Seminar: Druids and Archaeologists: Is there a common ground?
Can a dialogue be established between archaeologists and druids, and if so how can we accomplish this?
This seminar grew out of an article I wrote last year for Touchstone. In the article (sections of which will be interspersed throughout the seminar for those who do not receive Touchstone) I explored the difficulties that have grown to create a divide between druids and archaeologists and the differing views of how heritage should be studied and presented to the public.
Who I am
I have been a member of OBOD for many years, starting out in the US as a member of the Geal Darach Grove in Minneapolis. When I moved to the UK, I joined the Setantii Grove in Manchester. The reason I came to the UK was to pursue a masters and PhD degrees in archaeology at the University of Sheffield. I received my MSc in 2009 and am in the process of writing up my PhD thesis.
What is archaeology?
The classic definition of archaeology is the study of human activity through the examination of their remains. These remains are not only bones, but also the material culture (the things people made and the materials the used to make them), the things they ate, and the way in which people used the landscape. However, this is a rather new concept. Archaeology only really began as a discipline in the mid-nineteenth century when gentlemen (and some gentlewomen) explored monuments, dug up an alarming number of burial mounds, and began to ask questions as to what the stuff they found was and how it got there. The field became increasingly sophisticated with the development of better excavation and recording methods, and the use of scientific analyses such as carbon dating, isotope and DNA analyses, and other methods that continue to provide more detailed data.
As a result, archaeology has become multidisciplinary. It uses tools and concepts from as diverse subjects as engineering, physics, geology, anthropology, geography, philosophy and social theory … the list goes on almost without end. Not only are there field archaeologists, and lab techs, but there are specialists in materials such as pottery, metals, and textiles. There are archaeologists who specialise in structures, others who specialise in plant remains, osteologists, and forensic archaeologists. There are archaeologists who experiment with recreating ancient technology, and then there are curators and conservators who work as museum staff.
In the 1950’s there was a movement call New Archaeology (later it became known as Processual Archaeology) that sought to use the newer scientific resources combined with anthropology to better understand human life in the past. They embraced the new technology that provided more kinds of analysis with more accurate data and insisted on rigorous adherence to the scientific method. They now could work with hard facts rather than guess work about dating artefacts or the techniques that people used to make objects. Processual archaeologists concentrated on the information that the data could provide.
In the 1970s a significant rift developed that divided the archaeological community. Another group, who called themselves Post-processualists felt that the human element was being lost. They felt that the data should be examined combined with theory and ethnographic work to have a more complete understanding of life in prehistory. In addition, Post-processualists used theoretical techniques such as phenomenology, a study that emphasised the sensual experience of the world that included smells, sounds, touch, and other sensations. In addition, they rejected the view that humans of the past would behave in logical ways as defined by modern western society. For instance, people might deliberately use the land in a way that might not be the most efficient, or that objects might have an influence on human behaviour, rather than being passive tools.
To the Processualist viewpoint, the high level theorising of the Post-processualists was too close to making up fairy tales. They believed that if an object or a theory couldn’t be tested, it couldn’t be proved.
At the same time, modern social changes were influencing archaeology. New areas of studies were a direct result of the civil rights and feminist movements in the US. Subjects such as gender archaeology emerged. There was a greater awareness of social class that resulted in archaeologists focussing more on the lives of the commoners and slaves rather than the pharaohs and kings. The cat was out of the bag and more archaeologists looked to anthropology, psychology, economics, and other fields to find foundations for larger theoretical frameworks.
Until this point “ritual” was a dumping ground for anything that could not be understood. If an object did not have any apparent use, it was labelled a ritual object. Likewise if something could not be explained, for instance a deer skull at the bottom of a grain storage pit, it was consigned to the ritual category. “Ritual” was a cabinet of curiosities that contained interesting things, but were ultimately useless because they could not be explained. The only ritual act that provided solid data was burial. But with rise of Post-processualism, these objects were picked up and freshly examined using new ways of thinking about society and material culture. Women and children were no longer invisible members of the community. Ethnographic studies could be used to show that women did more than cook and weave cloth, and that ritual was an integral part of community life. Authors such as Johanna Brück, Leroi-Gourhan, Ian Shanks, and Janet Spector explored new interpretations, pushed theory to the limit, and provided new perspectives. However, the divide still exists, and the subject of ritual is one that must be approached carefully and with caution.
