Monday, March 20, 2017


I’m grateful to my sister, Mary Nell McCann, for passing along the April 21, 2014 issue of the New Yorker, which contains an excellent article on Stonehenge and the Salisbury Plain by Laura Miller (“Romancing the Stones,” pp. 48-54). It’s a nice portrayal of the Plain’s management issues, and of then-current archaeological findings and conclusions.

What struck me as worth writing about here and now, though, was what Miller said about consultation. Specifically consultation about whether excavated human remains should be exhibited in the on-site museum. She quotes Christine Cleere (I have to wonder if she’s related to Henry) of the neo-pagan/Druid group called Honoring the Ancient Dead, or HAD, as follows:

“the main issue over these displays is about consultation, because they were put in without any form of consultation whatever.”

Miller immediately goes on to ask:

“But why should archaeologists consult Druids about handling prehistoric remains?”

And after a rather simplistic review of how consultation on such matters is handled in the U.S. under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), she goes on to quote University of Bristol archaeologist Mark Horton:

“There’s no genetic or direct cultural connection between contemporary pagan groups and the people whose remains are displayed here. I have as much right to determine their fate as they do.”

Yes, Mark, no doubt you do. And is the converse not also true? Does it not follow that they have as much right as you do to determine the fate of the remains? Is that not the very reason that you and your colleagues bloody well need to consult them?

Or do you think that because you have “as much right” as they do to determine what happens to the remains, you have the right to make that determination unilaterally? If so, why? Because you’re an archaeologist? Not a pagan? Or what?

It strikes me that Horton, and Miller, have fallen into what seems to be the common trap of confusing CONSULTATION with DICTATION (by which I mean dictating an outcome, not reciting words for faithful transcription). This confusion is widespread. Land managers, project planners, and regulators, for instance, exhibit it when they don't consult with indigenous groups or local residents because, in the relevant country’s legal system, those groups don’t have the authority to dictate outcomes. They also exhibit it by "consulting" only pro-forma, getting "input" and ignoring it. Courts exhibit the same confusion when they let government agencies get away with it -- as the Corps of Engineers has been allowed to on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Thanks to this confusion, consultation has come to be regarded as a zero-sum game; it's all or nothing. If you don’t have the power to dictate an outcome, "consultation" with you can be reduced to mere bureaucratic fluff.

What ever happened to the notion of reasoning together? Of recognizing that different groups have varying interests, and that good public policy demands that we try to achieve meetings of the minds? To practice the fine art of compromise?

Ironically, in the Stonehenge case the folks from HAD, according to Miller, have actually proposed what seems like a pretty reasonable compromise – one that’s NOT acceptable to a lot of comparably situated Native American groups. That is to use faithful replicas of the disinterred human remains in the exhibits, and put the real bones back in the ground. But the archaeologists, apparently, having the power, won’t go along even with that.

British colleagues, can you enlighten us about any of this? 


Anonymous said...

Right, well, we're talking about Stonehenge here - not the widening of Route 37 through Sheboygan, due to start work in 180 days. If there is federal land or a federal nexus for Route 37, federally recognized Tribes have the reserved right of consultation, which includes the reserved right of repatriation of remains and artifacts, and over which the feds have some temporary control. The Route 37 managers have to comply with that reserved right, and so do the archeologists who work for them. That's the law. But the same reserved right does not exist for unmarked graves or artifacts that might be "claimed" by, say, the Daughters of Old Wisconsin, or the Brigade of Wisconsin Union Volunteers, or the local Sheboygan Hibernian Society, or a non-recognized Indian Tribe. For these latter groups, they should be offered the same general consultation that will be offered to the public, but they don't have any rights to any of the remains or artifacts. For these non-Tribal groups, repatriation is not mandated, probably not appropriate or allowable, and doesn't need to be addressed in their consultations at all. Not all consultations are the same, and it is just not right to equate them or draw so many parallels. And, federally recognized Tribes have reserved rights that the rest of the nation does not - period.

Thomas F King said...

I must have totally lost my ability to communicate.

MVN said...

Nah, and you haven/t lost your superb sense of humor either, Tom! That was an hilarious riposte. Your point about "consultation" dictation is spot-on. Rational agents/agencies need to consult on how to consult, by the way. If they don't, it almost always proceeds as a cycloptic agency dictation, and that's the chronic problem you highlighted.