Saturday, April 28, 2012

Archaeology and paganism- my opinion

I have sat down to write about this topic a dozen times in the past year.  Each time, it caused by an interaction with a member of the pagan community, not any of the archaeologists, anthropologists or historians I know.  Each interaction had left me scorched and angry, so forgive me if I come across as angry and bitter. I typically walked away from writing this so that I didn't hurt anyone, but this time, I think I need to speak up. My intent here is not to attack, but to make some points about using the past to justify the present.  Whether it's being done by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Democrats, Republicans, or museums, I worry about who it affects and how.

 It happened again yesterday when I merely commented on a rather well known Pagan blogger's Facebook post.  I voiced the dissenting opinion, not the first time it's happened there, but likely the last.  I was told that I should stay away from religion and spirituality if I have a problem with reconstructionist paganism (I have severe reservations and concerns about the hows and whys of it, not a problem, with it, per se, just concern); a dissenting opinion among the open-minded Pagans is not allowed.  Needless to say, it was another painful experience, especially since I'm pretty fragile right now (I know that my skin isn't as thick or tough as it typically is, so I try really hard not to get worked up over well meant, but poorly phrased comments, which I don't consider this to be).

Now to recap, I am a pagan (not Pagan, obviously, since I won't toe the line and I don't subscribe to a particular author or elder).  I've been pagan since I was 13, which gives me a good twenty years on this path.   I wandered through Wicca (and this is where my first unease about reconstruction comes in), and ran away from spirituality. Then, I came back, because it's impossible to ignore a piece of yourself and be happy at the same time. It was during this same stage that I returned to school to finish my B.A. in Anthropology; the two became tightly bound to each other for a multitude of reasons, which aren't really the point of this ramble.  The point is, I'm trained in archaeology and historicity. You can't talk to me about the past without me thinking about how the narrative was constructed. I know archaeologists who have seen their life's work used in reconstructions- Pagan and not- and they get very, very nervous.  Archaeology, by nature is never a holistic view of a society.

History (as a short form of talking about all investigations of the past, including archaeology), and especially historical reconstruction of any purpose, always has an agenda.  If it didn't, it wouldn't be a coherent narrative, but a list of slightly related events that caused everything afterwards to happen  (Michel-Rolph Truillot wrote an excellent and very readable text about this called Silencing the Past).  My first questions for any revisionist/reconstructionist are these: What do you hope to accomplish? How are you going to do this? Why are YOU doing this? Who benefits? Who gets shafted? How will you deal with the ever shifting body evidence, which is constantly being reviewed, debated and revised in academic circles, but which is often not widely available to the general public? What do you get out of this?

History, due to many factors, including revisionist agendas, leaves out a lot of what actually happened.  Archaeology has only recently (within the last 30 years +/-) begun to actively look for the pasts of women, children, minorities and the lower classes (historians began looking at this a couple decades before, but has not been universally successful in creating inclusive narratives).  Gender archaeology is an up and coming field, but it is difficult, not always well received, and untried.  Even when historical sources about the lives of women, children and non-ruling people are available, they are often ignored.

Another reason I am concerned by the use of archaeology and ancient texts as the cruses on which reconstructed religion rests is the idea of preservation bias.  Nearly all archaeological material is stuff that shouldn't be preserved.Only through the most chance events does an archaeological site get preserved: floods, volcanic eruptions, being tossed in a peat bog, landslides, and fires.Normal, average things of any culture disappear with little to no trace: clothing, paper, basketry, rope, hair, leather, flesh, feathers, food, plants, wood. Say my apartment was abandoned, right now, exactly the way it is. In two thousand years, without a set of strange events to preserve everything, all that would be left is plastic, glass, and metal.  The pile of laundry sitting next to me would vanish without a trace.  The cabinets holding my collection of glassware would rot and collapse. All my books would be gone, turned to dust. The things that remain would no longer be in situ, and much of there meaning and purpose would become murky.  These items would also lose their most important meaning- what they meant to me. Drinking glasses in the kitchen would be indistinguishable from the ones that are for special occasions. The marbles I use to help the kids would not be any different from the ones I use in flower vases or the ones my son plays with. Things I set on shelf as I went by, like a lighter, a DVD, and some coins, might be wrongly interpreted to be important, not just junk picked up so the vacuum cleaner didn't break.  It is a fact of anthropology that gathering, thought by some to be quintessentially women's work, leaves almost no trace on the archaeological record.

Very few people read ancient texts in their original.  We rely on translators and interpreters to make ancient text available to us.  There is an inherent danger in not getting your information direct from the source.  Most ancient texts I'm familiar with, I learned about through translation as well as relying on educators who could read the original to help me navigate the pitfall so this technique.  Ancient texts tend to be fragmented- very, very few unabridged, undamaged, complete works exist. As happens today, people reinvented, reinterpreted and rearranged stories to make more sense, reflect the current social and political climates, and be more entertaining.

