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Sacred Sites – Contested Rites/Rights

Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments

Jenny Blain previously taught Social Research at Sheffeld Hallam University, where she led the M.Res in Social Sciences, her main research interests being in spiritualities, understandings of landscape and self, gender, and social theory. Now returned in her native Scotland she continues to explore historic landscapes and the interplay between imaginings of pasts, quests for 'ancestors', and identities of present. .

Robert Wallis is Professor of Visual Cultures and Associate Dean in the School of Communications and Social Sciences at Richmond University, the American International University in London, where he leads the Research Centre for International Visual Arts and Cultures. He is interested in the archaeology and anthropology of art and religion and has written extensively about the ways in which today's Pagans and Shamans engage with the past. He is currently working on a co-authored book examining ethnicist and racist Heathenry and antiracist Heathen activism.

Paganism is held to be the fastest growing “religion” in Britain today.

Discusses pagan adoption and guardianship of “sacred sites”.

Paganism is held to be the fastest growing 'religion' in Britain today. Pagan identities and constructions of sacredness contest assumptions of a 'closed' past and untouchable heritage, within a socio-politics in which prehistoric archaeology – the stone circles, burial cairns and rock art of the British Isles – is itself subject to political and economic threats. Pagans see prehistoric monuments in a living, enchanted landscape of deities, ancestors, spirits, ‘wights' and other non-human agencies engaged with for personal and community empowerment. From all areas of Britain and indeed worldwide, people come to sacred sites of prehistory to make pilgrimage, befriend places, give offerings, act as unofficial ‘site guardians’, campaign for ‘site welfare’. Summer solstice access at Stonehenge attracts tens of thousands of celebrants; threats of quarrying near Derbyshire's Nine Ladies stone circle or Yorkshire's Thornborough Henges lead to protests and campaigns for the preservation of sacred landscapes and conservation of plant and animal species. Pagans can be seen as allies to the interests of heritage management, yet instances of site damage and recent claims for the reburial of non-Christian human remains disrupt the preservation ethos of those who manage and study these sites, and the large-scale celebrations at Stonehenge and Avebury are subject to continual negotiation.

In this book an anthropologist (Blain) and archaeologist (Wallis) examine interfaces between paganisms and archaeology, considering the emergence of ‘sacred sites’ in pagan and heritage discourse and implications of pagan involvement for heritage management, archaeology, anthropology – and for pagans themselves, as well as considering practical guidelines for reciprocal benefit.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-130-6
Paperback Price: £27.50 / $42.50
Release Date: June 2007
Page Extent / Format: 256 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


List of Illustrations

The Politics of ‘Location’
Previous scholarship: pagans and sacred sites 3
Introducing paganisms 6
Neo-tribes, new-indigenes, animist ontologies and
living landscapes 9
Discourses and practices, locations and methodologies 11
Chapter outline – sites and areas of interest 17

Chapter 1
‘Sacred Sites’? Paganisms, Representation
and Imaginings of the Past 21

Tradition, authenticity, enchantment 21
Tradition 24
Authenticity 25
Enchantment 26
The ‘sacred’ in the sites 28
The preservation ethos 33
The preservation ethos and heritage management 34
Implications of the preservation ethos for the
non-specialist 36
Pagan discourses 38
Preservation ethos and ‘personal-growth druids’ 38
Counter-cultural Druids and festival celebrants 39
Pagans at sacred sites 40

Chapter 2

The Avebury landscape 47
Avebury and the Sacred Sites project 52
Pagans and sites in Avebury 55
Performing Avebury 64
Silbury Hill and Silbury Hole 70
Archaeologists and pagans: performing ownership 74

Chapter 3

‘Stonehenges’ in discourse 77
‘Managed open access’ 82
Media attention 91
Alternative voices 93
Eventing at the ‘right time’ 96
Sacred partying 97
Stone-standing and solutions 100
Widening participation and engaging diversity? 104
The future 110
Alternative meanings 113
Animism and the landscape 121

Chapter 4

Derbyshire and Yorkshire: Stanton Moor
and Thornborough Henges

Stanton Moor, its context and recent history 125
Stanton Moor: engagements and reactions, protestors and others 129
The place 129
The protest 133
Representation and ritual 137
Issues and tensions 141
Thornborough henges 144
Contesting landscape 149

Chapter 5
Spirits of Moor and Glen: Pagans and
Rock Art Sites in Britain

The Kilmartin Valley, Argyll 152
Shamanic tourism: inspiration and appropriation 157
Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire 164
Contesting polarisation 172

Chapter 6
The Rollright Stones and the Rollright Trust
The Rollrights: The King’s Men, The Whispering Knights
and The King Stone 174
Folklore of the Rollrights 175
The Rollright Trust 176
Plurality and multivocality: a context of inclusiveness 179
Damage and preservation 181
Facilitating engagement 184

Chapter 7
Reburial, Museums, Pagans and Respect
Pagans and ancestors 189
Druid voices 194
Negotiating the issues 201
Respect, reburial and repatriation 203

Chapter 8
Towards a Conclusion: Strategies for
Dialogic Interaction and Future Directions

‘Stepping stones to common ground’ 210
Taking each other seriously, tolerantly, and
deconstructing negative stereotypes 211
Productive collaborative dialogues 212
Research ethics and rights 213
Joint stewardship programmes 213
Informed consent protocols 214
Future directions 215


