Wednesday, April 7, 2010

British courts on "Druid" repatration appeal

A British court has ruled against the Council of British Druid Orders, which had asked for the reburial of a Neolithic child from Avebury.

The druids say the remains of the child, known as Charlie, should be reinterred within Avebury's stone circle out of respect for the dead.

The Order says it has taken up the case because it feels it has a cultural link with pagan ancestors in the British Isles.

I've already mentioned my strong views on NAGPRA. Cases like Avebury make us really think about who owns the past, and who has an investment in how ancient people are treated. Here in the US, we have laws protecting Native American graves, but no specific laws protecting African-American graves, or Asian-American graves, etc. How would/should we, the archaeological community, react if there was a collaborative effort by, say, the NAACP to stop archaeologists from excavating human remains when they investigate plantation sites with slave quarters? Or the burial sites of a free black community in early 1800's Baltimore or New Orleans? Personally, I would defer to the descendants, if they could be identified, or to representatives of the local community. (And, yes, I understand that defining that community could be difficult. Such decisions would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.)

That said, I'm quite happy with the British court's decision in Avebury. It's not that the British "druids" can't support their claim of spiritual, cultural, or biological descent. That doesn't matter much to me. There are two major differences between British druids and Native American (or African-American, etc.) populations in the US: 1) in general, British druids can choose whether or not to be a member of the druid sub-culture, they are not born into a socially-defined ethnic group. In this case, they are trying to claim responsibility for the remains due to a cultural affinity with the child, when they themselves have created that cultural affinity by appropriating certain aspects of that child's belief system, long after that belief system had ceased to operate in Britain; 2) to my knowledge, there is no systemic bias against druids in British culture, so there is no power differential between archaeologists - as representatives of the mainstream and more powerful subculture - and druids. There is no post-colonial feeling that the archaeologists are attempting to defraud druids of their cultural patrimony (unless, of course, the druids are holding a grudge from the late Roman Empire). And of course, as stated above, being a druid is largely a personal choice. Under the circumstances, I don't think druids need the protection of the law for their spiritual or cultural ancestors.

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