The Rise and Impact of Pagan Claims-Makers

The Rise and Impact of Pagan Claims-Makers

‘We care about the bones of our ancestors.’ So claimed Druid Princess Emma Restall Orr on the BBC’s flagship news and discussion programme Newsnight in early 2010.1 Reburial of the bones is necessary, she said, because: ‘In Pagan terms it matters because of the cycle of life and death. When we return the bones to the soil, we’re giving them back to the earth’.

Joel Best (1987) observes that newly constructed problems may encourage new claims-makers. This chapter examines such a process. The prevailing cultural climate in which human remains became objects of contestation cultivated the conditions for different Pagan groups to make claims on human remains, in order to lend weight to their existing demands for recognition and involvement in heritage issues. Pertinent to this study is the reaction to their campaigning by the museum sector. Despite considerable difficulties in the framing of the problem by Pagan activists, one group in particular, Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD), has had a moderate influence.2 Certain professionals have been highly positive towards this group’s activism, because it fitted with their agenda in challenging professional authority. Although the response of the rest of the sector to HAD has been more ambivalent, an inability to draw the line regarding who should be involved in museum practice and why means that activism from Pagans has had an influence that professionals find difficult to resist.


Postmodernity has been described by theorist Michel Maffesoli as the ‘time of the tribes’ (1996), characterizing the fragmentary and fluid associations of individuals and groups in contemporary society. This description captures modern-day Paganism, cited as one of the fastest-growing spiritual orientations in the West (Hardman and Harvey 2000; York 2003). A study conducted by the historian Ronald Hutton (2001) estimated that there are 250,000 Neo-Pagan adherents in Britain, although these figures are highly variable, partly due to the fluid and private nature of the movement, which comprises a diverse group of people that orientate around shifting and varying concerns. Scholars have theorized its dynamic nature (Clifton and Harvey 2004). Hutton describes the term ‘Paganism’ as inviting ‘debate in itself, for the expression covers a multitude of faiths and practices, with only a limited (though important) amount in common’ (Hutton 1995: 3). Nor does it necessarily denote an organized group. Theologian Amy Simes (1995) explains that while the growth of contemporary Pagan organizations may be rapid, many different groupings emerge and then disperse. They are often individualistic practitioners and their worship is frequently private.

Despite the fluidity, there are identifiable threads. As a generic term, Paganism is understood to encompass several recognized sets of beliefs. Hardman and Harvey (1995) explain that important shared ideas are the centrality of nature and the limits of one authority. Sociologist Jon Bloch echoes this observation about the perceived limits of authority and a critique of dualistic thinking, positing that the self is considered to have final authority as to what to believe in counter-cultural spirituality, which legitimates the ‘pick and choose’ attitude towards different beliefs and religions (Bloch 1998: 33). Hardman and Harvey (2000) identify contemporary cultural influences, explaining that while Paganism has always had an environmentalist philosophy and a romantic view of the land, this has become more coherent in the last decade, influenced by broader environmental thinking. Many describe themselves as polytheistic, worshipping a number of gods and goddesses. Pagan worldviews may include spirits, goddesses or gods, nature as an entity, or an animist outlook. The best-known paths are Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry and Goddess Spirituality, with individuals often identifying with more than one at a time. Contemporary Paganism, then, comprises a variety of paths, some of which overlap. It can be characterized as a coalescence of individuals around the view that a single authority has limitations, around nature-orientated traditions, and the rooting of authority in the self, rather than an organized belief system.

Emerging Pagan Claims on Human Remains

Social scientists Blain and Wallis (2007) propose the term ‘new-indigenes’ as an extension of Maffesoli’s ‘new tribes’ for those Pagans whose practices involve ideas of re-enchantment of nature and human life, which they identify as inherent in the past and to be engaged with via prehistoric sites. While not all Pagans concern themselves with the past, many do; particularly Druids and Heathens (York 1995). Druidry, or Neo-Druidry as it is sometimes termed, is influenced by modern interpretations of Celtic religion and can be understood as orientated towards nature, with roots in pre-Christian times.

Over the past three decades, the prehistoric monument Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England, has become an increasing focus of attention for Pagans interested in engaging with the past and the environment (Bender 1993; Hetherington 2000). There were high profile contests over access to the site in the mid-1980s, between New Age Travellers, Pagans, and heritage organizations, the police and the government. These continued in the 1990s and early 2000s, when groups opposed the plans supported by English Heritage and the National Trust for the development of the A303 motorway around Stonehenge and the construction of a visitor center. Friction has continued as plans for Stonehenge evolved (Blain and Wallis 2007).

