When does “Cultural Preservation” become “Cultural Taxidermy”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern engagement with heritage sites lately, specifically beyond the “museum model” that most are presented through. These are the heritage sites that allow for much more engagement, if not actual interaction, between the heritage site and the visitor – most of these are in the form of free-standing spaces, such as the numerous heritage sites that can be found throughout the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, in Orkney, Scotland

I love these sorts of sites – I love being able to briefly feel how the space may have felt for past peoples, to look up in awe at impossible-looking architecture made of time-defying earth and stone.

But there’s similar sites that are much more restrictive, that keep their heritage treasures under lock and key, sometimes even literally. This restrictiveness can vary in severity – sometimes it’s a simple rope that keeps visitors from wearing down the ancient material, other times entire monuments have been transported (kidnapped, in some cases?) to a new place, to be exhibited in sterile environments that can be controlled and, more importantly, contained.

And I understand the impulse to do so – heritage can be a fragile thing, and many of us who work with the past find ourselves becoming rather protective of it. Who wouldn’t want to spare these sites the cruelty of time and nature, to allow our great great great grandchildren to experience them as we do today?

What do we decide can be exchanged for preservation? Because there must be an exchange, something must be given up for the price of preserving something else – a site, an artefact, a body…these must all be given strict conditions in order to preserve it, which will necessitate restrictions on the ways in which others engage with it. So these pieces of heritage become roped off, or sealed away behind glass, or only recreated through virtual or otherwise augmented realities. And yes, perhaps we still maintain its existence on within the material realm and allow others to experience some aspect of it, but what are we also removing from the experience?

It becomes something that I think of sometimes as “cultural taxidermy” – in which something that once was alive within the cultural of a community is preserved in death, frozen for aesthetics but lacking in anything more tangible, more engaging. And perhaps this is a harsh way to phrase it, but this is something I think about a lot when I wander through the “cultural” parts of museums, where bits and pieces of other peoples’ cultures are kept frozen in time, placed in some sort of tableau that implies a living essence that has long been taken from it.

And this leads to another question that I have: How do we ultimately cut off these spaces from the people who gave it life and meaning? This is obviously a vital question that needs to be considered as museums and other heritage institutions become more scrutinised as spaces of continuous colonialism in an allegedly post-colonialist world. It’s a question that doesn’t get consider when repatriation becomes part of the discussion, that’s for sure – it seems that most folks who are staunchly against repatriation of artefacts and other material culture often see this as an unfair exchange, that they (the institution, the museum, the Western culture) are losing something valuable that will in effect be “squandered” or “wasted” because it is no longer in their hands.

When these items and spaces are removed from their cultural contexts and placed behind glass, how are these lines of living culture interrupted? Why do we think that these things need to be preserved over all other uses? Again, to return to the taxidermy metaphor, it’s hard not to see some aspects of cultural heritage as intriguing and exotic animals to many heritage workers, who decide that to taxidermy it and preserve it forever is the only way for it to continue “living”, rather than allowing it to remain alive and flourishing in its original context and space.

So, what’s the point to all of this rambling? Is there a way to “fix” this, if it even is an issue at all? How do we shift the focus from “preserving history” to “preserving and restoring history”? As always, I have no idea! But I like asking these questions, because asking them means that they’re being scrutinised and considered – and so, if you’re someone who works in heritage (particularly Western institutions), I hope you begin to consider them too.

A Brief Introduction to the Vague World of Ritual: From the Past to the Present


Screenshot_2018-10-03 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

The term “ritual” has a bit of a reputation among archaeologists. Well, less of a “reputation” and more of a “running joke”, if I’m being honest…one of the first things I learned as an undergraduate taking an “Intro to Archaeology” class was that “ritual” is what archaeologists write when they don’t know what’s happening at a site.

And, to be honest, that makes sense. How do we even define the word “ritual”? Let’s take a look at some examples:

Colin Renfrew (1985) identified the “Four Aspects of Ritual Practice” as:

  1. An attention-focused activity that can be seen in the physical record
  2. A liminal zone that can be correlated with the remaining material
  3. A focus on transcendence and symbol in the material record
  4. Archaeological evidence for participation or offerings

Peter Tompkins (2009), on the other hand, highlights the main elements used for “ritualization” to further define “ritual”:

  1. Temporality – Experiencing time differently
  2. Spatiality – Restricting space
  3. Fragmentation – Relationships between parts and whole
  4. Distance and Scale – Enlargement and minimization for emphasis
  5. Value and Substance – Setting “ritual” importance
  6. Food and Cuisine – Associated with and used to designate “ritual acts”

More recently, Ronald Hutton (2013) adds that ritual, as well as religion, can be differentiated from other acts due to the need for imaginative processes, arguing that finding evidence of early ritual will correlate to the oldest instances of the development of an imagination and symbolic behaviour.

