In the 1990s, a new magazine of forteana, mysteries and related subjects, Beyond, was launched, ran for three issues, and ceased… NE’s editor John Billingsley supplied an earth mysteries column for this short-lived venture, and we reprint those three columns here.
1. Associations with places
I don’t know what it is that attracts people to archaeology. Well, I do, because prehistoric monuments and landscapes fascinate me, but for me archaeology on its own was never enough.
I could never see a stone circle or mound in isolation; I had to scan the horizons for some imagined companion of its time. I wanted to know its story, or the songs and dances of the people who in successive generations over thousands of years had lived conscious of its proximity. I was curious about where a stone came from, or how an earthwork fitted into the shape of the land. I was intrigued by the subtle effects these places had on me, and the things they made me think about. Not that I wanted to fall down and worship at the obviously sacred sites of our ancestors. I wanted to know, and archaeology answered only part of that.
Those things that our ancient places made me think about have led me down innumerable avenues over the years, avenues that were unthinkable to a boy growing up in council flats in Acton, W.3; and also pretty unlikely for an anarchist sociology student at Essex University. I know a fair bit about archaeology now, and something about geography, and a reasonable amount about archaic religion; and I teach folklore, and the way I teach it recalls my sociology degree, and the way I use it involves telling other people those stories that I wanted to learn when I first got interested in this area over twenty-five years ago.
So that’s why I began this article with that remark. From the very first moment that I somehow ‘opened up’ to the world of geomancy, folklore and landscape perception, I found it impossible to limit the scope or techniques of enquiry. To do so would have seemed a betrayal, though of whom or what I wasn’t quite sure. It was all connected in some implicit fashion and suddenly I was stuck in the web of those connections.
I wasn’t the only one to feel that way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and as a result someone coined the name ‘earth mysteries’ to describe the assemblage of interests that seemed required in any quest to understand the landscapes and perceptions of the past.
Most of the people I know who got involved in earth mysteries can remember the moment they were hooked. My own experience, in retrospect, was something of a hippy cliche; it came in 1972 on (where else?) the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, and a chance conversation with someone who’d just read about leys and it all seemed very interesting and a man called John Michell had written a book about it all. That’s about all he could tell me, but for some odd reason, the mention of that then-meaningless word, leys, on that particular hill, instantly brought horizons in focus, both internally and externally, and that was that.
It all sounds like the stuff of revelation told like this, but then all such accounts do, and all such accounts probably are, in a small-world but no less important way. I went home and ordered ‘the good book’, The View Over Atlantis, and ever since have been pottering about the highways and byways of earth mysteries, until now I’ve inherited editorship of a small-press journal, Northern Earth, now the world’s oldest extant earth mysteries periodical, publishing without a break since 1979. Twenty years in the small press arena is some going, and speaks volumes for the level of inspiration and interest in the subject matter.
Some effect from a chance conversation! For me, the appeal of an empowered landscape, which is how earth mysteries experiences it, was immediate and all-embracing. I’ve never really understood why it happened like that, in a flash that shifted me from alternative politics to ‘something else’, and when I read how Alfred Watkins described his ley insights back in the 1920s, it didn’t seem very different in essence to my experience or those of my contemporaries.
On the Tor that day, it was the sudden focussing of meaning within the land that struck deep. It wasn’t an attraction to an area of study and knowledge, but a glimpse of something far more intimate, a relationship between knowledge and experience; and for me this has remained the fascination of earth mysteries.
So is this what it is that has drawn so many people to earth mysteries? Something that has to do with intuitive notions of place and relationship – not just knowledge, but knowing?
Of course, that involves an element of spirit, and earth mysteries isn’t the only approach that claims a spiritual affinity with ancient sites and traditions. Much of modern alternative spirituality has developed a particular relationship with the Earth as sacred. One approach encompasses the neo-pagans, wiccans, Goddess followers, druids, etc., with which earth mysteries, because of the nature of its subject matter, is most associated; another strand is the more amorphous New Age milieu. Both offer the Earth more love and attention than the orthodox religions that have held sway in the last millennium and more; and it is part of the zeitgeist that Christian organisations like the Sacred Land Project have also been re-evaluating the importance of terrestrial sanctity – that places may be sacred in themselves. On a more scientific level, James Lovelock has ventured the Gaia hypothesis, which sees the planet as a self-regulating organism, an idea which has fed powerfully into the new spiritual perspectives as well as into environmentalism.
