Finding a Compromise: Keeping Places

Respect For the Dead

In any discussion of what to do with human remains, I think we should start from the assumption that almost everyone respects the dead. But it is how that respect is expressed that is currently a source of conflict.

Some have argued that respect can only be expressed by not disturbing the dead; or if they are disturbed by accident or because of development work, then they must be reburied as soon as possible. This is, however, a view that was not necessarily held by our ancestors. It may also be a result of squeamishness about death, not wanting to see human remains on display. It is certainly true that many cultures prefer their remains not to be disturbed, and indeed the integrity of the burial is one of the duties we owe to the dead (de Baets, 2004), along with memory and justice. But if the resting place is long-forgotten, then the person has long since passed out of memory, and so archaeologists are at least benefiting the ancestors by perpetuating their memory.

Burial Practices

There are few burials from the Mesolithic, but one of them that is known is the remains of a man found near Tormarton in Gloucestershire, who appeared to have been murdered: he had an arrowhead in his spine, and was left in a ditch (to be discovered in the 1960s when a gas pipeline was cut through the site).

In the Neolithic, some of the dead were placed on wooden platforms on causewayed enclosures (such as Windmill Hill near Avebury) for the birds to pick the flesh off their bones. Some of the smaller bones would have been lost in the process. Any remaining flesh was scraped off, and then the bones were placed in a burial mound. In some cases the skeletons were disarticulated, all the thigh bones placed together in one section and all the skulls in another, and so on. Later, rituals were performed in the mound and with the bones.

In the Bronze Age, individual burial mounds started to appear, and some of the Neolithic barrows (such as West Kennett) were deliberately closed off. Nevertheless only high-status individuals received burials in mounds.

In the Iron Age, all sorts of bizarre burial practices were used. There were chariot burials in Yorkshire, bog bodies in Ireland (possibly victims of sacrifice or murder), bodies left in disused grain pits (at Danebury Rings, for example), and so on.

The Anglo-Saxons had individual burial mounds in their pagan period, and graves aligned east-west in their Christian period (though confusingly, some of these burials included grave goods, which is normally taken as a sign of a pagan burial). Also, some Anglo-Saxon pagans were buried in an east-west alignment; there is considerable variation in burial practices, and it is difficult to tell which graves are Christian and which are pagan.

All these burial practices presumably indicate different beliefs about the ontological status of the dead – whether they are things, quasi-persons, former persons, or persons (de Baets, 2004), different beliefs about the afterlife (where it is located, who presides over it, whether the dead need objects there that they needed in life, and so on) and the journey of the soul to that afterlife (whether or not the soul travels via some central omphalos or gateway, whether it requires a chariot or a horse to get there, and so on).

What do we Mean by Respect?

Most societies regard memory as a key factor in respecting the dead. The well-known saying “Mustn’t speak ill of the dead” indicates that most people feel that the good reputation of the dead person must not be undermined. Indeed, the Hávamál speaks of the individual’s reputation as more precious than material things:

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead

The Quiché Mayan poem Popol Vuh (quoted in de Baets, 2004) contains a plea from the dead to be remembered:

Our days are ended. Think, then, of us.
Do not erase us from your memory, nor forget us.

The building of funerary monuments in Pagan and other cultures around the world indicates a desire for the memory of the dead person to be perpetuated.

Many archaeologists speak of recovering the memory of the ancient dead as part of their motivation for excavating them and carrying out research to find out how they lived and died. Archaeological research has also brought about a deeper respect for the peoples of the past, since it has shown how they survived and flourished in an often hostile environment and how they created art and culture and tools and clothing to help them survive. The excavation of the “Ice Man” (a Bronze Age man discovered frozen at the edge of an Alpine glacier, also known as Ötzi after the valley where he was found) has shown that Bronze Age people had advanced tools and clothing, and that they had acupuncture and knowledge of herbs. Ötzi is now enshrined in a special museum. Another example of increasing respect for the ancient dead by rediscovering their stories is the TV programme Meet the Ancestors, which reconstructed the lives of people of the past, giving an insight into their experiences and feelings. Similarly, an archaeologist who excavates bog bodies spoke movingly of how she wants to create some form of restorative justice for the oppressed and marginalised – which some of the bog bodies may have been – by recovering their stories (Giles, 2006).

