Thursday, 31 July 2008

Stonehenge consultation

English heritage has produced a spiffy new website with details of the Stonehenge consultation.

The government has ruled out spending lots of money on diverting the road or building a tunnel, so the only options on the table are the ones outlined in the consultation website. This is not English Heritage's fault.

Links to the forms are here, but it's worth going to the website and reading the various options and background material before plunging in.

The Antikythera mechanism

New York Times » Discovering How Greeks Computed In 100 B.C.
After a closer examination of a surviving marvel of ancient Greek technology known as the Antikythera Mechanism, scientists have found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.

The new findings, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, also suggested that the mechanism’s concept originated in the colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, on Sicily. The scientists said this implied a likely connection with Archimedes.
Hat-tip to Witches and Scientists.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Ancient tattoos and acoustic caves

Livia Indica has a new blog about Pagan tattoos, including some posts about tattoos found on ancient human remains:
Over at her other blog, Magic in these hills, she has a post about ancient caves and echolocation, which I also blogged about previously:

Why we love archaeology

Archaeology matters to us because:
Archaeology means the difference between fantasy ideas and facts to me, okay they don't always get it right, but they do try.
History is something we need to learn things from, in my opinion, not because I have this vision of some sort of golden age of yore, but that there are skills and mistakes that we need to learn from.
Many of the basic skills we all once would have had are gone and are now only known to a few, fire-making for one instance. Society might not require those skills right now, not with all the technology we have, but that does not mean they should be lost totally and that's what archaeology means to me, the saving and keeping of our past, because one day we may need that knowledge again.
~ Blu, PFA member
I find archaeology fascinating, like a little kid in a candy shop discovering new and exciting pieces of our evolution and our history.

Whilst I haven't formally studied archaeology at university, I have always found it interesting and particularly in high school studying art my interest was piqued by Ancient Egyptian and Roman crafts and ideals, and now especially as a Witch and a Pagan the Gods and Goddesses and the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians.

It is amazing to see how we have developed from those times in each little piece we discover. I am in awe of prehistoric times and little pieces of skeletons of dinosaurs that form the now extinct creatures.
The evolution and growth of plant life and animals, and of humans...

I love hearing about medieval times and the discovery of beautiful pieces of silverware, pottery and jewellery which ties into the history of the Celts and Avalonian times, a magical period that really resonates with me.

History is an important part of our development, our past, our present and the future in both advancing technology and in terms of our spiritual development as we can call on our history, our Gods and Goddesses to help with our present and our future...
~ Kali Cox, PFA member
Part of my Pagan outlook is a respect for the wisdom of the past, and the people of the past, so I think we need to know the real stories of past people. Not the history that was written by the winners. The only way we can do that is through archaeology, because ordinary people did not often leave written records (the exciting exceptions being the Paston letters, the Vindolanda Letters, the Book of Margery Kempe, and not much else that I can think of).

I also think that as Pagans we draw on the cultures of the past, and archaeology can really help us make sense of those cultures.
~ Yvonne, PFA member
For me, it adds to my understanding of the present. By studying the past I get a better sense of why and how we came to be as we are now.
~ Kim Hunter, PFA member

Pagan festivals

Wiccan festivals
  • Imbolc / Candlemas : February 1st/ 2nd
  • Spring Equinox : March 20th/ 21st
  • Beltane / May Eve : April 30th / May 1st
  • Midsummer : June 20th/ 21st
  • Lammas/ Lughnasadh : July 31st/ August 1st
  • Autumn Equinox : September 22nd/ 23rd
  • Samhain / Halloween October 31st/ November 1st
  • Yule : December 21st/ 22nd
Druid festivals
  • Samhuinn : October 31-November 1
  • Winter Solstice (Alban Arthan or Alban Arthuan): December 21-22
  • Imbolc : February 1-2
  • Vernal Equinox (Alban Eiler or Alban Eilir): March 20-21
  • Beltaine : April 30-May 1
  • Summer Solstice (Alban Heruin or Alban Hefin): June 21-22
  • Lughnasada : July 31-August 1
  • Autumn Equinox (Alban Elued or Alban Elfed): September 21-22
Heathen Festivals
Different Heathen communities and individuals celebrate different cycles of seasonal holidays based on their cultural affiliations, local traditions, and relationships with particular gods. There is no fixed calendar of Heathen festival dates. The three Heathen festivals most commonly
celebrated in the UK are Winter Nights - usually celebrated in October or November, Yule - a twelve day festival that begins around the time of the winter solstice, and a festival for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre in the spring.

