Sites, Sacredness, and Stories: Interactions of Archaeology and Contemporary Paganism

By Wallis, Robert J.; Blain, Jenny | Folklore, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Sites, Sacredness, and Stories: Interactions of Archaeology and Contemporary Paganism


Wallis, Robert J., Blain, Jenny, Folklore


Abstract

Folklore has, until very recently, been at the fringes of archaeological research. Post-processual archaeology has promoted plurality in interpretation, however, and archaeology more widely is required to make itself relevant to contemporary society; so, contemporary folkloric practices vis-a-vis archaeological remains are once again receiving attention. In this paper we examine contemporary Pagan understandings of and engagements with "sacred sites" in England. Specifically, we explore how Pagan meanings are inscribed and constituted, how they draw on "traditional" understandings of sites and landscapes, and instances in which they challenge or reify the "preservation ethic" of heritage management. From active interactions with sites, such as votive offerings and instances of fire and graffiti damage, to unconventional (contrasted with academic) interpretations of sites involving wights and spirit beings, Neolithic shamans, or goddesses, there are diverse areas of contest. We argue archaeology must not reject Pagan and other folklores as "fringe," but, in an era of community archaeology, transparency and collaboration, respond to them, preferably dialogically.

Introduction

Folklore has, until very recently, been at the fringes of archaeological research (for example, Holtorf and Gazin-Schwartz 1999; Wallis and Lymer 2001a). Current trends in so-called post-processual archaeology--much influenced by postmodern resistance to metanarrative and hegemony--have promoted plurality in interpretation, however. And, as archaeology is increasingly required to make itself relevant to contemporary society, so contemporary folkloric practices and earlier understandings vis-a-vis archaeological remains are once again receiving attention. In this paper we examine contemporary Pagan understandings of and engagements with so-called "sacred sites" in England (see also Blain 2001; Blain and Wallis 2002; Wallis 2000; 2001; 2003). Specifically, we explore how Pagan meanings are inscribed and constituted, how they draw on "traditional" understandings of sites and landscapes to construct their own "folkloric" narratives, their own knowledges informed by conventional and alternative archaeology, and instances in which they challenge or reify the "preservation ethic" of heritage management. Such issues are timely, given (as this paper demonstrates) that Pagans are increasingly engaging with archaeology in active ways-from votive offerings and instances of fire and graffiti damage at sites, to unconventional (contrasted with academic) published interpretations of sites involving wights and spirit beings, Neolithic shamans, or goddesses. As these new understandings enter the discourse of "site-users" and inform local practices, and as elaborated accounts become associated with specific places, it seems to us that specific rooted folkloric narratives are increasingly informing how people relate to places and spirits of place, and how they understand themselves and construct meaning and identity in the interaction of self, spirit and site.

We address these understandings and narratives from a position "native" to discourses of both academia and paganisms. As an archaeologist and an anthropologist, we deal in academic narratives of time, ritual and human construction of identity. As practising Heathens we engage with sacred space and find ourselves involved not only in disseminating information, but in the construction of stories around site, landscape and spirits. We are therefore ourselves part of the processes we examine in this article. Elsewhere (for example, Blain 2000; 2002; Wallis 2000; 2003) we examine processes and politics of insider research: here we present some findings on stories of sacredness.

Contemporary Paganism

Paganism as a generic term encompasses several recognised and coherent sets of beliefs and practices (for example, Harvey 1997; Blain 2002). Loosely put, Paganism (or the more correct but also more cumbersome "Paganisms") comprises a variety of allied or associated "paths" or "traditions" which focus on direct engagements with "nature" as deified, "sacred," or otherwise animated and containing "spirits.

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