Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Respect The Dead


Respect The Dead
Responsible department: Ministry of Justice

We support King Arthurs call for a debate in parliament and a change in the Law so that Pre-Christian human remains are afforded the same protection as are the Christian remains, and that re-burial should always be the aim and the first option when human remains are brought to light by Archaeology or Development.

Ostensibly, the focus of this petition is Stonehenge, but the petition is wider than that; it calls for a general policy on re-burial of remains from all archaeological sites.

It's a good idea, but not at all practical in Jersey, and I suspect other sites. The site itself would be more damaged because you would need a secure chamber to hold the bones, probably something concrete, otherwise sooner or later someone would come along and steal them.

But where on earth would you put bones found, for instance, at Mont Grantez? They can hardly be placed back in situ, as they would be exposed to the elements and theft, or even the odd dog out with its owner for a walk. The dolmen can't be put back under earth because farmers have already destroyed a major capstone. I sometimes think people who dream up these petitions have their hearts in the right place, but very little thinking about the reality.

In fact, the few bones that are placed within dolmens (compared to the total population) shows that the ancients didn't have the same concern with burial that we do.

William Price, the Welsh Druid who pioneered legal cremation, certainly had a very different attitude to death.

In the later half of the 19th century, overcrowding in cemeteries was becoming an issue. In 1874 Sir Henry Thompson, Surgeon to Queen Victoria, had visited Italy and saw a demonstration of equipment used for carrying out cremations, and with like minded friends, formed the Cremation Society of England. But despite their trying to persuade people of the benefits of cremation, progress was slow. This was mainly because of lingering ideas of the resurrection of the body, seen as the reconstitution of a corpse from its elements. Christianity, especially in the Middle Ages, had seen a very strong focus on a literal resurrection, with depictions in wall paintings of graves opening up at the last trump to release the dead, now brought back to life.

William Price, an eccentric, who was nonetheless quite brilliant - he was a Doctor, and a Chartist,  established the first Co-Operative Society in Wales, designed distinctive Round Houses, and was fluent in English and Latin as well as his native Welsh - believed he was a druid because he was descended from a lineage that went back to ancient times. He fervently believed that the ancients had practiced cremation, and as a doctor, he also argued the case on medical grounds. The case which swept him into the law courts, and established cremation as legal, came about after the death of his son:

On the hilltop, chanting wild laments over the napkin-covered body, he had offered the boy to the elements. Some enraged people, rushing up the hillside, assaulted him by threatening to throw his elderly body into the burning flames, and called the police. The criminal trial that followed aroused interest not only in England, but throughout the world, enough for the father of the Sherlock Holmes tales to write his first published work on the Welsh eccentric himself.

In March, he conducted his own defence brilliantly at the Cardiff Crown Court trial over his son's cremation, a typical showman who played to the crowded gallery, claiming, 'It is not right that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose in this way. It results in a wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to all living creatures.' He was acquitted by Justice Stephens, paving the way for the passing of the Cremation Act of 1902. Price was bold enough to challenge existing beliefs and defy convention, question the justice system, poured scorn on orthodox religion, despised the law and belittled medical theories. (1)

William Price was was found not guilty, and this ruling effectively made cremation legal. He died in 1893 and, only to be expected, was cremated on the hillside overlooking Llantrisant, observed by twenty thousand spectators - an event which made headline news in the next day's Times.

But Price was not wholly wrong. Evidence exists of several kinds of burial practices from Neolithic times in Greece (2):

- Primary internment of the dead in simple pits (simple inhumations), usually in a contracted but also crouched position

- Cremation of the dead, partial (Early Neolithic) or complete (Late Neolithic), accompanied by vases, or cremations in which the cremated were in several cases placed in vases, the first known in Greece and some of the oldest in Europe, and

- Collecting the bones (skull, thighs, ribs) of the dead individual and burying these beneath the floors of the house (Prodromos in Karditsa) or in a specific part of a cave (a kind of ossuary in Alepotrypa in Diros).