Religio Romana festivals
There are loads of these; and different practitioners seem to celebrate different ones.

One of PFA's members, Aereaus from Denmark, has a blog with details of some lesser-known Pagan festivals. It's called the Pagan Left, and includes details of ancient Roman festivals.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Save the archives

Harry PriceJason at the Wild Hunt blog reports on the impending dispersal of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at the University of London, which the university proposes to sell in order to raise funds. There's an article in The Independent, which reports that students are lobbying their colleges for financial contributions. Unfortunately it does not explain how to go about lobbying your college for financial contributions.

This is important because these texts reveal past understandings of magic and mystery, and how occult thought has developed. They should at least digitise the archive before selling the books.

Monday, 14 July 2008

email from Bobcat

I wondered if you could make it clear on your site that HAD does not call for reburial of ancient human remains, but calls for consultation?

In terms of Lindow Man, HAD were consulted because HAD got involved at the very beginning. We then invited local Pagans, i.e. those in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester, to attend the consultation, and a broad mixture of Pagans did get involved. There was no limit or definition of which Pagans could attend or be part of the consultation, other than that they were local.

In terms of the exhibition itself, and how successfully it expressed the consultation process, you can read my report on the HAD website. What was good to experience was that there was a real consensus between all at the consultation meetings : Pagans, archaeologists, curators, nonPagan local community. Many feel the transposition was too much an expression of the designer's vision and much of the consultation was lost. But that is a big debate. It has nothing whatsoever to do with reburial and HAD.

Blessings, Bobcat /|\

Emma Restall Orr
Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD)

a wasted opportunity

Well, I suppose I'm going to have to do a review of Bonekickers.

Frankly, I thought it was mostly awful. The characters were quite good, but the plot was terrible, and the script was occasionally dire. The beheading of the poor Muslim guy was in very poor taste, and completely gratuitous and unnecessary for the plot. The caricature of right-wing Christians seems unfair, because even though some of them are severely mad & bad, they haven't actually killed anyone yet. And the next episode doesn't look as if it's going to be much better.

Archaeology is exciting and interesting in its own right - you don't need to jazz it up with conspiracy, murder and mayhem to make it more exciting. In short, this was a wasted opportunity.

singing in caves

On a lighter note, a paper has recently been published on archaeoacoustics by Iegor Reznikoff, and there's an article about it at Yahoo LiveScience.

Funny, I thought Paul Devereux was the man with that particular theory, but I guess there's room in the limelight for two.
Ancient hunters painted the sections of their cave dwellings where singing, humming and music sounded best, a new study suggests.

Analyzing the famous, ochre-splashed cave walls of France, the most densely painted areas were also those with the best acoustics, the scientists found. Humming into some bends in the wall even produced sounds mimicking the animals painted there.
Thanks to Caroline at Necropolis Now for the tip-off.

damage to ancient sites

Recently some damage was caused to the turf at Castlerigg stone circle by someone lighting a fire in the circle. It turned out that the person involved was doing something from their own culture with the consent of local people. But does the consent of 50 randomly-selected people count as informed consent with awareness of the implications? The organisation and person involved have apologised unreservedly. However, it is never okay to light a fire directly on the ground at an ancient site, because it might damage the archaeology, and in some cases, the rare lichens on the stones.

On Sunday I visited Arbor Low in Derbyshire and found a firepit scar just outside the henge. I hope that it wasn't Pagans who were responsible for it - but we are the ones who will end up getting the blame in the minds of the general public unless we take a very clear stand against this sort of thing.

At the Rollrights, there is a large metal fire-dish available for use when you hire the site for rituals; this does not scar the turf or damage the archaeology.

We don't ultimately know exactly what the purpose of stone circles was (though we can make educated guesses based on ethnographic parallels), or whether the practices and beliefs of their builders bear any resemblance to any current culture, whether it is "PaleoPagan" or part of the Pagan revival. So we can't just waltz in and use these places just as we like (this also works in our favour, as for example, in 2000 when some Christians wanted to place a rock carved with Alpha and Omega right in the middle of Mayburgh Henge, and planning permission was rightly refused; there was also a peaceful Pagan protest at the installation of the stone 100 yards from the henge). Stone circles are part of the heritage of everyone in this country, and are not there to be hijacked by any particular group.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Interview with a member of BABAO

BABAO is the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology. You can see BABAO's view of human remains in the various statements they have made. I was very impressed by the speaker from BABAO at the Respect Conference in Manchester in 2006, so I approached Martin Smith, an archaeologist specialising in human remains, who is a member of BABAO's managing committee.

