Prehistoric religion: a pagan 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

Tourists at Stonehenge. We have no better idea today than 200 years ago what the people who erected these sarsens truly believed. (Getty Images)

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.

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