Monday, February 05, 2007

Pagans Rising: The Stonehenge Settlement and Repatriation or, Who Controls the UK's Past?

The big archaeological news of the week has been the discovery of a large Neolithic residential site near Stonehenge, that most famous of all standing stone sites and emblem of British prehistory. This piece discusses the festival aspects, interpreted as seasonal, of the settlement and ceremonial architecture of a massive woodhenge at the site as well as nearby Stonehenge.

The article also notes the ties to modern pagans. Modern paganism is no small thing in the UK. The Catholic Cardinal of England and Wales states that Britain is no longer a Christian country, that it has gone pagan. Of course, he's lumping in all kinds of things he deems to be un-Christian or not of organized religion, and not just Pagan believers. Perhaps this is much ado about nothing, as three-quarters of Britons identified themselves as Christian in 2001, with Wiccans and other Pagans making up less than 0.1% of the country.

Despite these relatively small numbers, Pagans increasingly participate in the heritage of archaeological and sacred sites in the UK. The solstice celebrations at Stonehenge and other megalithic sites are the most famous. Last year some Catholic youths confronted Pagans during festivities in Glastonbury, throwing salt at them in a magical attempt to cleanse the town.

Meanwhile in Greece, a small group of Pagans have semi-legally (it seems, the coverage is not clear) started worshipping Zeus and the Classical Greek gods at ancient ruins in Athens. Greece is famous for the close ties between the church and the state, so this is no empty act.

Now, in a move echoing that of indigenous and minority people aross the planet, British Pagans are claiming the bones recovered from prehistoric sites as their ancestors and demanding repatriation from museums. The efforts have so far not been successful, in particular due to the great time depth between a modern claimant and the remains, without openly known ancestry traced between the modern and their claimed ancestors. This in turn echoes the issues around Kennewick Man, or as an alliance modern indigenous people have called him, the Ancient One. That case cannot be the same, due to the colonial aspect of the last five centuries and their legacy today. But all of this gets very complicated, quickly.

EDIT (Feb. 20, 2007): Stonehenge altar stone, long missing, may have been identified. Would modern pagans insist this piece is necessary for the proper use of Stonehenge, or do they stay where they are? Standard conservation practice is not to reverse later changes to architecture). How is the decision made?

EDIT (April 5. 2007): Craig Childs points out the issues involving Stonehenge and modern societies.

EDIT (April 7, 2007): An amulet from Suffolk may be similar to an amulet in a burial near Stonehenge. The Suffolk amulet dates to 1900 - 1700 BC, at which point Stonehenge would have been largely in its final form. The news article calls them "Stonehenge Amulets" but there is no particular reason for that to be the case.

EDIT (July 5, 2007): Pagans are protesting temporary modifications, for a television show, to Britain's famous Long Man geoglyph. Of course, the age and origin of the sculpture are still not certain, at least from an archaeological or mainstream historical perspective.

No comments: