Thursday, 12 August 2010

More apotropaic marks

A commenter on my one of previous posts about apotropaic marks left a link to his photos of daisy wheels and other inscribed circles on Flickr. There are lots of them from many different places. There are also several Flickr groups devoted to similar marks.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

1970s excavation published

It's good to see old excavations being published. The PfA blog has deplored the existence of grey literature previously, so it's great to see that someone is doing something about it.
Internet Archaeology is pleased to announce the publication of "Iron Age Settlement at Blackstone, Worcestershire: Excavations 1972, 1973, and 1977" by Derek Hurst, Alan Hunt and Peter Davenport et al.

Excavations in the 1970s at Blackstone found a rectangular double-ditched Iron Age enclosure dated from the 2nd century into the 1st century BC. The initial structural analysis has been largely retained in this updated report and accompanied by a separate modern commentary, allied with the updated finds and environmental reporting, and overall discussion.

Internet Archaeology thanks and acknowledges English Heritage for the publication grant that has enabled us to make this article Open Access.

The Archaeology Data Service also has an archive of grey literature.

A lot of grey literature is generated by commercial archaeology on sites that are being excavated before construction takes place. The reports are only stored at county archaeology units, so researchers have to travel to get hold of them, according to an article by Matt Ford in Nature.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Interview with Mike Parker-Pearson

Mike Parker-Pearson is co-director of the Riverside Project. He is is a Professor of Archaeology. He is an internationally renowned expert in the archaeology of death and also specialises in the later prehistory of Britain and Northern Europe and the archaeology of Madagascar and the western Indian Ocean. He has published 14 books and over 100 academic papers, on topics that range from architecture, food and warfare to ethnoarchaeology, archaeological theory and heritage management. He has worked on archaeological excavations in Britain, Denmark, Easter Island, Germany, Greece, Madagascar, Syria and the United States, and currently directs field projects in the Outer Hebrides, Madagascar and the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

Mike was voted 'Archaeologist of the Year' for 2010. His Stonehenge Riverside Project also received the award of  'Archaeological Research Project of the Year' for 2010, after his team discovered 'Bluestonehenge', the remains of a second stone circle close to Stonehenge in 2009.

He is currently seeking an extension of the period allowed for the study of the cremated remains found in the Aubrey Holes, which were first excavated in the 1920s.

PfA: What is your role in the Riverside Project? 

MPP:  I'm a co-director with five others. I basically started us off and persuaded the others to join in, and
I'm in overall charge of all the admin (I carry the can for the grants, the permissions, etc etc) but I don't dictate the research results, obviously! We spend a lot of time discussing and arguing about interpretations and the next step. It's been really useful doing it this way because it's easier to see which interpretations fit the evidence best and avoid going down blind alleys; it stops any one of us following their pet theory without looking at all angles. Lots of other archaeologists thought we were mad to try and work in such a big team - they predicted we'd fight and fall out - but it's been a fantastic way of running a big project.

PfA: What got you interested in archaeology?

MPP: Looking for fossils and other finds in the gravel on my dad's drive when I was four years old. When I was six, I got out a library book called Fun With Archaeology - it's been my aim in life ever since.

PfA: Do you feel a kinship for the people of the past?

MPP: Most of the time "no", because they were so different to us in many ways, really quite strange. But some things transcend time and place, and give a sense of connection, like finger-prints on a pot or the face of a bog body, or the death of the Iceman.

PfA: What can human remains tell us about the people of the past?

MPP: The answer to this question changes virtually by the year. When I was younger, advances were being made in osteological identification of age, sex, trauma and disease. Now we're finding out about diet, mobility, migration, and DNA - these are all techniques that were unimaginable even 20 years ago.

PfA: What is the scientific and/or social value of retaining human remains for study?

MPP: Because our scientific capabilities are changing so fast, there is no point at which anyone can say "that's done, the research on those remains is finished". For example, with the Aubrey Hole cremated remains we have just found that there is a brand-new technique of sex identification from the size and shape of
ear-holes (the petrous bone) which has been developed just in time for us to use. No-one ever knows what the future will bring - think of the antiquarian barrow-diggers who didn't keep the Bronze Age skeletons because they couldn't imagine any reason to do so.

PfA: Why is it important that the remains from the Aubrey Holes are studied? What can we learn?

MPP: Who are these people who were buried at Stonehenge? What more interesting question could there be? It's an extraordinary place and we want to find out as much as we can about it, its builders and its users. By studying the remains of the people buried there, we try to find out as much as we can about their lives and the society they lived in. This was the period between the long barrows and the round barrows and we have very few remains at all dating to this period (3000-2500 BC). What happened to most of the dead and why were these people special?

PfA: Why do you need the time allowed to study them to be extended?

Because working with fragments of cremated bone just takes ages. There are over 50,000 pieces of bone and they are all mixed up - we don't know which individual is which out of the 60 deposits of bones that were found by Col. Hawley in the 1920s. It is the most complicated jigsaw puzzle you could imagine. These people of Stonehenge are worth our spending time with them. I can't bear the idea of this being rushed. I'm not sure people realise just how long the post-excavation phase of any project takes. It's normal for it to take years to get all the specialist analyses queued up and completed. For example, the Amesbury Archer was excavated in 2002 and the report is still not published. Money and time are always hard to find.

PfA: What can the Aubrey Holes remains and the Riverside Project tell us about the wider Stonehenge landscape and the uses to which the complex of monuments were put?

This is a huge question! Until we started, it was thought that Stonehenge's period of use as a cemetery was only a very short-lived part of the monument's life. The project's preliminary results indicate dates for cremation burial as early as its construction (3000 BC) and possibly as late as 2300 BC. What we really need to know from the radiocarbon dates is what that full span of use as a cremation cemetery was and how the numbers of individuals being buried varied through time - was Stonehenge the burial place for an increasing number of people, or were most of the people found here buried when the monument was
first built? The contrast with Durrington Walls is stark - there we have found only three loose human bones amongst 80,000 animal bones. Durrington Walls was a place for the living, Stonehenge is full of the dead. National Geographic, who funded some of the excavations, sent a children's book author to write
about the project - his book is called If Stones Could Speak (by Marc Aronson) and funnily enough, it's currently the only up-to-date book on Stonehenge, its chronology and landscape. Quite cheap on Amazon.

PfA: What can the remains tell us about the lives of the individuals who were cremated and placed in the Aubrey Holes?

By the end of the research, we are hoping to know the distribution by sex (how many men, how many women) and age (adults and children). That in itself is going to reveal something about how this society worked. Preliminary findings indicate that most of the people buried here were men, with few women or
children. These preliminary identifications from pieces of skull and pelvis, though, will need to be checked against the new method using the petrous bone. We can find out about trauma and disease. So far, there are few signs of ill-health other than some osteoarthritis, and one person had a benign tumour. This work is much more difficult when the osteologist is working on fragments of cremated bone rather than with a complete skeleton. DNA and strontium isotope analysis (which reveals where people lived) are not possible using
current methods - but who knows what future researchers may be able to do.

PfA: What do you think about the way human remains are displayed in museums?

I haven't got a problem with this. It's part of my culture. Obviously, all curators treat human remains with respect - that's part of the culture, too. The public at large are fascinated by human remains - we all want to know about death, as it's about the only thing we all have in common, pharaohs, bog bodies, you and me. It's the big mystery and I think it helps to come face to face with it sometimes, particularly as our cultural practices are now so coy surrounding death and dead bodies. We seem to pretend the bodies of the dead today are an unmentionable problem, and should be swept away out of sight by 'professionals'. I don't think that's healthy. Because one understands one's personal connection to the remains of another human being, I think human
remains really make people aware of the depth of time of human history.

PfA: Do you think there is a role for Pagans in archaeology? For instance, in describing the dynamics of ritual and how Pagans engage with sites.

Yes. The more people who show an interest in our past and archaeology, the better. Pagans and the way they engage with the prehistoric past could be a real eye-opener for people of other beliefs (or none), as it's one of the ways of showing how much these places matter to our society.

PfA: Do you think the heritage sector should engage with Pagans?

Difficult, because some Pagans seem to me to be very antagonistic to other people's point of view. Some of them even seem to think that they have a more powerful claim to 'ownership' of the past and our ancestors than the rest of us.

But I think that's a problem with all religious belief systems - the danger of thinking only you are right, and everyone else is totally wrong (People's Front of Judea and all that!).

