Wednesday, 15 July 2009

HAD Conference Leicester 09. Honouring the Ancient Dead: ensuring respect for ancient pagan remains

Essentially this is about respect - having worked with human remains myself it is staggering the difference between carefully handling a bag of disarticulated bones, which to all intents and purposes look and feel unreal and then to realise that these remnants of the past breathed, loved, throught, feared the same as I. One particular incident with a female skull, where the still-clumped earth across its face seemed to echo the delicate features this woman may have had, suddenly truly brough home the fact that I was dealing with a real person - she could not have been more alive if she had stood up from the bench and talked.

While one friend (undergoing her MSc in forensic archaeology, currently) whose pragmatic approach got the job done fast and expediently deftly dealt with the remains in her singularly practical manner, I felt it right and proper to work more slowly, almost sombre in my attitude, this (albeit early Christian) woman deserved the care and attention of a modern Pagan as much as she was given by her loved ones.

It is oft remarked that 'burial is for the living', that the ones remaining who show care and consideration for the physical remains of their loved one require this inevitable ritual and I would concur, for if we cannot treat the dead with respect, what hope is there for the living?

Conference – 'The Care of Ancient Human Remains' 17 October 2009
New Walk Museum, Leicester

Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) is pleased to announce it is hosting its first independent one day conference on the care of ancient human remains. Conference themes will cover the leading edge of current thinking from prominent speakers - representing museums, social anthropology, national human remains specialist groups, as well as the Pagan perspective that is central to AD. Conference participants will be invited from a wide community of archaeologists, museums, overnment departments responsible for human remains, together with Pagans and others with special interest in their care.

Opportunity for discussion and questions has been built in to the agenda, and papers given at the conference will be published following the day.

This one-day conference aims to explore the current issues around value, custody and interest in human remains, with particular focus on how the institutions that maintain custody engage with those external communities who have a special interest in the remains. The conference is organised by HAD, who as part of the conference will clarify its own position in developing and maintaining dialogue and facilitating access to and consultations on human remains. The speakers are invited from amongst those who have worked with or engaged with HAD. Discussion will play a key part in the conference. The results of the conference will be used within subsequent discussions relating to the respectful treatment of ancient British human remains held between HAD and institutions such as museums or government departments.

`The Matter of Bones': Human bones are curious things: both person and object, yet neither wholly one nor the other, they affect us, altering how we perceive life and death, self and others, community and relationship. From a social and cultural anthropological perspective, this paper explores why and how bones matter to the living, and indeed what that matter - physically and emotionally - actually is. Furthermore, why and how does their significance inform what we do with them?

`Consultation and Display': Best practice in museums, following the guidelines of the Museums Association Code of Ethics, is to involve audiences and communities in consultations around future displays. This paper reports on a successful consultation around the redisplay of the Iron Age gallery at Colchester Museum.

`The Issue of Custody': While museums and other institutions generally accept they have custody not ownership of remains, recent re-interpretations of the law by the Ministry of Justice have made it more difficult for archaeologists to excavate and retain human remains for more than two years. There is, however, still lack of clarity; this paper seeks a path through the minefield.

`The Pagan Voice': Though political correctness requires museums respectfully process requests from overseas communities seeking to repatriate ancestral remains, when British Pagans express significant interest in remains museums have no effective guidance as to how to respond. This paper explores the theologies that underlie the Pagan spiritual connection to human remains, and asks what language would be better employed by heritage organisations in such discussions.

`Practical Respect': What may be seen as respectful of human remains within one culture may be felt as desecration for another. This paper explores how consultative processes can ensure that the various notions of respect are given equitable value, and integrated into the process of decision making around the excavation, retention, storage, and disposal of human remains. How can these be put into practice, who holds responsibility and who bears the cost?

Presenters confirmed:
• Dr Joost Fontein & Dr John Harries, Social Anthropology, University of
• Philip Wise, Heritage Manager, Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
• Professor Piotr Bienkowski, Professor of Archaeology and Museology, University
of Manchester
• Emma Restall Orr, Honouring the Ancient Dead


Notes to Editors: -
For print and online journalists: Please also note the distinction of a capital `P' for the established religion of modern-day Paganism (the seventh largest faith tradition in Britain) and `pagan' with a small `p' to denote the ancient pagan community.

Archaeosophia says: we have had the pleasure of working with the outstanding Dr John Harries and can confirm this will be a most excellent and thought-provoking conference with the potential to make a real difference in how we perceive and react to the physical remains of the ancestors.

HAD office, PO Box 3533, Whichford, Shipston on Stour
Warwickshire CV36 5YB, England
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