Prehistoric religion: a riddle we will never solve

If you believe that nothing is beyond the wit of modern historical research, think again – we will never unlock the secrets of Britain’s ancient religions, according to Ronald Hutton...

This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

The opening of the long-awaited Stonehenge visitor centre highlights, with unusual clarity, how much we now know, and don’t know, about ancient Britain. An ever- increasing sophistication in the theoretical and technological techniques at their disposal enables archaeologists to say, better than ever before, who built the world’s most famous prehistoric monument – and when and how they did it.

We can tell from where they came, what they ate, what they looked like, what tools they used, how they lived, and what the climate and landscape were like when they did so. The missing element, which is apparently lost forever, is what they thought. We have no better idea now than we had 200 years ago of what their political, social, legal or moral systems were like, what their gender relations were, or – this being the really big one where Stonehenge is concerned – of what their religion consisted.

As a result, each generation has had to make up answers to these questions for itself. In the case of the religion practised at Stonehenge, these answers spring from people’s attitude to religious behaviour in general, which in turn are generated by their attitudes to their fellow human beings.

In practice, the results have always been polarised. In one camp are those who want to see the monument as one inspired by an admirable spirituality, characterised by love of and care for the natural world and an instinctual understanding of its ways. In the other are those who view the monument as the product of a primitive and bloodthirsty world, representing ignorance, savagery and superstition.

The first school of thought is what draws many people to celebrate the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge each year. The second offers a clue as to why one of the fallen megaliths has been known as ‘Slaughter Stone’ (with no justification) since the 18th century.

The first response has tended to be manifested by people unhappy with their own society, who long for one that was simpler, more decent and better connected to the natural or the divine. It makes a neat fit with modern concerns about the environment and anxieties about the consequences of urbanised and industrialised lifestyles. It also chimes with a very old language about the degeneration of humanity from an original wisdom and happiness, based on the Bible and the Greek and Roman classics.

The second, more hostile reaction is just as venerable, having been deployed for thousands of years by people who consider themselves civilised against those whom they despise as savages. The images on which it is based were originally developed by the ancient Hebrews and Romans, to condemn people who resisted the religion of the former and the rule of the latter.

Christianity then used such hostility against other faiths, while particular types of Christians turned it into a metaphor for other strains of Christianity. In particular, evangelical Protestants used vivid portraits of what they imagined had gone on inside Stonehenge to condemn by implication what they disliked about Catholicism. With equal facility, modern people who hated and feared religion in general used fantasies about prehistory as a means of attacking what they took to be the worst aspects of religious zeal.

The Witham Shield, discovered in the river Witham near Lincoln, is just one of the many examples of beautiful Iron Age metalwork found in Britain. © Alamy

Finally, the hostile view of prehistoric religion made a good fit with two other trends of modernity. One was a cult of progress, which decreed that – with crushing inevitability – the further back in time you go, the worse life was. The other was imperialism, which equated the imagined barbarism of the British past with the savagery alleged against modern Asians, Africans, Polynesians, Native Americans and Australian aborigines. According to this world view, the latter could be civilised and improved, to everybody’s benefit, even as the former had been before.

So where does that leave us today? The fact is that when we imagine the beliefs that inspired the building of Stonehenge, we draw on one or the other of these two banks of imagery. They have just proved too useful and convenient to abandon.

What is true of Stonehenge also applies to the other evidence for ritual and religious belief surviving from British prehistory. And it’s worth emphasising how very rich that evidence is.

When an inhabitant of modern Iceland, Germany, Estonia, Russia, Italy, Greece or many other European nations thinks of their pagan heritage, they tend to do so in terms of just a single pantheon of deities and set of ancient monuments. Britain, however, has impressive remains surviving from four successive ages of prehistoric religious traditions.

These traditions look very different from each other: the carved designs put onto cave walls in the Old Stone Age; the stone-chambered long barrows and dolmens of the earlier New Stone Age; the stone circles, circular embankments and burial mounds of the later New Stone Age and Bronze Age; and so- called hill forts (actually also ceremonial precincts) and ritual deposits of beautiful metalwork in water, from the later Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

When the Romans conquered most of Britain, they brought with them not only their own religion, but also those of other peoples in their empire, from as far afield as Syria and Egypt. Some four centuries later, the Anglo-Saxons arrived with their own – northern – variety of paganism, followed by the Vikings with theirs. This all adds up to an inheritance of pre-Christian monuments, objects, designs and (eventually) inscriptions of a remarkable abundance and complexity.

Even in the cases of the later examples of these – from periods for which written records survive – our knowledge of the nature, let alone the inner content, of the religions concerned is limited enough to leave ample room for differences of modern interpretation.

West Kennet Long Barrow, where the remains of some 46 people, interred over a thousand-year period from 3400 BC, have been discovered in a series of burial chambers. © Rex Features 

An argument could be made that this is not a problem at all, but an asset. After all, the modern British are now members of a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society that prizes individuality and choice, while enabling people to live in very different ways and with different beliefs within a common framework of loyalty to the nation. Surely, this argument runs, the enigmatic nature of prehistoric religions is admirably suited to such a situation, inviting people to take personal messages from it according to their own tastes, prejudices, judgments and needs.

To employ one example, let us suppose that the body of a young man, dated to the Iron Age, is found in a peat bog and shows signs of a violent death. Some people may conclude that he was a victim of human sacrifice. Perhaps that sacrifice was performed by the priests of the age, the druids, and so exemplifies the horrors of prehistoric religion – and perhaps of barbarism or paganism in general.