It is out of the struggles at Stonehenge that three well-known individuals, negotiating for access and influence, expanded their demands, also raising concerns about the treatment of human remains excavated on the site, and asking for burial, ritual or respect. They tried to link their campaigning over access to Stonehenge to the ongoing contestation over human remains, to give weight to their already-existing demands. The central protagonists are: Philip ‘Greywolf’ Shallcrass, joint-chief of the British Druid Order; the British Druid Order member, Paul Davies; and Emma Restall Orr, who is founder, head and treasurer of the Druid Network. The first two operate primarily as individuals. They do not seek to form any kind of organization but campaign alone, and have both supported and opposed Restall Orr. Restall Orr formed the campaign group Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) in 2004, to raise the issue of the treatment of human remains in archaeological excavation and in museum collections. HAD is described as an advocacy organization for Pagan groups concerned with the treatment of ancient British human remains.

The issue was first mentioned in the writing of these claims-makers in the late 1990s by Druid Paul Davies, during a time when the campaign to repatriate overseas human remains became prominent within the archaeological and museum sector. As Davies stated in the magazine The Druids’ Voice, the journal for the council of British Druid Orders, in relation to the reburial issue: ‘Aboriginal Americans and Australians have achieved this goal with their respective governments. Now it is our turn.’ (Davies 1997: 13) Blain and Wallis posit that some Pagans deliberately align themselves with indigenous people elsewhere, as part of their identity construction (2003). Marion Bowman (1995) has examined those who identify themselves as Celts. Bowman notes that increasing numbers of people, particularly contemporary Pagans, ‘feel’ they are native to the British Isles. They may claim to be Celtic even if they have no Scots, Irish, Cornish or Manx parentage. Bowman terms this group ‘Cardiac Celts’ (1995: 246).

In interviews with Restall Orr and Pagans interested in this issue, and at conferences and meetings on human remains issues, there was frequent mention of overseas indigenous groups, primarily to support the Pagan’s claim that they should receive similar treatment. In the first interview I conducted with Restall Orr, in November 2006, she explained:

If I were called Susie Black Water and were seeking repatriation of my great grandmother’s bones back to my own tribal lands in North America, most museums would now deal with me courteously and with respect. However, because I am a Pagan, asking about the bones of my ancient ancestors, I am judged and dismissed as irrational.

Restall Orr complained that Pagans were often ‘dismissed’ by heritage organizations, because of their beliefs. The problem she identifies is the attitude of ‘most museums’ towards Paganism, pointing out that overseas indigenous groups, who also don’t fit the rational framework, have been treated with respect. In the following interview, conducted in November 2006, a member of HAD explained that while there was a practical benefit to the claims from overseas indigenous groups, he felt that Pagans had not gained similar recognition:

Aboriginals and Native Americans have helped open up the debate, probably, I think, to a much wider stance … um … it’s certainly allowed us to say if you are doing it for them, why can’t you do the same thing for us. Um … you know, because, you know, it’s that sort of thing, that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, um … you know, hang on a minute, we are here. This is actually, you know, they are thousands of miles away, why are they getting special treatment?

These remarks identify the central problem as that of the exclusion of Pagans by heritage organizations, in contrast to their treatment of overseas indigenous groups. The statement that this interviewee makes—‘hang on a minute, we are here’—speaks to strong feelings of non-recognition. Frank Furedi (2003) suggests that the conceptualization of recognition as an individual right may encourage more recognition claims. He observes that the growth of compensation culture, stimulated by the growth of therapy culture, confers ‘moral privilege’ on those individuals who can establish their victim identity, which encourages people to see themselves as victims and to claim compensation. In Chapter 3, we saw that the remit of the museum has moved away from an empirical remit towards an inclusive, at times therapeutic, model in response to a crisis of legitimacy, and seeks to play a role in the recognition of community identities. The developing focus of HAD, in requesting affirmation by heritage organizations of their Pagan beliefs, suggests that this process invites communities to ask for recognition: a commitment that it is not clear that the museum can consistently honor. The recognition of certain identities by institutions grants a moral authority to selected groups that others also seek, and for which they therefore campaign. The moral privilege rhetorically bestowed on overseas indigenous groups has encouraged communities in Britain to demand equivalent treatment.