PfA: Many thanks for a fascinating insight into the state of current osteoarchaeology, and the research findings of the Riverside Project. We believe that only a small minority of Pagans think they have a claim to 'ownership' of the past and our ancestors. Indeed, the vast majority of Pagans are very tolerant of other belief-systems, including atheism, secular humanism, etc. The huge numbers of fans and members of Pagans for Archaeology attests to the numbers of Pagans who don't believe they have a special claim on human remains, and who are interested in science and archaeology.

Data from cremated bone

I was wondering how you extracted data from cremated bone, or indeed whether you could get the same kind of information from cremated bone that you can get from whole skeletons. It turns out that you can find out a surprising amount. The fact that you can determine the whole diet of the cremated individual ate means that you can find out a lot about the environment where they lived.

Here is some information on radiocarbon dating, prepared by English Heritage's radiocarbon advisor.
About 10 years ago, a new method for the radiocarbon dating of cremated bone was proposed by a research group at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (Lanting et al 2001). This followed some work on dating the carbonate fraction of unburnt bone from the Sahara by a group based in Lyon (Saliège et al 1998). This method works by dating the structural carbonate fraction of bone. The carbon in this fraction derives from the whole diet of the dated individual (not just the protein component that dominates the carbon in the collagen fraction), and so is much less susceptable to dietary offsets than dates on collagen. Also structural carbonate often survives in situations (such as in cremations) where collagen diagenesis makes this fraction unsuitable for radiocarbon dating.
Unfortunately, early attempts to date the carbonate fraction of unburnt bone (largely in the 1960s) gave dates that were anomalously young because the bone carbonate exchanges with humic acids in the burial environment. Consequently only in special, very dry environments, such as in the Sahara did bone carbonate give accurate radiocarbon ages. The major advance of the new method was to isolate the part of the structural carbonate in cremated bone that has had its crystalline structure altered by the cremation process in such a way as it is no longer contaminated by the burial environment (van Strydonck et al 2005). So, when dating cremated bone we are dating the time when the individual died, but the sample becomes datable because of the cremation process itself. This is why we need a 2-4g from a single piece of white, calcined bone. The crystalline structure in less calcined material has been insufficiently altered for accurate dating. Because this method was new, and was dating a sample type which had previously proved extremely problematic, it underwent extensive testing in the early 2000s in radiocarbon laboratories in many countries (eg De Mulder et al 2004; Naysmith et al 2007). It has been shown to produce accurate radiocarbon dates routinely and has now been adopted as a standard technique worldwide.
Lanting, J N, Aerts-Bijma, A T, and van der Plicht, J, 2001 Dating of cremated bones, Radiocarbon, 43, 249-54
Naysmith, P, Scott, E M, Cook, G T, Heinemeier, J, van der Plicht, J, Van Strydonck, M, Bronk Ramsey, C, Grootes, P M, and Freeman, S P H T, 2007 A cremated bone inter-comparison study, Radiocarbon, 49, 403-8
Saliège, J-F, Person, A, and Paris, F, 1998 Datation du carbonate-hydroxylapatite d'ossements Holocènes du Sahel (Mali, Mauritanie, Niger), Pré-actes du 3ème Congrès International 14C et Archéologie, Lyon 1998, 172-3
van Strydonck, M, Boudin, M, Hoefens, M, and de Mulder, G, 2005 14C-dating of cremated bones-why does it work?, Lunula, 13, 3-10
De Mulder, G, van Strydonck, M, and Boudin, M, 2004 14C-dateringen op gecremeerde menselijk botten uit de urnenvelden te Velzeke (O.-Vl.), Lunula, 12, 51-58

Friday, 2 July 2010

Archaeology of the Internet

The Wayback Machine allows you to access dead websites after they have gone (though of course they won't be updated any more).

Some time back, I posted a humorous item about the internet archaeologists of the near future discovering the ruins of the Friendster civilisation, complete with abandoned profiles. The same could have been said of Geocities.

So, could you have an archaeology of the internet? How would you go about it? I guess you could chart the rise and fall of various websites, and how they over-reached themselves in the quest for users (Geocities), or added too many new features (Facebook). This process might be analogous to the rise and fall of empires (Roman, Byzantine, Sasanian...)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Free archaeology lectures

The 2010 Rhind Lectures - "Design vs Dogma: Reflections on Field Archaeology" by Professor Martin Carver - are now available free to view from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

The purposes of archaeological investigation in the field, its methods and the circumstances in which it is deployed, have diversified radically in recent years. Half a century has passed since Mortimer Wheeler gave his Rhind Lectures on 'Archaeology from the Earth,' so it seems a good moment to reflect on what the international academy, the profession, government and society want from archaeological fieldwork, and how their diverse agendas might be addressed to the mutual benefit of all.

Martin Carver is emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of York, Editor of Antiquity and the author of Archaeological Investigation (Routledge, 2009). He has undertaken or advised on field projects in England, Scotland, Sweden, France, Italy and Algeria, including numerous commercial projects and major research campaigns at Sutton Hoo (Suffolk) and Portmahomack (Easter Ross).

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Papcastle Roman Fort - volunteers wanted

A major investigation into Roman remains uncovered in the aftermath of Cockermouth's devastating floods is set to get underway this month.

Volunteers are needed for groundbreaking work on what is believed to be a settlement near the Papcastle Roman fort, surveyed by Channel 4's Time Team a decade ago but still not thoroughly excavated.

Forthcoming geophysical searches for buildings, roads and signs of occupation follow significant recent finds of possible foundations and a lot of pottery, unearthed by receding flood waters.

Organised by Bassenthwaite Reflections' Unlocking Hidden Heritage project, volunteers will be helping to piece together fascinating pieces of history in the first area study of its kind.

Using magnetometers - instruments that can detect buried walls - exploration will centre on fields alongside the River Derwent.

Project leader Mark Graham, of Grampus Heritage and Training, said there was real potential for adding to the compelling jigsaw of Roman occupation in the county.

He said: "With the help of volunteers, we were delighted to lead the nationally significant discovery of a camp, thought to date back to the first century at Castlerigg, near Keswick, two years ago.

"Now, through Heritage Lottery Fund supported Reflections, we have another amazing opportunity to find further vital Roman evidence.

"A considerable amount of pottery has been found post floods. We've always suspected the Romans had some sort of river crossing at Papcastle. Hopefully, our searches might provide some answers."

Details from the survey and excavation will form part of the county's archaeological record. Mark said the research could also bring important information for flood prevention and recovery measures currently under discussion.

He added: "This is a fantastic opportunity for volunteers to get involved in this unique survey and we look forward to hearing from anyone interested."

Fieldwork takes place from 24 to 28 May. For details contact Grampus Heritage and Training on 016973 21516, email

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Manchester Museum conference on restitution

The provisional programme of the Museums and Restitution conference (University of Manchester 8-9 July 2010) is now available

Museums and Restitution is a two-day international conference organised by the Centre for Museology and The Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester. The conference examines the issue of restitution in relation to the changing role and authority of the museum, focussing on new ways in which these institutions are addressing the subject.

The conference will bring together museum professionals and academics from a wide range of fields (including museology, archaeology, anthropology, art history and cultural policy) to share ideas on contemporary approaches to restitution from the viewpoint of museums.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Community archaeology

A press-release from the Council for British Archaeology:
CBA Report Reveals Voluntary Archaeology Has Doubled in Twenty Years

A new report highlights the sheer scale of voluntary archaeology in the
UK, and makes important recommendations about how these activities
should be supported in the future. Over 200,000 individuals are involved
in a community archaeology group or local society, carrying out
activities as diverse as excavation, marine archaeology, recording a
historic building or volunteering for a Young Archaeologists' Club
Branch. This figure has more than doubled since a similar survey was
carried out in 1987.

The reasons for this increase are varied. Interest in archaeology is
widening, with a greater range of television programmes, websites and
publications available than ever before. It may also relate to a real
expansion in voluntary activity of all kinds, with a recent report
indicating that 43% of adults had volunteered formally within the last
12 months. It is also significant that increased funding opportunities
for local archaeology groups have become available over the past decade,
especially from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Council for British Archaeology (CBA) report, Community Archaeology
in the UK: Recent Findings
, brings together a UK-wide research project
that surveyed, consulted and interviewed voluntary groups to gain a
clearer understanding of the nature and scale of voluntary involvement
in archaeology. Professional archaeologists and outreach workers were
also consulted to assess how the activities of voluntary archaeologists
could be better supported and recorded.

Key findings from the report are that:

* There are at least 2,030 voluntary groups and societies active
in the UK that interact with archaeological heritage in a wide variety
of ways. This represents approximately 215,000 individuals with an
active interest in archaeological heritage.

* Relationships between voluntary archaeologists and the c 7500
professional archaeologists in the UK are mostly good, but some problems
can be identified. Thus there is a case for more training for
professional archaeologists to equip them better to work with and
support volunteers.