Here's BABAO's statement of principles from their homepage:
BABAO promotes the study of human bioarchaeology and osteoarchaeology for the purpose of understanding humanity from the past to the present. BABAO also provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and information on these topics and strives to improve standards in all aspects of the study of the biological remains of past and present peoples.
BABAO is fully committed to promulgating the highest ethical standards in the treatment and care of human skeletal remains and does not condone actions or statements that violate these principles.
One of the arguments for the retention of human remains that most impressed me was that cultural interpretations and scientific understandings change over time. For example, the bones of the people of Wharram Percy (a deserted medieval village) are stored in carefully-controlled conditions in an Anglo-Saxon church. When they were first excavated, their right forearms were measured to gain an idea of skeletal growth. It was a couple of decades before anyone thought to measure their left forearms as well. It was then that it was discovered that a good twenty percent of them were left-handed (the current percentage of left-handers in the population is 10%). Most of them would have been illiterate, so this finding seems to bear out the hypothesis of psychologists that the bias towards right-handedness occurs because of literacy and language being primarily located in the left hemisphere of the brain, which is "wired" to the right-hand side of the body. From a social history point of view, this finding is also surprising, because one would have thought that medieval people would have a superstitious prejudice against the use of the "sinister" left hand.

So, on with the interview:

PfA: What is your role in BABAO?
MS: I am a member of BABAO’s managing committee (Publicity Secretary)

PfA: What got you interested in archaeology?
MS: I’m not sure really - I’ve always been interested in the past and the fact that archaeology gives us opportunities to find out about aspects of the lives of past people is really quite exciting – particularly in the case of people who lived before there were any written records.

PfA: Do you feel a kinship for the people of the past?
MS: I would say that I do in so far as the past populations of Britain and Europe are the collective ancestors of all modern British people of European origin. For example genetic analysis of the Iceman (the 5000 year old mummified body found in the Alps in 1991) has shown that he is related to a very large proportion of the modern population of Northern Europe. On a wider scale, populations all over the world are related and so we all have a degree of kinship with past peoples wherever they are from.

PfA: What can human remains tell us about the people of the past?
MS: We can learn a great deal from studying human remains; in addition to 'obvious' things like age and sex we can also obtain information on health and diseases, activity and lifestyle, diet and subsistence, levels of mobility and social organization (for example were people nomadic or did they live in one place?) as well as the overall level of biological stress people were subjected to by their lifestyles and environments. In addition, burial archaeology can allow us to gain some sense of the way people perceived the world and perhaps the afterlife. Human remains are the most direct link we have to the peoples that lived before us and they offer the chance to find out information that simply cannot be obtained from any other kind of archaeological remains.

PfA: What is the scientific and/or social value of retaining human remains for study?
MS: Firstly palaeopathology (the study of past health and illness) is beginning to make important progress in shedding light on the development of a number of major diseases in the past. Studying human remains also offers a chance to investigate the effects of various extreme economic and social circumstances on health and physical development which no longer exist in the modern world. Archaeological remains also provide the opportunity to take a really long view of the nature and development of human societies. For example we can ask questions like when did warfare / organised conflict first appear? Is war a type of behaviour that is ‘hard-wired’ into human beings or is it more of a cultural phenomenon? The remains of past people offer a ‘time depth’ when making such inquiries that is simply not available to modern researchers working in other areas of social science.

As a proportion of the total number of people that lived in the past the number of burials that survive to be discovered in modern times is tiny. When ancient human remains are reburied they are gone forever. This not only makes no sense in relation to what we can tell now, but also in that new techniques are constantly being developed that can shed new light on remains that were initially studied decades ago. Reburial is destruction and deprives future generations of the chance to learn more about our shared human past. We should look after these remains very carefully as we have a responsibility to the generations that will come after us that is just as great as our responsibility to those that lived in the past.

PfA: What do you think about the way human remains are displayed in museums?
MS: I think it’s perfectly acceptable to display human remains in museums – in fact there is overwhelming public support for it, providing it is done sensitively and respectfully. Human remains are special and are not the same as other classes of archaeological material such as pottery or metalwork. It is important that museum displays acknowledge this fact and try to tell the stories of individuals as much as possible. Human remains form a kind of record of the memories and events an individual experienced during their lifetime – it’s important for such aspects of the study of human remains to be made apparent in museum displays.