From all angles, the Earth is being honoured more today than it has been for countless generations. After centuries of being marginalised as a resource, the Earth is being given a chance to live again in its own right. It is expected to have a life and consciousness of its own, capable of expressing itself to us. As a corollary, numinous places are being used for communication with the Earth through ritual and meditation as well as recreation, reflecting this new popular relationship with the planet, which has become central to a number of new spiritual, religious, political and scientific paradigms. Much of this shift has occurred since the 1970s, and is part of the same trend that initiated earth mysteries. Not all constituents, however, share a sense of partnership with the others.
A key difference between the approaches of the new earth-centred spiritual movements and earth mysteries is belief. A constant thread in earth mysteries has been a two-faceted or dual-track engagement with the sacred places and lore of the ancient past, an engagement that is characterised by a personal-cum-spiritual relationship with the places and an urge to understand them more fully by objective research and study, a quest to evaluate right-brain insight through left-brain investigation.
Unfortunately, research does not always carry belief along with it, and this has happened in our field, as is shown by the kind of ideas expressed in New Age and neo-pagan publications that show little awareness of the results of research going on in professional academic and fringe research circles over the last twenty years.
In belief-centred approaches, it is often what one feels (i.e. all too often, wants) to be true which drives all before it and makes a pseudo-fact out of the romantic notion. Hence we have leys as earth energy, or Green Men as Celtic fertility gods, or nests of closet pagans decorating mediaeval churches and cathedrals. These were key study areas in the 1970s, but could not be borne out by researchers, who often had to ditch their hopes or original hypotheses and come up with something that better fitted the situation.
Some of the results of testing hypotheses and modifying them are shown in archaeology’s acceptance of the principles of alignment and astronomical orientation in prehistoric sites, something that was unthinkable in the 1960s and 70s when archaeologists maintained a relationship with earth mysteries that could only be described as abusive. Patient and thorough research eventually won through the wall of academic opposition.
Belief requires neither research nor corroboration to validate itself, and many earth mysteries workers have been criticised when their conclusions have not matched someone’s fondly-held belief or when they have used scientific equipment in an attempt to understand what if anything is going on at ancient sites. Well, that’s fine; belief is part of a belief system, and Christianity and Islam, for instance, have been able to plod along for fair lengths of time in their history believing in things that were more and more obviously untenable to the world at large. Why, then, shouldn’t newer religious paths do the same? Surely that shouldn’t affect earth mysteries any more than the academic disciplines?
Well, it shouldn’t but it does, in that earth mysteries hovers in that area of knowing that lies between knowledge and belief; many of its workers are actively involved in the new spiritual movements as well and sometimes research results are not well received because of an implicit conflict with fondly-held beliefs. The oddity is why belief should present such an obstacle to understanding, and if it does, is belief implicitly fuller of spirit than research that might challenge that belief, as some critics have implied? There isn’t necessarily a contradiction between knowledge and belief – even if the Green Man is predominantly a Christian symbol, it is such a wonderful image for today that if he didn’t exist, then neo-pagans would have to invent him. And even if Stonehenge was a temple of megalithic science, does that make it any less magical? A dual-track approach like earth mysteries suggests the dynamic of knowing is the resolution of the tension between knowledge and belief!
The earth mysteries approach has been attractive because it offers more than its constituent quasi-academic disciplines. That little bit extra lies in a dimension of consciousness, without which the sacred sites of the past cannot be comprehended. It also offers more than belief systems, in that it builds on a foundation of knowledge rather than guesswork. This is appropriate, surely, for understanding a land seen as part of a conscious entity, the Earth. By contrast, it seems to me, belief is strangely static and unresponsive – rewarding, certainly, but lacking in a dynamic of willed and open-minded change as we understand more about this magical world of ours and the understandings that our predecessors had of it. Belief systems can be like a ‘how-to’ manual, providing handy answers without any of the tiresome business of finding out, so you can feel halfway to being a millionaire without having to do an apprenticeship.
