Mike Parker-Pearson is co-director of the Riverside Project. He is is a Professor of Archaeology. He is an internationally renowned expert in the archaeology of death and also specialises in the later prehistory of Britain and Northern Europe and the archaeology of Madagascar and the western Indian Ocean. He has published 14 books and over 100 academic papers, on topics that range from architecture, food and warfare to ethnoarchaeology, archaeological theory and heritage management. He has worked on archaeological excavations in Britain, Denmark, Easter Island, Germany, Greece, Madagascar, Syria and the United States, and currently directs field projects in the Outer Hebrides, Madagascar and the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
Mike was voted 'Archaeologist of the Year' for 2010. His Stonehenge Riverside Project also received the award of 'Archaeological Research Project of the Year' for 2010, after his team discovered 'Bluestonehenge', the remains of a second stone circle close to Stonehenge in 2009.
He is currently seeking an extension of the period allowed for the study of the cremated remains found in the Aubrey Holes, which were first excavated in the 1920s.
PfA: What is your role in the Riverside Project?
MPP: I'm a co-director with five others. I basically started us off and persuaded the others to join in, and
I'm in overall charge of all the admin (I carry the can for the grants, the permissions, etc etc) but I don't dictate the research results, obviously! We spend a lot of time discussing and arguing about interpretations and the next step. It's been really useful doing it this way because it's easier to see which interpretations fit the evidence best and avoid going down blind alleys; it stops any one of us following their pet theory without looking at all angles. Lots of other archaeologists thought we were mad to try and work in such a big team - they predicted we'd fight and fall out - but it's been a fantastic way of running a big project.
PfA: What got you interested in archaeology?
MPP: Looking for fossils and other finds in the gravel on my dad's drive when I was four years old. When I was six, I got out a library book called Fun With Archaeology - it's been my aim in life ever since.
PfA: Do you feel a kinship for the people of the past?
MPP: Most of the time "no", because they were so different to us in many ways, really quite strange. But some things transcend time and place, and give a sense of connection, like finger-prints on a pot or the face of a bog body, or the death of the Iceman.
PfA: What can human remains tell us about the people of the past?
MPP: The answer to this question changes virtually by the year. When I was younger, advances were being made in osteological identification of age, sex, trauma and disease. Now we're finding out about diet, mobility, migration, and DNA - these are all techniques that were unimaginable even 20 years ago.
PfA: What is the scientific and/or social value of retaining human remains for study?
MPP: Because our scientific capabilities are changing so fast, there is no point at which anyone can say "that's done, the research on those remains is finished". For example, with the Aubrey Hole cremated remains we have just found that there is a brand-new technique of sex identification from the size and shape of
ear-holes (the petrous bone) which has been developed just in time for us to use. No-one ever knows what the future will bring - think of the antiquarian barrow-diggers who didn't keep the Bronze Age skeletons because they couldn't imagine any reason to do so.
PfA: Why is it important that the remains from the Aubrey Holes are studied? What can we learn?
MPP: Who are these people who were buried at Stonehenge? What more interesting question could there be? It's an extraordinary place and we want to find out as much as we can about it, its builders and its users. By studying the remains of the people buried there, we try to find out as much as we can about their lives and the society they lived in. This was the period between the long barrows and the round barrows and we have very few remains at all dating to this period (3000-2500 BC). What happened to most of the dead and why were these people special?
PfA: Why do you need the time allowed to study them to be extended?
Because working with fragments of cremated bone just takes ages. There are over 50,000 pieces of bone and they are all mixed up - we don't know which individual is which out of the 60 deposits of bones that were found by Col. Hawley in the 1920s. It is the most complicated jigsaw puzzle you could imagine. These people of Stonehenge are worth our spending time with them. I can't bear the idea of this being rushed. I'm not sure people realise just how long the post-excavation phase of any project takes. It's normal for it to take years to get all the specialist analyses queued up and completed. For example, the Amesbury Archer was excavated in 2002 and the report is still not published. Money and time are always hard to find.
PfA: What can the Aubrey Holes remains and the Riverside Project tell us about the wider Stonehenge landscape and the uses to which the complex of monuments were put?
This is a huge question! Until we started, it was thought that Stonehenge's period of use as a cemetery was only a very short-lived part of the monument's life. The project's preliminary results indicate dates for cremation burial as early as its construction (3000 BC) and possibly as late as 2300 BC. What we really need to know from the radiocarbon dates is what that full span of use as a cremation cemetery was and how the numbers of individuals being buried varied through time - was Stonehenge the burial place for an increasing number of people, or were most of the people found here buried when the monument was
first built? The contrast with Durrington Walls is stark - there we have found only three loose human bones amongst 80,000 animal bones. Durrington Walls was a place for the living, Stonehenge is full of the dead. National Geographic, who funded some of the excavations, sent a children's book author to write
about the project - his book is called If Stones Could Speak (by Marc Aronson) and funnily enough, it's currently the only up-to-date book on Stonehenge, its chronology and landscape. Quite cheap on Amazon.
PfA: What can the remains tell us about the lives of the individuals who were cremated and placed in the Aubrey Holes?
By the end of the research, we are hoping to know the distribution by sex (how many men, how many women) and age (adults and children). That in itself is going to reveal something about how this society worked. Preliminary findings indicate that most of the people buried here were men, with few women or
children. These preliminary identifications from pieces of skull and pelvis, though, will need to be checked against the new method using the petrous bone. We can find out about trauma and disease. So far, there are few signs of ill-health other than some osteoarthritis, and one person had a benign tumour. This work is much more difficult when the osteologist is working on fragments of cremated bone rather than with a complete skeleton. DNA and strontium isotope analysis (which reveals where people lived) are not possible using
current methods - but who knows what future researchers may be able to do.
PfA: What do you think about the way human remains are displayed in museums?
I haven't got a problem with this. It's part of my culture. Obviously, all curators treat human remains with respect - that's part of the culture, too. The public at large are fascinated by human remains - we all want to know about death, as it's about the only thing we all have in common, pharaohs, bog bodies, you and me. It's the big mystery and I think it helps to come face to face with it sometimes, particularly as our cultural practices are now so coy surrounding death and dead bodies. We seem to pretend the bodies of the dead today are an unmentionable problem, and should be swept away out of sight by 'professionals'. I don't think that's healthy. Because one understands one's personal connection to the remains of another human being, I think human
remains really make people aware of the depth of time of human history.
PfA: Do you think there is a role for Pagans in archaeology? For instance, in describing the dynamics of ritual and how Pagans engage with sites.
Yes. The more people who show an interest in our past and archaeology, the better. Pagans and the way they engage with the prehistoric past could be a real eye-opener for people of other beliefs (or none), as it's one of the ways of showing how much these places matter to our society.
PfA: Do you think the heritage sector should engage with Pagans?
Difficult, because some Pagans seem to me to be very antagonistic to other people's point of view. Some of them even seem to think that they have a more powerful claim to 'ownership' of the past and our ancestors than the rest of us.
But I think that's a problem with all religious belief systems - the danger of thinking only you are right, and everyone else is totally wrong (People's Front of Judea and all that!).
PfA: Many thanks for a fascinating insight into the state of current osteoarchaeology, and the research findings of the Riverside Project. We believe that only a small minority of Pagans think they have a claim to 'ownership' of the past and our ancestors. Indeed, the vast majority of Pagans are very tolerant of other belief-systems, including atheism, secular humanism, etc. The huge numbers of fans and members of Pagans for Archaeology attests to the numbers of Pagans who don't believe they have a special claim on human remains, and who are interested in science and archaeology.