I wrote this very brief introduction to modern archaeology to point out the discomfort that so many archaeologists have with ritual. Many archaeologists feel that a ritual explanation is a cop-out and that interpretations should have a more practical, grounded explanation. The word itself can still set off arguments at conferences. So when the media reports (inaccurately) that druids re-create ancient rituals, many archaeologists react derisively because they have no other source information than the usually sensationalist stories in the news. Unfortunately the media also tend to show Druids as loose cannons, rushing in where archaeologists fear to tread.
The misconceptions exist on both sides. The archaeologist is shown as the practical, hard-nosed scientist, who cares little for anything other than the narrow focus of a particular field of research. In the debate between druids and archaeologists, the archaeologists often come off as uncaring of others’ sensibilities, or ruthless in their pursuit of science. This image is just as damaging as the other extreme of the crazed pagans that the media enjoy to seek out.
It is difficult for many to convey the sense of wonder, the connection to the past that is the reason so many people become archaeologists. The same might also be said for pagans.
I have an example of how two very different people came to realise that they really weren’t so far apart in their beliefs.
Last spring I was invited to join a group of adult A Level students who were on a week-long trip to Wiltshire. A friend of mine was leading the group through the countryside in order to show them how Stonehenge, Avebury, Durrington Walls, and other significant Neolithic sites were a part of an interconnected landscape.
My friend is agnostic and has little use for New Age, Pagan or Druid ideas. He had excavated at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls, and it didn’t help that his main association with Druidry had been through King Arthur Pendragon while he worked at Stonehenge. During the trip some of the students talked about feeling the energy of some of the sites. We were walking in places that they’d only read about, and it was exciting for all of us to look out and try to imagine the landscape as it had been thousands of years ago. It’s hard not to feel something when hiking to a forest clearing and coming upon huge burial mounds, or stepping from the bright sunlight into the dim interior of the West Kennet Long Barrow.
However, the talk of energy and sensing the surroundings was getting on my friend’s nerves, and when we reached Durrington Walls, he started to get abrupt with some of them. Seeing that no good could come out of this, I took him aside and asked him why he was an archaeologist. We all know that it’s not a career choice that will make you a lot of money, and the only glamour in the job is strictly in the movies. Archaeology is something more than a job; it’s a way of understanding and making sense of our world. He had to admit that he did have a feeling about Durrington Walls. He had excavated there and he felt it was special place. It was where people built their homes, worked, had families, and died long ago. All that’s left is a grassy field surrounded by embankments. But to someone who knows how to look at the landscape, it all becomes alive again. There are all the houses, the places where people walked, and lived their lives. In the mind’s eye the place is alive again, even though most of it is still in shadows and we will never know the whole story. We talked for a while about what he felt about Durrington Walls and other sites that were special to him, and how those feelings compared to the students’ feelings of energy. It turned out that there wasn’t that much difference. There’s a connection to the past, a curiosity about life long ago, and for some there’s a bond with ancestors. After the talk, my friend became interested in the feelings that the students had. He asked them how they felt at different sites, and if one place seemed different from another. He’s still very practical, and still very agnostic, and I seriously doubt he’d show up at a gathering, but he does have an appreciation for how others sense things, and the validity of those feelings.
Who owns the past?
This is a driving question in heritage management and the ownership of antiquities. But it also tied to who defines the past. Who decides which stories are told and how they are represented? Modern druids are caught in a debate over Iron Age identities in Britain and the continent, if only because they chose the word “druid” to describe who they are. The situation is further muddied when modern druids seek to have a voice in the management of Neolithic monuments, such as Stonehenge. To an archaeologist this all appears to be jumbled nonsense, especially when arguments become heated and there are claims made for ancestral links to the site. While there might be a few who feel that they have unbroken genealogical ties to a site, it appears that the two sides are once again describing the same idea, but not recognising each other’s words. People who have lived and worked in an area feel a close connection to the land, while others who have studied a site feel similar connections, and all of us who care about heritage have emotional ties sites that are significant to us and our communities. Preserving a site or monument for future generations is a prime focus for both druids and archaeologists, but how best to do this, and also how the site should be used or made available to the public or study are contentious points. Here in Britain the government intervenes to try and strike a compromise. Often it is not to everyone’s liking, but the debate needs a moderator that will consider both sides in how to best preserve our common heritage.