Because of its emphasis on simultaneous empirical and less ‘scientific’ modes of enquiry, I see earth mysteries as far more truly holistic than other endeavours that use the tag. A few years ago, Alan Ereira published his illuminating account of the world-view of the Kogi in the Colombian Sierra, The Heart of the World. One of the most fascinating parts of the book for earth mysteries was the Map Stone – a stone, criss-crossed with lines, that was explained by the priests as showing the location of their trackways. The problem was that some of the lines coincided with the stone roads in the forests, but frequently the mapped tracks continued where the roads ended. The priests explained this apparent anomaly by saying that whereas the roads stopped in this world, they continued in aluna, the dimension in which the priests travelled in spirit.
This seems to me to be an excellent analogy to the dual-track earth mysteries approach. The stone roads are the solid foundations provided by good empirical research, but parallel to them are the ‘spirit roads’ of understanding. With solid ground beneath us we can get that much further before we need to leap off into unknown territory, and earth mysteries has already shown that a good leap into the unknown will extend the boundaries of knowing.
2. Experience and perception
As I was saying in my last column, the appeal of our ancient monuments lies not simply in their archaeology, but also in a less empirical dimension. In that area, the act of perception is as important as the act of acquiring empirical knowledge; they are like two legs, equally necessary if we are to take steps along the path to wisdom. Whether we get there or not depends, of course, on what we do with what we learn!
Earth mysteries, more than the empirical sciences, can walk on these two legs, and they bring us closer to a hands-on phenomenological perspective. Phenomenological enquiry was defined by Edward Relph as “a philosophical tradition that takes as its starting point the phenomena of the lived-world of immediate experience”; in other words, an investigation into the meaning of things as perceived by the people around them. In relation to the landscapes of the Earth, this approach embraces both the natural and the human forces that shape the environment.
In the second century CE, when the world was already dotted with antiquities and the remains of powerful religious sites, Strabo advised on the geographer’s need to appreciate differences in quality between places, but not to differentiate too exclusively between natural and man-made or ‘adventitious’ aspects of the landscape. Though natural sites are permanent, and adventitious ones subject to change, decay and even disappearance, both may enduringly affect the sense of place. Certain monuments possess “a certain distinction and fame, which by enduring to later times make a work of man, even when it no longer exists, a kind of natural attribute of a place”. The phenomenological/perceptual approach engages with the sense of place as well as visual characteristics and allows both potential entry into the meaning of places, and consideration of a broader range of places which were seen as significant in the past.
It is always tempting, however, to project contemporary interpretations backwards into history. This is a problem that is unfortunately common in ‘alternative archaeologies’ and religious paths today, but is equally well known in archaeology and even more empirical sciences. It should be obvious that the meanings we arrive at nowadays, with our accumulated wealth of cultural hand-me-downs and off-the-peg personae, may well have nothing to do with ancient or even mediaeval perceptions and interpretations of the same place. It must be said, though, that in contemporary spiritual movements, whether pagan or New Age, historical accuracy is not a priority, (and as I remarked last time, in belief systems anything goes!). This is no problem, as long as we do not insist that our own viewpoint is exclusively correct or physically impose our own interpretations on what is essentially – in the case of ancient monuments – someone else’s ritual or scientific site. Which is, of course, exactly what early Christanity set out to do at many pagan sites in Britain.
The places that inspire a quasi-religious response are surely big enough to absorb any number of interpretations. At root, the fact that a certain place can affect our imagination, engender emotional or spiritual responses or engage the enquiring mind indicates that it has atmosphere – a mood of its own and a power to influence the consciousness of a visitor. This is what Strabo was advising the geographers of old to be open to, and it is more relevant in the materialist society of today than it was in his time.
