Monday, 30 March 2009

Pagans and Archaeology conference

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

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

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

To book a place at this conference, please email

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

Confirmed speakers:

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

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

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

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

Graham Harvey
Animist Pagans and the present dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh Pollard
Whither Archaeology?

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

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

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


Europe’s Lost World: The rediscovery of Doggerland
by Vincent Gaffney, Simon Fitch & David Smith

A new book by a team from the University of Birmingham explores the lost world of Doggerland, the land that was submerged when the waters rose at the end of the last Ice Age.

It has always boggled my mind that when Doggerland was dry land, the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine.

The past is sometimes said to be a foreign country, but less than 12,000 years ago Europe was a very different and almost unrecognisable place where Britain did not exist as a separate land. Over several thousand years the climate changed, sea levels rose and the entire coast of Europe morphed into the familiar shape we know today. Britain, formerly a range of hills on the edge of a great plain, gradually separated from continental Europe. This new book concludes a remarkable programme of archaeological research by the University of Birmingham to rediscover Doggerland, the enigmatic country which once linked the Yorkshire coast with a stretch of Continental Europe from Denmark to Normandy but which now lies beneath the North Sea.

Whilst many may associate Doggerland with the area of sea described memorably each night in the BBC Shipping Forecast, 10,000 years ago Doggerland was an inhabited land where communities of hunter-gatherers lived and roamed, hunting and gathering resources, just as they did in many other areas of northern Europe. Previously interpreted by archaeologists simply as a ‘land bridge’, this project has described this amazing landscape in detail for the first time and revealed the valleys, hills, rivers and plains which lie beneath the North sea and which were home to unique cultures, tribes and, perhaps, thousands of people.

This CBA book documents the terrible events which brought an end to this landscape. Sometimes slowly, but sometimes with a rapidity which brings to mind Noah’s Flood, sea levels rose due to a rise in temperature and melting glaciers. Doggerland was drowned, its people lost or driven to higher ground.

Does this scenario sound familiar? The project accurately reconstructs the story for us, the tragic conclusions of which cast a chilling light on our situation today. With another potentially catastrophic climate change event looming, there is a real possibility that we will lose more land to the North Sea. The submersion of Doggerland was the last time this happened, and reminds us of our obligations to future generations who may lose the plains, valleys and rivers familiar to our land surface today if global warming is not arrested.

The project team, headed by Professor Vince Gaffney, a specialist in landscape archaeology at the University of Birmingham, conducted the research using ground-breaking oil industry technology and 3D seismic reflection data, donated by PGS Ltd, to scan the seabed. Using millions of data points across 23,000km² of the sea bed, a reconstruction was created of the old land surface, now submerged beneath metres of marine sediment and tens of metres of sea water.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Can these dry bones live?

Henry Alexander Bowler 
The Doubt: Can these dry bones live? (1855)
Tate Gallery, London, UK

The context of this fascinating painting is the Christian belief that people would be bodily resurrected at the Last Trump (the Second Coming).

It appears that most Christians no longer believe this, since the Church of England is apparently happy for people to be cremated.

What it does illustrate is that when you look at bones, there's no-one home in there.  The person has gone.
Some cultures have specific beliefs about bones; others do not.  It would be difficult to guess how a culture might treat its dead from its theology; sometimes funeral practices arise from perceived economic or social necessities as much as from belief systems.  Also, of course, different individuals within cultures will have widely varying beliefs about what happens to body and soul after death.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Open-air cremation

Burning viking longship at Up-Helly-Aa fire festival photoOn 24-26th March 2009 the Royal Courts of Justice in London will review Britain's cremation laws and decide whether Baba Davender Kumar Ghai deserves the legal right to a Hindu religious cremation on an open air funeral pyre.

I know several Pagans who would like an open-air funeral pyre, so I think we should support this campaign. If it uses too much wood, this could always be offset by planting more trees (I'm willing to bet that it is more environmentally friendly than most crematoria). Other than the possible environmental impact, this doesn't harm anyone else.

Also, gas-fired crematoria use a huge amount of gas.

Anglo-Asian Friendship Society funeral pyre campaign (you can register your support by filling in the comment box on this page)

The pioneer of the revival of cremation in Britain was William Price, an eighteenth century Druid.

Some ancient pagans also cremated their dead, probably for similar reasons to Hindus.

I'd quite like my corpse to be pushed out to sea in a burning longship (Viking-style), but failing that, either an open-air cremation or a woodland burial would do. Although a burial mound would be good. I will of course have plenty of grave-goods for future archaeologists to examine. Maybe I should be buried in acid-free soil so they can examine my bones and analyse them.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Archaeology of women

Who is she? A goddess, a ritual object, a votive offering, a vehicle for working magic or fulfilling wishes, a talisman for protection, a teaching or initiation device, or simply an ancient woman's embodiment of herself?
The Brooklyn Museum is staging an exhibition of prehistoric female statues (which may or may not be goddesses). It will be accompanied by a seminar to discuss early female figurines of the Neolithic Period from ancient Mesopotamia and of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods from ancient Egypt.