There is also a problem with lost texts.  In many cases, surviving ancient texts were not meant to be stand-alones. They fit into a larger tradition which we can often only guess at.  Examples of this can be seen in the Mabinogi (the more common Mabinogian name is a translation error committed over a century ago that refused to die), Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus's plays, Beowulf, the Elysian mystery cults, and Tain Bo Cuillage, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Herodotus' Histories. Each of these works are filled with gaps, translation errors and inexplicable stories that we can't make sense of, because we weren't part of the culture that they originated in.  In-jokes are nothing new to humans, and we are not in. How can you reconstruct something accurately if many pieces are missing?

Secrets and individual behaviors are indistinguishable from norms when they are all the evidence you examine.  For example, genetic genealogies are rewriting the past.  Parents on paper or in practice are not always the same as genetic parentage. It highlights an age old problem of patriarchy- a father can't usually prove his relationship to a child by anything other than artificial (read that as constructed by society) means. You can see this in my own family. My great uncle was not fathered by the great grandmother's husband. Both parents knew, but my great uncle learned about this 60 years later. On paper, I have one father, but I was raised by someone else and the genetic contribution came from elsewhere.  When it comes down to it, which one of these men is my father?

Being cautious and skeptical about history is what I'm trained to do.  It doesn't mean I rely soley on academic sources or on historical texts. It means that I realize and appreciate the severe limitations that exist as facts of life when dealing with the past.  It means I worry about how information can be misused and misunderstood by modern people.  And I personally have seen how reconstructionist paganism can hurt living, breathing people.  When I was in my late teens, I frequented the pagan store nearest to my home.  It was owned a Wiccan family and it perpetuated a certain brand of Wicca.  In the course of shopping, I overheard some conversations about some local Native American remains  A racist (no other word for it) Astaru group- (this isn't an observation about Heathens in general, just this particular group) making a bid for these remains.  They claimed, in what they thought was privacy of the store, that the local Indians couldn't be smart enough to get up to the cave, in spite of the fact that the cave has been a known sacred site for centuries, even millenia.  This same group claimed Kennewick Man as an ancestor (it should be noted that James Chatters had an agenda when he claimed it couldn't be Native American, and almost no archaeologists agree with him); this caused a great deal of inappropriate and rather stupid media coverage, skewed toward White Supremacists and conspiracy theorists, that eventually damaged the Native claims to these sets of Native American remains. For some Native Americans, it remains yet another way white people try to steal their way of life, their heritage, and even their ancestors' bodies, and it is an incredibly effective tactic.

I think it's unfair for reconstructionists to portray their faith as more valid than what those of us who practice our faith through direct revelation.  The individual who decided that telling me that I should stay away from spirituality because I have reservations is an act of violence.  I can question, seek to understand, share my concerns (both as a pagan and an archaeologist) without being attacked, especially when all I said was that it makes me uncomfortable as an archaeologist. When questioned by someone else, about why, I gave a quick version of these points.  It could have been a constructive conversation where we both learned something, but it didn't.  It leaves me with the impression that this person is not only very aware of the power of writing history, they also seem to revel in it, which makes me even more uncomfortable. It also reminds me of why I spent years away from the Pagan community.


  1. I can sympathize with your frustration as I'm a trained in a scientific field so approach all things with similar thinking. I've also run into opposition for asking certain questions.

    That being said I identify as heathen though not as a strict reconstructionalist. I have had many discussions with other heathens though involving these same questions. Most heathens I've known actively seek out the newest research and adapt beliefs accordingly.

    As for the holes, I've discussed that one to death. Some people look at similar cultures that may not have wholes there. I know the Saami a still living tribe in northern Scandinavia is one source for cultural information to help. Some scholars look into the linguistics of various indo-European languages for clues.

    Some of your questions I've never known a recon to Not ask. I've discussed biasness of sources with both h heathens and Celtic recons. In the former things like his much can be trust Snorri? In the later the main source of written records are the Romans, how much written is really true. I mean look at the Wicker Man description by Caesar. It strikes as clearly an exaggeration.

    You are right on a few questions no one really asks. Things like motives. Also recons notoriously have a superiority attitude but unfortunately they aren't alone. About any pagan on a more traditional path, or one with an actual formed tradition seems to have that against those who don't.

    This is a great discussion point though and one all pagans should think of. I've known more then just recons to be in error about using incorrect history or not applying critical thought to it. I'll just say snakes, druids, and Ireland as an example.

  2. This is a thoughtful, well-informed post! Skepticism about sources and documents that have been worked over is necessary, otherwise you're drinking someone's Kool-Aid. It can be very tasty, but filled with empty calories.

    Recon Paganism has always made me itchy. I understand the appeal of having a structured practice. It's grounding. But how can you really know exactly how ancient civilizations lived and worshipped the deities?

    And those agenda reasons: excluding people or telling them they can't think or feel a certain way because "that's not in the texts" or "that's not how the ancestors did it" is a sucky, narrow-minded attitude.

    Promoting Recon over individual experience/revelation is worrisome because it reminds me too much of the history of Christianity as an organized religion. Why couldn't someone like Hildegard or Julian of Norwich have their individual revelations? Their experiences were just as valid and enriched Christian theology.

    Not everyone has to belong to an organized group to have an authentic spiritual experience. I do not want to see the various Paganism establish official councils that tell people what they can and cannot feel. Z Budapest set herself up as an authority and we all know how well that's gone over lately.

    And racist Asatru/Heathen groups make my head 'asplode. UGH.


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