Bridging the gap
Archaeology is opening up to include voices from Pagans. This was highlighted by the decision at Manchester Museum where they included a pagan consultant as part of the team for the design of the Lindow Man: a Bog Body Mystery exhibit in 2008. There is an increased sensitivity to the public’s views on the display of human remains, and while compromise is difficult, engaging a wider range of people in the decision making process benefits museums by having a public who understands the variety of opinions and including them as important considerations when planning an exhibit. While the inclusion of a pagan on a curatorial team did produce a few comments from the rest of the public, there was not much fuss over the issue. Her appointment represented progress and good will for pagans in other areas of archaeology and it is hoped that other opportunities for pagans to join in will become more frequent.
Coming from the US gives me some advantages. Early on I talked with friends and students who were Native American. I learned myths and stories about places and grew to understand that while the stories did not match the science, trying to make them fit did not matter. What did matter was that I learned to look at an archaeological site with more than one set of eyes, and I learned the importance of understanding how both the stories of the Natives and the archaeological data were valid.
What archaeologists can bring to the dialogue
Archaeology honours the past. By understanding the landscape, the details of an excavated site, the positions of the artefacts we find there, we can reconstruct the activities of people long ago. Archaeology isn’t about finding treasure. The objects we find are treasured clues to understanding the way people lived. Druids also seek for that connection to the past, through scholarship and rituals that re-enact the old stories and myths. However, archaeology is a science and we are bound to follow the rules in order to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible. Many of us work with multiple visions, but in the end they must be trimmed to fit the facts as we know them. In this sense archaeology can bring new ideas, new discoveries, and accurate data, although that data will always be modified as newer technology and discoveries come to light.
What Druids can bring to the dialogue
This is a hard time for archaeology now. Archaeology is deemed a luxury when seen in the light of austerity measures. Part of this is because archaeology has become distanced from the public. In the past the public was invited to watch or even participate in excavations. I know several people who became professional archaeologists after volunteering on a few digs while on holiday. But as health and safety issues erected barriers, archaeology became less participatory activity, and more of a passive entertainment where rather than digging, people watched programs like Time Team. Archaeology needs to engage people and interact with the public. Not only to put trowels in people’s hands, but also to allow people to have closer contact with their heritage.
Archaeology has not recognised that paganism and druidry is an active way in which people engage with the past. Not as re-enactors, or as people who believe they are continuing a tradition that extends back to the Iron Age, but as a set of beliefs that honours the past and the land. The active participation of pagans and druids in the various spheres of archaeology can bring fresh ideas, but there is also much needed mutual support for projects that are being undermined by administrations that would rather bulldoze archaeological sites than to preserve heritage for future generations.
The common ground
At its very basic, archaeology is storytelling. Many wouldn’t think of it that way, but just sit in a pub with some archaeologists and the stories will pour out. Even in academic circles, our interpretations of archaeological sites tell the stories of lives lived in the past.
When people ask me what was the best thing I ever excavated, I tell them that it was a story. When we’re crouched there in the dirt, trowelling away, we are uncovering a narrative bit by bit, reconstructing the events that happened in that space as if we were fitting together the sherds of a pot. However, there are rules to this kind of storytelling. Most importantly, the story must fit with the data available. The data can be interpreted in different ways, and it can also be disputed. When new data is discovered, the old stories are challenged, and new ones may take their place. Even so, the old stories are kept so that we remember how things were, what we as archaeologists used to believe. Archaeology has its own myth cycle, and like the ones of modern druids and pagans, it is constantly evolving.
Of course Druids are storytellers, too. In OBOD we begin as Bards, learning the story cycles and history of the order. We learn to experience the world for ourselves, and discover new stories and new ways of looking at the world. There may be fewer constraints on the stories, but then Druids are allowed poetic licence.
Perhaps one of the earliest ways in which humans formed bonds was to sit around the fire and share stories. There is magic in the stories from distant lands and ancient times. The stories told around a table in a pub or at a campfire can still create those bonds, and create an understanding that can bridge the differences between science and art. Monuments and the places that are now archaeological sites have never been static. Stonehenge was rebuilt and rearranged at least four times before it fell out of use, and after that it continued to change as people robbed parts of it to use the stone for buildings and fences, and then later it became a protected monument. The biographies of these places continue on through today as they are rediscovered, redefined and put to new uses. It’s necessary to be reminded that the story continues and that it can be interpreted in many ways.
Druids and archaeologists have much to offer each other. Now is the time for a convivial dialogue between two groups that share common interests, and down deep are not really that different.