* Group activities, even levels of expertise, are significantly
influenced by local conditions, such as relationships with professional
archaeologists, legislation, and availability of grants.

* The dramatic decline in continuing education departments and the
closure/down-sizing of many archaeological organisations continues to
have an impact.

* Sustainability is a key issue that emerged throughout the
research phases, and more research is needed into the means by which
bottom-up, community-led archaeology projects may work to ensure

* There is a need for training, but this varies from area to area,
and from group to group. Hence any training programmes must be tailored
to specific regions or groups, and must have an emphasis on practical
rather than passive sessions. Increased use of online learning models
will enable learners to choose material appropriate to their needs.
However, online provision cannot substitute for face-to-face
interaction, which is still considered to be of most value.

* Some community archaeology groups are very good at broadcasting
and publishing their work, others less so. 11% of groups that responded
to the survey claimed not to publish or broadcast their work at all.

The Council for British Archaeology will be acting on these conclusions
with ambitious plans to train a new generation of professional community
archaeology facilitators to help groups make the most of their
activities. The CBA will also be expanding its suite of advice and
guidance facilities, and focusing on raising the standard of work
carried out by volunteers.

Full report, and further details on our community archaeology work

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Rock art symposium

On Saturday I attended the bi-annual Rock Art symposium at the University of Bristol. The theme was the underlying mechanisms of rock-art: the political, social, economic, landscape, acoustic, musical factors that affect its production; and the story and poetry associated with it. Rock art, opines George Nash, the convenor of the conference, turns space into place. In order to appreciate it fully, we need to look at the context of sites in the wider landscape.

I missed the first paper of the conference due to arriving late, but the second paper, by Jamie Hampson, was about rock-art in the Kurnool district of India. One widely-noted aspect of rock-art is the superimposition of one image on another; Hampson believes that this is because the superimposed image may be intended to draw power from the image underneath. Another frequently-occurring motif is the depiction of more than the usual number of fingers, which may be due to altered states on the part of the artist. Likewise the depiction of intermediate species is not due to poor draughtsmanship, but may be due to altered states. The nearest tribal group to the people who produced the rock art of the Kurnool district are the Chenchu forest people; it would be good to speak to them to ascertain the meaning of the Kurnool rock art, which depicts tigers, deer, humans, other animals, hands and feet, and geometric forms, using shapes in the rock surface to enhance the art. The most frequently depicted animals are not necessarily the most sacred ones - for instance, we know from San (Bushman) mythology that Mantis is very important, but he is not depicted in their rock art. It's also possible that the artists placed their art near mineral seepages in the rock, so that the mineral would run over the drawing and "absorb" it into the rock. (The spirits are usually held to dwell in the rock itself.)

The next paper was presented by Christopher Chippindale, and entitled Music, archaeo-acoustics and rock-art location in the Copper Age of Valcamonica, Italy. He made the cery important point that when looking for either acoustic properties of sites, or for astronomical alignments, one must ask whether there are more such effects at ancient sites than would arise by chance? Not all alignments or sounds arise intentionally; so one must look for more than one site with an acoustic effect or an alignment to be sure that it's not just the product of chance. He and his team examined sites in Valcamonica (a region which is rich in rock art) and found three anomalous rock art locations. Most rock art in Valcamonica is on the curving lower slopes of the valley. These carvings were on vertical cliff-faces near flat ground. The researchers discovered that all three sites had spectacular echoes.

The next paper was by Paul Devereux, and entitled Rock Art: Underlying Mechanisms. He talked about the varied functions of rock art as way markers, territorial marks, and indicators for hunters. Distinctive natural places are widely regarded as interfaces with a world of spirits, who live in rocks, cliff-faces and underground. He talked about various sites around the world where lithophones (ringing rocks) occur naturally; they are frequently associated with rock art. Places where rock art is located are distinctive for many different reasons: shape, sound, veined rocks, water, echoes, lithophones. The natural sounds produced by such places can be quite powerful and affect brainwave patterns (as outlined in Cook et al, 2008).

The next paper was by Aron Mazel; Time, Colour and Sound: exploring the rock art of Didima Gorge, South Africa. He was initially sceptical about archaeo-acoustics, but after hearing Paul Devereux's paper at the last rock art symposium in 2008, decided to investigate acoustic effects in the Drakensberg region, which he has been studying for the last 30 years. He found that there are thirty times more paintings in the Ndedena Gorge than anywhere else in the Drakensberg, and more ritual- and trance-related pictures in the Northern Drakensberg (where the gorge is situated) than in the Southern Drakensberg. Waller (2003) found that natural sound at decorated locations was at greater decibel levels than at undecorated locations. Further, according to Rifkin (2009), percussive sound is used worldwide in ritual to facilitate movement between mental states. Ndedema is related to a Xhosa word 'Dum', to call or to roar. The gorge echoes with thunder and lightning, and when the bees swarm there, the sound is amplified to a roar. There is a painting of bees swarming in one of the caves. The San were living in the gorge in the 1870s and one of their bow and arrow kits was found there in the 1920s. According to ethnographic evidence from the Kalahari, where the San still live, bee-swarming time is a good time to go into trance. Therefore there is very likely a link between the rock art, natural sounds and trance states.

The next paper was on predicting pastoral movement in South West Libya by Maria Guagnin. She is studying the rock art of Messat Sattafet in Libya, near the Wadi al-Hayat. There, due to changes in moisture levels over the millennia, the variable patination of the rock art by manganese deposits from the rising waters of the nearby lake dates the rock art into four phases. There is a high density of rock art in the bays of the former lake (now dried up). These bays could be used as hunting traps to drive animals into; and the routeways where a lot of the rock art is near could be to do with the transhumance patterns of the pastoralists of the region. Having plotted about 100km of canyon wall, the team are now in a position to predict where more rock-art is likely to be, and plan to go back to find more.

The next paper, presented by Ruman Banerjee, who is working with Ramon Viñas, was on the rock art on the Levantine coast of Spain. The representation of women in this rock art could represent the emergence of a matrilineal society during the Iberian Neolithic, as women are depicted differently, with protruding breasts and long skirts. There is also a possible shamanic scene at Cabre d'Aguilo, which contains a depiction of a man giving head to another man, possibly a god, with bulls transforming into deer either side of them.

The next paper was by Anne Eastham, and was entitled Pathways and Property: a case study in the uses of prehistoric standing stones in North Pembrokeshire, Wales. This was about the re-use of stones in new contexts, as pilgrim way markers, grave markers and Christian crosses. She used comparative data from Brittany and Ireland.

The last paper was by Mike Eastham, talking about the difference between symbolic art and depiction. He pointed out that you can get information from art that simply depicts something without any inferences from culture; for example, a picture of a mammoth is recognisable as a mammoth, but we don't know if it symbolised anything. To understand symbolic art, on the other hand, you need to know the cultural motifs it employs. People who look at cave art often assume that it depicts shamans, magical hunting scenes and so on; but it might not have any of these meanings.

All in all, a fascinating conference.

Pagan festivals

I found a useful US Navy page with the exact dates of the equinoxes and solstices for several years to come.

Wiccan festivals
Imbolc / Candlemas : February 1st/ 2nd
Spring Equinox : March 20th (2010) / 21st (2011)
Beltane / May Eve : April 30th / May 1st
Midsummer : June 21st (2010 and 2011)
Lammas/ Lughnasadh : July 31st/ August 1st
Autumn Equinox : September 23rd (2010 and 2011)
Samhain / Halloween October 31st/ November 1st
Yule : December 21st (2010) / 22nd (2011)

Druid festivals
Samhuinn : October 31-November 1
Winter Solstice (Alban Arthan or Alban Arthuan): Dec 21st (2010) / 22nd (2011)
Imbolc : February 1-2
Vernal Equinox (Alban Eiler or Alban Eilir): March 20th (2010) / 21st (2011)
Beltaine : April 30-May 1
Summer Solstice (Alban Heruin or Alban Hefin): June 21st (2010 and 2011)
Lughnasada : July 31-August 1
Autumn Equinox (Alban Elued or Alban Elfed): September 23rd (2010 and 2011)

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.

Friday, 23 April 2010

What is Englishness?

