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Cite as: Beck, Jessica. 2007. Postprocessual Archaeology and Paganism: Different Approaches to Megaliths? PARA Research Paper A-08.

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Postprocessual Archaeology and Paganism: Different Approaches to Megaliths?

Jessica Beck

June 7, 2007


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            While this essay began as an attempt to classify and contrast the varying approaches towards Neolithic megaliths in the U.K., specifically comparing the different analyses of professional archaeologists and contemporary Pagans, further research revealed a surprising number of similarities between both approaches to the landscape. While many Pagan conceptualizations of the meaning of megaliths are not necessarily supported by the archaeological evidence, the two different epistemologies share a strikingly parallel methodology in that both postprocessual landscape archaeology and modern day Paganism favour an experiential analysis of the world that focuses on the subjectivity of the observer, and both recognize the historically layered nature of the landscape around them. This paper will begin by offering a brief explanation of Megaliths, then moving to their treatment in landscape archaeology, focusing on a few specific case studies and approaches. It will then briefly examine what it means to be Pagan in this day and age, after which it will explore current beliefs concerning megalithic arrangements along `ley lines' in the contemporary pagan community. Such an approach will reveal the surprising number of convergences among Pagan and postprocessual approaches to analysing megaliths, but the differences in the conclusions drawn by the two fields will also be highlighted.                  


What are Megaliths?


            The word megalith is derived from the Greek “mega”, or large, and “lithos”, meaning stone or rock. `Megalithic' accordingly refers to a category of architecture that incorporates large stones, either standing singly or as part of the infrastructure of a building. Megalithic architecture is a characteristic feature of Neolithic Britain, and is one of the first noticeable impositions made by man on the environment in that region. As Russell notes of the countryside during preceding ages, “there were no great pieces of architecture. In fact, 10,000 years ago there was no significant human impact on the land other than the casual bit of species extinction or the occasional piece of deforestation.” (Russell, 13) There are a number of different types of megaliths, ranging from portal dolmens (standing stones with a large `capstone' balanced on top of them), to rotundas (consisting of an approximately circular cairn placed above a stone-lined box or constructed depression containing human remains), to passage graves (a chamber topped by a mound of stone and earth, accessible through a passage), and of course, the most renowned form in the British Isles, henges (Russell, 38- 41). Many archaeologists have attributed a symbolic significance to the structures due to both their size and visibility, as well as a tendency to contain human remains. Russell points to Ian Hodder's claim that such architecture probably evolved from the post-built long houses and long mounds common to the Neolithic and Europe, and offers an explicit interpretation that links the architectural to the metaphorical, declaring that the “ linear mounds were a symbolic form of house or home for the recently deceased” (Russell, 63).


How do Contemporary Archaeologists Interpret Space and Architecture?


            With the increasing trend towards postmodernist thinking in archaeology due to the academic popularity of post-processualism, conceptualizations of space have been radically re-assessed in recent decades. As Christopher Tilley notes of previous depictions, “Space was quite literally a nothingness, a simple surface for action, lacking depth...Space as container, surface and volume was substantial inasmuch as it existed in itself and for itself, external to and indifferent to human affairs. The neutrality of this space resulted in its being divorced from any consideration of structures of power and domination” (Tilley, 9).

                Many contemporary archaeologists would beg to differ with such a rigidly bland definition. They see space, in Tilley's words, as a concept that “has no substantial essence in itself, but only has a relational significance, created through relations between peoples and places...What space depends on is who is experiencing it and how” (Tilley, 11). In the archaeological literature this concern with the subjective and generative powers of interpreted space has extended to constructs within that space, particularly in the field of architecture. Archaeologists have begun to focus on the ways in which architecture, as a means of shaping and controlling space, is also representative of a symbolic ordering of the universe. As Thomas informs, “meaning does not inhere in space, it is evoked and read into it” (Thomas, 169). One of the predominant methods of evoking meaning in a space is through adding to that space and thereby shaping it. While such a practice is the result of the existing organization of society, it also will organize future societies; as Russell notes, “Architecture represents the way in which humans have, and continue to alter their immediate environment by enclosing and reshaping space.... Architecture generates a framework of shared experience. It imposes order” (Russell, 19).

