So, I’m friends with King Arthur on Facebook, I met him years ago in the days of the ‘eco-wars’ in the 1990’s. He has been, for some time now, urging people to sign his petition for the reburial of what he calls the ‘Stonehenge Guardians’. I assumed upon seeing the calls for the petition that this was just further appropriation of ancient cultures by modern hippies but earlier today decided to look into it somewhat just to make sure I wasn’t being a daftie and ignoring a legitimate ethical concern due to my intolerance of hippies and ‘pagans’.
First we need to discuss, briefly, a few things in order to put the case into context. Who the guardians were. Who built Stonehenge. British Druidry in ancient and modern times. Before then going on to discuss the implications for archaeology, culture and the control of heritage and archaeological resources of the various positions on this case.
Who are the Stonehenge Guardians and who built Stonehenge?
Between 1919 and 1926 William Hawley carried out a series of excavation at Stonehenge and from the western part of the monument he removed a number of cremation burials. Due to archaeologists of the time not having the technological tools to realise the scientific value of such remains, for dating especially, the majority were reburied.
In 2008 a team from Sheffield University re-exhumed the remains, that had been placed into a sack to be reburied meaning that the remains of some 40 individuals were all jumbled up. They were reburied in what is known as Aubrey Hole 7 from where the team removed them. The study of these bones has given us valuable information regarding the sequence of activity at the site (pdf).
It seems, details are a bit fuzzy, and I only have a limited amount of time to dig into this, but it appears that the bones were to be reburied in 2009 but the Ministry of Justice gave special leave for the University of Sheffield to keep hold of them til 2015 for further study. This angered the druids who were to bless the reburial process.
Here we see the reaction of King Arthur to the news that reburial was not immediately going to happen.
In the Los Angeles Times Mike Parker Pearson, who led the team, is said to claim that the burials were of ancient royal personages. Seems a bit conjectural to me but the area must have been important. Or at least it became important, possibly due to association with these burials as they occurred before the monument as we know was constructed.
So we don’t know that the individuals buried were of any great significance but the site of their burial was obviously important as over time it developed into an amazingly complex site of human activity. A site that saw intense human activity for many thousands of years.
We do know that these people lived in the middle and late Neolithic periods. Communities at this time were agrarian and so sedentary in their lifestyle, compared to the nomadic peoples of the earlier Mesolithic period. As well as sedentary communities we have evidence for individuals traveling large distances in their lifetimes. The area around Stonehenge itself has provided us with evidence for this in the form of the Amesbury Archer who was born in the Alpine region of Europe yet was buried near Stonehenge at the end of the Neolithic.
The people of the Neolithic lived in communal dwellings, cleared forests to grow grains and keep animals. They built trackways and radically altered their landscape as they came to be ever more in control of their environment. Rather than living within nature, as gatherer-hunter groups did, they were asserting mastery, or stewardship at least, over the natural world.
However the complexities of the societies of the time are forever lost to us. Through the archaeological study of the cultural artefacts that have survived to the modern times we can however ascertain some things, as outlined above, about their culture.
It is somewhat of a misnomer to refer to this site as Stonehenge as the monument of this name is only one small part of a large and complicated site that evolved over thousands of years. The earliest evidence for activity in the area is a series of large post holes that date to around 8,000bce which held pine posts which were allowed to rot in situ. This was the Mesolithic period of gatherer-hunter groups wandering a wooded landscape.
It was during the middle Neolithic that work got underway on sculpting the landscape around Stonehenge. between the late Neolithic, c.a 3,100bce, and the early Bronze Age, c.a 1,600bce, a vast complex emerged. This complex included the monument itself, the avenue to the river Avon, possibly the river itself, the Durrington Walls complex, the large cursus monument and a range of other earthworks in the area.
The construction sequence is long and complex. Some of the construction events saw elements being removed, their shape altered and changed. This implies that the cultural significance of the monument was changing over time. People were obviously interacting with this monument in an evolving manner and so would have placed different value on different aspects of it at certain times.