National Trust: St George's day has got us thinking - if you're English (or if you just want to chip in) what does it mean to you to be English?
Things that are quintessentially English for me: diversity, fair play, daft humour, Doctor Who, Monty Python, subversion, radicals, Nonconformism, individuality, landscape, the National Trust, cream teas, lazy Sundays, Shakespeare, Gerald Gardner, Thomas Hardy, the Golden Dawn, Scouts, Vimto, picnics in the rain, tea & biscuits, eccentricity, amateur dramatics, antiquarians, Gilbert & Sullivan, gin and tonic, punting, suffragettes, Flanders & Swann, JRR Tolkien, Robin Hood, cloth caps, Marmite, beer, Brontës, Quentin Crisp, punks, and moaning about the weather, the state of the economy, and all that sort of thing.

What things do you think are quintessentially English, and why? (please state if you are English or not in your comment - it's interesting to know how we perceive ourselves and how others see us).
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
~ from To a louse by Robert Burns

PhD studentship

'Seeing the sacred in the museum: exploring the significance of religious
and secular subjectivities for visitor engagment with religious objects'

Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College, University
of London, in collaboration with the British Museum

The aim of this doctoral project will be to explore the ways in which
visitors engage with religious objects at the British Museum, focusing
particularly on whether it is possible to identify ways of seeing or
engaging with objects that relate more generally to religious and secular
subjectivities. Drawing together current research in material religion and
museum visitor research, the award-holder will undertake original empirical
work that will both add to our understanding of the performance of religious
and secular subjectivities in public cultural spaces as well how museum
evaluation work might engage in new ways with religious dimensions of
visitor experience.

The studentship is available from 1 October 2010, and the award-holder will
benefit from the wide range of postgraduate support available at Birkbeck as
well as from the experience of working closely with colleagues at a
world-leading museum. The studentship covers full fees and a maintenance
allowance at standard AHRC rates for central London institutions. Potential
applicants should check their eligibility for the award before submitting
their application

The deadline for completed applications is 1 June 2010, with interviews
planned to take place before the end of June. Further details about the
studentship (including how to apply).

Gordon Lynch

Professor of Sociology of Religion and Director of the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society

Birkbeck College
University of London
26 Russell Square

+44(0)20 7631 6658

This is a very timely project, and it would be very interesting to see the results. I hope that they will be published.

I contend that museums are sacred spaces - inspired by the Enlightenment love of knowledge, and named after ancient shrines of the Muses, they are clearly quasi-sacred. We approach these shrines of knowledge with hushed voices and reverent steps.

The only problem with museums is that objects are frequently presented out of context (although the British Museum generally gets this right) or labelled in an inaccessible way by curators who try to be arty.

To contemporary Pagans, everywhere is sacred because the divine/deities is/are immanent in the world; but to some Pagans, some places are more sacred than others. Perhaps because museums are not generally regarded as sacred, it has not occurred to Pagans to view them as sacred; but to me, they are, along with libraries, because knowledge and reason are vitally important, and they confer freedom of thought.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Guest post by Bo: Let the dead bury the dead

I lay awake recently turning the recent victory for archaeological research at Avebury over in my mind. It seems to me that the background hum, as it were, to the development of the 'reburial controversy' is the unexpected growth of an anti-intellectual streak amongst modern UK Pagans, particularly among druids. This, I think, essentially constitutes a delayed outbreak of recidivist footstamping at Ronald Hutton's flinging back the grubby curtains of fakelore to let the light into the dank caravan of pseudohistory. I'm not sure that this reactionary backsliding is necessarily conscious, and Hutton himself as always has done a splendid job of remaining on cordial terms with all sides. But I detect a general sense from some parts of the British Pagan spectrum that something has obscurely been taken from them, an undertow of anger at the perceived whittling-away of whatever mystique they felt they once possessed. Thus, the controversy about the excavation and retention of ancient human remains is a kind of flashpoint for a much more inchoate sense of aggrieved belittlement amongst a small section of self-identified Pagans.

This sense of disgruntlement has dovetailed unfortunately with the disturbing New Labour fondness for desecularising public discourse in the UK, persuading policy-makers, as Blair might have said, to 'do God.' Today's constant, nauseating invocation of 'Faith' is in part a misguided response to Muslim sensitivities (often more perceived than actual), which have been the dynamo for such legal precedents as have come to pass. In my opinion, the correct response to a developing multifaith society should be an absolute insistence on the secularism of the public realm, as in France. But the British, alas, have always preferred the incremental, well-meaning fudge to the crisp articulation of unbending principle. As a result, we have allowed a situation to develop in which the state forks out money for Papal visits, allows female Muslim medical staff to wear disposable sleeves instead of washing their forearms like everyone else, and in which, I might add, a tiny bunch of druids can waste thousands of pounds of public money.

The reburial controversy is interesting, I think, because it presents us with the peculiar spectacle of a number of self-proclaimed druids taking a leaf out of the Muslims' book, so to speak, exploiting a political climate of nervous deference to 'Faith' groups. Again, note the recentness of this: if Paul Davies' notorious reburial demand had been received by English Heritage twenty years ago, one suspects that everyone in the EH office would have had a good laugh and then it would have been promptly scrunched up and thrown in the bin. No longer. Rather, we now have a situation in which a religious body---representing a tiny number of people---are able to cause a serious and expensive inconvenience by invoking their outraged religious sensibilities.

Pagan complaints about the excavation and display of pre-Christian human remains in the UK are a very recent phenomenon, arising since the turn of the millennium. For the first fifty years of the British Pagan revival it simply doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to get worked up about them. As suggested above, the publication of Hutton's pseudohistory-puncturing The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles in 1991 and The Triumph of the Moon in 1999 may well have something to do the emergence of the idea, which seems to me to have more to do, in most cases, with the development of divisive identity politics than with genuine religious feeling. If nothing else, the desire to have prehistoric bones reburied (or 'returned', whatever that might mean), reverencing them as tribal ancestors, is a way of impressing upon others one's visceral connection to the ancient past---the very thing to which Hutton had conclusively demonstrated modern Pagans have no substantive claim.

The first person to raise the issue of ancient human remains appears to have been Emma Restall Orr, a.k.a. 'Bobcat'. At the turn of the millennium Restall Orr was probably the most famous druid in all of history. She had, amongst other things, published one evocative and hugely influential memoir, Druid Priestess, and by 2002 she had both set up and appointed herself head of of The Druid Network, a large and influential organisation in Pagan terms. As this grew, and as she published further material (a second memoir, a guide to ritual, a book on Pagan ethics), she emerged as the centre of something of a cult of personality among druids, a phenomenon over which she may, to be fair to her, have had little personal control.

Restall Orr's attitude to Pagan ethics and polytheology, as articulated in her books and talks, became a powerful mixture of the sensuous evocation of the natural world and a slightly morbid Goth sensibility, much like an Alice Oswald poem sung by Diamanda Galas. Restall Orr's writing also inculcates a powerful distrust of knowledge and objectivity, preferring instead to evoke, very skillfully, the oceanic rush of submersive, boiling emotion. For this reader, this tends to make her style feel overheated: despite walk-on parts for blackbirds, oak trees, vixens &c, and for other druids both living and long dead, Restall Orr's writing is largely about Restall Orr. This is an observation, not a criticism. However, her huge influence led to her personal characteristics---even her favourite words, 'exquisite' and 'inspiring'---being widely affected by the UK druid community during the first few years of the new century. And, among those characteristics, two stand out: an understandable preoccupation with death and dying, and an austere seriousness of purpose which the unkind might mistake for the lack of a sense of humour.

It was Restall Orr, then, who began to raise questions about the retention of archaeologically-excavated pre-Christian human remains in UK museums, inspired in part by the politics of the repatriation of ancestral bones to native peoples around the world. She is, I think, not to be suspected of self-conscious bad faith; her strong feelings on the matter are quite genuine, and rooted in her perception of herself as a 'native person' and as an alleged psychic, for whom the spirits of the ancient dead are apparently as real, if not realer, than the living inhabitants of her home near a well-to-do Cotswolds market-town. It is clearly an issue which is close to her heart. However, and this is my key point in this article, I find it very hard to believe that this is true to the same extent for the majority of other druids and Pagans who have followed Restall Orr's lead in campaigning for reburial or for a more nebulous 'respect' for ancient remains. I fear the phenomenon of 'imitative emotion' is at play here: that is, the tendency of groups to learn to desire and feel certain things because they see others whom they would like to emulate desiring and feeling them. (We are all vulnerable to this phenomenon; after all, upon this psychological rock is built the great church of Marketing.) In my experience, the resulting induced emotions either display a certain unconvincing tinniness, or betray an instantly recognisable note of hysterical groupthink. Thus, whilst I am not accusing Restall Orr of cynical manipulation, it is a fact that she is one of the most admired and imitated of British Pagan leaders, and thus those who respect her deeply were all too ready to take up her tune.

