Monday, 30 March 2009

Pagans and Archaeology conference

Conference – Pagans and Archaeology
Saturday 27th June 2009
jointly organised by the University of Bristol and Pagans for Archaeology

Both contemporary Paganism and Archaeology share common origins in the Enlightenment re-engagement with physical traces of the prehistoric past. However, despite these shared roots, the relationship between Archaeologists and Pagans has often been portrayed as one of limited mutual comprehension and conflict, which may be seen to mimic wider societal tensions in the West between religion and science. The current, heated debate over the treatment of prehistoric human remains is just the latest manifestation of such ‘conflict’.

The aim of this conference is to explore the notion that the common ground between Paganism and Archaeology is greater than the differences, and to see how mutually beneficial opportunities for collaboration and co-operation can be taken forward. Both groups do, after all, respect traces of the prehistoric past, and a growing number of Archaeologists are also practising Pagans. Among the topics covered will be the current controversy surrounding calls for the reburial of prehistoric human remains, the place of Pagan beliefs in the management of ancient landscapes and heritage, and the role of alternative archaeologies. The contributors include members of the Pagan community, archaeologists, historians, scholars of religion and cultural sociologists.

To book a place at this conference, please email

The cost is £25 (£20 for students/unwaged)

Confirmed speakers:

Ronald Hutton
Orthodox and Alternative Archaeology: The Early Years
The relationship between the emerging discipline of professional archaeology and what became regarded as 'fringe' ideas of prehistory in the first half of the 20th century. The basic argument will be that this was more complex and dynamic than has often been thought.

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, and a leading authority on history of the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on ancient and medieval paganism and magic, and on the global context of witchcraft beliefs. Also the leading historian of the ritual year in Britain and of contemporary Paganism.

Martin Smith
Balancing interests: making decisions regarding prehistoric human remains.
An exploration of how to balance the interests of multiple groups of people, living and otherwise, in making decisions regarding human remains – including religious groups, the wider public, the individuals whose remains are curated in museums and also of future generations that will come after us.

Martin Smith has a PhD on human skeletal assemblages from Neolithic Britain at the University of Birmingham. Subsequently he worked on a three year postdoctoral research project at Birmingham funded by the Leverhulme Trust. His current position is as Lecturer in Forensic Anthropology at Bournemouth University. His research interests encompass a broad range of issues in relation to prehistoric populations as well as the forensic applications of biological anthropology and the archaeology of conflict.

Graham Harvey
Animist Pagans and the present dead

Western modernity arose from a revolutionary process in European culture that hyper-separates humans from everything else (in theory or pretense at least). Two moments mark this long running fictive attempt: Martin Luther's declaration that only internal faith matters in a person's relationship with deity and Rene Descartes' insistence that human mind (the only kind there is) is discontinuous from matter. WIthin the wider separations, Luther explicitly divorces humans from the dead. The term "ancestors" eventually becomes synonymous (in Europe) with absence and mere materiality. Animism - the practice of treating the world as a community of living beings - is a growing trend in Paganism. Relationships with ancestors are being rekindled. This paper ponders how archaeology can be done with respect to ancestors, people who have died and remain present in the world.

Graham Harvey is a Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University. He is the author of numerous books and papers on contemporary Paganisms, animism, indigenous religions, and other religions. He defines "animism" as "the attempt to live respectfully as members of the diverse community of living persons (only some of whom are human) which we call the world or cosmos".

Andy Letcher
Fertile Imaginings: Challenging Popular Conceptions of ‘the Pagan’
A commonplace assumption about the past – reiterated within archaeological, neo-Pagan and popular discourse – is that pre-Christian religion was obsessed with fertility. Agricultural societies, it is said, legitimated licentious and occasionally heinous rituals to ensure both human reproductive success and a productive harvest. A charged word, ‘fertility’ has come to afford paganism a frisson, an ambivalent appeal.

Here I challenge the fertility discourse, arguing that there is scant evidence to support it. Rather, its origins may be traced, in part, to German Romanticism, from where it was widely broadcast in the Anglophone world by Sir James Frazer. Reconfigured in popular culture through the language of psychoanalysis and ethology, it portrays ‘the pagan’ as an expression of an unconscious drive or instinct, abhorrent to positivists, beguiling to Romantics, but always lurking close beneath the veneer of civilization.

