What's the Best Way to Protect Our Pagan Past?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 31, 2011 — 45 Comments

Whether revived, re-imagined, reconstructed, or revealed, modern Pagan religions all look to our collective pre-Christian past for inspiration, connection, understanding, and a sense of continuity. Because of this phenomenon, many Pagans follow the world of archaeology very closely, both for new information, and to monitor the preservation of objects and artifacts that reach back to a time when pagan religions were the dominant expression of faith. When the Egyptian revolution started, many Pagans, particularly Kemetics and Greco-Egyptian polytheists, expressed great concern at reports of looting and vandalism of the nations many antiquities. However, there are ongoing debates within modern Pagan communities over what the best way to honor our ancient past is. Some, like, British Druid leader King Arthur Pendragon (aka John Timothy Rothwell) want a hands-off approach to monuments and sites they see as part of a collective spiritual heritage, while other groups, like Pagans For Archaeology, argue that extensive scientific exploration enriches the body of knowledge available to modern Pagans.

The Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.

“The more knowledge we gain about people of the past, the more it perpetuates their memory. People of the past wanted to be remembered, that’s why they built monuments in the landscape. Also, ancient texts such as the Hávamál talk about a person’s name living on after they die (another indication that people in the past wanted to be remembered).”

This debate grows more complex as pre-Christian pagan sites suffer ever more from years of vandalism, wear, and increasing environmental degradation. In Greece, statues and decorative pieces at the Acropolis in Athens have been slowly transitioned into a specially-built museum, while Turkey is currently debating on how to best preserve the ancient giant statues of gods and kings on Mount Nemrut in southeastern region of the country.

Statues near the peak of Mount Nemrut.

“A recent proposal by Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay to move the gigantic sculptures atop Mount Nemrut, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, to a museum in order to protected them from harsh weather conditions has sparked controversy among Turkish archeologists and scientists over whether the sculptures should be preserved inside a museum or not. Günay put forth the proposal last week, saying the sculptures can be brought down from the mountain by helicopter and become part of the exhibit in a museum in Kahta, Adıyaman province.

“Many proposals, including those from [Middle East Technical University] ODTÜ, were brought to me for the protection of the sculptures on the mountain. However, none of them convinced me. Among the proposals were covering the sculptures with some chemicals. I asked them to bring me that chemical, but they could not. Some have proposed covering them with a tent or glass. Strong winds blowing on the mountain in the winter would damage the tent. The windows would break,” Günay said.

Noting that the best solution would be to move the stone heads to a museum, he added that he has personally observed the damage sustained by the heads over the past 20 years and that they need protection.”

Some local archaeologists and officials disagree with Günay, saying there is little evidence of the damage he describes. While modern Pagans are not a factor in this story, the situation starkly illustrates the debates currently raging over how to treat these sites. Another question is how moving the statues, if it goes forward, would affect the site’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and how would these changes affect tourism?

Sadly, scientific examination and debates over the best preservation strategies aren’t the only thing affecting ancient sites of interest to modern Pagans. In some cases sites are being endangered by construction, spurring protests and direct action by local Pagans in places like Greece to protect the newly-uncovered Altar of the Twelve Gods from reburial, or at the Hill of Tara in Ireland, which many feel is being systematically destroyed by highway development. As development, tourism, and environmental factors continue to clash these issues only promise to become more heated and intense. With austerity the buzz-word in a global recession, the preservation of our ancient heritage, and the protection of sacred sites seem to be  low on the priority list. Will these sites simply start disappearing? What is the best way to protect these sites and our religious heritage in a world that seems increasingly indifferent to preservation? What role should modern Pagan communities play regarding sites that we feel are important to our own understanding of the past?

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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