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Sacred, secular, or sacrilegious? prehistoric sites, pagans and the Sacred Sites project in Britain
Blain, J. and R. J. Wallis
(Im)permanence: Cultures In/Out of Time, Pittsburg: Penn State University Press (2008)
Decolonising anthropologies and archaeologies have explored issues of ‘sacred’ sites and the contested views of indigenes and management. ‘Sacredness’ within Britain – among the most secularised of today’s societies and without ‘indigenous peoples’ – is generally assumed to relate to Christian or other ‘World Religion’ spirituality and to be something that is inscribed in place by people, with the building of a church or mosque for instance. This model conflicts with ideas from indigenous spiritualities, of sacredness residing in land or place and being noticed by human people as part of the ‘story in the land’. Indeed, ‘new indigenes’ – pagans, travellers, and others – have taken up ideas of ancient places as ‘sacred sites’, and this nomenclature has found its way into the discourse of policymakers and heritage custodians. One person’s celebration of ‘sacredness’, however, may be another’s ‘sacrilege’. In some quarters, ‘heritage’ is to be respected but not used – the ‘look, don’t touch’ dictum applies to monuments such as Stonehenge – and pagans draw a parallel between their own challenges to honour ancestors or deities at some sites, and Christian use of cathedrals which may equally be tourist destinations and ‘heritage’ buildings. Further issues include not only what types of practices or celebrations may be ‘suitable’, but whether other uses of sacred sites – such as the excavation of human remains – should be seen as sacrilegious. Pagans ‘perform’ their worldviews and engage with heritage in diverse ways, from the deposition of votive offerings at West Kennet long barrow and long-running disputes over access to Stonehenge as a ‘sacred site’, to the display of ritual paraphernalia derived from archaeological contexts (a Thor’s hammer pendant, for instance).