Others feel that respect for the dead primarily means not disturbing their place of rest, or returning them to the earth as soon as possible. Emma Restall Orr (2005) speaks movingly of the individual’s song being restored to the greater song of the earth:

Each individual’s song is made up of notes given them by the ancestors, by the tribe, by the landscape, by the wind and the food that is eaten, by the rain that falls, that is drunk and pissed. The physical body, then, is crafted of all these songs. It is the totality of experience, it is every single story of every relationship a person forges throughout their life. With each breath and footstep, in every cell, the body sings its relationships with the environment. With each heartbeat, the body is retelling the stories of its tribe, history and heritage, upon the land. … Slowly, given the opportunity through burial, the waters of that pool seep back into the earth, cell by cell dissolving. Even that which remains the longest – the bones, still holding those songs – silently lets go, whispering them into the mud and the flow of time.

This is a poetic vision of the process of decay after the body has been buried, but only mystics would be able to recover the individual stories from the greater song – and unfortunately, mystic visions are not verifiable, and whilst they may be psychologically and spiritually true, they are often not factually true. I do not mean to say that all visions are factually untrue, just that they generally need to be verified by other sources before we can act on them. So, in order to have genuine respect for and understanding of our ancestors, we need to remember them as well as honour their resting places.

But not all Pagans view people and landscape as a holistic unity in this way. Many subscribe to a dualistic view that the dead go to another plane of existence, and that the once the soul has left the body, it is no longer important. Many Pagans find archaeological research to be of immense significance to their sense of who they are and where they come from, and believe that perpetuating their memory is the most important form of respect we can give to the dead.


Sometimes it is impossible to return the dead to their original resting places, or to a nearby burial site, either because the landscape context has been destroyed, or because it is likely that the bones and grave goods would be stolen for nefarious purposes. Given the large amount of bones stored in museums, it would be a lengthy and expensive process to rebury them. It is also expensive to store them, and some museums are investigating the possibilities of reburial, and reviewing the remains that they have in store.

Also, in order to get reliable data, archaeologists require access to large populations in order to be able to ascertain movements of populations, what they ate, how they lived, what diseases they had, and so on(Slater, 2006). All of this information helps us to reconstruct a picture of ancient people’s lives, which arguably benefits modern people wanting to return to a life more in harmony with nature, as well as helping us to remember the ancestors.

A possible compromise solution to the various requirements for respecting the dead (perpetuating their memory and respecting their privacy) is the idea of a keeping place, which would also be in keeping with the Neolithic practice of allowing descendants access to the bones.

I put forward this idea in a letter to British Archaeology in 2004:

‘Perhaps the bones could be stored in a burial mound (a national repository), consecrated by Pagan priestesses and priests, but with temperature and humidity controls to ensure preservation and access for study.’

This idea has actually been implemented in Australia (Cantwell, 2004: 101), where special underground repositories have been created, with shared access for archaeologists and Aborigines. These are called keeping places. This idea has also been proposed by Melbourn Parish Council in Cambridgeshire.

Another way of achieving compromise is to proceed on a case-by-case basis, only reburying when the bones are no longer needed for archaeological study, or their context has been lost (this is the approach advocated by HAD). The idea that ancient human remains may be kept indefinitely without any scrutiny by an external body has clearly had its day, though.

It would be wonderful if a keeping place for the ancient British dead could be specially constructed, perhaps in the form of a very large Iron Age roundhouse, or a burial mound, where the dead could be kept in special shrines, with all the details known about them and their lives displayed near them, but still allowing archaeologists access for research.

Tiwi Island art gallery ceiling - By Satrina Brandt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Tiwi Island art gallery ceiling. Photo by Satrina Brandt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

As this dream is unlikely to be realised, other possible solutions are that museums, which should (according to new DCMS guidelines) already have specially designated spaces for storing human remains, could allow Pagans into the museum store to consecrate the space, perform rituals for the dead, and perhaps even paint sacred designs on the cardboard boxes in which they are stored. Where the remains are on display in public galleries, Pagans could be consulted about the way in which the remains are displayed (as has happened recently with the way Lindow Man is displayed at Manchester Museum) to ensure that this is respectful. One possible way for museums to ensure that displays are respectful is to make them feel like a shrine, perhaps using restricted visual access to heighten the sense of sacred space, and again, to allow Pagans to ritually consecrate the space in which the body is displayed.

Emma Restall-Orr and Piotr Bienkowski (2006) have also suggested that Pagans be allowed to perform brief rituals during excavation of human remains, and be involved in the whole process of transfer to museums, decisions about which human remains to retain and why, display, storage, and (in some cases) eventual reburial. They have outlined a series of guidelines for involving Pagans in the whole process.


