Faith and Stonehenge: To Display or Rebury?

Stonehenge has captured the imagination of visitors for centuries, and following a recent multi-million pound redevelopment, is set to continue to inspire and attract visitors for a long time to come. In recent decades, however, human remains found at Stonehenge have become an increasingly contentious issue. With an active and vocal Druidic community still fighting for the reburial of these remains, to what extent should faith have a say in what happens to heritage?

The Summer Solstice passed only a couple of weeks ago. The longest day of the year was met with customary celebrations, in even more customary overcast weather conditions. Nonetheless, the Stonehenge World Heritage Site welcomed in excess of 30,000 visitors for the annual gathering of individuals intent on celebrating – worshipping perhaps – the rising of the sun. However, 2014 was somewhat distinct for visitors to Stonehenge, as this was the first Summer Solstice celebration to be held at the World Heritage Site following a multi-million pound redevelopment of the visitor experience. At the same time though, the Druidic community, active participants in the Summer Solstice celebrations, had the opportunity to argue once more, for the reburial of prehistoric human remains found at the site.

Carrying with it a final bill of roughly £27 million, Stonehenge has, in some respects, been transformed. While the stones themselves are still roughly where they have been for a few thousand years, what surrounds them has significantly changed. Anyone visiting Stonehenge in the “noughties,” nineties, eighties, and so on, will have distinctive memories of the claustrophobic and highly dated underground visitor center, the perpetually bustling and noisy road cutting the edge of the henge monument, and the highly intrusive wire fencing that made the site look more akin to a protected minefield than it did a unique prehistoric monument. Today, all of that is gone. Well, mostly gone. Stonehenge, despite having reopened to the public over half a year ago, is still in a state of transition. The scars left by the removed main road are highly visible and probably will remain so for years to come. Yet the ambition here is admirable as English Heritage, guardians of the site, aim to create an integrated prehistoric landscape, through which visitors can walk through at leisure, without the threat of being run over by heavy goods vehicles (an ever present threat with the previous visitor experience incarnation).

In addition to the removal of intrusive concrete and tarmac interventions in the World Heritage landscape, English Heritage has added some elements, namely a significant, new visitor center. While much of the visitor center is given over to a hulking cafe in which visitors can be easily prized of their spending money, a smaller area has been created, in which the story of the Stonehenge landscape is told. “Museum” is perhaps too generous a word for what has been created, “visitor center” perhaps being more accurate. Within this space, impressive visual projections are beamed onto walls, successfully interpreting the changes seen in the Stonehenge landscape over the five thousand and more years in which it has been the focus of human interventions. In addition to the virtual interpretations, however, are physical remains, artifacts excavated from in and around the Stonehenge site. Included in this collection are human remains.

Human remains have long been a subject of difficulty for museums and heritage sites, the ethics of their presentation being called into question by various interest groups, with many museum curators themselves being hesitant about such displays. At Stonehenge, the picture is complicated by the highly vocal, and at times visual, presence of the Druidic community. Led by the prominent, and self-titled “King Arthur Uther Pendragon,” the Druidic community has long campaigned for the reburial of prehistoric human remains to have been found in and around both the Stonehenge and Avebury (another prominent henge site) landscapes. Arguments were initially presented on the grounds that the human remains in question were ancestors of the contemporary Druids. The issue was raised once more when the visitor center opened to the public, where Arthur courted plenty of media attention while delivering his argument that the ancient dead should be afforded the same rights as the recently deceased. This is a development of the Druidic campaign, which moves away somewhat from the ancestor argument, to one of respect for the ancient dead. The argument is not entirely without merit, though many in the museums and archaeological community would argue that display of human remains, done so in a respectful manner, is itself a respectful treatment of such remains.

What is perhaps more interesting is the lengths that English Heritage have gone to accommodate the Druidic belief system in other forms. The Solstice celebrations stand as the strongest testament to this. In opening up the henge site for worshippers to enter the inner sanctum of the monument, English Heritage is taking a calculated risk with a site that is in their care. The level of access afforded to worshippers and secular visitors alike, at certain points in the solar calendar, has improved significantly in recent decades. So popular and successful have Solstice events become, that other heritage agencies across Britain are now following suit. In north Wales, Cadw, the historic environment agency of the Welsh Government, opened up the Neolithic chambered tomb, Bryn Celli Ddu. This tomb shares a Solstice alignment similar to Stonehenge. Like the henge, Bryn Celli Ddu is of significance to the Druid community of Anglesey (the island on which the tomb is located). It was the Anglesey Druid Order who technically hosted the Summer Solstice event at Bryn Celli Ddu, but in collaboration with Cadw. Over time, the relationship between heritage agencies and Druidic communities has, in many respects, improved. Yet, the ongoing issue of human remains continues to be a point of contention.

So just how far do those with responsibility for heritage resources go in accommodating the beliefs of others, especially when those belief systems in question are far from mainstream? In Josip’s recent discussion of The Maradonian Church, the worship of a living footballer is explored. As ridiculous as this concept may appear, faith movements do not need much momentum behind them to become recognized powers. In 2010, Druidry was officially recognized as a religion in the United Kingdom. The modern practice of Druidry, while citing ancient origins, ultimately dates back no earlier than the eighteenth century. Even so, how established does a faith need to be to influence whether or not human remains should be displayed, or reinterred? Should faith have anything to do with this in the first place?

Debates over human remains in display contexts will not go away any time soon and are applicable to a much wider range of global heritage sites and museums. Strip faith away from the debate, and you are still left with the sensitivities of individuals. Should cultural institutions make decisions on the fate of archaeological finds on the basis of a single person’s discomfort? Should museums and heritage sites be swayed by the arguments of a fringe and relatively young religion? In which case, is one religious or faith group more relevant than another in such debates? Should the decision to display human remains rest with the “experts” alone, or should this be up to the State? The question of who is responsible is almost as complex and contentious as the question of whether to display these remains in the first place.

What is almost certain is that come the Summer Solstice of 2015, the human remains contested by the Druidic community will still be on display in the Stonehenge visitor center, playing a central role in telling the narrative of the site. Equally, the same debates over whether to display or not will be fought out. English Heritage will continue to argue a case that directly contradicts the wishes and beliefs of a recognized religious organization. As a result, those tensions will not go away. Deciding how great an influence faith groups or religious organizations have over heritage also enters some dangerous territory when considered in a global context, where entire heritage landscapes have been destroyed in the name of respecting religious interpretation. In the United States, Kennewick Man offers a somewhat different case study, but presents equally complex issues relating to reburial rights connected to belief systems; however, ignoring these voices will only serve to foster antagonism and suspicion at a time when heritage agencies are being pressured to be as inclusive of community voices as possible. There is no easy solution to these debates, and they, like Stonehenge itself, are likely to continue to be the subject of deliberation for decades to come.

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