                The reconceptualization of space and architecture within archaeology has instigated a renewed interest in the meaning of megalithic monuments in Neolithic Britain, with different avenues of interpretation and methodological strategies consequently being deployed and adopted. Thomas advises considering prehistoric monuments “from the perspective" of the human subject moving about in space” (Thomas, 169), while also cautioning that the modern `empirical' framework may not be the best method for assessing the significance of such structures, observing that “a rigid separation between landscape and monuments on the one hand and the human observer on the other may not have been characteristic of Neolithic Europe” (Thomas, 169). This has led to an approach to Megalithic analysis that is strikingly different from previous functionalist studies of their significance to Neolithic peoples, shifting the focus from one of energy expenditure and political manipulation to one of individual human experience.


How do Landscape Archaeologists Interpret Megaliths?


            The aforementioned trend towards postmodernist thinking in archaeology is indicative of some of the new ways of exploring the meaning of megalithic architecture. During the time of processually-focused and positivist New archaeology, megaliths were interpreted slightly differently, with the interpretative emphasis on how they were used, rather than how they were perceived. Colin Renfrew postulated that their development in Neolithic Wessex was a natural side effect of the rise of chiefdoms as a more complex form of political organization and structure (Renfrew). Robert Chapman, a similarly minded researcher, later suggested that such monuments “possess the potential for communication, manipulation, and appropriation by groups within society who can organize the use of surplus labor for nonutilitarian purposes” (Chapman, 47). Instead of a focus on morphology, or the energy requirements demanded by construction, (Watson, 296), postprocessualists now pay attention to both the ways in which sites are symbolically structured and how such sites would have appeared to the average Neolithic citizen. In order to explore this trend, the ways in which megaliths are treated in a number of specific case studies will be briefly discussed below.

             In his interpretation of Avebury, Watson explores the “potent social significance” of the Neolithic henges in the area. He cautions that an assessment based on traditional techniques or categorizations may limit an understanding of the site, and proceeds to utilize a less conventional methodology in his analysis, examining the ways in which Avebury and its surroundings would have been perceived during prehistoric times. Focusing on the site's location and the visibility of different elements (i.e. Windmill Hill, the Sanctuary, the Avenue and Avebury itself), he combines a locational and symbolic analysis, postulating that “perhaps, people were in some way physically playing out beliefs about their history during the act of moving along the Avenue” (Watson, 300). He also questions the mythic qualities inherent in the building materials used, such as stone, wood and clay, building on Parker Pearson's earlier papers concerning the immutability of stone (hence appropriate for constructing mortuary artefacts) and the impermanence of wood (see Parker Pearson). Watson also brings in the topography of the region's environment, examining the ways in which the megalithic architecture is positioned in relation to the horizon and surrounding hills, eventually determining that the henge was situated specifically in order to underscore the sense of enclosure one received from standing within it. He then relates the location of Avebury in a natural basin to its creators' perceived location in the centre of the world, noting that “if Avebury was conceived as an axis mundi, social differences may have been expressed according to a person's place relative to the centre of the world” (Watson, 307). He concludes by exploring the various sensory qualities the area possesses, including its potential tactile, auditory and olfactory characteristics that may have been marshalled by its Neolithic creators in their interpretations of the monuments.