To round these definitions off, Joanna Bruck (1999) provides her perceived definition of “ritual” in her critique of its use in archaeology, arguing that the discipline sees it as something “non-functional” and “impractical”, mutually exclusive from functionality.

In some respects, there are some commonalities in these definitions – for most, ritual is something associated with more abstract, often spiritual concepts that can be differentiated in some sense from what we consider “normative”. Except…that’s a bit problematic as well. After all, what’s “normal” then? This has led to some archaeologists, such as Joanna Bruck (1999) to consider these dualities – “sacred”, “profane”…are these always separated?

This has been discussed specifically with regards to prehistoric rituals in Europe, where “ritual” and “domestic” contexts have been found intermingled at sites. Tompkins (2009) theorises that by drawing from the domestic sphere, rituals allowed prehistoric people to gain new insights and new experiences from their everyday life. Bruck (1999) further argues that perhaps the need to differentiate between “ritual” and “non-ritual” is simply born from the bias of Post-Enlightenment rationalism, and that we should accept that they can co-exist simultaneously in prehistoric life.

Unfortunately, we may never truly agree on what “ritual” is. Based on textual and ethnographic evidence, rituals in the past would most likely utilise tools and offerings that wouldn’t leave behind much of a trace within the archaeological record (Wait 1985), rendering the act as “archaeologically invisible” (Bruck 1999). Ultimately, we will never really have material evidence to base a definitive definition of ritual on – of course, it would be impossible to have one anyway, as ritual will be variable by culture!

So, as we return to modern day paganism, we find that many practitioners of alternative spiritualities will often say that “everything is ritual” (Sylvan 2016). Its a common phrase, promoting a popular concept among modern spiritual communities that one should infuse reverence for the divine into all aspects of everyday life. So perhaps future archaeologists will actually be able to call most things “ritual” and not be joking? Who knows. That’s the beauty of abstract concepts like “ritual” – they’re always changing with the times. And so will our interpretations of them.


Bruck, J. (1999) Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology. 2(3). pp. 313-344.

Hutton, R. (2013) Pagan Britain. Yale University Press.

Renfrew, C. (1985) The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi. British School of Archaeology at Athens.

Sylvan, D. (2016) The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. Llewllyn Publications.

Tompkins, P. (2009) Domesticity by Default: Ritual, Ritualization, and Cave Use in the Neolithic Aegean. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 28(2). pp. 125-153.

Wait, G.A. (1985) Ritual and Religion in Iron Age Britain. BAR British Series 149.

Pseudoarchaeology and Neo-Paganism: A Tricky Situation

In his book Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth (1990), William Anderson makes a point to say that neo-pagans want “every tradition to be as ancient as possible”. Contrary to what some may believe, however, we do not see a lineage of witch religion historically or archaeologically that can be traced to the modern practices. Note that this post is specifically discussing Western traditions that are practised commonly in the United States and Europe.

Many modern covens attempt to connect their practice of witchcraft or neopaganism to an ancient and forgotten cult surrounding a particular deity – examples of this include the goddesses Aradia, popularised by Charles Godfrey Leland, and Diana, popularised by Margaret Alice Murray and continued through feminist-driven “Dianic” covens and cults (Hutton 1995).

Another point of origin that many British and European covens claim is during the “Great Witch Hunt” that took place in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, which is believed to be a period of mass executions (Silvia Federici places the number of women killed in the hundreds of thousands) of so-called “witches”. Among historians, this is a topic of great debate. For starters, it is not known exactly how many executions of witches there were in Europe at this time, nor if the 300 years of executions was the result of organised, focused campaigning, periodic executions in various places over time, or a combination of the two. The actual reasons behind the executions are also not fully understood: some suggested catalysts include the increasing power of organised religion, social hierarchies that left women, the elderly, and the poor in danger of being accused of witchcraft, and similarly, the rise of rural capitalist systems that would ultimately cause those of low status to be punished through accusations of witchcraft. Many feminist historians have pointed out that other historians may downplay the role of gender in the witch hunts, as well – although men were occasionally accused of witchcraft, it appears that the majority of victims were women. Unfortunately, a lack of written evidence – especially from the viewpoint of the accused – makes discerning the reasons and politics behind these “witch hunts”, as well as the actual statistics, very difficult and perhaps even impossible to fully comprehend (Federici 2004, Hutton 2017).