To this end, she set up Honouring the Ancient Dead, a Pagan advocacy group lobbying for the 'dignified' treatment of ancient human remains excavated in the UK. Restall Orr is a smooth political operator, and one suspects that she has been aware from the start that her organisation must be seen to be adopting an attitude more dove-like than hawkish. She has avoided the easily-disprovable claims which the less adroit partisans of reburial have blundered into making, noting carefully that modern druids have no continuity of identity, practice, or language with the ancient druids, or indeed with any ancient pagans at all, and that neolithic bones, for example, are the remains of people who are the genetic ancestors of 95% of the UK population, not just Pagans. Paganism, after all, is currently a religion that one elects to follow, rather than being born into---at least for the most part.

HAD went on to have some notable early successes, including the temporary 'repatriation' of the Iron Age bog body Lindow Man to Cheshire. ('Why is this Cheshire man in London?' asked Restall Orr.) The exhibition of the body in Manchester Museum caused ructions, as the display referred extensively to the 'controversy' about the display of ancient remains and said very little about the archaeological reconstruction of Lindow Man's life and unpleasant death---an omission which prompted an annoyed article in British Archaeology. Restall Orr was prominently featured in the 'polyphonic' exhibition talking about what Lindow Man means to her; many felt the inclusion of a modern Pagan at the expense of more informative archaeological content was inappropriate. Another widely-derided 'voice' included in the exhibition was a piece by a local woman who had been a small child at the time of Lindow Man's discovery, complete with the sentimental impedimenta of her recollections of 1984---including a prominently displayed Care Bear.

For all this, Restall Orr was displeased by the display of the body. So distressed is Restall Orr by the alleged 'lack of respect' shown by the exhibition that she writes:
'leaving the gallery, I felt as if I’d just witnessed an assault, a cat killed by a passing car lying dead on the empty road, a child slapped into stinging silence by an incapable parent.'
This (rhetorical?) disinclination to distinguish between the past and the present, the imaginary and the actual, and the dead and the living, is very characteristic of Restall Orr's writing. The lack of proportion in this piece is almost eerie; after reading it, I had to have a look at Jane Clarke's heartbreaking account of adopting an orphaned baby girl from India, just to remind myself of what emotion felt for living people by other living people looks like, as a kind of experimental control. Set next to Jane Clarke's piece, Restall Orr's evocation of her own undifferentiated affect reads very oddly; the squalling tone of the piece ('What flooded through me here was a rage drenched in grief') makes it, I think, the first instance I've seen of something looking like genuine religious mania in a modern British Pagan. What's so odd about its emotional content is the fact that Restall Orr's sympathies have nothing to do with the actual death of Lindow Man, who, like the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived, came to a sticky end. Her rage-drenched grief is for the fate of the corpse of someone who died nearly two thousand years before she was born. More brutally, one wonders if her powerful and apparently compulsive identification with the cadavers of ages past does not represent, on some level, a kind of grief for herself. Of course we should be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the people whose ancient remains we view; I think it's quite appropriate, for example, to find something very poignant indeed in the casts of the bodies of people smothered by ash at Pompeii and Herculaneum:

The viewer who cannot make that link of imaginative sympathy with these long-dead people who suffered horribly as they died might rightly be charged with being emotionally deficient somewhere. But the tenor of Restall Orr's writing about the display of human remains shows her, in my opinion, to be in the grip of some more idiosyncratic emotion.

After the apparent success with Lindow Man, responses were marshalled by those who failed to find HAD's arguments convincing. It was led, with satisfying symmetry, by another woman: the redoubtable Yewtree of Pagans for Archaeology. By nature and inclination more concerned than Restall Orr with the living, as well as being fearsomely articulate, Yewtree has made a concerted effort over the last four years to question the assumptions of the reburial partisans from a Pagan perspective, acting on the quite correct suspicion that most British Pagans do not, in fact, sympathise one jot with the aims of HAD or its satellites. PfA's basic statement can be read here; note that as a body it explicitly opposes reburial.

One wonders if Restall Orr expected her sacerdotal intuitions and assumptions to be questioned, used as she is to camouflaging a certain personal autocracy with emollient gestures towards consensus. The public rhetoric of HAD itself tends towards the articulation of emotional pain, which reflects a clever triangulation on Restall Orr's part, herself in favour of universal reburial. But by raising the issue of pre-Christian remains, Restall Orr, alas, galvanised the lunatic fringe of the druid community into beginning active and confrontational campaigns for reburial---those imitative emotions once again. This fringe consists of 'CoBDO', that is, 'The Council of British Druid Orders', their splinter-group 'CoBDO West', and the 'Loyal Arthurian Warband'.

Once museums up and down the land found themselves faced with charged emails and letters of protest, not to mention people turning up in robes, a strikingly beautiful Latin American ex-model in a wheelchair and black velvet must suddenly have seemed like the voice of sweet reason. It was slyly done, and yet again I ask you, especially if you are not British, to remember the uncertain atmosphere of deference to religious sensitivities and worry about causing offence which came to obtain in the UK public sector in the early noughties. It could well be that the chance to 'show sensitivity to Faith-based groups' was welcomed by museum managers with targets to meet and boxes to tick. This skillful act of triangulation allowed HAD, in all its glory, to oyster-knife its way firmly into British archaeological discourse and debate.

It may have surprised Restall Orr to find, thanks to Pagans for Archaeology, that a lot of druids and Pagans actually had quite different feelings on the matter of ancient human remains, and were prepared to say so, loudly. Numbers are difficult to ascertain as HAD does not release its membership or volunteer figures; nevertheless, from inside knowledge, it is likely that PfA's membership of several hundred is quite a few times larger than that of HAD. At any rate PfA's support---with a large conference last year fielding speakers including Ronald Hutton---shows that a considerable proportion of British Pagans disagree with the aims of the reburiers and their use of what they see as emotive and misleading language.

Opposition to HAD and its ilk has advanced on a number of fronts. The first has been a lacerating analysis of Restall Orr's oddly limited discourse of 'respect', according to which only very limited periods of scientific study followed by prompt reburial can possibly comprise a 'dignified' and 'honourable' way in which to treat ancient human remains. Restall Orr is good at putting an articulate spin on this, but it is at heart an untenable view. Ultimately it represents a kind of argument from 'common human decency' (CoBDO have actually been foolish enough to use this phrase in this context), a notoriously variable and culture-specific value. Yewtree and others have articulated an alternative and more considered discourse of respect: respect as the rediscovery and perpetuation of memory, respect as learning about the lives of people who lived in the past, respect as evocation of historical realities. Furthermore, archaeologists have pointed out that at least in the neolithic, bones placed in long barrows were frequently exhumed and ritually interacted with by the community, by their descendants; the idea that our concept of 'decency' regarding the dead can be mapped onto the pre-Christian inhabitants of Britain is simply an anachronism.

The second prong of the campaign against HAD and its hangers-on hinges on disputing the claim that contemporary Pagans should have some kind of special say in the fate of excavated pre-Christian human remains. Restall Orr, who is nobody's fool, knows that any claim of continuity with the pre-Christian people of 1500+ years ago is inviting ridicule in a post-Hutton world, and has argued in interviews that Pagans are not entitled to a special say, but are entitled to have their special interest in the matter acknowledged. (This argument was put forward in June 2007 in a religion discussion show called Heaven and Earth.) Again, slickly done; but I am not at all clear what the practical difference is supposed to be. Down at the woolly end, other heads have been hotter. Take Paul Davies, of the splinter-group whose campaign to have the neolithic child's skeleton from Avebury museum reburied finally failed last week. His original demand for the bones cast himself in the role of, say, an aboriginal elder coming to repatriate the remains of a tribal ancestor stolen from his resting-place by wicked colonial imperialists in the 19th century. Both CoBDO West and the original CoBDO tried to claim some kind of continuity of religious identity, although the logical thrust of their argument is frankly rather hard to follow. From the CoBDO website:
The fact that the little girl (?) whose remains lie in the Alexander Keiller Museum was found in the ditch at Windmill Hill, a major satellite of the Avebury sanctuary complex, clearly signifies association, on behalf of herself and/or her parents, with the ancient native pagan belief structure which the Avebury sanctuary complex itself represents, as this was unlikely to have been a random burial.
Although it might be stated that we have no clear idea which specific native religion she or her parents adhered to, as we do not know the names of the various faiths practiced at that time, nevertheless the term pagan is the best umbrella designation we have for those of pre-christian religious persuasion.
As the modern incarnation of these several belief structures and pagan pre-historic cultural pursuits, druids and pagans who likewise revere the sanctity of the Avebury complex, in this day and age, are descendants in belief of that same belief structure that not only led the megalithic builders to construct Avebury, but has also led countless generations subsequently to revere the Avebury complex and the sanctity it represents.
Whilst is may be true that 'pagan' is 'the best umbrella designation we have for those of pre-christian religious persuasion', 'pagan' and 'Pagan' are not the same. What on earth does it mean to say that you are the 'modern incarnation' of such 'pre-historic cultural pursuits'? Isn't there an obvious difference between 'pagan' in the everyday sense of 'to do with pre-Christian religions', and 'Pagan' meaning Wicca, Druidry, and other movements of recent origin---a familiar difference which is being crudely elided here?

