Stonehenge study tells pagans and historians it's good to talk

06/18/04

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. This research is published today as a part of Social Science Week.

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.

A report from their 'Sacred Sites, Contested Rights/Rites' project, comes at a time when considerable alliances have been formed at a public inquiry in Salisbury by groups fighting redevelopment plans for the Stonehenge area. These include a tunnel to take the A303 and the siting of a new visitor centre.

The project examined what have come to be known as sacred sites, and the climate of mistrust between heritage management and archaeologists on one side, and pagans and alternative interest groups on the other.

It included a detailed, systematic analysis of available published material, websites and press coverage, along with fieldwork and discussions with visitors and local people at Stonehenge and similar places.

Dr Blain said: "Stonehenge is the centre of an on-going struggle between travellers, pagans, 'Druids', members of the 'alternative' community, English Heritage, landowners and the police. The situation there spotlights differences between, on one hand, heritage concerns about preservation for future generations, and on the other, the demands of pagans and others who want open access for everyone."

Accommodations reached between the different parties at times of solstices and equinoxes remain contentious, and distrust is rife, says the report. It points out, however, that dividing lines have been drawn up differently over the current redevelopment plans.

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.

Access is important to them, but not at the expense of preserving sites for future generations. However, other Druids and pagans, notably groups campaigning for the return of the Stonehenge free-festival, call for mass public celebrations, especially at the summer solstice.

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.

Pagans sympathetic to preservation are interested in archaeological views and want to become involved in site maintenance. They also try to explain their perceptions about landscapes as 'living' entities. But archaeologists who take part in pagan conferences tend to provide information rather than seek it, and the result is frustration for the groups.

Picture presentations of sites such as Stonehenge invariably show them as dramatic ruins in splendid isolation, removing any signs of people or present-day activity. And the emphasis on such things as visitor centres and 'interpretation' handed out to na´ve visitors, suggests a 'top-down' approach by middle-class heritage management, explaining something from a 'closed' past.

Dr Blain said: "Our project suggests that open and transparent dialogue is needed between all the interested groups. And this must begin with an appreciation of diversity."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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