It is certainly true that cultural practices were evolving over this period as we can see through the change in mortuary practices over this same period. If people were changing the way in which they buried their dead and the way in which this great ritual center was organised then their society must have been undergoing significant changes. I think that it is safe to say that the people who started work on the complex in the Middle Neolithic were definitely of a completely different culture to those who were the last to work on the site in the early Bronze Age. Cultures change and grow rapidly and so I would expect their to have been a long series of different cultures working on the site over such a long period of time. Whilst it may be true that there was some continuation between the cultures the sheer temporal space between the beginning and end of construction means that they would have been culturally totally alien to one another.
A Druid’s Eye View
According to the website for King Arthur’s Loyal Arthurian Warband(LAW)
Stonehenge is the ultimate expression of the Spiritual, Artistic, Cultural and Technical understanding of the Peoples and Cultures that collaborated on its building.
Scholars can argue whether these were the ancient Hyperborean’s, the people later to become known as the Picts, the Welsh and indigenous ancient Britons, Pre Celtic Proto-Druids. Latter Bronze / Early Iron, Beaker age people.
But to us they are simply the Ancestors. The very Giants (Metaphorically speaking) on whose shoulders we sit. The founders of our nation. Who by their exploits put the Might in this once green and pleasant land. The isle of the Mighty.
The article from which this quote is taken is full of conjecture and I do not want to focus on conjecture as it is rarely useful in anything but building nice stories to explain things. Something that is well within the remit of archaeologists but not so good for trying to ascertain the facts as best we can in a case like this.
I, somewhat obviously, find this statement from King Arthur somewhat problematic. I would agree that Stonehenge is the result of many different peoples and cultures at work though this seems to imply a shared sense of purpose. I see little evidence for this given the amount of times the apparent fundamental structure of the monument has been altered throughout its lifetime.
I have also never heard a single scholar claim that the monument was created by people from Greek myth. Nor that it was created by people who lived more than 2,000 years after it’s construction stopped, like the Welsh/Britons or the Picts. Nor has anyone said that it was constructed by people in the Bronze Age or Iron Age. There is in fact little evidence for activity on the site from the early Bronze Age onwards.
To simply reduce all the peoples who worked on this site to being ‘The Ancestors’ is a monumental act of cultural temporal terrorism. It strips these people of their identities and reduces their culture to a cartoon of a modern fantasy.
Didn’t build Stonehenge
Druidism Then and Now
The first account we have for the existence of Druids is from c.a200bce where two Greek texts mention the Druidas of the Celts and Gauls. During the Roman occupation of Britain the Druids were suppressed and, with the advent of Christianity, they were eventually extinct as a priestly caste by the early medieval period, the seventh century at the latest.
18th Century Romantics gained an interest in the druids through the works of the antiquarian William Stukeley who associated them with megalithic monuments such as the complex at Avebury. As part of this fashion for all things ancient John Toland formed The Ancient Order of Druids in 1717 which is still around to this day, albeit split into two groups since the 1960s.
Since the 1960s, and the increasing interest in alternatives to traditional Christian spirituality, there have emerged many different druidic groups including the LAW. The tradition that these groups draw upon all stem from the writings of the 18th century Romantics which, in turn, are based upon the work of seventeenth century Antiquarians.
Unfortunately these antiquarians did not have access to the knowledge, technologies and techniques that we have developed since they were laying the groundwork for archaeologists to take on. They were unaware that these monuments had been constructed more than a thousand years before the earliest records for a druidic religion. They were also unaware that they often saw use over a period of thousands of years with many different cultures, and therefore many different religions and spiritualities, making use of them.
We can see then that there is no ‘real’ and tangible link between either the druidism as reported by the Greeks or written about by the Romans and the creation of 18th Century Romantics. We can also see that the attachment to these monuments claimed by modern druidry is based upon a misinterpretation of these sites by 17th Century antiquarians. There is, therefore, no connection between the modern druids and the remains buried during the early phases of activity at the site.
What Does it Matter?
So what are the implications of these two conflicting views of the monument?
Should we allow King Arthur and the LAW to force these remains to be re-interred, and thus probably lost to us for ever, we allow for irrationality and superstition to win a victory over rational scientific inquiry that can give us valuable information about how we came to be where we are today and how we lived in the distant past.
What is to stop them, should they win their cause, begin to challenge any and all archaeological work at ancient sites around the country? The druids would argue that they are not opposed to archaeological work in and of itself, though to read King Arthur’s description of us as ‘grave robbers’ one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but that they merely want to ensure that the remains of the long dead are treated with due respect.