Of course, Restall Orr's invocation of 'special interest' is a colossal own-goal, because anyone who visits a museum and involves themselves may be said to have a special interest. It's nothing to do with Paganism or one's religion. In the absence of any priviledged genetic connection to the ancient bones (above and beyond that of the rest of the UK population), and in the further absence of any provable continuities of religious belief and practice, the 'interest' of Restall Orr is no more and no less 'special' than that of the local schoolgirl who comes to sketch the bones for GCSE Art, or of the amateur archaeologist interested in the neolithic. In a fair society, no one's 'special interest' trumps anyone else's: and more specifically, why should the views of Davies or Restall Orr qua Pagans be privileged above the views of other Pagans which are diametrically opposed to theirs?

Thus the debate has had one positive outcome, which is to make it very clear that HAD does not speak for the Pagan community as a whole, a distinction which inevitably was not clear to the mainstream media reporting on the Avebury fracas. Many Pagans were seriously displeased at being associated in the press with a tiny group whom they perceived as courting public attention, when, for the majority of Pagans, their view on ancient human remains is congruent with the pervasive secular one.

Finally, Restall Orr should be thanked for opening up the area to moral debate. The ethical issues are, in my view, in a sense both complex and simple. I am still not sure how it is really possible to disrespect the long-dead. We walk on them everyday; a proportion of our bodies is made of the recycled molecules of ancient corpses. Human remains are not people; they were people, and they are now, if you like, 'ex-persons'. I doubt that any modern British Pagan seriously, theologically, believes that the exhumed dead are at present actually suffering, despite the claims of Paul Davies, who mentioned 'Charlie's' 'plight' in an newspaper interview. This is part of what reads so oddly in the emotional splurge of Restall Orr's Manchester piece: cui bono? Who is supposed to benefit from all this? Is it the late, lamented corpse? Or its ghostly shade?

The heart of the moral issue seems to me to be that the living, who can change their destinies, grow, and suffer, are simply more important than the dead. The genuine needs of the living---for education, for a sense of their own history and that of their country, even for space to be buried themselves---must always trump such needs as the dead may be said to have, because the dead as persons do not suffer or change. They can be damaged, but not harmed. Any moral individual would consent to the bones of a beloved relative being dug up if it would somehow save the life of a child. With the long dead, whom no one living has remembered for millennia, and in the absence of genuine cultural continuity with those currently living, my own feeling is that beyond a basic respectful acknowledgement of our once-shared humanity, the needs of the living are paramount. By way of 'respectful acknowledgement', I would see something like a small notecard appended to every display of ancient remains, reminding the viewer that these dry bones once lived as they do, as more than adequate. (This is precisely what the Boscastle Witchcraft Museum has in the case of a skull dipped in tar which it has on display.) The needs of the living, on the other hand, include the needs of osteoarchaeologists to have access to well-stored and catalogued remains preserved from deterioration, in anticipation of the new scientific techniques which will undoubtably be developed. It also encompasses the needs of the public to learn about how people lived in the deep past---people who are, after all, every bit as much their ancestors are they are those of a tiny number of druids, who seems to have a lot invested in their cultural enfranchisement and offical recognition of their importance. This moral imperative extends to time and money; in my view, the smallest injustice or cause of suffering in the world of the living has a greater claim over the time and energies of the 'spiritual' person than the reburial of the most poignant of ancient skeletons. If you have donated five pounds to a charity that works with abused children or the eldery, or campaigns for the protection of the enviroment, if you have ever planted a tree or rescued a cat or done someone a single act of kindness, then, in my opinion, you have performed an act the ethical content of which outweighs everything that HAD has ever achieved or ever will. Indeed, when the 'pagan' dimension is taken away, HAD seems to lose interest, for all its vaunted ethics; there have been no noises from HAD on the sad fact that 72 infants were buried in a mass graves in Southwark last year, including one which was dug up and dragged away by a fox. Perhaps they are not old enough, and druids can only wax sentimental about infant corpses after a few thousand years have passed; or perhaps actually caring about people---and poor people at that---is less rewarding than communing with the tortured spirit of the ancient bones.

On that note, it may interest the reader to know that I have written to the relevant bodies, as it happens, to see if I can discover the precise cost to the taxpayer of the Avebury Consultation under the Freedom of Information Act. It would be very tempting indeed to take that information and present it to HAD, CoBDO and the Druid Network, asking if their members would like to match the amount in donations to a charity----the wonderful Camilla Batmanghelidjh's Kids Company or the NSPCC, perhaps---which works to help living children, rather than those who died millennia ago.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Strange rumour

It has just been brought to my attention that there is a rumour going round that PfA and HAD are joining forces, with PfA becoming part of HAD.

Certainly this has been suggested to me by several members of HAD, but I have always said no, and will continue to say no.  I still haven't been HAD.

Pagans for Archaeology is an independent body representing those who are opposed to reburial and who support archaeology and museums. Its position is therefore incompatible with HAD's view, which is that reburial is one of a range of options (and presumably the preferred option) for dealing with ancient human remains.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Respect is...

  • using your vote in elections, because people in the past died for the right to have a vote (especially if you're a woman)
  • respecting the Earth you walk on and our fellow beings that live on it (both human and animal - i.e. real people not imaginary ones)
  • remembering your ancestors and honouring their contributions to the present (not burying their remains in some obscure place and then forgetting about them)
  • honouring knowledge and wisdom wherever it may be found
(please add your own ideas of respect in the comments)

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Avebury remains to stay in museum


After consideration of evidence and extensive consultation, English Heritage have decided that the prehistoric human remains in the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, should be kept in the museum for the benefit of public access and understanding.

These Neolithic human remains were excavated in the Avebury area by Alexander Keiller between 1929 and 1935. In 2006, Paul Davies of the Council of British Druid Orders requested their reburial. English Heritage and the National Trust followed the recently-published DCMS process in considering this request, and went out to public consultation in 2009 on a draft report which set out the evidence and different options.

English Heritage and the National Trust have now published a report on the results of this consultation, and a second report on the results of a public opinion survey. Our summary report concludes that the request should be refused for four main reasons:
  • the benefit to future understanding likely to result from not reburying the remains far outweighs the harm likely to result from not reburying them;
  • it does not meet the criteria set out by the DCMS for considering such requests;
  • not reburying the remains is the more reversible option;
  • the public generally support the retention of prehistoric human remains in museums, and their inclusion in museum displays to increase understanding.
This is excellent news, and a victory for common sense. Many thanks and well done to all the members of Pagans for Archaeology who responded to the consultation. And congratulations to the National Trust and English Heritage for not bowing to pressure from a tiny minority of Pagans, who represent an even smaller minority of the general public.

Keeping remains in museums is not "disrespectful" - it is a way of making the real story of the individual and their community known and honoured in the present.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria's Great Female Scholar
An avowed pagan in a time of religious strife, Hypatia was also one of the first women to study math, astronomy and philosophy

By Sarah Zielinski

This is an excellent article about Hypatia, the Neoplatonist mathematician, astronomer and philosopher. As most people know, she was murdered by a Christian mob. There is also a Spanish film about her, Agora (2009).

Hypatia is also the Guardian Ancestor of Cherry Hill Seminary, which provides higher education and practical training in Pagan ministry.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Update on King's College London

Last month, I blogged about the threat to the Chair of Palaeography at King's and the wider implications for humanities subjects. The threat has not gone away; indeed there has been an international outcry about it.

UCU members at King's College vote for strike action - UCU 22 March 2010
Members of UCU at King's College London have today voted overwhelmingly in favour of both strike action and action short of a strike in their fight to save jobs.

The Engineering department is to be closed after 170 years at King's, the Equalities and Diversity department has been scrapped and there are threats to Philosophy, Information Resources, American Studies and the only Chair of Palaeography in the UK.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Pagan census initiative

A group called Pagan Dash has set up a website to encourage people to state that they are Pagan on the 2011 census form.
In 2011 there is to be a Census in the UK. It’s time for Pagans of ALL paths to be counted.