Of course, it is not just the mystically-minded who are affected by such a sense of place. Archaeologists, who have to be sensitive to landscape in their work, use informed hunch-work as well as orthodox investigation and evaluation techniques, and without the groundwork of archaeology, the most inspired interpretations of ancient monuments would be severely handicapped. The discoveries of archaeologists and historians, using techniques and technology that non-institutionalised and unfunded earth mysteries cannot match, is a vital input to the complex business of understanding past perceptions of place.
The best of earth mysteries therefore moves along on the shoulders of the latest archaeological findings, while feeding its own particular perspectives into the popular and academic arenas; it is a two-way process that has contributed, slowly and often painfully, to modern archaeology’s acceptance in principle of alignments, astronomical references in ancient monuments and even to the recent archaeological explorations of cultural phenomenology as a key to understanding sites.
The ‘perceptive’ approach also allows earth mysteries to ask unusual questions, such as the ritual use of drugs or sound at ancient sites, and to test them using both standard modes of enquiry and fringe ones like dowsing and meditation. Thus, research and investigation can proceed on both fronts of the unreal divide between intellect and intuition. The late-lamented veteran journal of earth mysteries, The Ley Hunter, facilitated the Dragon Project, designed to test whether subtle energies could be detected at ancient sites, and The Dream Project, involving monitored dreaming at ancient sites to assess any consciousness effects, as practical demonstrations of this approach.
Approaching a site perceptually, rather than empirically, opens up a broader territory, a wider range of landscapes and places than archaeology can address. In this territory, those of a more artistic or mystical tendency can feel at home, and thus are often attracted to earth mysteries. Their insights frequently prove valuable, such as John Glover’s work on the interplay of shadow and light with the landscape at Castlerigg stone circle, which has, for instance, influenced Terence Meaden’s recent research at Avebury.
Obviously, archaeology cannot study a place because it feels powerful, or because it has an atmosphere; some element of material culture needs to be present. Otherwise, we might find archaeologists swarming wherever poets sensitive to the power within the land have written, such as the high Pennine moors of old Elmet, which spoke so eloquently through the words of the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes.
Over time, the distinction between numinous sites and sacred centres of the past naturally begins to blur, and the effect on our perception today may be broadly similar, as ritual activity has accumulated in the atmosphere. One of the strongest illustrations of this process can be found in Japan’s Shinto shrines. They are often located where at some point in the past, perhaps fifteen centuries or more ago, a profound hierophany, or contact with the sacred dimension, was experienced; the focus of this experience, and still set apart today as the body of the divine essence or kami, is usually a natural feature, such as a rock, tree, cave, waterfall or mountain. The magical stimuli and the ritual environment thus stand naturally side-by-side, preserving the especial qualities of those places, and demonstrating a luxury of continuity in sacred space that we lack in the West. Without such living continuity, our only recourse in recovering the sacred landscapes of the past is through perceptual and phenomenological perspectives informed by a knowledge of history.
Even though they may each come across to us as places to access a magical dimension, there is indeed a qualitative difference between ancient ritual sites and natural features which have attracted ritual or religious meaning. The latter are primary numinous sites and speak eloquently of the Earth’s own powers; the former are secondary and pay witness to earlier cultures’ responses to something of which we may not even be aware any longer. Still, the atmosphere is different from their surroundings, and calls up a change in consciousness in the sensitive visitor, even if it is only a desire to stay there for a while longer.
So the earth mysteries approach to the landscape embraces not only archaeological monuments but also naturally numinous sites. When we are looking at the sacred landscapes of the past, Strabo’s words echo again. The world of past and present is alive with places linked in a continuity of spiritual inspiration; not just temples and shrines but features of the everyday terrain. Sacred space is in constant potential and vitalises landscapes around the world; we find it on mountains and hills from Fuji to Glastonbury Tor, rock outcrops from Germany’s Externsteine to Bodmin Moor’s Cheesewring, caves from Crete’s Diktaion Cave to St Cuthbert’s Cave in Northumberland. These places, which have become magically significant to successive peoples, would thus seem to have meaning in themselves, over and above the notions that different human cultures have placed on them. The remains of earlier peoples and their use of such places are the stuff of archaeology, but the places themselves, offering inspiration without relying on a medium of cultural expression like a monument or temple, are at the roots of earth mysteries enquiry into the nature of sacred space and human experience of it.
