Stonehenge study tells pagans and historians it’s good to talk

More understanding among all sides in the great Stonehenge debate

might be made if the world was shown images of how the site is

experienced by visitors today rather than only its imagined past,

suggests new research sponsored by the ESRC. This research is

published today as a part of Social Science Week.

But the project, co-directed by Dr Jenny Blain of Sheffield Hallam

University and Dr Robert Wallis of Richmond University, London,

admits this would undermine the very potent and almost universal

need for Stonehenge to remain ‘essentially preserved’, shrouded in

mystery, and the ancient guardian of a hidden past.

A report from their ‘Sacred Sites, Contested Rights/Rites’ project,

comes at a time when considerable alliances have been formed at a

public inquiry in Salisbury by groups fighting redevelopment plans

for the Stonehenge area. These include a tunnel to take the A303 and

the siting of a new visitor centre.

The project examined what have come to be known as sacred sites, and

the climate of mistrust between heritage management and

archaeologists on one side, and pagans and alternative interest

groups on the other.

It included a detailed, systematic analysis of available published

material, websites and press coverage, along with fieldwork and

discussions with visitors and local people at Stonehenge and similar


Dr Blain said: “Stonehenge is the centre of an on-going struggle

between travellers, pagans, ‘Druids’, members of the ‘alternative’

community, English Heritage, landowners and the police. The

situation there spotlights differences between, on one hand,

heritage concerns about preservation for future generations, and on

the other, the demands of pagans and others who want open access for


Accommodations reached between the different parties at times of

solstices and equinoxes remain contentious, and distrust is rife,

says the report. It points out, however, that dividing lines have

been drawn up differently over the current redevelopment plans.

For many pagans, prehistoric sites are not ruins but living temples

or sacred sites. They feel drawn to these places to perform seasonal

rituals or to observe astronomical events. Many pagans, including

Druids, accept the ‘preservation ethos’, regarding such things as

stone circles, barrows and iron age forts as artefacts of pre-

Christian paganism, and therefore sacred.

Access is important to them, but not at the expense of preserving

sites for future generations. However, other Druids and pagans,

notably groups campaigning for the return of the Stonehenge free-

festival, call for mass public celebrations, especially at the

summer solstice.

The study points out that archaeologists investigating the religious

significance of sites rarely consider rituals of the present day,

dismissing them as invalid. Some heritage managers speak directly

with pagan and other groups, and may even attend festivals, yet this

is seldom recorded officially.

Pagans sympathetic to preservation are interested in archaeological

views and want to become involved in site maintenance. They also try

to explain their perceptions about landscapes as ‘living’ entities.

But archaeologists who take part in pagan conferences tend to

provide information rather than seek it, and the result is

frustration for the groups.

Picture presentations of sites such as Stonehenge invariably show

them as dramatic ruins in splendid isolation, removing any signs of

people or present-day activity. And the emphasis on such things as

visitor centres and ‘interpretation’ handed out to naïve visitors,

suggests a ‘top-down’ approach by middle-class heritage management,

explaining something from a ‘closed’ past.

Dr Blain said: “Our project suggests that open and transparent

dialogue is needed between all the interested groups. And this must

begin with an appreciation of diversity.”


For further information, contact:

Jenny Blain on 791-955-6371 or 44-114-225-4413;

Or Iain Stewart, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at ESRC, on 01793-