With regard to the Neolithic tombs of the British Isles, the Channel Islands and Brittany, Francis Prior suggests that

to understand Neolithic tombs one must regard them as we do modern shrines, temples and churches insomuch as they were not just receptacles for dead bodies. In addition Pryor considers two other points, firstly these tombs were not the exclusive final resting places of Neolithic people, burials have also been found in causewayed enclosure, settlements, flint mines and isolated graves. Secondly, we cannot assume that it was only the 'elite' or ruling classes who were buried in these tombs as there is as yet no evidence to prove this.(4)

But what of the burial practices, and the treatment of the bodies themselves? In "Monuments of the British Neolithic" (2003), Miles Russell points out that "the stone-chambered or stone-structured long mounds of Western Britain have produced sometimes considerable quantities of articulated, disarticulated, disassembled and cremated bone".

Tim Sandles notes that the treatment of the bodies was not, perhaps, in the same kind of way we would consider respectful:

These bones often came from several individuals and were usually mixed up, they were placed in the tombs after the bodies had completely or partially decomposed somewhere else. So what does this mean? Now we are getting to the more gruesome part, it is assumed that when a person died their corpse was taken to a mortuary enclosure where it would be left to have its flesh removed by the local wildlife. This method is sometimes referred to as excarnation or a 'Sky Burial' and it meant the copse was laid out on some platform and the birds, animals and insects would then devour the body thus resulting in the complete de-fleshing of the bones. Such places have been described as a, "reeking necropolis whose awful silence was broken only by the din of crows, (Edmonds, 1999, p.120). Castleden (2003, p.91), gives examples of where bones have been found that show evidence of having been gnawed by rodents and scavengers or having snail eggs laid on them. In some cases bones have been found with cut marks on them which suggest a degree of human intervention to assist the defleshing process. Castleden considers that it would take about a month to remove the flesh from a skeleton and a year for it to become completely disarticulated. (5)

So what of the call to re-burial of the remains? It is not clear whether the Neolithic peoples would have understood the rationale behind this. In a way, although the call is coming from the modern Pagan community, it seems more to do with ideas about the body that have come through the Christian heritage of the Middle Ages. "Respect the dead" seems more to draw upon that heritage which looks on the body as a sacred vessel than more ancient times. Indeed, perhaps William Price, with his talk of the dead body as a "carcass" from which the living spirit has departed comes closer to the sensibility of the ancients.

"It is not right that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose in this way. It results in a wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to all living creatures"

(1) http://www.llantrisant.net/price2.htm
(2) http://www.fhw.gr/chronos/01/en/nl/society/burial.html
(3) http://www.neolithic.gr/pdf/burial_customs_en.pdf
(4) http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/early_tombs.htm
(5) http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/early_tombs.htm


Unknown said...

I don't think the reburial problems associated with neolithic bones are insurmountable. It's normal archaeology these days to replace things.

William Price, who 'thought he was a Druid' does not speak for the practicing Druids and other Pagan groups of today.

Janet P. Reedman said...

Agree with all you have said. I note too that Arthur does not mention the 'other' burial from Stonehenge--the young man in the ditch with arrows in his back, dating from the height of the monument's power in 2300 BC. I expect the probable circumstances of his death and deposition is a bit too non-fluffy for some to stomach!
Then there's the problem of reburial with groups wanting to say 'words' over the remains. the sentiment might be good but the words would be alien to the ancient people. And if, as has been suggested, the pagan groups would be able to attend the burial, that gives a certain group a preference over another...and they are no closer to the Stonehenge (or other ancient people). These people are,after all, ancestors of all of us.

TonyTheProf said...

Reburial with dolmens in Jersey is insurmoutable, believe me. In Mont Grantez, seven articulated skeletons were found (six were in flexed positions in the chamber, the seventh was apparently placed in a seated position in the chamber. That's not buried, that's visible to anyone looking at the dolmen. You can't put those skeletons back like that! And if you can't the whole reburial notion falls apart; it becomes just some kind of touchy-feely New Age symbolic act, nothing to do with the past.