Fenced-off tomb on the island of Jersey concerns local Pagans

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JERSEY, U.K. — Part of Pouquelaye de Faldouet, a 6,000-year-old Neolithic tomb on the Channel island of Jersey, has been fenced off without consulting local Pagans. The members of the Société Jersiaise, who own the site, say that the fencing is necessary in order to prevent further erosion. However, the island’s Pagan community have responded that this is an example of religious discrimination.

Vanitas, by Phillippe de Champaigne. Life, Death, and Time [Wikimedia Commons].

The passage grave, which is five metres in length and leads into a series of circular chambers, is currently estimated to date back as far as 3250 to 4000 B.C.E. Excavations in 1839, 1868 and later in 1910 by the Société Jersiaise members revealed human bones belonging to both adults and children. One intact skeleton was found in a seated position.

Tony Bellowes, a local historian, states that it is one of two monuments on the island which are aligned with the spring equinox. “What practices took place can only be surmised as no records exist for the stone age. The alignment with the spring solstice probably points to rituals associated with farming, and blessing the crops to be planted.”

Human habitation on the island (which at one point would have been part of the European continent, connected by a land bridge) is demonstrably ancient, with evidence of Neanderthal settlement and Paleolothic occupation, too. In the Neolithic period, dolmens and menhirs were erected across the island. In the more modern day, stories of the pouques (fairies) are connected with many of these objects. The name of this site, Pouquelye, may be connected to this word for fairy: it has been translated as ‘Puck’s Stone’: ‘puck’ and ‘pooka’ being also old English words for fairy folk. These stones were also said in old legends to have been moved by fairy magic.

Lieutenant-Bailiff Jean Poingdestre, in his 1682 Discourse of the Island of Jersey, tells us that
“The most ancient are what wee call Poquelayes, which consist for the most part of foure huge stones, whereof three planted on end Triangle-wise and the fourth flatter then ye rest and soe large as being layd on ye top of them three to beare on them all…I take them to have been sett up for Altars upon hills and open places and many times neare the Sea…’.

Speaking for the Société Jersiaise, Nicolette Westwood said, with regard to the recent fencing, that “It would be the same as if part of a church were undergoing damage, and that section needed to be temporarily fenced off, but churchgoers would still have access to the church.”

Société leaders are concerned about “spoil heaps” around the passage grave: material removed from the original chambers which may contain further archaeological clues about the monument’s origins, and these are the areas which have been fenced off. The Société Jersiaise was founded in 1873 for the study of Jersey archaeology, history, natural history, the ancient language and the conservation of the environment.

Rhianna Galvin Hughes, a local Pagan and fifth-generation Romany resident of the island, says however that this constitutes religious discrimination, as Pagans use the monument and others on Jersey for the festivals of the eightfold wheel. “It would have been nice if they had contacted the Pagan community and let someone know what they wanted to do. This is a very natural site and the fencing they have put up takes away from it.”

It is perhaps worth noting that the BBC Twitter link to this report has contained some negative comments about Pagans and references to bringing back witch-burning.

This episode is one of several conflicts between archaeologists and preservation societies, and Pagans, in recent years. The Pagan community in the U.K. tries, in the main, to work with societies such as English Heritage and the National Trust, particularly with regard to major monuments such as Stonehenge and Avebury, and workable compromises have been found between the two groups with, for instance, Stonehenge being opened up at the solstices, and available for use by private Pagan groups.

There is a divergence of opinion within the U.K. Pagan community itself: a number of Pagans are themselves professional archaeologists, and groups such as Pagans for Archaeology continue to press for greater understanding of both the preservation argument and the case for public use. Organisations such as HAD – Honouring the Ancient Dead – take a slightly different approach, working for an increased respect on the part of historians and archaeologists with regard to ancestral remains.

Leaders of Pagans for Archaeology state, “We’re Pagans who love archaeology and believe that it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of our ancestors and the religions of the past. Without archaeology, people would still think ancient peoples were fur-clad smelly cannibals and that ancient paganism involved frequent human sacrifice.

“In addition, we are opposed to the reburial of ancient human remains, and want them to be preserved so that the memory of the ancestors can be perpetuated and rescued from oblivion, and the remains can be studied scientifically for the benefit of everyone. Of course we want human remains to be treated with respect, but respect does not automatically mean reburial. Respect should mean memory, which involves recovering the stories of past people.

“We also believe that the excavation of Seahenge was a good thing, contributing hugely to our knowledge of Bronze Age religious practices.”

The position advanced by organizers of Honouring the Ancient Dead, on the other hand, advance that idea that the collective group “works to support those who have specific interests in ancestral ‘remains,’ whatever their religious or non-religious beliefs, with the express focus of encouraging and facilitating productive relations with those who have custody of the ‘remains.’ This includes clear dialogue, defining terms where there is confusion, promoting consultative models, encouraging community involvement and shared decision-making, at both local and national levels. It also works to produce relevant policies, guidance and best practice documents for use by heritage organisations and individuals working with ancestors, and to keep an up-to-date database of what ancestral ‘remains’ are held and where, keeping this in the public domain for widespread access.”

It is to be hoped that the situation on Jersey will result in a mutually acceptable compromise.