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Stones, Blood and Bones: Stonehenge and the politics of the dead.


Today, the self-styled leader of British “Druids” Arthur Pendragon has again called against the display of human remains at Stonehenge, attempting to make the site the focus for wider calls from the neo-pagan and neo-druid community for reburial of human remains from British Prehistory. Here’s the BBC coverage http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-22438232

I’m going to keep my thoughts on this short and I’m going to ignore a whole raft of important issues which arise from this (legislation relating to human remains, the level of access to Stonehenge, and changing public perceptions about “Druidry” and its irrelevance to the monument). I’m going to do so because under this issue, one which will continue to face archaeology for many years to come, there lays a very dangerous trap which we could find ourselves in, one which we must very publically and openly address. I want to add my feelings to concerns already articulately raised by Mike Pitts and others on the unfortunate and, I’m sure, unintentional coalencse of neo-pagan and right wing arguments about British Ancestry. You can read an excellent article by Mike Pitts on the matter here and further references are provided at the end.

In the calls from the neo-pagan community there is a conscious and potentially powerful alignment with the wider issue for the repatriation and reburial of human remains collected by western institutions during the colonial era. There has been a general consensus for the return of such remains to their place of origin into the hands of cultural groups making often legitimate claims on the return of their “ancestors”. These cases are particular powerful when museum specimens can be traced directly to belong to a named individual or historical continuity can be demonstrated with an original population. While not uncontroversial, most reasonable people can see the logic of the claims and the need to engage in a sympathetic and constructive way.

At first glance the claims of some in the British neo-pagan community, holding sincere beliefs in the sanctity of prehistoric human remains, might seem parallel and a process of constructive engagement or discussion appropriate. However, it is critical that before attempting to do so we consider a major implication, opening the door on discussion about the “aboriginal rights” of British citizens to determine the fate of their “ancestors” opens the door on much darker and dangerous false logic.

Four years ago I first took notice of how the BNP were using archaeological narratives, when Bonnie Grier openly challenged them on this footage from BBC1’s Question Time. Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party was called on his arguments for a British ethnicity extended back to the end of the Pleistocene. You can see how the BNP use the archaeological narrative here to claim for a British ethnicity here, concluding

The historical and genetic evidence support the fact that there is indeed a native people of Britain who have a right to this land. We have as much right as the American Indians, Aborigines or Maoris. There were invasions and a small amount of migration but, as has been already stated, these were from people just across the channel.

Archaeological studies are being actively woven with real political and social “impact” on the far right. The dry bones of British prehistory had been invoked to make claims of blood-line ethnic descent.

Now of course I am not making claims that the neo-pagan community are campaigning on the basis of nationalist or right-wing ideology, although we should consider what role these political beliefs might play on the fringes of the community, but we must take the overlap between the parallels between both groups seriously.

Let’s look at the language Arthur Pendragon uses:

According to Mr Pendragon, the bones were the remains of members of the “royal line” or “priest caste” who could have been the “founding fathers of this great nation”.

While I don’t for a minute think that this quote is referring to right-wing ideology it is easy to see how such thinking could be high-jacked by the far right. Bloods lines, “castes” and references to the “founding fathers” and the “great nation” sound to me like a recipe for a world view which supports the idea of Britain as unified nation deep into Prehistory (which is wasn’t) and long-lived lines of royal and priestly descent (which there wasn’t). I would hope the neo-pagan community could see these concerns, perhaps modify the language used and publicly distance themselves from those who seek to use the concept of “British Ethnicity” for political ends. These issues addressed then perhaps engagement could continue, until then I feel it carries unintended dangers.

This is especially important given how high-profile the focus of the campaign, Stonehenge, is both nationally and internationally. Stonehenge is undoubtedly an icon of our modern national heritage, and is recognised globally, hence the incredible levels of investment we are seeing by English Heritage into the new visitor centre. It has and will continue to be a high profile battle ground for interest groups such as the neo-pagans to argue their case for access, religious, freedom and reburial of human remains. We should therefore consider carefully the implications on even beginning to open the door on the legitimacy of any claims of “ancestor” status for the remains from this site or any other. With the rise of right-wing political movements across Europe we must be very careful how the archaeological record is invoked by minority groups to make modern political claims and understand that concessions for relatively benign causes might give succour to more malevolent causes.

See Also:

Spoilheap 2008 One man and his bog (and the consultation committee). British Archaeology 101, 29.

Spoilheap 2010 Who are you calling an ancestor? British Archaeology 110, 4.

Pitts, M. 2011. Digging Deeper: Comment on Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 21:20-22,

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