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Archaeology

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 7 months ago

Archaeology and Paganism

by Yvonne Aburrow (2000)

 

"Archaeology is rooted in place. The last centuries have seen populations move within and between countries and continents on a scale never before experienced. We are wanderers, and with wandering we become lost regarding our sense of place. Yet archaeology is all about place, and the particular place: here Ice Age hunters speared a mammoth bogged in the tundra; here the Chumash of the Californian coast venerated the spirit of the swordfish; here the alchemists of Bronze Age Europe wrought their smelting magic to make great swords; from here noble Caesar ruled all the known world. The sense of place, and of the particular place, that our shifting, rootless world no longer knows is held in the direct link to past experience that archaeology forges." -- Christopher Chippindale, in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, ed. Brian M Fagan, OUP 1996.

 

Archaeology is the study and interpretation of the past through excavated or preserved artefacts and remains. Context is all-important to assist interpretation. One of the worrying aspects of archaeology (for both archaeologists and interested observers) is the destruction of the context when excavation takes place. Hence the emphasis on careful recording and preservation of finds. This includes recording before and after removal from the context. It also necessitates cultural resource management, the conservation and classification of collections of artefacts.

 

The interpretation of artefacts and remains can include speculation upon their historical, social and spiritual significance. It is frequently remarked that if something's function cannot be otherwise identified, it must be a ritual object or site. Whilst this tends to make ritual use the default option after all other explanations have been tried, it does mean that the spiritual dimension is considered in studies of the past. Some sites obviously have a ritual purpose, but it must be remembered that ritual spaces can be used for other purposes, especially in a society that does not make a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular. For example, it is possible that sacred sites could have been used for parliaments and courts.

 

Some archaeologists resist speculative interpretation of the purpose of sites and artefacts, but since there is so much room for interpretation this is perhaps not surprising. There are, however, a variety of ways of interpreting the archaeological record. One of these is ethnoarchaeology, the comparison of ancient cultures with analogous contemporary ones. Another is by comparison with folklore. This is fraught with difficulty, since collectors of folklore have sometimes been selective and partial, and because it is difficult to ascertain the antiquity of a tradition.

 

This assembling of meanings from different sources is analogous to the process by which modern Pagans have reconstructed our spiritual practice from the fragments of past traditions and an instinctual desire to connect with the universe. Modern Paganism owes a massive amount to archaeological research - without that research we would still be lumbered with early nineteenth century notions like the Druids building Stonehenge, or worse, the Atlanteans, and we would have much less knowledge of our ancestors' lives than we do now.

 

Paganism is the veneration of Nature, and generally includes shamanic or magical practices, mystical awareness, the celebration of seasonal festivals, belief in nature spirits and deities, and belief in reincarnation. Its moral stance is relativistic and humanistic, placing emphasis on understanding the individual situation rather than making sweeping judgements. It is not dogmatic, preferring knowledge and experience to blind faith. It has no holy books; though writings are important and regarded as a source of wisdom, nature and experience are also regarded as sources of knowledge and inspiration. Many Pagans place emphasis on the Four Elements. Air symbolises intellect, wisdom and knowledge; Fire symbolises instinct, intuition and passion; Water symbolises emotion; and Earth symbolises sensation and the body. A balanced person uses all four of these modes of interaction.

 

Paganism is generally regarded as something that comes from within the person. You cannot be converted to Paganism: you experience a desire to connect with the spiritual realm that is immanent in Nature, with the cycles and seasons of the earth, with the ancient divinities, and to explore the human psyche to the fullest possible extent.

 

There are a number of areas which Paganism and archaeology have in common. Both are interested in the past - archaeology because it is the study of the past, and Paganism because it is the continuation of an ancient tradition. Both are rooted in place - archaeology because it looks at specific context, and Paganism because it venerates spirits of place, and regards the divine as immanent in nature and therefore likely to manifest in sacred places. Both archaeology and Paganism are interested in traditions and in historical patterns; both are interested in preserving heritage. Both have a belief in humanity - Pagans believe that the divine is incarnate in every human being; archaeology is the study of humans, their artefacts, and their impact on the landscape over time.

 

The differences between Paganism and archaeology are equally illuminating. Archaeology is an art, a science and/or a humanity; Paganism is a spiritual path and a set of religious practices. Archaeology studies (among other things) spiritual practices and artefacts; Paganism makes use of that interpretation. Archaeology looks at the material impact of humans and their beliefs and practices on the landscape; Paganism considers their spiritual impact.

 

Archaeology and Paganism can learn a lot from each other, especially in the realms of ethnoarchaeology and experimental archaeology. The contemporary Pagan experience can shed light on the practices of our ancestors, and experimental archaeology could benefit from reconstructing rituals at ancient sites. Contemporary Pagans owe a massive debt to archaeologists for revealing the practices and artefacts of our ancestors. Also, archaeologists and Pagans can liaise together on treating ancient sites and human remains with respect.

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