Functioning as an origin myth in a post-Darwinian world, such a hetero-normative and universalizing view nevertheless dehumanizes pre-Christian religionists. It disallows them metaphor, play, ribaldry, sex-for-pleasure and transgression, casting them instead as instinct-led automata. ‘The pagan’ must therefore be seen as a category of otherness into which ‘civilization’ has thrown its discontents, a category which only removes us from actual pre-Christian religions. Rejecting this opposition – rather than simply privileging one of other of its terms – necessarily raises questions about how we engage with the pagan past.

Andy Letcher is a freelance writer, lecturer and folk musician living in Oxford. Author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, and many academic papers on paganism, ecology and entheogens, he also fronts psych-folk band Telling the Bees.

His first book,
Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, is published by Faber & Faber in the UK and by Ecco in the United States. Receiving glowing reviews in both Britain and America it presents a radical, new and definitive history of the magic mushroom.

Yvonne Aburrow
Our silent ancestors: an exploration of responses to human remains and their context
This paper will examine the discourses from which conflicting attitudes to human remains, archaeology and landscape emerge; on the one hand, a 'timeless' and holistic concept of landscape and a view of archaeologists as rationalist scientists, and on the other, a sense of landscape as a historical construct, and of archaeologists as restoring connections with our ancestors, and a range of positions in between.

Yvonne Aburrow is the founder of Pagans for Archaeology, and has an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spirituality from Bath Spa University.

Tiffany Jenkins
Cultivating Claims: the significant role of the museum sector This paper will analyse the rise of Pagan claims-making on human remains and the interaction with the museum profession, demonstrating that prevailing cultural ideas about human remains, and the role of museums, invites new claims-makers. It elucidates the central importance of the response to claims-makers in the construction of problems. The reactions by the profession to these claims are divided into two camps in my analysis. One is a highly positive endorsement and promotion of their claims. The second reaction is from those who not consider Pagan claims-makers legitimate. However, despite considering Pagan claims-makers as illegitimate, contestation of their claims by professionals is relatively weak. Significantly, I argue, members of the sector are unable to mount an effective rationale for the exclusion of Pagan claims-makers due to confusion about the purpose of the museum institution and the basis for its legitimacy.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist. Her PhD, titled The Crisis of Cultural Authority in Museums: Contesting Human Remains in the Collections of Britain, from the University of Kent at Canterbury, examined the social construction of the problem of human remains in museums, with a case study of the rise of Pagan claims-making and the interaction with such groups with the profession.

Will Rathouse
Stormy Heritage: interactions between the contemporary Pagan community and the Heritage industry/Archaeological community
  • interactions between the contemporary Pagan community and the Heritage industry/Archaeological community
  • issues uniting these groups such as protection of sacred/ancient sites
  • issues which divide e.g. the debate over reburial or display of human remains
  • politics of contemporary Paganism both internally and with the outside world
  • archaeological ethics and politics
  • four case studies: Stonehenge, Avebury and the Alexander Keiller Museum, The Hill of Tara and Stanton Moor
  • future developments, areas for improvement in relations, areas where further research may be advantageous
Will Rathouse is studying for a PhD in archaeology and researching the relationship between Pagans and archaeology.

Josh Pollard
Whither Archaeology?

Joshua Pollard obtained his first degree and PhD at the University of Wales, Cardiff. He subsequently worked for the Cambridge Archaeological Unit as a Project Officer before securing academic posts at the University of Newcastle, Queen's University Belfast and the University of Wales College, Newport. Josh joined the Department in October 2003 as Lecturer in Archaeology. He was Head of Subject for Archaeology & Anthropology between 2006-8.

Although he has published on a range of archaeological topics, much of his research is focused on the British and north-west European Neolithic. The latter has included work on depositional practices, materiality, aspects of monumentality, cultural perceptions of the environment, and approaches to the study of Neolithic settlement and routine.

Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis (authors of Sacred Sites - Contested Rites/Rights)
Stepping stones to common ground: negotiating paganism, archaeology and 'sacred' sites


Pagan Network said...

Hi Yvonne, have posted this conference on Pagan Network to advertise it for you.


Eric Roberts said...

Any chance for a recording so that those of us too far away to attend can benefit from the knowledgeable speakers? I wish I could attend, but unfortunately that would be a bit of a trek for me (I am in Chicago)

Yewtree said...

Thanks very much, Mel.

Hi Erik - yes, someone else asked for this and I have suggested it to my co-organisers. Failing that, I would hope there might be a book...