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Stonehenge Study Tells Pagans And Historians It's Good To Talk

More understanding among all sides in the great Stonehenge debate might be made if the world was shown images of how the site is experienced by visitors today rather than only its imagined past, suggests new research sponsored by the ESRC. ...

But the project, co-directed by Dr Jenny Blain of Sheffield Hallam University and Dr Robert Wallis of Richmond University, London, admits this would undermine the very potent and almost universal need for Stonehenge to remain 'essentially preserved', shrouded in mystery, and the ancient guardian of a hidden past.

... For many pagans, prehistoric sites are not ruins but living temples or sacred sites. They feel drawn to these places to perform seasonal rituals or to observe astronomical events. Many pagans, including Druids, accept the 'preservation ethos', regarding such things as stone circles, barrows and iron age forts as artefacts of pre-Christian paganism, and therefore sacred.

... The study points out that archaeologists investigating the religious significance of sites rarely consider rituals of the present day, dismissing them as invalid. Some heritage managers speak directly with pagan and other groups, and may even attend festivals, yet this is seldom recorded officially.

-- via Witches' Voice

This resembles, in some ways, the dual symbology of Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia (all my posts today come back to Australia, it seems). For non-Aboriginal Australians, the Rock represents the wild and weird outback, whereas for the local Aborigines Uluru is a physical expression of a mythological system. In the Uluru case, though, it's the people with a secular viewpoint who want to use it (climbing up it), while the religious people want it preserved.

I entirely agree that in the case of Stonehenge (as in so many other cases) archaeologists need to be willing to listen to the modern people linked to the things being studied. Unfortunately, archaeologists tend to have a narrow view of what they're listening for. In my research on NAGPRA, it seemed that the arguments that carried the most weight were those that showed how repatriation can improve the development of archaeological knowledge -- for example, by building trust that enables archaeologists to tap into traditional knowledge. Those sorts of benefits are important, but by themselves they don't make a very strong case. In the Stonehenge case, I'm not sure how much the pagan community could teach archaeologists about what they're interested in qua archaeologists (i.e., how people used Stonehenge thousands of years ago). Modern pagans' knowledge of ancient Stonehenge is based on what other archaeologists have found, and on a reconstructed heritage guided by the religious needs of the present rather than a methodology that would be valid to scientists (not that that makes pagans' views categorically bad -- if I thought that, I'd have to throw away the book of Genesis).

What's needed is for archaeologists to be able to recognize more that artefacts are not just artefacts. They have other uses and meanings. What pagans can tell archaeologists is that "preserve it and study it" is only one of the things that can be done with Stonehenge, and it should not have a monopoly on the site. The beliefs of people 4000 years ago are not the only and essential meaning of the site.

Pagans can also tell archaeologists what becomes of their findings. Scientific knowledge doesn't just sit there, it becomes used by people. Pagans are an important consumer of knowledge about Stonehenge, but archaeologists tend to be less able to understand their needs and practices than those of the general public who see Stonehenge as a mysterious relic. Archaeologists may even be able to act as a sort of liaison between the two groups, as the general public tends to look to archaeologists for information (even as their desire for a site "shrouded in mystery" conflicts with archaeological goals of acquiring knowledge), so they could put information about the site's origins in the context of its continuing existence as a living religious site.


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