Thursday, 29 October 2009

A quest for identity

Excellent article about heritage and identity, and how we need to rescue them from the fuddy-duddy image they have in some quarters, because it's creating a vacuum for extremist views.

Madeleine Bunting: The booming interest in archaeology suggests a new quest for identity in a time of rapid change. (Comment is free - The Guardian)

A brave attempt to step into this particular breach and fill it with inspiration for lefties is The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging by Billy Bragg. It's an entertaining and informative read, and I recommend it.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Aubrey Holes update

I received an email from Mike Parker-Pearson with an update on what is happening with the remains recovered from the Aubrey Holes.
We've now had a chance to assess what more needs doing with analysis of the cremations. There is so much material that the researcher is going to have to write a whole PhD on the assemblage.

That means that we will need a 2-year extension to the MoJ licence (to commence from August 2010).

I will keep you all informed about the progress of work. So far, we have identified the remains as being predominantly adult men with two women and probably two children (though these numbers may well change). Generally they were reasonably healthy in life. A few had osteoarthritis, and one had a benign soft tissue tumour behind the knee.

Please bear in mind with this apparently lengthy work schedule that the bone fragments are very small and it is very painstaking work to properly analyse them. It can't (and shouldn't) be rushed.

The remains will continue to be looked after in Sheffield.
It is my considered opinion that two years (the statutory length of time for studying bones under the new legislation) is not long enough.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Ancestral heritage (guest post)

A guest post by Anne Griffith Evans, a member of Pagans for Archaeology:

After watching the debate with Nick Griffin on Question Time, I have been trying to crystallise my own views on national identity, the connected concept of ancestral heritage, and the related archaeological record.

As a British Pagan, I wish to understand the ancient past, and the manner of worship in these lands before Christianity. I want to know and honour the gods of my land. But I am not a racist or a right-winger. Like the guy in the audience who spoke up during
Question Time (and the Folk against Fascism Facebook group), I do not want my love of my country or its traditional/ancient cultures to be subverted to indicate support for views of the BNP.

In attempting to reclaim my ancestral heritage, am I a racist? Today I saw a 1999 TV programme (
Hitler's Search For The Holy Grail) which described how Hitler and his minions undertook archaeological research into the origins of the German 'Volk' and their old myths and gods, to inform what they considered to be their holy war and attempt to purify the Aryan race. Like me, they were searching for their origins to inform their present.

Oh dear.

Have I fallen into a trap? Various people have pointed out the parallel between Pagan reconstructions of the past and fascist attempts to rediscover origins. I wonder if the Nazi rationale explains why some leading Pagan thinkers emphasise the 'neo' part of neo-paganism, as a way of avoiding the entire dialogue about ancient roots and origins?

A quote near the end of 'Holy Grail' points out a non-engagement with the issue of racism by archaeologists, and also points to a way forward for me.

Professor Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge (1999) says that what had to be laid at the door of archaeologists and anthropologists, is that:
"at the end of the Second World War, they didn't sort out the issues of ethnicity. The holocaust was so ghastly that they walked away from the issue and didn't analyse it carefully. That ethnicity, the notion of who a people is, is very much what a people wants to be [my emphasis] and is not to be demonstrated or proved from something deep in prehistory.... Archaeologists were very late in saying this and have only been saying it very recently. Academics did not grasp the nettle with sufficient vigour."
I take the Professor's words to mean that ethnicity is not about genetics or race; it's about collective cultural identity. This makes absolute sense to me, and takes away the stigma of potential accusations that my enthusiasm about heritage is race-related.

Watching the
Question Time audience, composed of people of many different ethnic groups (who were collectively though not exclusively against the stance of BNP and Mr Griffin) I was proud to be British and to be one of those opposing the BNP. And I have yet to find examples of racial imperialism in the customs or deities of my pre-Christian ancestors. I like to think I'm out of trouble.

Note: if you feel strongly about the appropriation of Pagan and Heathen symbols by the extreme right, please visit the Heathens against Hate website, which is a long-standing campaign against the misuse of Heathen lore and symbols by fascists.

Pagans for Archaeology is opposed to racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of hatred.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Asterix and the Great Debate

BBC News: Should Asterix hang up his sword?
Recently Asterix had his fiftieth birthday, but the anniversary was overshadowed by the fact that many critics say that the quality of the books has declined since the death of Goscinny in 1977. I thoroughly enjoyed the classic Asterix books as a child.

There are many comments for and against, but this one struck me particularly:
Asterix got me into Roman archaeology, 35 years on I'm a professional archaeologist and profoundly grateful to the little Gaul and to the Belgian neighbour who introduced me to him. She also used them to improve my French, which also proved useful, but the key thing is that they were great fun and the wit grows with you as you reread them at different stages of life - from slapstick to ironic comment on popluar culture.

Martin, Wiltshire
I'd certainly say Asterix contributed to my own interest in the past, along with the novels of Cynthia Harnett, Geoffrey Trease, and Rudyard Kipling.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Archaeological finds

(via Sannion)

Monday, 19 October 2009

Anthropology and Magic - an interview with Susan Greenwood

Susan Greenwood is the author of The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness, Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld: An Anthropology, and a new book, The Anthropology of Magic. She is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Community Engagement at the University of Sussex.

Pagans for Archaeology interviewed her about her new book.

PfA: What prompted you to write your new book?