The archaeological activists in North America seeking repatriation named their campaign to transfer human remains to indigenous groups the ‘reburial issue’. British campaigners quickly ceased using this terminology, but it is nonetheless picked up by HAD in an attempt to piggyback on to this established problem. What is most notable, however, is that HAD’s aims are inconsistent. At times, the organization asks for respect or ritual, as well as, or instead of, reburial. The framing of claims is usually a highly fluid process that depends upon the interaction with different groups and the purchase for their ideas. But it is especially changeable in this case. Honouring the Ancient Dead attempts to key into established frames and associate themselves with the problems that are established, but finds it difficult to sustain the motifs in interaction with others. As a consequence, unlike the coherent framing of claims made by the activists in Chapter 1, those made by HAD are more confused.

Demands for reburial and respect are used interchangeably in HAD’s campaigning activity, as the following paragraph, taken from an article by Restall Orr in British Archaeology, illustrates:

When Pagans speak of reburial, they are not demanding marked graves lauded over with occultism or magic. They seek simply the absolute assurance of respect. In my opinion, reburial of every bone shard is not necessary: ritual is.

At Stonehenge, should human remains or burial/sacrificial artefacts be found, priests will be called. Appropriate prayers and ritual will be made to honour the dead, their stories and gifts to the gods. Once finds are catalogued, reburial will be considered by all relevant parties. (Restall Orr 2004: 39)

This article states that when Pagans ask for reburial, this does not mean reburial. Instead, they ‘seek assurances of respect’—which are not defined—and the requirement of ritual. Restall Orr refers to human remains and sacrificial artefacts as a focus, which further muddles the problem: is it human remains or is it burial of sacrificial artefacts, and what is it about any of these things that requires respect or ritual?

The use of the term ‘reburial’ is erratically employed in the writing and talks by HAD, and shifts to a call for ‘respect’. The loosely-defined aim of respect is increasingly included in the group’s writing and presentations, developing through a relationship with the museum professional Piotr Bienkowski, from Manchester University Museum. This is a discourse that operates, to use the term developed by Norman Fairclough (2003), on a logic of equivalence. By putting respect in relation to the already established discourse of reburial, the two are associated. The term ‘reburial’ is used give the poorly-defined aims of respect rhetorical power. Take this extract from a conference paper delivered by Restall Orr to the ‘Respect for Ancient British Human Remains’ conference in 2006, a conference for museum professionals that she organized with Bienkowski:

Although for many Pagans, the visceral need is to cry out for reburial of all human remains, this is neither the purpose of this conference, nor of HAD. Respect, however, must encompass the way in which human remains are exhumed, stored, displayed or reburied, with decisions and action based on sincere and informed debate. (Restall Orr 2006: 8)

The reference to reburial lends rhetorical force to HAD’s claims for respect. But this dilution of demands, from reburial to respect, means that its claims lack a focus, which may limit their efficacy.

As well as borrowing the ‘reburial’ and ‘respect’ rhetoric from repatriation campaigners, HAD attempts to employ the frame that critiques science and archaeology and which establishes the necessary villains. To some extent this motif chimes with Paganism, in that one important shared belief is that secular rationality has created a false dichotomy between matter and spirit, which means that science and authority can be criticized as dualistic. In interviews, articles, conference papers and presentations, Restall Orr condemns science and archaeology. As she argues in British Archaeology, ‘Attitudes towards the ancient dead are a significant part of the clash between Paganism and fact-searching archaeology. Within Paganism, the dead are revered. (2004: 39) Archaeology is characterized as ‘fact searching’ which, it is implied, is a problem, in contrast with Paganism, which, she suggests, cares for the dead. In HAD’s formal response to the British government’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (DCMS 2005), science is criticized as one view that is given undue privilege in the policy. This chimes with the Pagan concerns about monolithic authority:

For archaeologists from outside the area to claim full authority to take away those ancient human remains, and to claim that the community has no involvement in deciding their future, is simply arrogance and abuse of power. It puts sole authority over ancient human remains into the hands of a small, unelected, distant, disciplinary-based group. (HAD, undated, circa 2007, unpaginated)

The common elevation of archaeologists as decision makers is problematic, in HAD’s eyes, because it gives too much power to a discipline-based group. There is an attempt to contrast honoring the dead with scientific advancement. The dead are what will be harmed if science is allowed to continue unabated and the villains are the archaeologists and scientists.

Restall Orr finds it difficult to maintain the critique of science and archaeology in interaction with critics. In 2007, the BBC’s Heaven and Earth Show3 dedicated an item to Pagan claims on human remains. Restall Orr was joined in the studio by the Labour MP Chris Bryant, and the evolutionary psychologist Oliver Curry. Bryant and the programme’s presenter challenged Restall Orr, who had said the scientific information to be gleaned from human remains was negligible. She responded defensively:

[I]t’s so seldom that this information comes through. And what most Pagans are looking at is, is not the last 1500 years where mostly, um, human remains are being excavated from Christian consecrated grounds, and are going through […] a process of research, and most Pagans would say that’s wonderful. The science is, is, most Pagans are not antiscience, we are not anti-science. It’s not about stopping that research. It is about allowing the social and spiritual religious value of these to be a part of the consultation, in terms of what happens to those bones once they’ve been through the scientific, um, process. And a lot of these bones in museums have already been through that process of research. Um … are perhaps contaminated beyond use anyway because they’ve been dug up by the proto archaeologists; the antiquarians, they’ve been stuck in boxes.

