Prehistoric skeletons will remain at Avebury museum say bosses
English Heritage bosses have decided bones from a prehistoric child’s skeleton will remain at in a museum at Avebury despite a druids campaign to have them reburied.
The druids called for the reburial of the human remains on show at the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, in 2006.
The remains, dating back to 2,000 or 3,700 BC, were among the contents of the Museum which were gifted to the nation in 1966.
English Heritage has been responsible for them since then. The National Trust owns the Museum and has curatorial responsibility for the collection. Dr Sebastian Payne, Chief Scientist at English Heritage, said: “We respect the beliefs that have led to this request, and we have taken the request seriously. These remains are important for our understanding of the past.
“We found that the public overwhelmingly support the retention and display of prehistoric human remains in museums, and that there is no clear evidence for genetic, cultural or religious continuity of a kind that would justify preferential status to be given to the beliefs of the group which requested reburial.
“While every case is different and must be determined on its merits, we feel that the general considerations given to this case are likely to apply to most prehistoric human remains in this country. We hope that other museums considering such requests in future will benefit from the evidence we have assembled and made accessible, saving them time and expense in reaching their decisions.”
He said the principles set out in the Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, published by the Department for Culture Media and Sport in 2005, were applied in arriving at the decision.
This guidance recommends that claims for remains more than 500 years old are unlikely to be successful except where very close and continuous links can be demonstrated.
The human remains in question belong to an area of great archaeological significance as recognised by its World Heritage Site status. They are well-documented and well-preserved.
With technological advances in analytical method such as ancient DNA and stable isotope analysis, they have potential to add to knowledge and understanding.
Dr Payne said keeping them in the museum will enable scientists and archaeologists to access them for research, the benefit of which far outweighs the harm likely to result from not reburying them.
These conclusions were widely consulted between October 2008 and February 2009. In a separate opinion poll of 1,000 people commissioned in June 2009, around 90 per cent said they were comfortable with keeping prehistoric human remains in museums.
Dr David Thackray, head of archaeology for the National Trust, said: “Some of the remains are an important part of the Museum’s exhibits, and the Museum survey shows that most visitors value this. Many of those who responded to the consultation also commented on the importance of public access and education.”
Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, an archaeologist at Oxford University, said: “The physical remains of humans found in archaeological contexts embody knowledge of our past that we have hardly begun to unlock.
“Through a series of scientific techniques now being developed we are able to ask questions about early British populations which even ten years ago would have been thought impossible to answer. Archaeological remains must be retained for research that benefits us all.”
Professor Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University, said: “This decision represents the resolution of a question of great moral importance and with major practical implications, by reference to government guidelines, expert opinion, and general public opinion. All three have supported the same outcome.”
The British Humanist Association has applauded the decision. Naomi Phillips, BHA Head of Public Affairs, said: “We applaud English Heritage’s excellent report on their decision. The unshared beliefs of people with no more genetic claim over the human remains than anybody else in Western Europe should never trump the enormous scientific, sociological, and educational benefit to the public that the historic human remains provide. “Although this decision does not set a binding precedent, we are hopeful that it will help bodies such as English Heritage to reject any future such requests without such a lengthy and costly consultation period.”
Council of British Druid Orders reburial statement