Whether or not there was indeed a continent-wide campaign against witches that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, it should also be noted that there is no textual evidence to support the claim of organised covens that have survived to this day and age. Most records of modern covens appear to go as far back as the 1940’s, but any history prior to that is based only on unsubstantiated claims (Rella 2018).

So why turn to pseudoarchaeology? Within neo-paganism and witchcraft, there is an emphasis on lineage – that having a coven that can trace its roots back to ancient times adds to one’s prestige and legitimacy. Gerald Gardner, arguably the forefather of modern Wiccan tradition, claimed to have been part of a secret coven that had existed since the historical pagan times in Britain (Valiente 1989).

There is also a political angle to many claims of lineage by various traditions and covens. Many Dianic covens that grew out of feminist theory from the 60’s and 70’s have adapted modern radical feminism that specifically excludes transwomen. Groups that practice Heathenry or other Norse-based traditions that have also become part of alt-right and white supremacist movements will often exclude people of colour or those without Scandinavian heritage from their groups.

Although many neo-pagans and witches still maintain their ancient lineages, despite evidence to the contrary, there is a growing number of modern day practitioners who instead embrace the fact that while their beliefs and practices are certainly inspired by elements from the past, they do not have to have an ancient lineage to be “legitimate”. On a personal note, I agree with this sentiment – I think modern day practitioners seek legitimacy, even through pseudo archaeological research, as their beliefs and practises are often derided by others, and I certainly can sympathise with the feeling. However, pseudoarchaeology is a harmful practise that most often affects the histories of marginalised folx for the gain of the privileged and I think there is a duty for archaeologists to investigate instances of “fake news” so to speak, not just for the reputation of the field, but also as a means of removing white supremacist and colonial ideologies from the discipline as well.

For those looking for more information on pseudoarchaeology, there is a great primer written by Stephanie Halmhofer at her blog.


Anderson, W. (1990) Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth. Harper San Francisco.

Federici, S. (2004) Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.

Hutton, R. (1995) The Roots of Modern Paganism. Paganism Today. Thorsons. (p. 3-15)

Hutton, R. (2017) The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press.

Rella, A. (2018) Circling the Star. Gods & Radicals Press.

Valiente, D. (1989) The Rebirth of Witchcraft. The Crowood Press.

American Stonehenge, or the Time that My Friends Took Me on Holiday to Watch My Head Explode

American Stonehenge, or the Time that My Friends Took Me on Holiday to Watch My Head Explode

I’ve lived in England for nearly three years now, and yet I have never been to Stonehenge. I feel like that’s a bit embarrassing as an archaeologist, but I just never made the time for it so far!

That said, I have been to American Stonehenge. Yeah, that’s a thing.

Behold…the 8th Wonder of the World, American Stonehenge!

According to the owners of the site, American Stonehenge is exactly like its English counterpart – built thousands of years ago by ancient seafarers who travelled from Europe…or maybe an unknown Native American culture…one of the two. The site is allegedly over 4,000 years old, based on “Phoenician” and “Ogham” writings found carved in stone.

In actuality, American Stonehenge is a site originally known as “Mystery Hill” that has been a roadside attraction for decades. The “mysterious” stone buildings and structures on the site were most likely originally made for farm storage, with additional ones created once it became a tourist site.

You know its a good “archaeological site” when there’s a sacrificial table!

So why would I be at such a pseudoarchaeological site?

Well, blame my friends. Apparently they thought it was funny to see how increasingly annoyed their archaeologist friend would get at a fake site – and they were right (there’s a great video somewhere of my face getting more and more angry-looking as we watched a presentation about the prehistoric Europeans that sailed to America to erect their Stonehenge).

But I have to admit, it was a bit fun to walk around and correct the signs posted around the site, as well as teach my friends a bit more about my own field. Although as archaeologists we should be combatting pseudoarchaeology when we can…I think sometimes we can also take a short trip to one of the biggest hoax sites there is and enjoy ourselves a little (and for a great crash course in pseudoarchaeology, check out my friend Stephanie Halmhofer’s new series at Bones, Stones, and Books!).

As you can see by my face, I really had a good time.