Another group might posit the theory that he was a criminal, executed for a heinous crime of which he may or may not have been guilty. Others still could consider him a victim of robbery and murder, or maybe they’d visualise him as a warrior fleeing from a battle, hunted down and dispatched by his enemies.

All of these readings would have an equal legitimacy and likelihood. In this context, heritage managers would retain their value as the experts who protect the evidence of the past, and display it to the public in such a way as to enable its members to make the best-informed possible choices for themselves.

Historians and archaeologists would remain the national experts in identifying and dating finds, explaining the nature of sites, reconstructing ancient lifestyles and reading, translating and editing texts. Having done this crucial work, they would then, in the case of ancient religion, stand back to allow others to form their own personal attitudes and conclusions. Who could possibly find anything disturbing, inappropriate or counter-intuitive in a situation such as this?

The answer is, a great many people, for it runs counter to some of the most deeply held instincts and values in our society. One is the belief that the state (which means its taxpayers) pays or subsidises professional experts to produce solid results, which are generally taken to mean clear answers. Just as scientists are expected to make major and lasting discoveries about the physical nature of the world, which have a practical use for humanity, so specialists in history and prehistory are expected to produce new and enduring information about the past, which enables a better understanding of it, and so of ourselves.

Talk of empowering members of the public to make informed decisions for themselves can sound like a betrayal of this trust, and recent attitudes to the funding of research, embodied in expressions such as accountability, proof of impact, and value for money, only reinforce such a response.

The policy of encouraging multiple interpretations of evidence also runs counter to a faith in progress. One of the defining doctrines of modernity is the belief that every generation should be better-informed, as well as healthier, wealthier and (so) happier than that before. The suggestion that we may never actually know more – at any rate with certainty – about major aspects of the remote past, is profoundly unsettling for those who value this doctrine.

The acceptance – or even the celebration – of indefinite individual choice also violates some deeper and older instincts. Not everybody regards the creation of a multi-ethnic, multi- faith society with equanimity, and many who do are still concerned about its potential for severing the bonds that hold a nation together. Nation states are, by definition, historical creations, often erected upon a common narrative of the past. And plenty of people still feel the need for a common national ‘story’, which everybody knows and understands in outline, to unite compatriots who now differ in so many cultural traits. This perceived need is far older than nations. Most traditional human communities are defined and bonded by a commonly held set of stories and assumptions about their collective origin and previous achievements.

The public should be empowered to interpret sites such as Cumbria’s Castlerigg stone circle for themselves, says Ronald Hutton. © Alamy 

Behind the figure of the historian lies that of the bard, whose role it was to ensure that everybody knew these tales and understood their significance. Many professional historians would probably trace their own descent from figures like Edward Gibbon (author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) or Leopold von Ranke (a founder of modern source-based history). Those with a longer sense of evolution may even regard themselves as the successors of the ancient Greek historians Herodotus or Thucydides. In a deeper and very important sense, however, they are really the heirs of bards such as Homer and Taliesin.

What’s more, the acceptance of multiple choices does not fit easily into one of the most popular and effective modes of expression for historical or archaeological research: the quest romance. This portrays the practitioner as somebody in search of the answer to a question about the past, which they finally solve triumphantly by a glittering application of the skills of their discipline. It is the easiest way to present the scholar as a heroic figure, and taps into one of the most enduring themes of world literature. There are indeed none that are older, for the most ancient surviving complete story on the planet, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, includes a hero on a quest, and so does the oldest known example of European literature, the poetry of Homer.

The Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail and Frodo’s ring represent three nodal points in different millennia of the progression of this theme to the present, and its vitality in contemporary culture owes much to the fact that it is such a fine structure within which to pitch a television documentary. By contrast, a proposal for a programme that sets out to present viewers with an open answer is unlikely to get commissioned.

Finally, offering a range of interpretations of equal legitimacy runs up against the addiction of our culture to competition. Indeed it is possible that no other civilisation has been so wedded to the competitive spirit since the ancient Greeks.

The prevailing model of academic enquiry has always been for experts to draw individual conclusions from their evidence, and then pit them against each other. From this contest, one theory emerges as the strongest, and rules until it is defeated by a still finer newcomer.

This way of doing things – in which the winner takes it all – seems better than ever suited to a society that now uses the free market as its exemplar for most forms of human activity. It is also the basis for most popular forms of entertainment, whether embodied as sport, reality TV, quizzes or games shows. It is even the basis for our whole political system. However, it is clearly a way of behaving completely incompatible with the approach to prehistoric religion that I’ve advocated here.

The Uruk king Gilgamesh, shown (centre) in a relief supporting a winged sun disc, was the original literary hero on a quest. Like Gilgamesh, we expect our historians to overcome the odds in their quest for answers to the mysteries of the ancient past. © Alamy 

Nonetheless, that advocacy must still be made – not because of any liberal attachment to diversity and mutual toleration as virtues in their own right – but because those seem best suited to enquiries into the most remote aspects of Britain’s past. The study of ancient religions simply cannot deliver the certain and enduring conclusions to which we are so wedded.

We seem to be compelled to accept that the evidence left to us by the practitioners of ancient religion is ample and exciting in its own right. And we surely must acknowledge that each generation – not to mention individual people and interest groups within each generation – will read different things into it. This being so, we may as well make it a cause for celebration and utilise its benefits to the full.

Ronald Hutton is professor of history at the University of Bristol. His books include Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale, 2011) and The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford, 1995)

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