No One Voice

The following article was first published in British Archaeology journal number 78, September 2004.

Modern pagans are drawn to archaeological sites. For the fifth year, English Heritage has facilitated ‘managed open access’ to Stonehenge at the summer solstice: 21,000 came. People recently gave ‘spiritual motivation’ (16%) and ‘personal meditation’ (11%) as reasons for visiting Avebury. In 1996 and 1999 West Kennet Avenue megaliths at Avebury were covered with graffiti, some said by the journal Antiquity to be the work of ‘new age crazies’.

Archaeologists and heritage managers recognise this interest. Talking to pagans, David Miles, chief archaeologist at English Heritage, said he accepted Seahenge was a ‘sacred site’. Clews Everard, recent manager at Stonehenge, used the same phrase in discussions about summer solstice access and other ritual occasions.

So what does it mean to be ‘pagan’ today? Is there such a thing as a core pagan belief? Can the scientific demands of archaeology be reconciled with the interests of people who describe ‘ancient monuments’ as ‘sacred sites’? How should heritage managers respond to visitors seeking ‘spiritual’ engagement?

We have spent the past four years investigating such questions, talking to a variety of people about ‘sacredness’, beliefs and practices.

Paganism is said to be one of the fastest growing religions in the West today. In fact it is more an alliance of nature-orientated religions or traditions than a coherent belief system. These ‘pagan paths’ include Wicca (modern witchcraft), Druidry (well-known for its interest in Stonehenge as well as the European Iron Age) and Heathenry (which draws on Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic literature and folklore).

To an outsider, pagan interests in the past may appear laughable, spurious and romantic; and we would agree that some pagans do romanticise the past to bring a missing enchantment into their lives. Yet pagans are deeply committed to their religious practices and take their interest in prehistoric ‘ancestors’ very seriously. Paganism is appealing to a growing number of people. So whether non-pagans believe in what pagans do is beside the point: archaeologists and historians should take note.

Not all pagans visit ancient sites, but those that do (most famously Druids) do so with intensity. Pagan rites happen at hundreds of archaeological sites across the British Isles and Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe, Australia and the US. At such places ancestors, gods, goddesses, wights and other nature/spirit beings are felt most strongly, and communication with these and ‘non-human persons’ (animals, stones and so on) is said to be particularly effective. Rituals and ceremonies are most often conducted during ‘auspicious’ times of the year, including Beltane (1 May, the first day of summer), Summer Solstice (21 June, midsummer), Samhain (31 October, Hallowe’en) and Winter Solstice (‘Yule’, 21 December), to celebrate the turning of the seasons and subtle changes in people (human and non-human).

Graffiti and fire damage have occurred at Avebury. ‘Friends of the Stone’ ignited ersatz napalm at Men-an-Tol in Penwith, Cornwall. Others recently daubed yellow gloss paint on the Rollright stone circle. Though sometimes linked with paganism, such incidents are markedly atypical of pagan behaviour.

Pagans revere ‘places of power’ and claim to respect the heritage principles of preservation. Votive offerings, from flowers and mead to more enduring ritual litter such as candles, incense and crystals, are commonly made at a wide variety of ancient sites, especially those with megaliths such as stone circles and the West Kennet long barrow.

Someone has to clear up. Until recently, this job fell to the likes of National Trust and English Heritage curators (often assisted by anonymous pagans for whom site clearing was a form of offering). With the formation of SOSS (Save Our Sacred Sites), ASLaN (Ancient Sacred Landscape Network) and similar groups, partly by pagans themselves, pagans are more active in litter-clearance and site etiquette: conservation-conscious pagans have borrowed the maxim ‘leave only footprints’.

Modern paganism is not, however, just about ceremony and house-keeping. There is an increasing concern with reburial.

British pagans and heritage managers urgently need to discuss reburial, long a hot topic in Australia and the USA. In the famous example of Kennewick Man scientific analysis of the human remains by physical anthropologists was halted by law. A pagan organisation, however, the Asatru Folk Assembly (unusual, among pagans, for being right-wing) and Native American communities were granted access to the remains to perform ceremonies honouring the ‘ancestor’. This is a complicated case, but it shows how contemporary pagans as well as indigenous groups are making successful claims to the past – with ramifications for archaeologists in Britain.

Repatriation is an issue when human remains and artefacts are not indigenous to Britain. In 2000 Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum returned a Ghost Dance shirt to the Lakota (Sioux), to the accompaniment of much publicity. The following year, after requests from overseas the Royal College of Surgeons revised its policy on considering the return of human remains. A working group set up to examine the legal status of human remains in UK public collections reported last November with recommendations for dealing with such requests. The World Archaeological Congress approved their proposal for claims assessment by an independent expert panel.

Recently on a British archaeology email list, archaeologists and museum curators discussed unease among members of the public seeing prehistoric human remains; some were sympathetic to the call for (at least) their removal from view. Pagans go further. Drawing on the repatriation debate, they have been calling for the ‘return to the earth’ or reburial of some (not all) prehistoric remains.