There is by no means a consensus among either Pagans, archaeologists, museum curators or the general public on the subject of how to treat human remains, except that most are agreed that respect is important – but there is disagreement on what constitutes respect and how that respect should be expressed in practice. Discussions about this that I have seen on Pagan forums and mailing lists have generally been in favour of archaeology and continued study of human remains. Most Pagans recognise the value of archaeological research and remembering the dead. Even those who would like to see more remains reburied still acknowledge the need for research (or the majority of them do). Conflict between archaeologists and Pagans is not inevitable in this area, because museum curators and archaeologists themselves have been reflecting upon the ethical aspects of the storage and treatment of human remains (there have been two recent archaeological books with chapters on this issue).

It is a mistake to see either the archaeological community or the Pagan community as two discrete monolithic entities. There are significant overlaps between the two groups, and different factions within them, and cultural shifts occurring all the time. Both groups have become more aware of postmodernist thinking, which calls into question the notion of scientific objectivity. Archaeologists have also become interested in the phenomenology of landscape, something which was previously regarded as a fringe “earth mysteries” activity (Hutton, 2007). Pagans have learnt a lot from archaeology through TV programmes like Time Team and Meet the Ancestors, and magazines like 3rd Stone. It is also important to be aware that there are two strands in contemporary Paganisms (Hutton, 2007): the countercultural strand, which is epitomised by rave culture, for example; and the religious strand, which is more interested in developing spiritual and cultural forms associated with Paganisms (epitomised by organisations like the Pagan Federation, which seeks recognition for Paganisms by the existing establishment).

Therefore, we need to proceed carefully through the many complex questions raised by this issue, checking our assumptions and presuppositions, and listening to the multiplicity of voices in the discussion – not just assuming that we know what they are thinking. Consultation with all Pagans, the general public, archaeologists and museum curators will be necessary before we can assume that a consensus has been arrived at. It is necessary to examine what is meant in each cultural context by problematic terms such as ‘landscape’, ‘ancestors’, ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, ‘sacredness’ and ‘respect’, and to look at the philosophical basis of the arguments employed by all parties in the discussion.

Yvonne Aburrow
15 March 2007

This article was originally published on the Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) website.


Cantwell, Anne-Marie (2000), ‘ “Who Knows the Power of His Bones”: Reburial Redux’. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 925 (1), pp. 79-119. [online] available from: Blackwell Synergy ( [accessed 18.10.2006]

De Baets, Antoon (2004), ‘A Declaration of the Responsibilities of Present Generations towards Past Generations.’ History and Theory, Theme Issue 43, pp. 130-164. [online] available from: Blackwell Synergy ( [accessed 18.10.2006]

Giles, Melanie (2006), ‘Archaeology of Human Remains: Paradigm and Process.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) – available as a document or from  Manchester Museum.

Hutton, Ronald (2007), [title?] Leslie Grinsell Memorial Lecture, Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society.

Restall Orr, Emma (2005), ‘A Theology of Reburial.’ [online] available from: Honouring the Ancient Dead [accessed 27.10.2006]

Restall Orr, Emma and Bienkowski, Piotr (2006), ‘Respectful Treatment and Reburial: A Practical Guide.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) – unpublished

Slater, Elizabeth (2006), ‘The Benefits of Scientific Study and Analysis of Ancient Human Remains.’ Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. A conference organised by the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and Honouring the Ancient Dead, supported by the Museums Association (17.11.2006) ? unpublished

Respect, Memory, and Human Remains

In 2008, I founded a group, Pagans for Archaeology. I did that because I believe that without archaeology, we would know considerably less about ancient pagans and polytheists than we do today. I even wonder if the Pagan revival would have happened the same way without input from archaeological research.

The Pagans for Archaeology Facebook page now has around 15,000 likes – so even if many of those people haven’t read the “manifesto” of the group, that shows a very big interest in archaeology among Pagans.


Bryn Celli Ddu – “The Mound in a Dark Grove”. Originally a Neolithic burial chamber, later a passage grave. © Copyright Paul Allison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

What Pagans for Archaeology stands for

  • We’re Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past.
  • Without archaeology, people would still think ancient peoples were fur-clad smelly cannibals and that ancient paganism involved frequent human sacrifice.
  • In addition, we are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone.
  • Of course we want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people.
  • We also believe that the excavation of Seahenge was a good thing, contributing hugely to our knowledge of Bronze Age religious practices.
  • We are also vehemently opposed to people leaving tealights, candles, crystals and other non-biodegradable “offerings” at sacred sites. Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Follow the Country Code.