When Berg first invited me to write a book on anthropology and magic I didn't initially think much about it as a project, but after a while I realized that as an undergraduate, and as a postgraduate doctoral student, I'd really struggled to find anything that tackled the issue of the experience of magic. Since childhood, I had always felt a sense of magic - the thrill of a thunderstorm, the fascination with being in nature, and the 'make-believe' of creating stories in my head. When I was older I had explored witchcraft and went to university as a mature student to find out more about my magical experiences. During a final year anthropology and sociology project on women's spirituality I realized that I wanted to explore magic through PhD research (this ended up as Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld). During my time of studying I found books that were helpful in some ways but nothing that really dealt with the issues of studying the experience of magic. I wrote The Anthropology of Magic in the hope that it might help students and others to think about magic as an aspect of consciousness - it was the book that I'd wanted when I first started studying anthropology.

PfA: How does it differ from your two previous books?

In my two previous books - Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld, and The Nature of Magic - I took an experiential methodological position regarding magic. In other words, I used myself as part of my research and explored my own magical experiences. This proved to be quite challenging to anthropology due to the preferred position of not 'going native' and maintaining a more distanced approach. My argument was that we are all natives in this type of magical thought - all humans are potentially capable of having magical consciousness and therefore it's appropriate for the fieldworker to have experiences, and write about them too.

In this new book I have taken that argument further and related it to a classical anthropological debate on mystical mentality; and I have also explored the nature of reality in relation to an inspirited world, developing a new methodology of magic from my own experiences, as well as those of others. In the final chapter I have looked to a new attitude towards science as an encompassing framework that can include magic as a legitimate source of knowledge of this inspirited world, rather than reducing it to individual psychology or social effects, as has been common in the past. My aim has always been to stimulate discussion. I hope that it will encourage people to explore magic, as an aspect of their own consciousness.

PfA. What sort of feedback have you had from anthropologists on your "insider" approach to fieldwork?

Initially, it was more difficult. The more rationally-inclined thought that I wasn't distanced enough, or that I hadn't 'returned' properly from the field, or even that I wasn't a 'proper' anthropologist, but I've had overwhelming support from others who have welcomed a more open perspective and have encouraged my work. I think things in academia are changing.

PfA. What sort of feedback have you had from magical practitioners on your "insider" approach to fieldwork? Is there still a "Luhrmann effect"?

I've had very positive feedback from magical practitioners. As an anthropologist rather than an advocate of any particular practice, I've tried to take a critically sympathetic approach and I think that most have recognized that I've tried to create a bridge of understanding between a magical worldview and the rationalizing social science disciplines. When I first started my research in the early 1990s there was a definite 'Luhrmann effect' and it was difficult gaining trust with 'informants', but things have got easier as more people realize what I've been trying to do. I consider myself to be a magical practitioner, and some of my dearest friends are magical practitioners. I see myself as someone who writes about magical consciousness from 'inside' and 'outside'.

PfA. How do you see the "otherworld" in relation to the material world?

For me - and this is a matter of personal opinion - the 'otherworld' is a spirit dimension of the material world. Some would place much more emphasis on a 'supernatural' understanding and the importance of various deities. I value, and work closely with gods and goddesses in my own magical practice, but ultimately I view them as differing manifestations of nature - we are all nature, an inspirited nature. I choose to understand and explain this through the Anglo-Saxon notion of Wyrd, the pulse of spirit that runs through all life. Ultimately, I don't think it matters too much what we call it or how we structure it through our conceptualizations, it's how we feel it that counts. There are many paths that lead to similar human experiences.

PfA. What do you think are the social effects of practising magic?

Well, that depends on what type of magic you are practising. Magic, as an aspect of consciousness, is amoral - it can be employed in many different ways. I would like to think that the effects of people becoming more aware of themselves through 'thinking with the heart', an aspect of magical consciousness, would have a good effect socially. This can have a major effect on how we see ourselves, how we relate to the world around us. I think that developing magical consciousness can help feelings of social alienation by helping us relate to who we are, the places where we live - making connections with a particular tree down the road, or the birds or other wild animals that might visit a garden, or perhaps a particular local landscape. Opening the heart to feel a connection with others might not stop wars initially, but it's a good place to start.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Stolen frescoes to be returned

The Louvre museum in Paris will return five ancient fresco fragments to Egypt, the French culture ministry has said.

The Egyptians say the Louvre bought the Pharaonic steles in 2000 even though it knew they had been stolen in the 1980s.
This is interesting because it sets a precedent for other artefacts (and possibly human remains), albeit only ones that were looted or stolen.

In my view it only sets a precedent for human remains from other cultures. Archaeologists who dig up ancient British remains have as much claim to descent from those remains as anyone else. However, where indigenous remains from other cultures were looted without the permission of the indigenous people concerned, they should be returned.

In the case of artefacts from other cultures, if they were bought legitimately by the museum in which they reside, then the other country should buy them back. If they were not bought legitimately then they should be returned. In the case of the Elgin Marbles, they were removed when a foreign power was occupying Greece, and should be returned to Greece now that there is a suitable museum for them to reside in.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Talk about Riverside Project research

Mike Parker-Pearson will be talking at Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes at 7pm on Saturday 10 October about the recent research of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

You can book a ticket online from Wiltshire Heritage Museum.

Monday, 5 October 2009


Mike Parker-Pearson has issued a press release about Bluestonehenge, the site near Stonehenge whose existence was leaked on Saturday. (Another version is available from the University of Sheffield.)
The new stone circle is 10m (33 ft) in diameter and was surrounded by a henge – a ditch with an external bank. These standing stones marked the end of the Avenue that leads from the River Avon to Stonehenge, a 1 3/4-mile long (2.8km) processional route constructed at the end of the Stone Age (the Neolithic period). The outer henge around the stones was built around 2400 BC but arrowheads found in the stone circle indicate that the stones were put up as much as 500 years earlier – they were dragged from Wales to Wiltshire 5,000 years ago.
Picture by Peter Dunn