Museum should leave bodies to rest in peace

 

The National Museum is hell-bent on keeping thousands of bodies discovered during development works, writes  SARAH CAREY.

ONE MORNING in 2002, I stood looking out my grandmother's kitchen window as she washed up at the sink. She was cross. "They're like beetles crawling around in the dirt," she complained. "I'm sick of looking at them."

"Well, they've found over 400 bodies," I told her. "I know," she said flinging a cup on the draining board, "Why can't they leave them alone?"

"They" were a team of archaeologists excavating a burial site, known as Scaruppa, that would become part of the M4 motorway near Enfield. After a year's work, they uncovered the remains of 461 bodies dating from the fourth century right up to the early 1900s. The site included a cillin - a burial ground for stillborn and unbaptised babies.

The main graveyard was abandoned in the 1600s, but infants were occasionally buried there until 1920. The archaeologists speculated that, despite the absence of a church on the site, locals considered it appropriate to bury the infants, if not near God, then at least near their ancestors. They found 61 "neonates" at Scaruppa including two double burials both containing "premature individuals of late foetal stage who died before reaching full term". Thanks to the persistence of my mother, a memorial stone was erected last week which summarises the findings at what is now an off-ramp from the M4. But it doesn't answer one question about the remains of the 461: Where are they now? I asked Ronan Swan, chief archaeologist at the National Roads Authority (NRA). He's one of the good guys.

Swan is refreshingly frank about the boon that road building provides to archaeologists. Motorways enable the excavation of sites that would otherwise remain unknown. The NRA has funded detailed examination of excavated remains and Scaruppa is just one of many sites that have provided significant information to historians. For instance, we know that the medieval inhabitants of Enfield had a pretty cushy life for the times. The teeth on one male skeleton showed damage consistent with habitual pipe smoking. Not all hunting and warring then.

Swan told me that after forensic examination, all remains recovered by the NRA are handed over to the National Museum and as far as he knew they were all in a vault in Collins Barracks. So I called the museum to ask my next question: Can we have them back please? Enter the bad guys. It took over two months for someone to agree to talk to me - hardly a bastion of openness. In the meantime I spoke to Bishop Michael Smith of Meath who was supportive but sceptical about my chances of getting anywhere with the museum. It took him years to have four monks discovered on a building site in Mullingar returned for reinterment. Both he and our parish priest happily agreed to reinter the remains on consecrated ground, infants included, if they were returned.

The museum holds the remains of thousands of bodies discovered during various development works and they're hell-bent on keeping every last one of them. I put it to museum archaeologist Raghnall Ó Floinn that the remains at Scaruppa have already been forensically examined. Haven't they given enough to archaeology and don't they deserve to rest in peace now? Would they even keep a sample and return the rest?

He argued that while current technology has extracted all useful knowledge from the bodies, it's worth holding on to them in case future techniques can glean more information. If we were solving a murder mystery that argument might stand up, but ultimately, the museum's position is that any possible future knowledge about these people is the highest priority. The pursuit of knowledge is noble, but not the only factor that should be considered here.

I know we live in a time when people are measured on their productivity, but exactly how much work do we expect the dead to put in? Whether one labels it religious belief or mere superstition, respect for the dead is one of our most primitive and universal instincts. Suggestions that the Titanic be raised have been rejected because of the consensus that the site is a grave that should not be disturbed, irrespective of what information lies there. The building of motorways has disturbed many graves and that is unavoidable. But there is no reason, other than an imperious sense of entitlement, to stop the bodies being reinterred elsewhere in the same parish. Museums holding on to them indefinitely, simply because they can, smacks of a strange kind of greed.

Ó Floinn argued that if we knew the specific names of the bodies, we might have a case. This argument adds insult to injury, in my view. The 461 might lack identity, but that doesn't mean we can't honour their humanity. We don't know who they were, but we know what they were - people who lived and suffered and died.

Whatever one believes about life after death, I've always liked the promise of peace at the last. I think that's why my grandmother was so cross. Mortality and the fate of one's body was a more pressing issue for her than me in 2002. She died peacefully, aged 96, the following year. The people buried at Scaruppa have told their tale and now deserve that for which we all hope - eternal rest.