In 2001 we were able for the first time, to write in our religious affiliation on the Census form. A campaign was started by a number of diverse groups to write Pagan in the ‘religion other’ section. Whilst in the main people did, we lost the individual path identity and some resented this. Furthermore, due to the way the Office of National Statistics counts religious affiliation responses, Pagans ended up having our number diluted across a number of categories. Even though many wrote Pagan, the campaign didn’t reach all Pagans. This means that every time we are asked the question ‘how many of you are there?’ we cannot come back with a simple answer.

This doesn’t need to happen!

The ONS wants to count us. They have a ‘mandate of inclusion’ which means they are looking for ways to include us in their figures. Looking at the raw data that was provided last time to us gave us some startling insights. However, as mentioned, by just writing Pagan on your form, we lose the data for various paths, and our diversity — but there is a simple solution — one that’s worked elsewhere.

In Australia in 2001 there were 10,000 Pagans in the census. Just 5 years later, with this initiative, their numbers are being counted as nearer 70,000. So if we can do the same here, and get more accurate numbers it will go a long way to getting the recognition we have fought for, and deserve.

All you need to do is put down your religion as:

Pagan — [insert your chosen path]

Some examples:
Pagan — Druid
Pagan — Wiccan
Pagan — Witch
Pagan — Heathen
Pagan — Neo-Shaman

Why do we need to ‘Stand up and be counted?’

For too long we have known that there are significant numbers of people who identify as Pagan. The estimates have been from 20,000 to 140,000 or more. But we’ve never had any really accurate figures for a number of historical reasons. We now have the chance to know just how many of us are there. Why do we need to know?

In the 2001 census some 30,000 people wrote Pagan. An additional 10,000 Pagans wrote their path specifically (Druid, Wiccan, witch etc.). Combined, this made us the 7th largest faith in the UK. While this number is significant, in the course of speaking to Pagans at various moots, events etc, we found there were approximately only 1 in 5 who had expressed their beliefs. This leaves a significant number not accounted for, or even counted. As a further problem the Heathens were originally counted with the Atheists in the results — which did not please them one bit!

If the Office of National Statistics has our true numbers:

We can then be officially recognized as a serious religious choice,
The government can see that we vote and there are enough of us to make a difference,
Pagan organizations can show they are representative,
We can achieve more representation within the local and wider community,
Pagan organizations will have credibility when dealing with both businesses and the government to provide the services you need.
This means it will be easier for us to be heard, our religious / spiritual sensitivities taken into account - and especially at those times when it is really important - in hospitals and hospices, for our children in schools, in the military and police and other places of work, in courts and prisons, when dealing with social workers and health visitors, at times when we face prejudice and discrimination.

So, what can you do to help?
  • Tell your friends!
  • Get your Pagan organization involved
  • Bring it up at your next moot
  • Put a link on your website to PaganDash
  • Give us your ideas about how to get the word out

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Coins of ancient Rome

Ancient Rome had some rather interesting coins with nude figures and erotic imagery. The Denge blog has pictures, and asks whether these coins were used to pay prostitutes, or were in general circulation. If they were in general circulation, what was the symbolism of the explicit scenes on them?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Axeing the humanities

Leiter Reports: A Philosophy blog has an update on the threatened closure of the Chair of Palaeography at King's College London, which I blogged about last month. He quotes from an article by Iain Pears pointing out that expenditure on senior management salaries at King's has increased massively over the last few years, and a modest cut in the administrative budget would be enough to save the Chair of Palaeography, and fund an entire department of palaeographers.
The average vice-chancellor now earns nearly three times as much as a professor, much more than the prime minister and more than the average private sector chief executive. The Principal of King’s, Rick Trainor, had a pay package which rose to £312,000 in 2008/9 from £292,000 the year before and £250,000 in 2006/7. His predecessor made do on £186,000 in 2002. While one person at King’s earned more than £150,000 in 2001/2, this had risen to 79 in 2009.

Keeping palaeography alive by cutting back on the generosity to senior staff does not appear to be an option for discussion, although reducing Professor Trainor’s package to a mere quarter of a million would help out, and a 5 per cent cut in take-home pay for the top 79 earners would produce more than a million pounds, enough for several departments of palaeographers.
Why does this matter? Because humanities subjects (including archaeology, history, palaeography and languages) are regarded by university senior management as merely ornamental and not directly contributing to the economy, and therefore surplus to requirements. We must resist this utilitarian view, as it impoverishes the meaning and purpose of education.

Palaeography is the study of ancient handwriting and the practice of deciphering and reading historical manuscripts. Imagine if no-one was able to read Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Arbroath, or other founding documents of our culture. Imagine if a new manuscript was discovered, and no-one could read it.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Black Dog: an interview with David Waldron

David Waldron is the author of a new book, Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Case Study in Local Folklore, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed by Pagans for Archaeology. It's his second book; the first was The Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival (Ritual Studies Monograph). He lives in Australia.

PfA: What got you interested in Black Dog folklore?

DW: Well to be honest it was when my father became minister of Emmanuel Church in Bungay and I started to hear the story from friends and family over there. As an Australian in a very colonial way my first response was something along the lines of “How cool is that!” and then started to do some digging on the tale. I think people in the UK sometimes don’t realize just how fascinating and intoxicating the level of historicity in Britain is. Especially for Australians and Americans who usually have less than 200 years of white colonization behind them and the kind of anxiety that having claimed displaced indigenous land creates. I think it is the same reason Australian and American Pagans tend to be extremely fixated on the UK or at least European heritage as a source of “authenticity” and legitimacy. Beltane in Mt Franklin near Ballarat where I live, for example, occurs in a Volcano crater which was landscaped in the 19th century to look British with Elms and pines and the like and the crater walls serve to disconnect from the Australian landscape and help create the illusion of connectedness to European heritage.

In terms of my own experience, I was first digging into the Bungay legend coming out of the reformation as it does, at the time I was writing my first book on the history of Witchcraft and saw a lot of close links. It gave me an opportunity to look at the romanticization of the past, the myth of pagan survivals, the trauma left from the reformation etc at the local level. After having done so much research from Australia via text books and the like the ability to get into primary sources first hand at the local level was just fantastic. I’d also been looking at broad pan-British or even pan-Anglophone issues in “Sign of the Witch” and I’d really wanted to get into what these sort of things actually meant at the level of communities and individuals rather than the broad sweeping brush strokes people so often work with.

PfA: What is the significance of Black Dog folklore? How widespread is it? How does it relate to other spectral dogs?

DW: Black Dog folklore is quite enormous and I would say it's global. Essentially every culture with dogs has variations on Black Dog myths. In particular the configuration of the dog as a creature of the boundaries of human/animal, death/life, predator/protector and spirtworld/physical world is almost universal. I even came across Aztec and Australian Aboriginal mythology paralleling that of British Black Dogs. A colleague of mine researching Australian Aboriginal folklore had a story from the Northern territory of spiritual Dingos that could talk and if one spoke to you and you answered back as you would a human (i.e. boundary violation) you were turned to stone or it ate your spirit. There are two schools of thought on this. One is that these stories are somehow directly linked (i.e. there are common historical origins); the other is that they are simply archetypal. I would suggest it has a lot to do with the nature of Dogs themselves as a symbiotic animal with 40,000 odd years of close relations with humans. Spectral Dogs, particularly Black Dogs or, less often, white Dogs are common in folklore in pretty much every region of Britain. However there is another point to make, which is the legacy of folklorists themselves. A common theme in reviews of 19th century literature of Black Dog folklore was the tendency of people to group vastly different stories together as “Black Dog” myths and over time they gradually blurred together and started to change the local tales into iconic Black Dog legends from what were originally stories about say someone’s dead dog who was thought to be a ghost or a shape-changing trickster fey creature who might happen to take a dog form becoming very quickly a “Black Dog”. People were so eager, post-Frazer, to see universal patterns that they actually actively went and shifted stories to what they were wanting to find and then over time changed the local myth and communities took up these stories and interpretations themselves. This is a pattern Ronald Hutton refers to a lot in “Witches, Druids and King Arthur” for example.

PfA: What can this study tell us about the links between folklore and the Pagan revival?

