Modern Druids work in stone circles, but did the ancient Druids?
The classical writers say nothing about stone circles. Instead they say that Druids gathered in sacred groves, caves, or remote valleys. But in the seventeenth century a few scholars began to take interest in the mysterious monuments – the artificial mounds, stone circles, dolmens and standing stones – that filled the countryside around them. They read the classical accounts of the Druids and suggested that these monuments were built by them.
This forged an indelible association in the popular imagination between Druids and stone circles such as Stonehenge. But until recently academics dismissed this idea. Historians used to say that the Druids couldn’t have used Stonehenge and all the other stone circles in Britain, because the Druids were the priests of the Celts, and the Celts only arrived in Britain in 500 BCE. Since no stone monuments were built after 1400 BCE, they pointed to the gap of nine hundred years separating the last of the stone circles from the arrival of the Druids. But in the sixties many historians changed their minds. They realized that the origin of the so-called Celtic tribes was far more complex than originally presumed, and suggested instead that early or Proto-Celts were probably in Britain as early as 2000 BCE – when the great stone monuments were still being built – and that they could well have been involved in their use or construction.
Forty years later academic opinion is still divided. Some experts emphasize the lack of continuity between religious structures and practices in the second and first millennia BCE. But others point to the new sense of continuity in the genetics and culture of the British, with the rejection of the idea of a Celtic ‘invasion’. This second school of thought makes it possible to again see the Druids as the priests and priestesses of the stone circles, a tendency reinforced by the increasing recognition of the importance of ritual astronomy in the construction of these monuments.
Recently, Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at Bristol University, has written: ‘In building their case against modern Druidry, [the archaeologists] Kendrick, Piggott, Atkinson and Daniel all made great play with the fact that ancient Druids could no longer be definitely credited either with building the monument or with officiating within it. They were, however, scrupulous enough to recognise two difficulties. The first is that prehistorians have so far been unable to determine how far continuities of religious tradition and practice did or did not exist through the periods between the Neolithic and the Iron Age. The second is that there is some evidence for activity in and around Stonehenge during the Iron Age itself. It may be that, whether or not modern Druids ever make a significant reappearance at the monument, ancient Druids could yet be fated to do so.’ (from the journal British Archaeology, Summer 2005).