PfA: Do you think there is a role for Pagans in archaeology? Do you think the heritage sector should engage with Pagans?
MS: I think everyone has an equal right to express an opinion and conversely that the heritage sector should engage with everyone on an equal footing. Perhaps one way for Pagans to engage with archaeology is to publicise the importance of caring for the remains of our ancestors and perhaps also in thinking about what sorts of questions should be asked to try and gain a better understanding of the past. It seems clear that many Pagans care deeply about the past. We live in a society where there are a lot of people who don’t appear to care about the past at all. In this regard archaeologists and Pagans could be said to be very much on the same 'side'. There is no reason to see archaeological research and respect as being contradictory. It’s very encouraging to see the formation of a group like Pagans for Archaeology and I'd like to wish the group every success in its endeavours.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

New book: Creating prehistory

Creating Prehistory: Druids, Ley Hunters and Archaeologists in Pre-War Britain
John Wiley and Sons Ltd, May 2008, Pages: 336

Creating Prehistory deals even-handedly and sympathetically with the creation of several different sorts of prehistory during the volatile period between the two World Wars.

- Investigates the origins of professional archaeology in Britain during the inter-war period

- Brings to life many fascinating and controversial personalities and their creeds, including the archaeologists O. G. S. Crawford, Mortimer Wheeler and Gordon Childe; Grafton Elliot Smith and W. H. R. Rivers (of ‘Regeneration’ fame); Alfred Watkins and The Old Straight Track; and the thunderous George Watson Macgregor Reid, who brought the Druids back to Stonehenge

- Examines the production of archaeological knowledge as a social process, and the relationship between personalities, institutions, ideology, and power

- Addresses the ongoing debates of the significance of sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury, and Maiden Castle

Adam Stout is a Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Wales, Lampeter. His pioneering study of urban cowkeeping in 1978 marked him out as a historian of the unusual. Other works include The Thorn and the Waters: Miraculous Glastonbury in the Eighteenth Century (2007); What’s Real and What Is Not: Reflections upon Archaeology and Earth Mysteries in Britain (2006); Pimlico: Deep Well of Glee (1997); The Old Gloucester: Study of a Cattle Breed (1980); and a series of acclaimed artistic collaborations including Where Two Rivers Meet: The Story of Kennet Mouth (1994).
Looks like an interesting book. We have a copy of What’s Real and What Is Not: Reflections upon Archaeology and Earth Mysteries in Britain, which makes for interesting reading.

Thanks to Alun for the tip-off.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008


The seemingly endless round of consultations about what to do about Stonehenge is apparently being given new impetus by, of all things, the 2012 Olympic Games. A rich irony considering that heritage funding is being taken away to fund the sporty nonsense.

King Arthur is camping near Stonehenge in an attempt to embarrass the government into doing something about the ghastly visitor centre (which, if you haven't seen it, looks like some kind of Stalinist monstrosity).

The problem is, whatever they decide to do about visitor access to Stonehenge, someone is going to be unhappy about it. If they dig a tunnel for the A303 it will disturb other archaeology. Personally I liked the idea of taking away all the roads and fences and making people walk from a couple of miles away. That way the experience would be more like a pilgrimage and less like a gawp-fest. The merely idly curious would be satisfied with a visit to the visitor centre, and only those who really cared would bother to walk the two miles to the actual site.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008


In fourteen hundred and twenty-one
Zheng He sailed the ocean grey.

...or did he?

The 1421 hypothesis is, unfortunately, bad archaeology. I really liked the idea that the Chinese had discovered America, but unfortunately, it has been decisively debunked and appears to be wrong. The various structures which are claimed to be of Chinese origin are apparently not; and documents in the book are frequently mis-dated and have novel interpretations put on them. It was a really nice idea, but sadly not.

Author Gavin Menzies claims that the Chinese discovered America in 1421. The book seemed quite convincing, but other historians have since comprehensively demolished it, apparently. The wrongitude of his claims is more apparent in his latest effort, 1434, in which he claims that a Chinese ship landing in Tuscany sparked off the Renaissance. That is obviously wrong, because the Renaissance was sparked off by the rediscovery of classical texts and the introduction of inventions from the Islamic world and perhaps by other more internal trends. Besides, it seems unlikely that such a nebulous and widespread phenomenon as the Renaissance could have been triggered off by a single contact, even if it did actually take place.