Similarly, the Onassis Cultural Center is staging an exhibition, "Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens":
The purpose of the exhibition Worshiping Women is not to argue that Classical Athenian women were 'liberated' in any contemporary sense, like the figure of Lysistrata on the comic stage. It remains true that the lives of Athenian women were highly restricted when it came to mobility in the public sphere, participation in the political process, or control over their own bodies. But the study of religion provides a necessary corrective to this unremittingly bleak picture.
It is not that participation in religious ritual was an 'escape' for women from their lives of daily oppression, for it is highly unlikely that they perceived their own existence in this way. Rather, ritual defined who they were -- as women, as Greeks, and as Athenians.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Women in archaeology

Since it was International Women's Day on Sunday, I thought I'd write about women in archaeology.

Agatha Christie famously said that one should marry an archaeologist, as he's the only man who will become more interested in you as you grow older.  I followed her advice, and found it excellent.  But she was an archaeologist in her own right, and her depth of knowledge was appreciated by her husband and colleagues:
 She became very expert, and was much respected by Max's colleagues for her painstaking and skilled work.
70 years ago, Dorothy Garrod became a professor of archaeology at Cambridge.  She was the first female professor at Cambridge long before the admission of women to the university.

Other prominent female archaeologists include:
Now there is an organisation, British Women Archaeologists (originally started as a Facebook group but now with its own website, and seemingly well on its way to becoming a professional association) with their own strand at TAG 2009.

There's also the archaeology of women to be considered - for example the excavation of the Greenham Common peace camp; the archaeology of gender roles; the discovery of Amazons in Sarmatia and Amazons in Britain; the archaeology of identity; and women's material culture and social and economic status in the past. 

Some feminist archaeologists (and some feminist Pagans too)  got very excited about the idea of a pre-Indo-European goddess-worshipping matriarchy, but the idea really doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  Certainly attitudes to women were different in the past and the degree of patriarchy varied from one society to another, but there wasn't a Europe-wide Goddess-worshipping culture.  There is little or nothing to suggest that the famous "Venus" figurines actually were goddesses.  Unless you find an unequivocally female statue in a temple (such as the Sleeping Lady at Hal Saflieni in Malta) you can't be sure it is a goddess.  Also, having goddesses doesn't necessarily guarantee that women themselves are respected.

Further reading

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Guest post: Clovis tools found

What's In Your Backyard? A Cache Of Clovis Stone Tools! by Pitch313
A rare, undisturbed cache of Clovis stone tools maybe 13,000 years old was discovered in a Boulder, Colorado, backyard. Analysis reveals that some of the tools were used to butcher ancient camels and horses. The University of Colorado at Boulder web site offers an excellent account of the find and its archaeological context, including a striking set of images of the tools and the site.

Using a search engine for a phrase like Clovis tools Boulder CO brings up many other pages.

The location of the find is within the Boulder city limits. Bunches of stone tools being weighty, Clovis folk apparently did bury tool caches as they roamed their territories. A landscaper found this cache buried about 18 inches deep. In the past, the site formed part of a natural drainage. Nobody, apparently, had any clues about its presence.

What gets me about this find, really, is that it was right in somebody's backyard. Not out in the back of beyond. And it was, after erosion and human earth moving activities, not all that deep. Makes we wonder about other sorts of ancient artifacts and sites we might literally be living on top of and walking over every day.

As a Pagan, I find it interesting that this cache was hidden right in a city. Did Pagans and psychics and dowsers not pick up any traces or indicators? Does this suggest a magically or psychically "dead" cache. Was the cache magically hidden by the Clovis folk who buried it? Or do we take our backyards so much for granted that we never even think to look there. I certainly never looked for ancient finds in my little patch of Northern California backyard, even though it did hold a few unusual creatures and interesting old trash from previous occupants.

The Clovis people were early Paleoindian immigrants to North America. They ranged over the West. Materially, the hallmark of Clovis culture is beautifully knapped stone points, called Clovis points. In college, I had an opportunity to look at and handle a couple of them. As the University of Colorado at Boulder article points out, they do have a sort of touch magic that recalls something of the ancient days.

13,000-Year-Old Stone Tool Cache in Colorado Shows Evidence of Camel, Horse Butchering

The Mahaffy Cache consists of 83 stone implements ranging from salad plate-sized, elegantly crafted bifacial knives and a unique tool resembling a double-bitted axe to small blades and flint scraps. Discovered in May 2008 by Brant Turney -- head of a landscaping crew working on the Mahaffy property -- the cache was unearthed with a shovel under about 18 inches of soil and was packed tightly into a hole about the size of a large shoebox. It appeared to have been untouched for thousands of years, Bamforth said.

(Pitch313 has given permission for this article to appear on Pagans for Archaeology; it is copyright the author, Pitch313).

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

An alternative theology of reburial

I would like to draw your attention to an article written by a PFA member, An alternative theology of reburial which is part of a site called Ancient Britons: Honouring Our Ancestors By Remembering Them.
What of the remains? Do they hold the spirit of the dead? No. In my opinion they do not. They may retain an echo or an imprint, but the spirit has gone, the person has left and what remains is essentially a golem, a physical shadow of the person who once was. Perhaps it was this echo or memory held within the bones that our Neolithic ancestors were hoping to remain in touch with when they continued access and handling of the bones of the dead. Perhaps it was their way of remembering them, their lives and theirs stories. That being the case, our way of retaining and displaying human remains would not be entirely alien to them.

Monday, 2 March 2009

From the Ashes: Southampton scientists restore Amazon warrior

clipped from
A 2000-year-old painted Roman statue, discovered in the ancient ruins of Herculaneum in 2006, is being digitally restored to her original glory by scientists from the University of Southampton, University of Warwick and the Herculaneum Conservation Project.
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