Pagans Get Support in Battle Over Stonehenge

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
October 31, 2002
Pagans, Druids, and Travelers in the United Kingdom are demanding some respect, and it looks like they may be on their way to getting some.

Researchers studying the conflict over access to ancient sites such as Stonehenge, a circle of stones built around 2300 B.C., have concluded that "alternative site users" should be given a larger role in making decisions about how such monuments are used and managed.

"Contemporary Pagan interests are no less and no more valid than those of archaeologists, preservationists, or the general public," said Robert Wallis, an archaeologist at American University in London and co-author of the study.

Adherents of Paganism, who include Druids, Wiccans, Witches, Heathens, and others, conjure up images of people in dark hooded robes performing scary rituals. But Pagans are a fast-growing sector of post-modern Britain and can be found throughout society, the researchers say [see sidebar].

"They come from all walks of life," said Wallis. "There is tremendous diversity among the groups. Many of the beliefs and practices of today's Druids and Pagans draw on the early indigenous religions of the British Isles."

Celebration and Preservation

Stonehenge has been the most visible battleground in the clash over competing interests of various groups.

Archaeologists and conservationists regard Stonehenge and similar sites as archaeological treasures to be protected and preserved. Pagans, Druids, and other users like them view it differently.

"We see Stonehenge more as a temple than as a monument," said Arthur Pendragon, a Druid leader. "Instead of wrapping it up in cotton wool, we see it as a living landscape, to be used to celebrate the seasons and quarter days [solstices and equinoxes]. Druids want to use sacred sites as they were originally intended."

Wallis and co-author Jenny Blain, an anthropologist at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), argue that including Pagans and others who want to use the site for spiritual reasons will benefit the public and the monuments themselves.

The study, Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights, was funded by the Human Rights Research Centre at SHU and is continuing under a research grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.

The authors say Pagans, Druids, and other groups like them labor under two clouds in their efforts to gain standing in the decision-making process.

The first problem is the groups' reputation. Largely as the result of media coverage, say the authors, the groups are frequently considered hippies, druggies, and crazies—people operating on the fringes of society.

In addition, those who favor using the ancient monuments for spiritual purposes have been blamed—unjustly, according to the study—for past damage at many of the sites.

Ancient Tradition

The celebration of the summer solstice at Stonehenge is a particularly powerful draw among Pagans and has been a focal point of controversy in the past.

Celebrations were held there as long as 10,000 years ago. The site's Stone Circle was erected around 2300 B.C. and is built so that the stones are aligned with the first rays of light from the solstice sunrise. Contemporary Pagans believe the summer solstice carries deep mystical and religious significance, and want to continue ancestral forms of celebration at what they consider to be a sacred site.

From 1972 until 1985, the solstice celebrations at Stonehenge were often raucous free festivals, rife with drugs, alcohol, and celebrants climbing and defacing the stones. English Heritage, the government entity responsible for the site, banned all solstice celebrations in 1985 after an inflammatory confrontation between celebrants and police that came to be known as the Battle of Beanfield, for the place where it occurred.

The 15-year ban was lifted in 2000 and open solstice celebrations have been held at the ancient monument for the last three years. Despite increasing numbers—English Heritage estimates that up to 20,000 celebrants attended the summer solstice this past June—the occasions have been peaceful, said Blain.

"A substantial amount of work has gone into making it that way, with many people within Pagan and Traveler communities acting as stewards, publicizing the reasons for 'rules' and so on," she said.

Struggle for Standing

Including alternative users of monuments such as Stonehenge in the management process will ultimately benefit the sites themselves, the researchers argue.

While Stonehenge is the best known sacred site in Great Britain, there are hundreds more that also are attracting increasing numbers of celebrants, and most of these sites are open to use by anyone, said Blain.

In northern England, Pagan groups protesting the threat of quarrying have set up camp on Stanton Moor to protect an ancient stone circle known as the Nine Ladies, Blain noted. "There are basically good relations between the camp and the local heritage management people," she said. "It's an example where Pagan and heritage interests largely coincide to attempt to protect this site."

The Ancient Sacred Landscapes Network, a Pagan coalition formed in 1998 to act as guardians of ancient monuments and sites, has organized litter clean-ups, campaigned for better maintenance of the sites, and worked hard to promulgate a "leave no trace" ethic among worshippers.

In the last several years, the many groups involved in the issue—including English Heritage, landowners, Pagans, and local authorities—have engaged in numerous discussions with one another.

Still, the disparity in views is wide.

"English Heritage views its responsibility as a need to protect the monument, maintaining it as a relic of the past, of some bygone age," said Pendragon. "They've gotten bogged down with this view that Stonehenge should be maintained in the condition it was in 40 some years ago when it first came under their protection, which is really quite arbitrary."

He added: "I think there would be no better testament than the rebuilding of it, putting the stones back up and restoring it to its former glory. No one argued about the restoration of Windsor Palace when it burned down, saying that the fire is history and therefore the palace must be left as is. Of course, that [view] is very controversial with the archaeologists."

Yet in terms of mutual respect, he said, "it's definitely been getting better; much better."

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