Now this I have little problem with. I do not however think that due respect necessarily implies an onus on reburial nor does it imply allowing those with an entirely foreign spiritual tradition to claim ownership over these remains due to a lack of understanding of the long tableau of human activity on this island. In fact I think the latter is most disrespectful.
What can not be denied however is that the druids do have a contemporary cultural connection with Stonehenge. One that stems from both the misinterpretation of the antiquarians and the modern cultural phenomenon that was the Stonehenge Free Festival of the late 1970’s-mid1980’s and this link is especially strengthened by the brutal suppression of that festival by the Wiltshire establishment including English Heritage and the National Trust.
To simply deny that the druids have any claim to have a say in what occurs at Stonehenge and in it’s environment is to place the preservation of the monument above the quality of life of people who exist in the here and now. This claim to ownership of the monument by the heritage industry and archaeological academia is equally as absurd, and downright insulting, as the druidic appropriation of the extinct cultures of this island.
Those granted responsibility for the monument by various governments have failed time and again to steward the monument for the people who wish to visit and interact with it. The reason for this is entwined with the notions of heritage and protection.
Heritage in this country, and I imagine every other country in the world, is considered a resource that can be exploited for a number of reasons. One reason is the generating of income from those interested in the past. Another is that heritage is seen as having an important role to play in how we define ourselves. Certain places and events throughout history are imbued with cultural significance and so control over the presentation, use and interpretation of these sites is important for those who seek to influence how people interpret their collective identity. In other words controlling the past helps one to control the present. Because of this the control of Stonehenge, a site that has a unique place in the consciousness of the people of southern Britain, has to reflect the control that the establishment wish to keep over the country. It has to remain preserved, static and eternal just like the present social situation in which we find ourself. This is why the druids can not be allowed to have free access to the stones and this is why it will be a long uphill battle to open the site properly to the public.
I find myself nodding in agreement with Arthur when he writes.
While so much has been said about returning Stonehenge to its natural environment, I see nothing natural about franchising out catering to multi-national hamburger companies or tunnelling under the stones.
Nor is it natural to surround it with fences and security. A far more natural environment would be to return it to the people, which works so well at nearby Avebury.
And don’t listen to the heretics who tell you that it must be roped off to stop erosion and to protect the archaeology.
Erode what? The concrete they set them in? The archaeology they destroyed piecemeal when they gravelled it over?
No, Stonehenge should be free and open to the peoples it was left to. That’s you and me, the peoples of this once green and pleasant land. Stonehenge is still regarded by people of many different faiths as a place of worship and spirit.
I would add to that that it should be free for all who wish to gather there for whatever their reason so long as they do not interfere with others nor damage the monument.
We do not need to protect heritage, we need to steward it. To make sure that it can be used and enjoyed by all the people who wish to do so whilst doing all we can to ensure that future generations can enjoy it also. What we should not be doing though is claiming that we are ‘protecting’ heritage sites for future generations at the expense of those who are alive now. Archaeology does not exist in some space out of time but in the here and now. It’s value is only that which we ascribe to it.
Unfortunately the values different groups ascribe to heritage often clash. As archaeologists I believe part of our remit is to attempt to ensure that we can assess these different claims to heritage with an eye to providing fair and free access to the benefits of this communal resource. So, in this case, I would argue that the benefits of further archaeological research on the remains from Stonehenge outweigh the well intentioned, but misplaced, concerns of the druids. I would however also argue that it is wrong to attempt to preserve heritage in a bubble and thus rob it of any life and vitality it may otherwise have. For this reason I would roundly condemn the mismanagement of Stonehenge by English Heritage and call for free unimpeded access all year round, 24 hours a day.
Update: Arthur has now deleted me from Facebook after I, in politeness to give him the right of reply, posted it to his wall. Looks like he’s not interested in debate and merely in fluffing his own ego. Ach well. Had forgotten what he’s like.
Posted on November 1, 2011, in Archaeology, Critical Thinking, Skepticism, woo and tagged British Order of Druids, Cultural Appropriation, Druidry, Druids, Iron Age, King Arthur, Loyal Arthurian Warband, Megaliths, Neolithic, Sheffield University, Stone Circle, Stonehenge, Stonehenge Guardians, Stonehenge Riverside Project. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.