Reintroducing Sky Towers In Dorset
I sit in the conservatory and scour the sky through the glass roof. No raptors. Outside, I constantly look upwards to the skies but still no raptors. Yes, I am looking for eagles, white tailed sea eagles to be precise. A vulture or two would be icing on the cake. Those of you who watched BBC Autumnwatch on the 28th and 29th October 2020 will know why. They featured the bearded vulture that crossed over to Britain during the summer. It settled around the Crowden Valley in the Peak District for a few weeks before heading back to the French Alps. Then, Chris Packham visited the secret spot on the Isle of Wight, where 13 juvenile sea eagles have been released over the last two summers. The shots of these birds were amazing but why am I writing about reintroducing sky towers in Dorset?
My third book covered this topic. It is a subject relevant to how Stonehenge came into being. I raised the thorny question over what happened to all the missing bodies. The people who slogged in the fields, we do not find their remains. Consequently, in a chapter called ‘The innocent blue tit’ I described how a British sky tower would operate. The birds, you see, ate us. Consequently, little remained for archaeologists to find. However, it was a challenge to understand what birds existed here in 2200 BC.
The project to release sea eagles arose after I wrote the book. What a joy it was when bird experts stated that the sea eagle really belonged here, on our soft southern shores. The pines, now so redolent of Bournemouth, would be ideal trees for nesting. In fact, one of the sea eagles has flown over Bournemouth. All this validates my assertion that the sea eagle was the monarch of the sky towers. That bird, feeding on a body, would have been welcomed as a messenger from the gods, and no doubt as a means of releasing the spirit. But, what about the ‘shuffling birds’, the vultures. Were they in Britain in the Neolithic?
Reintroducing sky towers in Dorset
The bearded vulture (see picture) looks absolutely stunning. I prefer its other name, the lammergeier. The beard is a series of feathers hanging beneath its chin. This is the largest bird of prey in Europe, with a wingspan of up to ten feet. It has a habit of carrying large bones up high and dropping them onto rocks. My research suggested this was to eat the marrow in the bone. Autumnwatch showed that, in fact, it was to reduce the bone to smaller pieces. It then swallowed these large chunks of bone completely. In the book, this struck me as the ideal way to consume our biggest bones, the femur. However, when I mentioned the lammergeier I knew that I was on rocky ground. Its appearance on Autumnwatch vindicates me. Now, we have the birds so is it time for a law to allow sky towers?
I had always wanted this type of funeral but had no idea that this was common practice for our ancestors. Is it widely accepted that this was the method used by average person?
For me I see cremation as such a waste of a body, the smoke is of no use and neither are the remaining ashes. Being preserved whole, for the average person, is of no use and a waste of space and maintenance. The only way I can be a part of the natural cycle of life is to be eaten after I die. My genetics and the genetics of my ancestors live on through my children but the only way for myself to live on is by returning my physical body to that endless cycle of birth-life-death to which it belongs.
I wouldn’t want to die and have never had children because that would mean my very unique genetic variant of human would die with me. I would feel like that was a total waste and a real loss.
I wouldn’t want to die and have my body, the unique vessel that was given to me, my only true possession ever owned through which I experienced every aspect of my existence, my entire life from conception until death, I don’t want my body to end when my consciousness leaves it. What a wasteful and disrespectful way to treat the greatest gift and most wonderful thing any of us can ever own!
We owe it not only to ourselves but to all our family and friends to make sure that after we die our bodies be returned to the natural world from which they were bourne.
How can we try and get this ‘sky burial’ made a legal practice in the UK and a real and valid option for our funerals? If anyone knows about how it can be done I will campaign for it until it is time to lay out my own body!
Thanks for contacting me. It’s a fascinating subject. I also would like to feed the birds and a small number of people have said the same. As to whether this was routine in prehistory is hard to prove. For certain, the bodies of all but the elite are missing. We also find vast numbers of post holes. The fact that these might have been for sky towers has only been realised in the past decade or so. That is because of the research by Parker Pearson around Durrington Walls, the builders camp for Stonehenge. He is convinced he found a number of sky towers. As for myself, I see them as the only functional way these people could have survived in those times. Spare calories is something only our generation has experienced.
A few issues come to mind. The first one is that our body must not be toxic to the birds so that means we must refuse all medications prior to death. In particular, that means no pain relief, which is a big ask. Secondly, although there is in theory no law prohibiting sky burial, the situation is beyond vague.
The CE of the Institute of Cemetery & Crematorium Management is currently seeking clarification on the legality of composting bodies with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Also, it appears that some bodies have been put through the water cremation process, called Resomation. That, of course, is not cremation because no flame is used and so it stands outside the current legal framework. Also, much of the law is only applicable to local authorities and is highly confusing as regards any private company. All the current private and charitable natural burial providers operate in a rather vague legal environment but nobody has been threatened with any legal action.
I would suggest that a well screened private sky burial site, only accessed by the permission of the site owner, could not offend the public. The body would be left on a platform but the skeleton will remain. The big bones can only be moved by really large birds. With this in mind, sea eagles are currently being introduced on the Isle of Wight. These birds are, so my research shows, quite idle if given a carrion source. They will feed and return and go little further. Also, last year, a single Lammergeier (bearded vulture) moved from the French Alps to the Peak District for some weeks. That bird consumes large bones and also drops them from a height to break them into smaller pieces. I believe these birds routinely fed on human bodies from perhaps 8,000 BC to when the Romans invaded. If this bone dropping was seen as a problem then a nylon or metal net could be placed over the body.
The law, I think, might assume that some bones will remain. Being human remains they could, ideally, be interred or placed in an ossuary somewhere on site, which would enable the sky burial to be registered as a burial. That would remove the disposal from the vague sky burial arena and put it into the more conventional burial sphere.
We can assume that in prehistory the birds knew where bodies were placed and, consequently, developed large numbers and consumed a body very quickly. The different species of bird would consume specific parts of the body. Today, the local birds would not be familiar with this process. That said, a site could bait the sky towers with carrion for some time prior to placing a body. That is similar to how some sites have attracted so many red kites, so we know that it works. Nonetheless, the mass of birds using sky towers in prehistory would take some time to develop in Britain. The environmental capital in this would have amazing promotional kudos.
This process of cleaning off the bones prior to burial is not as unusual as it might appear. Ann and I visited a Catholic church on the Rhine a few years ago. The bodies were buried in time limited graves purely to allow the flesh to decompose in the soil. As soon as the time expired, the bones were removed and placed in an ossuary beneath the church. The mass of bones was open to view. The exhumed graves were then sold for further burials.
Sadly, I am not aware of anybody researching or proposing to offer sky burial. In reality, it, and composting bodies, would complement natural burial sites in the right locations. All three choices would give the perfect option to the bereaved. In essence, sky burial could be a first choice but if the deceased had to accept painkillers prior to death then composting or natural burial could be chosen at the same location. Finding a suitable natural burial site with an owner willing to do sky burial is perhaps the first objective. The MOJ don’t take new proposals too seriously until an actual provider is behind the proposal. Then there is the challenge of local planning permission, which I assume will be required. I hate to say it but sky burial is seen as pagan and, consequently, anybody with a religion can be expected to oppose it.
Finally, a problem we all have is that we have to rely on our survivors to dispose of our bodies. That is an issue because we have no way of ensuring that they do what we want. The executor can choose to do whatever they wish and I know that many do when they don’t agree with what the deceased requested. It is essential to have an executor that can be relied upon.
I hope this helps. I would be interested in what you think.