But can we talk so glibly about sacred space? Do places have atmosphere in themselves, or is any such impression a legacy of earlier peoples’ relationship to the site, even if we have no tangible remains from that time? Another way to phrase this question might be to ask if any place is inherently sacred, which then leads to the question, what is sacred anyway? A place may arouse feelings which people consistently experience as somehow affirming of a spiritual dimension, but since religion is a social construction and spirituality probably a human one, then we cannot call any place naturally sacred in itself – all sacred sites, as such, are the result of cultural projection. This works retroactively, too – can we really be sure that our stone circles were actually, to the people who made them, seen as religious places, rather than, say, scientific, or places of civic ceremonial? We need not make too much of this point, as the ritual activity identified at such places tends to imply a religious or magical meaning; but it is nonetheless a point that should be repeatedly questioned rather than simply assumed.
What each of us perceives to be sacred or magical is an ultimately indefinable compound of personal response, filtered through our individual personalities and experiences, and cultural predisposition, in which a place becomes sacred through consecration or conformity to culturally patterned religious expectations. Yet there is often an uncanny unanimity, even between different cultures, in the recognition of sacred places.
So do places have atmosphere in themselves? If the answer, in any sense, is that certain places do indeed have a quality that people perceive as different from nearby equivalent places, then the clear implication, as Strabo recognised, is that space in the geographical sense is not equivalent – the act of perception is affected by place. Where that perception has a widespread spiritual quality, then we have a distinction between sacred space and mundane space that does not depend on religious structures for its identity. People are responding to a place initially by perceiving its difference, and then affirming it by their actions at that place, such as architecture or performance of ritual. This seems to be where the natural and the cultural find an interface; the place acquires an identity, the culture finds a place for its soul.
This interactive dynamic implies that in some sense at least the Earth is a living entity, and though ‘sacred’ may be our own cultural interpretation, it can be inspired by the particular quality of a place.
My own attraction to earth mysteries is not just love of the monuments, lore and beliefs of our ancestors, but my perception that space is indeed variegated, and that the landscapes we create and the stories we tell are responses to that. Some places, whether natural or ‘adventitious’, have an effect on me that feels consciousness-enhancing, and appear to similarly affect others. This leads me to conclude that the experience of atmosphere is not just a compound of cultural conditioning, but that there is an inherent quality to certain places that affects our consciousness; in other words, that the experience of place is or can be primordial.
3. Replacing belief with experience
Perhaps the first question we should ask of a sacred site when we arrive is ‘how are you?’. Assuming, as in most dialogues, that the enquiry will be returned to us, the second question must be to consider how we ourselves are doing. The answer is crucial if a meaningful dialogue with the subtle influences of the earth – and the places where those influences become manifest – is to be established.
In visiting a place, most people make some attempt to attune to it, even if they do not use that word. This process is particularly noticeable at archaeological sites. The tourist gazing over the site with their guidebook in hand is aiming not for knowledge but a ‘feel’ of the site. The photographer seeking the view that will express some special insight is doing the same. When the premier archaeologist of Europe’s stone circles, Aubrey Burl, calculates the ‘population’ of a stone circle – the number of people who could have gathered inside it – he is in his own way attuning to the site. Attunement is not necessarily meditating or chanting – it is finding one’s own way of ‘being there’.
Sacred and numinous sites of the past have paradoxically achieved contemporaneity in today’s culture. It is ironic that monuments built two or three thousand years ago, on a landscape-altering scale that would probably run into strenuous opposition today, have become part of modern popular culture; most strongly, perhaps, in ‘alternative’ culture. This implies that they have a role for the present. The past, through its significant places, has established a dialogue with the present.