            The location of megalithic sites is a recurring feature explored in the archaeological literature. For instance, in their paper on landscape visibility in regards to tree cover in Neolithic Wales, Vicki Cumming and Alasdair Whittle write that “the monuments in different parts of Wales seem to have been located very carefully so that people encountering these sites would have had views of a range, often in combination, of specific features including rivers, the sea and headlands. Many monuments seem to be carefully positioned to have views of mountains.” (Cummings & Whittle, 256) Over the course of their paper, they also conclude that visibility at such monuments was seasonal in nature - views that in the summer were obscured by trees would be readily apparent in the dead of winter. They conclude by discussing the potential symbolic importance of trees to Neolithic peoples, as well as the ways in which they could be used to structure the environment around megaliths by providing variations in light and shade, noting also that such a multipurpose and utilitarian material as wood would be likely to “have provided a natural medium through which people could think about the world” (Cummings & Whittle, 261).

            Another concern that permeates the majority of the papers under discussion is that of accessibility. One of the ways in which architecture can enforce and create social structure is through the inclusion and exclusion of people from areas and viewpoints through the construction of barriers and the deliberate utilization of landscape to limit point of view. As Richards notes of megalith location, however, “ In addressing the question of why a particular place is deemed appropriate for such embellishment, it is noticeable that in some areas, such northern Britain, these complexes tend to be situated in highly visible positions, often on the floors of natural bowls or basins” (193). A recurring interest in the way megalithic constructions are centered is also apparent in Richards' analysis, for he notes in his examination of Maeshowe that, while the houses in the nearby settlement all have hearths, the central chamber at Maeshowe lacks one, thereby cementing its status as a “house of the dead” (Richards, 196). He additionally examines its solar alignment, noting the various ways in which the interiors of the passages interact with the sun at different points in the year, in a manner appropriate “to create a structure to house the dead which is visible as a monument and yet positions the dead as being below the surface of the humanly inhabited world “(Richards, 202).


What is Paganism and How Do Contemporary Pagans Interpret Space?


            Any attempt to formulate a single definition of Paganism is ultimately a futile project. As a spiritual movement, it is defined largely by its accessibility and openness to a variety of practitioners and beliefs. Though paganism is largely centered around an adherence to the perceived religious beliefs of pre-Christian Europe, its incorporation of a wide variety of textual evidence (ranging from Classical writing to hymns) as well as its acceptance of a range of spiritual and religious orientations (such as shamanism, animism, polytheism and amalgams thereof) makes it difficult to pin down a specific agenda or nexus of beliefs for the disparate group (See Clifton, Introduction).

                Pagans, like archaeologists, have a number of different ways of approaching and perceiving space. As Wallis and Blain note, some branches of Paganism do not deal with natural spaces at all - practitioners of Wicca, in particular, prefer to keep their rituals private (Wallis & Blain, 309). However, a guide to conversing with the “Genius Loci” or spirit of a place, found in The Paganism Reader provides a good introduction to the ways that some contemporary Pagans “engage” with the natural world. The author refers to smaller areas of concentrated space as `Glades', defining them as “a composite, a complex - an ecosystem with feeling” (Patterson, 355). Patterson notes that such areas “can of course be studied by such disciplines as Ecology, Geology, Archaeology and History” suggesting that “if you want to form some kind of healing relationship with the Glade or if it has already affected you, then the study of these subjects to some level or another, however simple, is essential”(Patterson, 355). That said, interactions with `glades' are highly individualized and heavily dependent on personal sensory experience. When you arrive in a location that resonates, Patterson advises that you “just wander around to see what you can see, feel what you can feel, hear whatever you can hear, smell, touch etc....Watch the seasons changing, try it in different weather conditions” (Patterson, 356). A number of the features within the environment that he focuses upon as potential sites to help the novice Pagan ‘attune’ are the horizon, trees and the soil underneath one's body - ironically, all regional or environmental features that postprocessual landscape archaeologists have already focused on!


How do Pagans interpret Megaliths?


