Give us back our bones, pagans tell British museums

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British museums have become used to requests that foreign treasures be repatriated. Greece has persistently requested the return of the Parthenon marbles, while some administrators have agreed to return the remains of Australian Aborigines. Now the pressure is coming from closer to home.

British pagan groups are increasingly asking for human remains and grave goods from pre-Christian burials to be returned to them as well. The presence of what they see as their ancestors in dusty drawers or under harsh display lights is an affront to their religion. To them, the bones are living beings, whose existence is bound up with their religious descendants and the sacred land.

"This is quite a big issue for museums around the country, but one that was not being discussed," said Piotr Bienkowski, the deputy director of Manchester Museum. "Discussion had been deliberately clamped down in some circles."

Many scientists counter that, because of numerous influxes of people into the British Isles, it is impossible to identify the cultural or genetic descendants of Anglo-Saxon pagans and older peoples. They say handing back the bones for reburial would be a betrayal of a museum's duty to society and a loss to science.

But requests from pagans for reburials are becoming more common. The Natural History Museum, British Museum, Leicester Museum, Manchester Museum, Devizes Museum and Duckworth Laboratory at Cambridge University have all been in dialogue with pagan groups. Last week, the Council of British Druid Orders demonstrated outside the Alexander Keiller Museum in Wiltshire for the reburial of a child skeleton excavated from Windmill Hill in 1929. The council is in dialogue with English Heritage and the National Trust about the issue.

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