On a popular level, this means that people today are developing a greater sense of their cultural history and ancestry and a greater concern with preserving it. Where these are expressed negatively, we get nationalist movements and conflict; on a more positive level, we find ancestral sites receiving more care and attention than they have for centuries or more.
In a heavily settled land like Britain, our surroundings are overlain with accumulated meanings. The sense of a place exudes a cultural depth that is fascinating but often misleading. All our pasts are present at once, and now; often we do not perceive Stonehenge as a monument composed of separate and very different phases, but as the whole it presents today. Dialogue with such places involves not just the experience of the place, but its archaeology and folklore as well as its socio-economic history. With a place, as with a person, there is so much to know about the other before we can reach perfect understanding!
Nevertheless, falling short of that perfect understanding does not preclude a dialogue. Many today are initiating such dialogues, such that interpretations of ancient sites and magical places have become many and various. People interpret a place (or indeed a fact or memory) in a way that is essentially contemporary, and influenced by the expectations and intellectual environment of their time. The messages we receive from the past tend inevitably to be reflections of the expectations we have of it; or failing that, the past becomes a screen on which to project our modern expectations.
One effect of this is that archaeology has changed in popular perception. From being a vehicle for a journey into the past, guided by academics, it has become equally a bearer of encoded messages from that past, led by thinkers from a variety of backgrounds. It has become involved with the idea that the messages received from the past, through a study of its monuments, may help us live more considerately on the Earth – and thus with more hope for its future.
Of course, that interpretation is based on any number of assumptions, not the least being that the ancients were in possession of a mysterious wisdom, a key to the well-being of the planet, that we have lost. This idea has been around in the field of ‘alternative archaeology’ since it first emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and surely some of its appeal is as an antidote to contemporary alienation from a materialistic and environmentally-damaging society. Though ‘alternative archaeology’ has become more grounded in its claims and use of evidence, the appeal of the message is as strong as it was, and the closer we get to the millennium the stronger it seems to get. Books claiming to interpret saviour-like messages or warnings from the past have featured among the bestsellers of the decade.
Archaeology is basically a conservative academic tradition, but whether it likes it or not, it has, through contemporary concerns for the well-being of the planet and human consciousness, become embroiled in a dialogue with millennial futurism. We are back again at the uncomfortable dichotomy of knowledge and belief. Today they have an ad hoc working relationship that is possibly closer than it ever has been. Archaeology locates the sites which believers celebrate at; together they enlarge both the documentation and the modern folklore of such places. Together, it is also to be hoped that they work towards the preservation of those places. Again, just as it is with another person, so it should be with a place; the establishment of a dialogue implies respect.
The issue of respect for place is fundamental. Place is an integral part of geography, and geography is the study of the Earth. Respect for places therefore implies respect for the Earth and vice versa.
How much more important it is that places that have a literally vital role in maintaining a sense of spirituality among human communities be respected. These, whether natural or architectural, are the places that affect our consciousness and refresh the deepest parts of our being. It is this quality that probably contributed to the development of the earth mysteries and environmental movements as social attitudes began to question materialism during the 1960s and after. Ancient and numinous places offer a glimpse into alternative realities accessible through a heightened consciousness of sacred space.
It is probably true to say that these places are more loved than they have been for centuries, even thousands of years. But does love translate into respect? Sadly, it seems that this is not necessarily the case.
