Sacred Lands Conference.
ASLaN is the Ancient Sacred Landscape Network. I don't like their name, perhaps because (unlike many of the people involved) I first read the Narnia stories at an age where the Christian propaganda, and the Christ nature of the great lion Aslan, showed through. But they do excellent work as a group for the exchange of information about sacred sites and their care, bringing together various pagan groups and official bodies such as English Heritage, the Anglican Diocese of Oxford, and others. They provide a forum where those concerned with sacred site can come together from very different perspectives, and hopefully find common ground. Their basic leaflet raises issues about behaviour at a site, pointing out that most forms of ritual activity (use of candles and fires, leaving coins and other offerings, etc.) can cause serious damage — many of us will know this already, but the more it is stated the better.
Their second conference, entitled People, Power, and Place, was held on Saturday, July 6th 2002 in Chesterfield (postponed from the previous year). The morning talks were given by pagans, the afternoon ones by archaeologists and others, followed by a panel of the speakers, featuring discussion and questions. The conference began with Gordon (the Toad) MacLellan on "The Shaman and the Dreaming Land". This was as inspired and inspiring as one expects from Gordon; he particularly emphasised that the land has its own dreams and time-scales, and that its dreams may be very different from any connection that we think to bring to the land. John Billingsley (editor of Northern Earth, once known as Northern Earth Mysteries) gave "A View over Earth Mysteries", indicating how the topic has changed in emphasis and concerns over several decades, and is likely to change further in the future.
The afternoon began with Aaron Watson talking on "Encounters with Prehistoric Sites". He is an archaeologist who has been particularly concerned with the acoustics of ancient sites — some people may have seen him discussing this on TV. This was followed by a talk by John Smith, director of Sacred Land. This is an excellent organisation devoted to projects related to preservation of sacred sites and creation of new sites from many faith traditions, though I do not feel they treat paganism as seriously as they do other traditions. Finally, Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis, archaeologists and pagans, spoke about "Sacred Sites, Contested Rights/Rites" and looked at pagan interactions with sacred sites and the many constructions of meaning that different people bring to prehistoric archaeology. I have liked much of what these two have written, individually and together, but I did not particularly relate to their talk, perhaps because it was the last in a full programme (and, of course, there were many energetic discussions at lunch and after the conference). Some of their material is on the Web at www.sacredsites.org.uk
I have left the talk that I most liked to the end. This was "A Druid View of Sacred Sites" by Arthur Pendragon. I had of course read of him in both mainstream and pagan publications, and seen some of his writings and appearances on TV. But this was the first time I met him in person. He was particularly talking about Stonehenge, the need (which he was clear about from the early days) for discussion with English Heritage and other interested bodies, the problems that could occur with stewarding the site on major occasions, and the need to ensure that this did not lead to restrictions on those permitted to attend. Not surprisingly, he was all in favour of 'Round Table' discussions!
On the Sunday, John Barnatt, senior archaeologist for the Peak District National park, led a party to view various sites, and told us about them with great enthusiasm. We went to Arbor Low, and also to an area of Neolithic settlement, so that we could gain a view of everyday life in the Neolithic and not just see sites of special significance.
One thing I brought back from the conference was a sense that archaeologists nowadays are more open-minded than they used to be. They accept that multiple views can be held, and that professional archaeologists are not the only people who are entitled to speak. They require that any interpretation must be consistent with the available data, but no longer insist that there is only one correct interpretation.
Wood and Water
80, Autumn 2002