That’s not to say that Druids can’t have a cultural relationship with Stonehenge or celebrate the real history that exists between Stonehenge and the Druids. During its long history, Stonehenge was used by Druids for various ceremonies. That doesn’t mean they have exclusive rights to the monument but it is an established reason to allow them access to the site. But it’s very important to keep in mind that the remains and excavations going on at Stonehenge are from a time period that is unrelated to the Druids. The Celts probably arrived in Britain around 1200 B.C.E around the Iron Age. Since the remains being unearthed date to the year 3000 B.C.E so there is just no way those remains are Druid.
The other more difficult question to answer is what do to with remains that various groups of people claim ancestry with or some sort of cultural connection to. This is probably one of those times where if everyone was an atheists, this wouldn’t be a problem. As someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, I honestly don’t see a problem with performing scientific studies on human remains. Especially in the case of human remains that are thousands of years old, the notion that we are disturbing the rest of these people seems overly silly.
Now that’s just me. In reality, everyone isn’t an atheist and taboos about death and bodies remains to this day. Many cultures have objections to disturbing the final resting place of humans. Of course, such a view also deprives us of learning about the history and culture of these ancient people. Such was the position taken by the British Humanists.
It seems to me that there should be room for compromise in such situations. Since the scientific study of human remains is usually a very delicate and careful form of research, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch that archaeologists are asked to respect the cultural views the remains represent. And when I say ‘respect’ I mean treating the remains in a way that implies reverence or dignity. Not, for example, tossing the skull around like a football or waving the hand bones around (I assume such jackassery is rare)
More seriously, researchers could take pains to not destroy or damage the remains while studying them. When the studies are complete, perhaps the remains could be returned to the culture or where they were found. The information, the scientific, historic and archaeological should be used for educational purposes for both the community of science and the lay community as well.
One might suggest these are unreasonable attempts at accommodation but I would argue that the effort to not present science as hostile to people’s sensibilities might pay off down the road. Especially when dealing with groups like First Nations people who are typically not well represented in the sciences.
In the particular case with Mr. Pendragon and the remains at Stonehenge, one must also weight the consequences of any decision. Do we rebury the remains to appease a mostly modern, new age, religion, virtually unrelated to the historic group it is based on? Or do we continue to research into one of the most celebrated and amazing monuments in human history? What option will greater add to our collective knowledge of history, culture, science, and equally important, appreciation for Stonehenge?
The English Heritage organization has announced that the remains will be kept until 2015 to ensure that all the necessary research is completed.