In nearly thirty years of spiritual and research work in this area, I am gratified to see public awareness of and concern for numinous sites higher than I have ever known; yet as I travel around, I have noted how the 1990s have been marked by increasing interference with numinous sites. There are people who leave crystals at ritual sites, fondly imagining that they are enhancing the place. At Wayland’s Smithy on the Ridgeway, om signs were chalked on megaliths next to ‘legalise cannabis’ slogans and all kinds of pop‑sacred graffiti like spirals and pentacles ‑ nothing wrong with the sentiments, surely, but what have they to do with the people who originally performed ritual at the site? At sites throughout the country, there is blackening where fires have been lit against ancient stones, and candle wax defacing the interiors of long barrows. At Nine Ladies stone circle on Stanton Moor in Derbyshire, young trees by the circle have even been stripped of green branches by people camping at the stones overnight! The motives of the person who has daubed Avebury stones with paint twice in recent years, destroying fragile lichens, are still unclear but he is said to be well-known among London pagans. The tradition of ‘rag’ or ‘clootie’ wells, revived in places where no such tradition has ever been recorded, such as the Egg Stone on Glastonbury Tor, brings all kinds of textiles to be hung on neighbouring trees or bushes; the custom means that one’s wish or prayer will come to pass as the cloth decays, but I have seen countless scraps of nylon hanging from twigs and even a nearly-new bootlace! The perpetrators doubtless thought of their leavings as offerings, but actually much of it is just unsightly litter.
There is no doubt that the people who do such things are sincerely expressing a desire to give something to a site, and thus perform an act of respect for the earth; but they obviously have not thought it through! Respect for a place consists in not being intrusive; even archaeology acknowledges that with its preference for non‑intrusive methods such as geophysical survey and its modern preference to leave some places not threatened by development unexcavated until non‑intrusive methods have progressed further. Ritual, worshipful or other sacred activity should surely be equally respectful and not impose itself on a site.
At the solar eclipse last August (1998), there was much concern about how Cornwall’s ancient remains would fare under the expected flood of visitors. It was obvious that the esoteric implications of the eclipse would bring added numbers to esoteric places such as Men-an-Tol. Pagan organisations like Save Our Sacred Sites worked with the National Trust, English Heritage and local archaeological services to devise strategies to minimise impact on the fragile environments of the ancient sites. Nobody had any doubt that the visitors would be well-meaning, but that did not prevent the possibility of damage, mostly through carelessness.
Whether we prefer to call ourselves pilgrims or use some other word, when we travel to see some other place we are tourists. Every tourist has an impact on the place and locality they visit; their cars, buses or trains affect the local environment, their shopping and accommodation affect the local economy, and so on. These are not necessarily evils, but in excess their effects can be negative. Have you ever been the among the first visitors of the day at Newgrange or Stonehenge? The atmosphere, replenished by the night hours of solitude, is strong; but towards the end of a busy day much of that early magical feeling is lost. This is a subtle effect of visitor impact; how much more disturbing is a physical impact such as litter or damage. It is surely appropriate to minimise repercussions on local environments, especially where vulnerable archaeological sites or sensitive magical places are concerned.
The Ancient Sacred Landscapes Network emerged from the experiences of pagans whose visits to ancient sites frequently found evidence of careless or disrespectful treatment from other pagans or New Agers. Their Sacred Sites Charter declares ‘don’t change the site; let the site change you’ – essential advice for anyone wishing to enter a two-way dialogue with a place rather than impose their own beliefs on it. You don’t have to be pagan to to agree with ASLaN that visitors should ‘respect the land and all its inhabitants – spirits, people, animals, plants and stones’. Digging holes, lighting fires or candles, leaving offerings or graffiti, burying objects (even biodegradable materials), removing stones or plants can all negatively affect the site, damaging both its archaeology and atmosphere and detracting from the experience of the next visitor. If an offering feels required, the place would surely appreciate removal of litter.
We may seek to understand these places better, but in the end prehistory remains pretty much unknown. The truth about our ancient monuments is that we don’t know how they were used or perceived, or what rituals took place in honour of what entity or purpose. We need the sites to be looked after to continue providing us with the inspiration to connect with the planet’s magical potential; and we need their archaeological integrity to provide us with more knowledge about such places.
The last thing ancient sites need is for their individual historical character to be obliterated by the detritus of modern beliefs. We may attune, work ritual or divine messages from the past to today, but any interpretation of a sacred site should embody a spirit of co-existence between its contemporary and (often unknown) historical character. Not just ‘how is the place doing?’, but ‘how are we doing at that place?’.
Published in ‘Beyond’, 1990s