In response to the assertion of the value of scientific research on human remains, Restall Orr stated that Pagans are not anti-science, revealing that this is often how they are characterized. This a much weaker criticism compared to the forceful critique of science put forward by campaigners discussed in previous chapters, where professionals condemned science as dangerous, and, while acknowledging the loss of important research material, argued that this was less important than helping the communities that would receive the repatriated human remains. Restall Orr tried to suggest that, instead of stopping research, Pagans are asking for different values to be included, which she defined relatively weakly as ‘the social and spiritual religious value’. Furthermore she narrowed down the remains they are interested in claiming to those more than 1,500 years old, and implied that scientific research would be difficult because of the actions of particular archaeologists.

Further on in the conversation, when pressed about the claim that Pagans have over ancient human remains, Restall Orr backtracked again:

Oliver Curry: [T]here doesn’t seem to be a direct link between Pagans and …

Restall Orr: And that’s exactly what we’re not, we’re not, we don’t have a special claim, and that’s the big misunderstanding. We are not saying, we are not saying we have a special claim, we are saying we have a special interest which is completely different.

In this exchange, Restall Orr was unable to assert that Pagans do have a claim on these human remains, and tried instead to ask for a ‘special interest’. This indicates an awareness of, and inability to challenge, the contested legitimacy of her claim.

We have seen how activists in the UK successfully linked their campaign to the contemporary body parts controversies, lending their arguments a powerful association with this high profile problem. This linking is only attempted by Pagan claims-makers on a few occasions and without success. HAD does not pursue a link, as other campaigners have done, to give its claims greater force. Furthermore, unlike the campaigners discussed in Chapter 1 who use words such as ‘deflesh’ and ‘body parts’, Pagan activists do not rhetorically use the body in an attempt to make the objects of contestation more person-like.

According to Joel Best (1987), the construction of a problem requires that grounds are made that consist of definitions, examples and numeric examples. On a number of occasions, Restall Orr’s characterization of the problem is diluted and shifts in interaction with critics, asking for consultation instead of stopping scientific research, and stating a special interest instead of a special claim. She tries to redefine the scope of the problem as soon as she is questioned. There is no reference to numbers to give any sense of a widespread problem, nor the use of any other similar rhetorical device, which is one reason why the problem is not fully conveyed. Nor is there any reference to an example or case that can operate as an exemplar, associating the issue with an atrocity tale that can shape the perception of the problem: as in the cases of Truganini or William Lanney, which were effectively constructed by campaigners in the museum sector.

Claims for Legitimacy

A further analysis of their aims and activities reveals a number of legitimacy claims. One legitimacy claim is that the campaigners should be recognized due to their religious beliefs, and that it would be discriminatory not to do so. A second legitimacy claim is that HAD has the authority to speak on behalf of Pagans. The third legitimacy claim is that HAD has forged links with non-Pagan experts, which should add to its credibility. A fourth claim is that HAD represents a diversity of views. Here I examine each of these legitimacy claims in detail.

In Chapter 3, we saw that the internal confusion in relation to the foundational authority of the museum has created a situation where professionals continue to challenge and question their own authority, one manifestation of which is their reaction to the Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (DCMS 2005). This policy also came to be the focus of campaigning activities by HAD, which argued that the policy should be expanded to include Pagan claims. In the HAD document Feedback on DCMS Guidance for the Care of Human Remains, the guidance is scrutinized to highlight the inconsistency of the discourse in recognizing different viewpoints. HAD argues that Pagan claims need to be recognized and included in such policy, or heritage bodies will be guilty of religious discrimination:

The Pagan community’s sensitivities towards British human remains must now be heard if bodies are to avoid charges of religious discrimination. While indigenous people’s attitudes towards ancestry and heritage are now accepted (if seldom comprehended) by those dealing with human remains, British Pagan beliefs continue to be questioned or dismissed. This lack of acceptance is evidence in the Guidance, where there is no language sensitive to Pagan spiritual and religious concerns. Consultation is needed in order to address and amend this problem. (HAD, undated, circa 2007, unpaginated)

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