The case for retaining human remains

The case for studying remains

  • Osteoarchaeology can tell us a great deal about past people, both populations and individuals: what they ate, what diseases they had, where they lived, how far they travelled, what they worked at, where they were born. Putting all this information together for a large number of people gives us a picture of a whole society and the lives of individuals within it.
  • Associated grave goods can also give us a picture of what mattered to the individual who was buried there. Grave goods should remain with the skeleton where possible, as they are an integral part of the assemblage, and may have been intended to accompany them into the afterlife.
  • The more knowledge we gain about people of the past, the more it perpetuates their memory. People of the past wanted to be remembered, that’s why they built monuments in the landscape. Also, ancient texts such as the Hávamál talk about a person’s name living on after they die (another indication that people in the past wanted to be remembered).
  • There was a lot of ethnic and cultural diversity in the past, and because human remains can tell us where people came from, this prevents fascists from claiming that Britain was ever inhabited solely by one particular ethnic group.

The case for displaying them in museums

  • Neolithic long-barrows were not private; people interacted ritually with the remains after they had been placed in the mound.
  • It helps to perpetuate the memory of the dead person.
  • Museums are Pagan shrines; the name means “temple of the Muses” (okay so the proprietors of the museums may not see it that way, but we can choose to do so).
  • It helps us to understand their culture and connect with them.
  • It might help us to come to terms with death.

The case for not reburying

  • In many cases, the original burial context may have been lost or destroyed. The Zuni (or A:shiwi as they refer to themselves in their own language) people of New Mexico see no point in reburying remains, because disinterring them destroys the sacred context of the original burial
  • Looters might steal the grave-goods or the bones
  • We don’t know what ritual the dead person might have preferred
  • The remains should be stored for future study (analytical techniques are improving all the time)
  • Reburial means that we will no longer have access to the knowledge and memory of the person, and will quickly forget them
  • It is difficult to know which group of contemporary Pagans should receive remains for reburial, since we do not have cultural continuity with pagans of the past (who may well have had very different beliefs from us about the soul and the afterlife, and definitely had different practices from us).

Remains from other cultures

I think that human remains from indigenous cultures (such as Native Americans / First Nations and Australian Aborigines) are a different situation than that of British prehistory.

One of the ways in which indigenous peoples have gained political and cultural leverage is by campaigning for the return of their ancestors’ human remains (and British reburial campaigns often appropriate the narratives of indigenous campaigns). Very often, these remains are more recent than prehistoric British remains, and the indigenous people still have cultural continuity with the cultures that buried these remains. The people excavating these remains are usually from a different culture which has a history of colonial oppression towards the indigenous people.

In the case of British prehistoric remains, everyone in Britain is culturally (and genetically) descended from them, including the archaeologists doing the excavating. In the case of indigenous human remains, only the indigenous people are culturally (and genetically) descended from them.

Why archaeology is important

Archaeology matters to us because:

Archaeology means the difference between fantasy ideas and facts to me, okay they don’t always get it right, but they do try.
History is something we need to learn things from, in my opinion, not because I have this vision of some sort of golden age of yore, but that there are skills and mistakes that we need to learn from.
Many of the basic skills we all once would have had are gone and are now only known to a few, fire-making for one instance. Society might not require those skills right now, not with all the technology we have, but that does not mean they should be lost totally and that’s what archaeology means to me, the saving and keeping of our past, because one day we may need that knowledge again.
~ Blu, PFA member

I find archaeology fascinating, like a little kid in a candy shop discovering new and exciting pieces of our evolution and our history.

Whilst I haven’t formally studied archaeology at university, I have always found it interesting and particularly in high school studying art my interest was piqued by Ancient Egyptian and Roman crafts and ideals, and now especially as a Witch and a Pagan the Gods and Goddesses and the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians.

It is amazing to see how we have developed from those times in each little piece we discover. I am in awe of prehistoric times and little pieces of skeletons of dinosaurs that form the now extinct creatures.
The evolution and growth of plant life and animals, and of humans…

I love hearing about medieval times and the discovery of beautiful pieces of silverware, pottery and jewellery which ties into the history of the Celts and Avalonian times, a magical period that really resonates with me.

History is an important part of our development, our past, our present and the future in both advancing technology and in terms of our spiritual development as we can call on our history, our Gods and Goddesses to help with our present and our future…
~ Kali Cox, PFA member

Part of my Pagan outlook is a respect for the wisdom of the past, and the people of the past, so I think we need to know the real stories of past people. Not the history that was written by the winners. The only way we can do that is through archaeology, because ordinary people did not often leave written records (the exciting exceptions being the Paston letters, the Vindolanda Letters, the Book of Margery Kempe, and not much else that I can think of).

I also think that as Pagans we draw on the cultures of the past, and archaeology can really help us make sense of those cultures.
~ Yvonne, PFA member

For me, it adds to my understanding of the present. By studying the past I get a better sense of why and how we came to be as we are now.
~ Kim Hunter, PFA member