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Solstice at the Stones Volume 56 Number 5, September/October 2003
by Eric A. Powell

For Britain's modern-day pagans, sites like Stonehenge are sacred ground.

A reported 30,148 people descended on Stonehenge for this year's summer solstice, the largest crowd since access to the stones resumed in 2000. (Eric A. Powell)

I get my first glimpse of Stonehenge while mired in a five-mile traffic jam. It's just after midnight, a few hours before sunrise on summer solstice, the longest day of the year. From my car, I can see the familiar stones bathed in an eerie blue light that gives the venerable monument the feel of an empty film set--though it won't be empty for long. I'm one of 30,000 people hoping to see the sun rise over the stones. We've been stuck for hours on the A303, a highway that, infamously, runs just a few hundred yards from Stonehenge. At 2 in the morning, I pull into a parking lot reserved for solstice celebrants about a mile from the site. Security guards make sure I'm not carrying immoderate amounts of alcohol, and I walk the rest of the way with an exuberant crowd of new agers, students, and local residents--any one of whom could be a pagan.

Britain has an abundance of pagans, many more today than there were just two decades ago. Rough estimates put their number in the U.K. at around 250,000, many of whom turn out to celebrate solstice at the impressive megalithic sites scattered across the British Isles. Academics who study pagans will tell you that as a generic term, paganism broadly describes a set of related modern beliefs inspired by ancient religious practices. Druids (there are dozens of different druid orders in the U.K.), wiccans (modern witches), and heathens (who follow Viking and Anglo-Saxon rituals) are all considered pagans. What unites them is a respect for nature and for ancient British traditions. Pagans also believe that some archaeological sites are sacred ground, places of spiritual power where celebration, meditation, and communication with spirits and ancestors are all possible. Ritual processions and gathering in large circles to invoke spirits are common pagan observances at ancient sites.

Britons have been watching the solstice sun rise over the Heel Stone, the largest megalith outside of the main circle at Stonehenge, since perhaps 2500 B.C. Druid orders revived in the eighteenth century and organized along the lines of Freemasons used Stonehenge as a place for high ritual (Winston Churchill was a member of one of these, the Ancient Order of Druids). Crowds of ordinary people have been coming to the site for solstice since the early twentieth century, in part to watch the druids.

In the 1970s, as both the modern pagan movement and "alternative" culture gained steam, a "free festival" sprung up around solstice featuring live music, huge crowds, and--not surprisingly, given the era--widespread drug use. Vandalism of the stones was kept to a minimum, but some festival goers dug latrines near sensitive burial sites not far from the megaliths. Impromptu camps lingered for weeks and order was maintained by motorcycle gangs like Hell's Angels. Stonehenge became a scary place for tourists to visit.

In 1985, events came to a head when police disrupted (some would say ambushed) a caravan of festival goers enroute to Stonehenge. In what became known as the "battle of the beanfield," police used excessive force to disperse the "travelers" (a colloquialism for nomadic hippies), and kept them from reaching the monument. After the incident, English Heritage cut off access to the stones during solstice with a four-mile policed "exclusion zone."

The publicity surrounding the ban on solstice celebrations and the efforts of druids, wiccans, and others to regain access to the stones only increased the numbers of Britons seriously considering becoming pagans. Tim Sebastian, founder of the Secular Order of Druids (SODS) and one of the most prominent druids in Britain, put it to me bluntly--"You can thank English Heritage for the numbers of pagans today." One of the most visible leaders of the campaign to open Stonehenge was Arthur Pendragon, founder of the Loyal Arthurian Warband and self-proclaimed reincarnation of King Arthur. He picketed the stones with "Excalibur" in hand and generated a good deal of publicity. In 1998, English Heritage allowed a small number of druids and other pagans into Stonehenge during solstice. By 2000, free and open access returned, albeit during tightly restricted hours, and thousands flocked to Stonehenge. The numbers of solstice celebrants has roughly doubled each year since.

Eric A. Powell is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America