15th Mount Haemus Lecture: ‘Almost unmentionable in polite society’? Druidry and Archaeologists in the Later Twentieth Century

Dr Julia Farley discusses the changing attitudes of twentieth century archaeologists studying the nature of ancient Druidry. As archaeology emerged as a professional discipline, its nature and character were shaped in part by its relationship to other ways of understanding the past. These included traditional antiquarian approaches as well as spiritual and religious ideas. The struggle to determine a new archaeological orthodoxy was played out in the context of a sometimes strained but always lively relationship with modern Druid movements, often centring on the understanding of particular sites, including Stonehenge. Julia obtained her PhD from the University of Leicester, and is now the Curator of the European Iron Age collections at the British Museum.

by Dr Julia Farley


Between 1950 and 1964, a major programme of archaeological excavations were carried out at Stonehenge, directed by archaeologists Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott. The excavations were not published in full until after Atkinson’s death (Cleal et al. 1995), but Atkinson penned a popular account of the site in 1956, entitled simply Stonehenge, which was aimed at “the ordinary visitor” (Atkinson 1956, xiv). The book was, in part, intended to dispel once and for all the popular notion that there was a direct connection between ancient Druids and Stonehenge. Atkinson went so far as to write that “Druids have so firm a hold upon the popular imagination, particularly in connection with Stonehenge, and have been the subject of so much ludicrous and unfounded speculation, that archaeologists in general have come to regard them as almost unmentionable in polite society.” (ibid., 91).

This quote is notable for two reasons. Firstly, it highlights the often fraught relationships between archaeologists and Druidry in the mid-twentieth century and, secondly, it was soon to be revealed as demonstrably untrue. At the time that Atkinson was writing, the last major academic treatment of the ancient Druids was Thomas Kendrick’s The Druids, published in 1927. But a decade after the publication of Atkinson’s book, at a time of heightened tensions with modern Druid movements over rights and access to Stonehenge, two major academic monographs on ancient Druids were published (Piggott 1966, Chadwick 1966), as well as a scholarly work on ‘Pagan Celtic Britain’ (Ross 1967). This outpouring would not be matched again until the 1990s. Whether or not Druids were fit to be mentioned in ‘polite society’, there certainly seemed to be a need felt to discuss them in print.

Very little excavation work has been carried out at Stonehenge since Piggott and Atkinson’s work. The latest research on the monument and its surroundings, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, used non-invasive geophysical survey and remote sensing, methods which are becoming increasingly popular in archaeology because they leave the sub-surface remains intact. The most recent excavations at Stonehenge were carried out in 2008, led by Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill (Darvill and Wainwright 2009), and this was in fact the first excavation to take place inside the stone circle since those of Atkinson and Piggott in 1964. This time, Druids were themselves present alongside the archaeologists: the excavations were opened and closed with a ceremony of blessing carried out by a small group of modern Druids (Jones 2008).

This is the story of how we got from there to here: from Atkinson’s ‘unmentionable’ Druids to active engagement between (some) archaeologists and (some) members of modern Druid groups. It is not a simple story of increasing mutual acceptance and understanding. Just as there is no single ‘Druidic’ viewpoint (other Druid groups subsequently called for the reburial of the human remains excavated in 2008 – see http://www.stonehenge-druids.org/reburial.html), so archaeologists also vary in their approaches and opinions. Rather than tracing a clear shift in perspective, this essay explores some of the themes which have repeatedly emerged in the interactions between archaeologists and modern Druid groups, including ideas of authority and authenticity, in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. I owe a great debt to the excellent work of Ronald Hutton (2007, 2009) and Adam Stout’s work on the competing narratives of prehistory which emerged in pre-WWII Britain (Stout 2008).

Stout explored the period during which archaeology moved from gentlemanly antiquarian pursuit to academic discipline, a process which continued in the mid-twentieth century, still heavily influenced by the ‘intellectual aesthetic’ from which it emerged in the 1920s (Stout 2008, 241). As archaeology became increasingly professionalised, its nature and character were shaped in part by its relationship to other ways of understanding the past. These included traditional antiquarian approaches as well as spiritual and religious ideas. The struggle to determine and maintain the authority of professional archaeological orthodoxy was played out in the context of a sometimes strained but always lively relationship with modern Druid movements, often centring on the understanding of particular sites. Here, I will pay particular attention to Stonehenge.

In archaeology and the heritage sector, there is often a focus on ‘authenticity’ or the ‘legitimacy’ of claims to hold a connection with ancient sites, and appropriate engagement with ancient monuments is frequently couched within the twinned discourses of ‘health and safety’ and ‘preservation’ (Blain and Wallis 2007, 25, 33-8). This framework can be incompatible with other approaches or forms of interaction with the tangible remains of the past, and to some within modern pagan communities, terms such as ‘authenticity’ can be unhelpful, or even problematic.

Key questions emerge from this disjuncture: who decides what is an acceptable way to approach, experience, interact with, and understand ancient monuments and artefacts? And how is this authority negotiated and maintained? The answers to these questions have far-reaching implications not only for heritage professionals, but for the very nature of archaeology as a discipline, and how archaeologists and the wider community approach the study of the past. I will argue that interactions with modern Druid groups shaped the development of the modern discipline of archaeology, and that these contemporary relationships affected the ways in which archaeologists approached the study and representation of the ancient Druids.

In the first part of this essay, I explore the period 1955-85, which saw Piggott and Atkinson’s excavations at Stonehenge and the publication of Piggott’s book The Druids. The second section considers the period after 1985, which saw far-reaching changes in British archaeology, with the development of new theoretical approaches, including ‘Post-Processual’ archaeology, which placed an emphasis on plurality and multivocality. This final section also touches on the changes that have occurred in the interactions between modern Druidic groups, archaeologists, and heritage practitioners since the turn of the millennium, and the impact this has had on archaeological approaches to the study and representation of ancient Druids.

This essay is primarily about debates which have taken place within the discipline of archaeology, albeit in response and relation to the wider world. In a short piece which covers a period of over fifty years, there is sometimes little opportunity to explore the many alternative perspectives. What I present here is one version of the story, but it is important to recognise that it is not the only one. Others both inside and outside archaeological academia would tell different tales of the same events. The purpose is not to present a definitive account. Indeed, it is likely that no such thing will ever be possible. Instead, I hope to open up avenues for discussion about the role of archaeology, and the different ways of approaching and understanding our shared past.

Read the Lecture

This lecture is available in printed form in The Mount Haemus Lectures – Volume Two  available through our bookshop.

About the Author

Dr Julia Farley is Curator of the European Iron Age Collections at the British Museum. She finished her PhD on Iron Age material culture at the University of Leicester in 2012, and has a particular interest in Late Iron Age metalwork and metalworking technologies. Her other research interests include Iron Age ritual and depositional practices, and the colonial encounter between communities in Iron Age Britain and the Roman world.

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