            Just as there is no rigid, all-encompassing definition of Pagans themselves, there is, as Wallis and Blain point out “no single “Pagan” relationship with such places” (Wallis & Blain, 310). However, there is a tendency among the Pagan community to tell stories about Megalithic sites after visiting them and connecting with sacred ancestors of Earth Gods and/or Goddesses. It seems that “specific narratives are forming around individual sites, or around more general pagan relationships with landscape-narratives of description or explanation, stories of events occurring to tellers or stones, ranging from appearances of supernatural beings...[to] accounts of expected or appropriate practices at specific places” (Wallis & Blain, 310), while “animist views hold that rocks, trees, rivers, and so on, all have spirit and may all create or inscribe meaning in place” (Wallis & Blain, 311). Gyrus, a Pagan researcher of sacred sites, outlines his approach as follows “I have to experience the place I'm involved in. I spend time there and immerse myself in it, meditate and do rituals, not dreams and synchronicities”(Wallis & Blain, 314). It should be noted that methodologies of interpreting `sacred sites' are wide-ranging, and that many Pagans prefer experience to interpretation, joining together in large numbers at places like Avebury and Stonehenge to celebrate Pagan festivals, revelling in their surroundings rather than assessing them (Wallis & Blain, 316-318) or using them for purposes of ritual by depositing offerings to the ancestors or spirits that inhabit sites. Additionally, some Pagan groups disagree ideologically with the aims of archaeology - after the excavation of `Seahenge', at Holme-next-to-the-sea (a feature archaeologists classify as a timber circle) an outcry arose over the purportedly disrespectful manner in which the land was treated, as many Pagans felt that the area ought to have been left as it was (Holtorf, 35).


Some Thoughts On Pagan And Archaeological Approaches to Megalithic Sites


            As Wallis and Blain argue in their exploration of interactions between Paganism and contemporary archaeology, “Current trends in so-called post-processual archaeology-much influenced by postmodern resistance to metanarrative and hegemony-have promoted plurality in interpretation.... as archaeology is increasingly required to make itself relevant to contemporary society, so contemporary folkloric practices and earlier understandings vis-à-vis archaeological remains are once again receiving attention” (Wallis & Blain, 114). Ironically though, many postprocessual approaches towards megalithic landscapes do not only take heed of the fact that pagan interpretations exist, but seem to go so far as to adhere to their methodologies as well. These two researchers note that, though they are archaeologists, they are also pagans, and as such “engage with sacred space and find ourselves involved not only in disseminating information, but in the construction of stories around site, landscape and spirits” (Wallis & Blain, 115). Such a technique, however, could just as aptly describe Watson's approach to deconstructing Avebury or Cummings' and Whittle's exploration of the potential symbolism of trees in the Welsh Neolithic.

            What is interesting to note is that different archaeological approaches make archaeology differentially accessible to and compatible with Pagan beliefs. The emphasis on landscape-person interaction and the subjectivity of experience in postprocessual approaches ties in nicely to general Pagan conceptualizations of the universe and methods of experiencing the sites during the present day. Just as many Pagans feel the spirits of ancestors who inhabited such locales during the Neolithic, archaeologists attempt to see through their eyes, by formulating what the environment would have looked like during such time periods, and how Neolithic peoples consequently would have interpreted it. More processual approaches, on the other hand, directly contradict the Pagan embrace of concepts such as ley lines due to their adherence to rigorous statistical formulae and the scientific method (see Broadbent).


Ley Lines: An Arena of Contention


            Though it is tempting to postulate that, as Pagans and postprocessual archaeologists occasionally use the same methodological approaches to examining megalithic sites, they draw the same conclusions, this is not always the case. By briefly exploring a single issue, that of `ley lines', it is clear that despite a similar appreciation for experiential analysis, archaeologists and pagans do not always converge in regards to their final interpretations.

