|11 May 2004
Druid Order's doubts over Stonehenge tunnel plan
Modern pagans are clashing with the custodians of Britain's most famous neolithic site over the fate of their buried predecessors. As it is known, British Government plans to dig a 1.3 mile tunnel under Stonehenge. The Highways Agency says its plan will save the world heritage site from what it calls '20th century clutter', by sending the traffic clogged A303 under Salisbury plain.
Environmental and heritage groups have lobbied for a longer tunnel, saying that the current proposal is a cost-cutting compromise that would leave both the tunnel entrance and exit too close to the stones. But Mrs Restall-Orr, who represented the British Druid Order at the public enquiry into the tunnel scheme, has an additional, more spiritual concern: "This plan for Stonehenge treats the site purely as an object for money-making, but for us it is an active temple. Can you imagine plans for a major engineering project taking place just outside Canterbury Cathedral without consulting representatives of the Church of England?" she says.
In particular, the Druids are interested in what happens to bodies dug up by the archaeologists, who will excavate the tunnel route ahead of construction. Typically, ancient corpses dug up by archaeologists undergo forensic testing and are then stored away in cardboard boxes in the basement of museums. The Druids do not take issue with scientific examination, but they want the bodies returned to them afterwards for reburial at Stonehenge. According to Druidic belief, people buried at the Wiltshire site were being returned to the earth they worshipped, and had no expectation of being dug up.
"It might sound ghoulish, but once bodies are reburied further deterioration sets in and scientists will not be able to go back and re-examine them," says Mike Pitt of the British Council for Archaeology, who does not think much of this reburial plan. "In the future we might be able to learn more about the lives of these ancient people than we can know today, due to advances in forensic science." Mr Pitt cites the example of a male skeleton exhumed in 1923 near Stonehenge. Initial dating placed it from the Neolithic period, around the time Stonehenge was built 4,000 years ago. The skeleton was not examined again until 1998, when it emerged that the man was actually Anglo Saxon, living around AD640.
Pitt says: "Like these Druids, I think it's right to respect human remains - but the most respectful thing to do is to recreate the lives of ancient people and tell their story as accurately as we can. Modern Druid belief and ceremony has no connection with the people who built Stonehenge - it only dates back to the 18th century when an interest in paganism came into vogue. We simply don't know what the belief systems or ceremonial practices of the original Druids were."
Mrs Restall-Orr concedes that the Highways Agency might win this battle. Under the current proposal construction will start next year, last three and a half years and cost at least £192m. But this is not the first time the Druids have clashed with the state over the stewardship of the site. They were banned from celebrating the summer solstice amid the stones for fifteen years, but have now been allowed back onto the site.
Source: The Observer (5 May 2004)
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