DW: I think a key issue for me was that transmission of symbols, images and ideas from the pagan past are very fragmentary, complex and ambivalent. People are very quick to throw the “Pagan Survival” label around because they so badly need to feel a connection to the past and a feeling of pastness in what they do. People can also be very quick to deny connection to a Pagan past when debunking. One thing that was really apparent to me when doing my research on the Black Dog of Bungay from a local history perspective, was that it is not a zero sum game. Let’s look at the Black Dog of Bungay for example. There are fragments in the myth from the Celts, Vikings and Romans for example. However, if I was to speak to a 16th century Puritan in Bungay he may not even know what a Celt was and would certainly take offense at the suggestion his view of the attack on St Mary’s church by a Black Dog or “Devile in such a likenesse” was Pagan. On the contrary he has a whole wealth of cultural forms he takes up and integrates into his protestant Christian identity much the same way Christmas today is a Christian ritual with fragments of our cultural heritage from all over the place. This is much the same with the folkloric beliefs in the witch trials. Emma Wilby talks about all the bits and pieces of Shamanic folklore, ritual and practices in the English witch trials of the civil war some of which predate Christianity yet are very much interpreted in a Christian context. People didn’t differentiate their folklore the way we do today and you can’t separate Christianity from its local cultural context which includes a wealth of forms, images, rituals and ideas. This is much like say Catholicism in Latin America which integrates all sorts of bits of folklore from all over the place into a strongly Catholic tradition. The analogy I use in my book is that the legacy of Pagan survivals is very much like language. The English I speak today is full of the legacy of Latin, French, Greek, Celtic and Germanic dialects and is shaped by all sorts of social and cultural factors that are connected to my heritage. So even the meaning associated with the fragments that make up my language have changed my English is no more Latin than Christmas is Pagan. Yet, that being said the connection to the past and the vast array of influences in what my language is today are still there constantly coming together, separating, old words fall away and receive new meaning new words and influences come into focus and the context in which I make sense of them constantly change. So it’s a constant growing and transforming process experience by different cultures and sectors of society differently and it’s a mistake to try to interpret the past from a modern context and then try to overlay that interpretation on the present.

On another side I found in Theodora Brown’s (a very detailed folklorist of the early 20th century who has literally boxes and boxes of resources of British myths like the Black Dog archives in Exeter) collection that Margaret Murray and others were frantically and deliberately looking for something, anything, to support her witchcraft as pagan survival hypothesis. I found all these letters and transcripts of the Devon folklore association meetings of Margaret Murray badgering Theodora Brown to present her findings on Black Dog myths in England as part of a witch cult linked to pre-Christian Paganism. Presuming that was going on all over the place with other folklorists, it brings to mind the stridency with which the early Wiccan movement were pushing to configure culture in a way that supported their contention that it was a survival pre-Christian belief system and the fervour which religiosity can bring to interpretations of the past. That being said while there are very obvious examples of the Pagan community doing this, a lot illustrated by Hutton, it is a pattern common to all religious beliefs and often pursued with a lot more aggression by say Christians, Jews and Muslims for example especially once linked to politics.

PfA: What can the (re-)construction of the Black Dog legend tell us about how folklore develops? What function do these stories have?

DW: I think, that aside from the fragmentary nature by which aspects of culture become part of the communicative and archetypal structure by which people tell stories and make sense of the world, it’s important to note that it's constantly in a state of flux and growth. So much of the folklore studies of the 19th and 20th centuries presupposed, via Frazer, that folklore was this static primordial thing located in the countryside. Even in the most remote areas, folklore is constantly evolving and being reconstructed and within a generation the origins of a story, festival or myth can become lost and thus seem to originate in a primordial past. Another important aspect is the way in which the very act of studying and publishing on folklore can actually change the myth itself as people take up these interpretations as part of their own heritage and use them to make sense of their own traditions. This can also happen with literary fiction that can be taken up if it resonates with the myth and the culture and within a generation it can seem like people have always had this point of view. One example from the Black Dog of Bungay was the myth that the Black Dog is the cursed soul of Lord Bigod. The earliest mention Chris and I could find for it anywhere was in Anthony Hippsley Coxe’s “Haunted Britain” published in 1973. Now when I went over to Devon to get into Theo Brown’s archives I spoke to people who knew him and saw Theo Brown’s discussion of that myth and found that he had lacked information and presumed parallels with a black Dog story he was more familiar with, that of Squire Richard Cabell in Dartmoor, and used it as a template for Bungay. The thing is that story was taken up with gusto in Bungay and ran in all the papers, the local publications etc and became a central component of the myth. It fitted into the story really well. It tied two different myths together and linked to two most prominent historic buildings in town: the Church of St Mary’s and the Castle. Now it's local folkloric orthodoxy if you like.

PfA: What bearing does the Black Dog legend have on the relationship between folklore and the literary tradition? For instance, the Black Shuck is referenced in Jane Eyre.

DW: I think one issue is that that they are closely linked. Our engagement with popular culture is as much part of our cultural heritage as myths, legends, folklore and empirical history. Some, like Frederik Jameson for example, would say literature and film etc are a darn sight more culturally important today. I found the story of Bungay having a linking network of secret underground tunnels originated in Elizabeth Bonhote’s novel “Bungay Castle”. It is a late 18th C Gothic romance novel (but with a very plucky female protagonist having to rescue her deathly ill imprisoned lover which I think was pretty cool and liberated for the era) which was very popular at the start of the 19th century but had been almost completely forgotten by the late 19th C. Elizabeth lived in Bungay and loved the ruins of St Mary’s and the castle and was inspired by the remains of King Stephen’s siege works, including sapper tunnels, to have a secret labyrinth of tunnels under the town in which to have adventures. Now this was taken up as part of the town folklore and then linked to the English Civil war where it was meant to be built by Cromwell’s men and contain caches of weapons etc. When they found secret rooms buried in the graveyard of Emmanuel Church in 1977 this became integrated into the story and now taken as given. The thing is we tell stories as part of our lived social and community experience. They say things about who we are, our values and our culture. They are like art but in a communicative context. So fiction is part of this process and we take things from literary and cinematic culture into our folklore. Fiction however is a product of people in a community and draws on this to give a story resonance and archetypal significance (as well as being just really fun and entertaining). It’s a mutual organic process. I think the anxiety comes from, in a post enlightenment world and as products of a modern education system, there is an underlying perception that legitimacy can only come from empirical veracity. So while, as Hutton comments, a well-crafted fiction can supplant any amount of historical fact in the imagination of people in a community and become folklore we feel we can only give these stories legitimacy if we can prove them by the rhetoric of empirical research. Empirical research and science however have a completely different function and are indifferent to the emotional and spiritual needs of people in a community. Thus we have an underlying tension which can often manifest itself in people taking up a literary fiction (originating out of a creative application of folklore and archetypal imagery) as fact and then becoming traumatized and often very aggressive when this belief or story is challenged on empirical terms. The legacy of “The Mists of Avalon” in the pagan community is a good example of this I think.

It’s interesting how often when I mentioned my research into the Black Dog of Bungay people then proceeded to tell me the plot of the Patrick Swayze film “the Black Dog” to me as an urban legend but one they are sure happened to their cousin or friend etc. As a historian, what do you do with that. It’s a yarn taken up as a literary fiction, but one based on established cultural forms and archetypes, which is appropriated as a story about who they are. It’s not true in the empirical sense but it has emotional resonance to them and they need to feel it’s empirically true for it to have legitimacy and feel real for them. There are different kinds of truth and a side product of our post—enlightenment culture is the need for our fictions to feel empirically true to have validity yet empirical truth runs counter to how folklore and storytelling function and develop in a community.

Great is Artemis of the cheese!

Sorita d'Este has found a reference to an ancient Greek cheese-stealing ritual:
In Lakedaimonion Politeia (2.9) we find a reference to this cheese stealing ritual in which two opposing groups of young men would contest some cheese, which would be stored on the altar of Artemis. The first group would defend the cheese with whips and the second group would try to steal it.
I definitely think this ritual should be revived; it sounds excellent. I'm sure it would benefit the cheese-makers (who are, as is well-known, blessèd, along with other manufacturers of dairy products).

Newsnight report on HAD

Just seen this posted on Facebook:
BBC Newsnight: Pagans call for reburial of ancient human remains (video)

Somewhat patronising comments about Paganism from the BBC. "Pagans aren't used to being taken seriously." Hello, BBC, Pagans pay their licence fee just as much as the next person, and do expect to be taken seriously, actually. How about starting with doing some research and finding out that not all Pagans want these remains reburied? Pagans for Archaeology now has 1,344 fans on Facebook, and the group has 330 members. The case for retaining human remains for study is clear and reasonable.

It's interesting that museum professionals have become increasingly receptive to reburial claims. Why is it now deemed disrespectful to keep remains in museums? There is no inherent disrespect in doing this. It's not like those weird ossuaries where bones are turned into decorative displays.

And why aren't Pagans making as much noise protesting about climate change and species extinction, demanding same-sex marriage, campaigning for Pagan handfastings to be legally recognised, and other pressing issues of the day?