Pagans may ally themselves spiritually with the prehistoric peoples who built the monuments. Through rites at Mesolithic pits (in the Stonehenge car park) to Bronze Age round barrows, they feel a responsibility to ancient peoples and sacred sites. They have begun to address ‘ancestor welfare’ through concerns about excavation and storage of remains. Archaeologists excavating at Avebury have received interest – both negative and positive (there is no single voice) – from local and other Druids.

British Pagans use similar language to Native Americans and other indigenous communities. ‘Every day in Britain’, says British Druid Order member Paul Davies, ‘sacred Druid sites are surveyed and excavated … [our ancestors’] places of rest are opened … their bones removed and placed in museums for the voyeur to gaze upon, or stored in cardboard boxes in archaeological archives … I believe we, as Druids, should be saying “Stop this now”… When archaeologists desecrate a site … It is a theft … We should assert our authority as the physical guardians of esoteric lore. We should reclaim our past’.

Such rhetoric is not surprising: many pagans, neo-Shamans in particular, engage with non-British indigenous spiritual practices (drawing accusations of neo-colonial appropriation) – some see themselves as ‘new indigenes’. To Davies ‘bones are living people and should therefore be respected and ceremonially reburied’. He speaks ‘for the ancestors and guardians of the land … Druids should join together and encourage debate between archaeologists and museums’.

Pagans do not have agreed core practices, let alone central spiritual beliefs concerning disposal of the dead. While most pagans are ethnically tolerant, there are right-wing agencies caught up in ‘blood-and-soil’ issues. Nonetheless, in the ‘time of tribes’ the British reburial issue is gaining coherency, with Stonehenge as a focus.


Druid priestess Emma Restall Orr has formed Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD), which aims to ‘ensure respect for ancient pagan remains’ amongst a variety of interest groups. Without calling for mandatory reburial, HAD desires pagans have the opportunity to ‘make ritual in appropriate ways, honouring the spirits involved’ (see British Archaeology’s Opinion column, July 2004, also published on this website).

Responses to HAD vary: polytheist pagans in particular believe today’s rituals would be inappropriate. Philip Shallcrass, Chief of the British Druid Order, wants more. ‘… any remains that may be uncovered during the work [at Stonehenge]’ should be ‘treated with respect and then returned to the earth as near as possible to their original burial sites, preferably with any accompanying grave goods and with suitable ritual’.

It has happened. Following excavation and analysis by Wessex Archaeology of an early Anglo-Saxon woman in the Woodford Valley, near Stonehenge, the Home Office agreed to reburial. The District Council’s director of housing and health sanctioned the burial site near the excavation, and Wessex Archaeology (with legal and moral responsibility for what they had uncovered) reburied the woman’s remains.

Archaeologists, and other pagans, will point out that we do not know what rituals, if any, were associated with ancient remains. Osteoarchaeologists in particular might react with outrage at the suggestion of reburial, and private landowners may find themselves in difficult positions. Indigenous communities, it could be said, may claim genetic or cultural links to ancient human remains or artefacts; British pagans can not do the same.

However this is to miss the point. Few claim an exclusive relationship to ‘the ancestors’. Pagans ask for respect and reburial, not repatriation. In keeping with current social sciences and humanities research methods, archaeologists and heritage managers must open their work to external scrutiny.

The Human Remains Report has its critics (see Science, July). Tiffany Jenkins claims that ‘Every molecule, hair and fingernail is seen as sacred unless proven otherwise’, and that the scientific study of skeletal material is threatened.

We believe the report encourages constructive debate. Many people today – including some archaeologists – feel that ‘sacredness’ rather than ‘objective’ scientific knowledge should be the starting point.

People in the past deliberately buried other people within a landscape. We cannot know the particular interpretations of that landscape, or someone’s relation to it at the time of the funerary rites. Nor can we know the meaning of the burials or the identity of the people. However, ethnography and contemporary indigenous accounts suggest a consistent ‘sacred’ relationship. Interrupting the association of person, land, and grave-goods, disturbs that link.

We do not deny claims of scientific knowledge, nor do we automatically support the case for reburial. We do suggest that the ‘spiritual’ evaluation of respect for British prehistoric remains is every bit as pressing as that for overseas indigenous claims; and that science should have to make a particular case for the retention of such material. We commend the Report on Human Remains, and anticipate seeing similar recommendations for indigenous British material in the near future.

Robert J Wallis (Richmond University) and Jenny Blain (Sheffield Hallam University) co-ordinated the Sacred Sites, Contested Rights/Rites project, funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council, RES-000-22-0074). See Wallis wrote Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies & Contemporary Pagans, and Blain Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic: Ecstasy & Neo-Shamanism in North European Paganism (both Routledge 2003).

Both Robert Wallis and Jenny Blain are HAD Council Members.