Blain and Wallis enter the arena of clashing viewpoints on history, preservation, and sacrality.
Professor Chas S. Clifton, Colorado State University-Pueblo

This book sets out current issues and dilemmas relating to ‘sacred landscape’ to a range of audiences at home and overseas, including ‘pilgrims’, heritage managers and academics.
Professor Ronald Hutton, University of Bristol

This volume offers a sophisticated perspective on the complex phenomenon of contemporary pagan relationships with the prehistoric past.
Professor Julian Thomas, University of Manchester

Anthropologist Blain and archaeologist Wallis explore the discursive construction of sacred sites in Britain – most famously Stonehenge, but many others as well – by pagans and heritage management. Their research is based in perceptions of changing and problematic inscriptions of meaning and rights within a context of the growth of paganism, particularly in Britain and the US, as expressions of spirituality often with a counter-culture bent.
Reference & Research Book News

This seeks to fill a lacuna in the academic study of alternative interests in archaeological sites. The authors stress that ‘sacredness’ is constituted within discourse, that landscape and all its components have ‘agency’, and that for dialogue to occur, everyone involved must abandon the idea of a single ‘truth’. This is an important and highly recommended book.
Michael York, Bath Spa University

Strands of contemporary paganism in the UK have a long ancestry – tracing their routes back to the eighteenth-century legacy of the antiquary William Stukeley – but it is in the last three decades that interest has soared and diversified: pagan traditions now include various shades of Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry, and Goddess Spirituality, among others. Sacred sites is written by two academics who are also practising pagans: Blain is an anthropologist, and Wallis an archaeologist of visual culture. The volume is the outcome of a project that set out to explore the discourses around pagan spiritual engagements with sites identified as sacred, and the conflicts and negotiations that have thus ensued with other, ‘official’ agencies and narratives. While for pagans sacred sites can include ‘natural’ landscape features, the focus here is on the relationship with those that are conventionally defined as prehistoric (mostly Neolithic and Bronze Age) ceremonial monuments, and especially stone circles, henge monuments, and rock art.
... With current calls from some pagan groups for the reburial of prehistoric human remains held in national and regional museums, this is a very timely book, and one that opens up much-needed research into modern religious engagement with prehistoric sites. At one level, the work is an exploration of contested ‘heritage’ as it faces the burgeoning diversity of alternative interests; at another it is an ‘anthropology-at-home’ ethnography of pagan practice and politics.
... The volume’s introductory chapters set the theoretical scene, engage with issues of tradition and authenticity, and the constitution of pagan identity and belief. The stance is recursive and postmodern, tethered around the fluid, subjective construction of knowledge, practice, and discourse. But, as the authors acknowledge, it is dealing with a very postmodern condition. Pagans are presented as bricoleurs par excellence. With the text embracing animist ontologies, shamanism, nature worship, anti-modernism, and romanticism, we are guided through the way in which pagans have created their spirituality through reinterpreting pre-Christian polytheist and indigenous religions, Norse myths and sagas, the Mabinogi, personal spiritual experiences, and so forth. The detail of this performative practice makes fascination reading.
... The core of the volume comprises a series of chapter-length case studies. These include detailed accounts of the politics of engagement at Avebury and Stonehenge; the role of pagan protest in the campaigns to preserve threatened prehistoric landscapes at Stanton Moor and Thornborough; shamanic tourism and prehistoric rock art; the pluralist policy of preservation and access at the Rollright Stones; calls from pagan groups for the reburial of prehistoric human remains; and a concluding chapter on strategies for dialogue between pagan, academic, and heritage communities.
... A dominant theme, especially in those sections dealing with Avebury and Stonehenge, is the tension between active engagement with archaeological sites by pagans (through various forms of gathering and celebration) and the preservation ethos of heritage management, with its visual bias and demands that monuments be appreciated with minimal ‘visitor’ intervention. As the chapters repeatedly illustrate, the diversity of groups, religious understandings, academic and heritage demands involved ensures that such politics are not easily reconciled. While the authors steer a measured course through these choppy waters, there is a sense of contradiction between their support for the pagan critique of the preservation ethos paradigm at Stonehenge and tacit acknowledgement of the important role played by pagans in the preservation of other sites (e.g. Stanton Moor and Rollright). The solution they offer is a site-specific ‘situated pragmatism’, which, given the considerable number and diversity of prehistoric monuments that can be regarded as pagan sacred sites, might offer any heritage body a considerable management headache!
... The final chapter advocates meeting and negotiation between pagans, archaeologists, and heritage managers as the route through current contestation: ‘respect and dialogue are key issues’ (p. 204). The authors’ ‘stepping stones to common ground’ include deconstructing stereotypes, collaborative dialogue over ethics and rights, and joint stewardship of sites. The latter has worked very successfully during recent solstice celebrations at Avebury, and is embodied in the sensitive management of the Rollright Stones. One of the great strengths of the book is that it opens up such dialogue, and offers a more nuanced account of pagan involvement that is far from the stereotyped image of counter-culture protest and conflict often portrayed, As such, it should be essential reading for all involved in the understanding and management of archaeological monuments.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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