Science Versus the Druids: Campaigners Lose Fight For Reburial of Charlie the Avebury Skeleton

The 5,000-year-old skeleton of a young girl known as Charlie, found buried on a hilltop at Avebury in Wiltshire, will remain on public display at the nearby Alexander Keiller Museum where it has resided for 50 years.A campaign for its reburial by the Council of British Druid Orders (CoBDO) was defeated overwhelmingly by weight of government guidelines and expert and public opinion.

The CoBDO argue that its disrespectful for the bones of our ancient ancestors to be stared at or stored in cardboard boxes in dark basements when not the immediate subject of study. In 2006 they selected Charlie who was unearthed in the 1920s at Windmill Hill, and gifted to the public in 1966 as the test case on which to launch a drive for the reburial of “various human remains from archaeological excavations, stored in museums and universities around the country,” according to a statement on the CoBDO website.

A long and expensive public consultation was launched in 2008 by English Heritage, which concluded last week with the announcement that Charlie was staying put. Dr Sebastian Payne, Chief Scientist at English Heritage, commented (quoted by the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald):

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.

The decision has been applauded by experts, who have supported Dr Paynes hope that this ruling will aide English Heritage and museums in the future in rejecting further calls for the re-interment of prehistoric human remains.

Government Guidelines and Expert Opinion

The principals set out in the Department for Culture Media and Sports Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums, published in 2005, were the main basis of English Heritages decision.

The physical remains of humans found in archaeological contexts embody knowledge of our past that we have hardly begun to unlock. They must be retained for research that benefits us all.

They recommend that claimants for remains more than 500-years-old need to be able to demonstrate very close and continuous links with the skeleton in question. The Druids who merely claim cultural affinity with pagan heritage failed to do. Furthermore, the skeleton of Charlie discovered in a well-recognised site of archaeological significance, with World Heritage Site status is not only well-preserved and well-documented, but also promises to yield more information as advances in ancient DNA and stable isotope analysis are made. It was therefore deemed to be of more benefit to the public above ground than below.

Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, an archaeologist at Oxford University commented (also quoted by the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald): 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.

Naomi Phillips, Head of Public Affairs for The British Humanist Association, added: 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.

Public Support

Avebury Stones HDR 4118

In one public opinion poll of 1,000 people, conducted in June 2009, 90% of respondents said they were comfortable with prehistoric human remains being kept by museums. Comments on the subject of the CoBDO campaign to a local newspaper website This Is Western Daily Press give some indication of the flavour of public opposition to Druids’ calls for the re-burial of prehistoric remains.

CoBDO has no more right to claim any kind of jurisdiction over our past than any other self-elected pressure group, wrote Edwin Deady of Cornwall. The past of Charlie almost certainly predates the Celtic Druids.

In another comment, Thomas Hurlock of Wales wrote: (The CoBDO) made claims that such remains are of their tribal ancestors. Rubbish; the tribes of Britain died out centuries ago, these people have no basis at all for such claims. Media-hungry extremists, who give their religion a very bad public image.

Science, noted Ian Dunbar of Gloucester, should be given free reign to extract as much information as they can so we can all understand more about our own collective past and not be restricted by a self-appointed minority group. I want to know fact about my ancestors, not be restricted by made up religious morals.

Want to hear the druids’ point of view? Watch our video interviews with druids Kim Payne and Frank Somers to find out why “putting granny back” is so important to them.Do you think Charlie should return to Avebury? What about human remains discovered at Stonehenge? Have your say in below.