            The concept of ley lines first became popularized with the publication of Alfred Watkins’ book The Old Straight Track, in 1925. In it Watkins outlines an exhaustive analysis of various `alignments' of tombs, barrows and megaliths, noting that most appear to be marking points stretching out across (rather than along) various ridges in Britain. The layout of prehistoric architecture was therefore deliberate, orchestrated by people trained in sighting new locations from the tops of hill (Watkins, 13). Watson describes leys as “alignments” that are “exact and precise through the mark-points; “close to” must never be adopted” (Watkins, 13), while Wallis and Blain define them as “straight features in the landscape accentuated by human endeavours, such as the Nazca geoglyphs and cursus monuments” (Wallis & Blain, 312). Enthusiastic `leyhunters' note that the word is etymologically derived from a Saxon word translated variously as “meadow” or “cleared strip of ground”. ( The society of Leyhunters also notes that the purpose of such mystic routes is “connected to the dead, spirits of the dead and spirit travel” (

            Though, as it has been previously discussed, it is difficult to pinpoint the specific beliefs of Paganism, the idea of megalithic sites as converging points for natural magic, situated along ley lines, does have a distinctly “neo-pagan” tinge ( However, as Holtorf notes, popularized archaeological interpretations involving ley lines are generally relegated to the ranks of `folk archaeology” (Holtorf, 11). As Watkins had very little chronological control in his study (some of his lines include such temporally diverse features as Neolithic barrows and pre-reformation churches), archaeologists tend to prefer more constrained analyses. Even Tilley, paragon of postprocessual phenomenology, analysed the location of Neolithic barrows in relation to Mesolithic sites and exploitation areas, rather than in relation to where other monuments could be seen from the tops of hills (Tilley, 87), noting that such an assessment did not yield much information. Though in his studies of the Neolithic of south-west Wales he considered the possibility “that the monuments might be located so as to be intervisible with each other, rather than with features of the natural landscape”, he concluded that “despite the closeness of the location of many of the monuments, intervisbility between them is restricted to a few sites in the northern area of their distribution” (Tilley, 93). While Cooney, in a similar vein, notes that “their siting was very frequently deliberate, often incorporating a topographical location shared by tombs of the same type”, he also includes their potential to be located in proximity to resource areas, noting that tombs can also be placed “close to areas potentially attractive to early farming and settlement” (Cooney, 35).

            Such divergences of interpretation highlight the differences between postprocessual and pagan interpretations to landscape. While their methodologies are often strikingly similar, and they do often focus on the same features of the landscape, the two groups seek to understand fundamentally different things. While postprocessual archaeologists use experiential techniques in an attempt to reconstruct how the landscape may have appeared to the average Neolithic person, they situate such analyses in a larger context of previously undertaken studies that examine the culture, ecology, technology and political organization of such societies. Pagans, on the other hand, do not necessarily need all of that extraneous information to accomplish their goals, which are not an academic analysis of the reasons for megalithic existence, but rather the establishment of a personal, individualized and subjective relationship to the perceived past and its environs.




                Though postprocessual landscape archaeology and paganism do share similar approaches to landscape in terms of their methodology, conflating the two epistemological approaches is a decidedly premature step. Both disciplines are concerned with the ways in which Neolithic peoples saw their constructions and why they chose to position them in specific locations in the landscape, but there are certain irreconcilable differences between the two approaches, most notably in the motivations of both groups. While many Pagans wish to be able to connect with the beliefs and rituals of their predecessors through situating themselves in the same environment, archaeologists want to understand the meaning behind such beliefs and rituals, and to comprehend the relationship between the society and the landscape. Additionally, the specific historical details are not necessarily as important in the Pagan community as they are in the archaeological community (a good example of this can be found in Blain's exasperated reaction to the gross errors that permeated an article she leafed through in Shaman's Drum). Such a divergence is also apparent in the nature of both communities - while Pagans are inclusive and welcoming to a wide range of beliefs, archaeologists are more exclusive, truly opening their ranks only to those who share their academic background and epistemology. That said, the striking similarities between both groups in regards to their experiential methodology is worthy of note, and further exploration of the ways in which Paganism and contemporary archaeology intersect is certainly called for.        



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