Sacred Places

by David G. Thorne

Why and how has human endeavour been directed to maintaining sacred places? 

To answer this question, I shall begin with a brief examination of what we mean by a Sacred Space, followed by an explanation of two of the ways in which the idea of maintaining a sacred site might be interpreted. Using the two examples of Stonehenge and Avebury, I shall illustrate why and how different groups have engaged in maintaining sacred spaces, and how different interpretations of sites can present challenges and conflicts.

To define a place as sacred is to imply that it is in some way concerned with religion or religious purposes and therefore worthy of respect or dedication. That is, it is religious rather than secular. It is very much associated with deity or a divine quality, which transcends the intellect and everyday reality. In contrast with the profane, “a sacred place, a holy place is somewhere which is obviously set aside from our kind of earthy life, from our human lives. It is somewhere where a sense of something more often exists.” [Father Richard Silk, speaking in Sacred Spaces and Landscape: Glastonbury, 2008]

Sacred spaces may take many forms from natural landscape features such as mountains and springs to human constructions including stone circles and burial mounds, temples, and cathedrals. A sacred place may be an altar or shrine within the home. Whilst some, such as churches may be almost universally acknowledged as sacred, others such as prehistoric structures or holy wells may only be acknowledged by a minority, or even a individual.

What actually makes something sacred is a contentious issue. For historian of religion, Mircea Eliade who offers a religious explanation, there is an absolute reality, which transcends the mundane world leading to some places being intrinsically sacred and “man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself.” [Harvey, 2008, pg. 39].

However, this explanation is dismissed as mystification by academics Chidester and Linenthal, who insist that “sacrality is always the product of human efforts.” [Harvey, 2008, pg. 40] So the natural world can be believed to be made by a deity and to reveal or manifest the spiritual, or it can be argued that the natural world becomes sacred only due to human effort. This distinction can cause sites to become controversial, because they may be regarded as sacred by some, but ordinary to others, with different groups holding competing claims on them as sacred or ordinary.

For the purpose of this discussion it is important to note what we mean by maintaining sacred places. For some this means the acknowledgement of a location or natural feature as a primarily sacred place. For such people, including many Druids and modern pagans, their understanding of the term requires that sacred sites continue to function as such. They may wish for tactile engagement with a site such as Stonehenge, “touching them, listening to them, singing to them” [Dr. Robert Wallis, speaking in Sacred Spaces and Landscape: Stonehenge and Avebury, 2008] However, for those whom such places are primarily objects of archaeological or historical interest maintenance may refer to keeping a site in good condition by regular checking and repair. This definition treats sites as cultural treasures which facilitate an understanding of the past. For those adopting this position, including archaeologists and heritage organisations, it is important to conserve sacred sites in their present state. Not to be used for spiritual purposes, but to be studied and observed from a distance. This latter definition can lead to conflicts between those who maintain in a mundane sense, and those for who maintain in a spiritual sense.

The first sacred place we shall examine is Stonehenge, which is a prehistoric monument in the county of Wiltshire, composed of earthworks surrounding a circular grouping of standing stones. It is the epicentre of a complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, including burial mounds, ceremonial approach ways and Woodhenge. The “entrance” and key stones appear to be aligned with the sunrise on the summer solstice, although this interpretation is the subject of debate. Beyond a physical description, the original purpose of Stonehenge is mere conjecture. Theories range from an astronomical calendar, to a place of healing, to prehistoric temple. Professor Mike Parker Pearson, of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, has suggested that Stonehenge, together with Durrington Walls, Woodhenge and other ancient monuments, formed a ritual landscape, [M. Parker Pearson, Bronze Age Britain, 2005. pp.63-67] an idea echoed by Dr. Robert Wells. [speaking in Sacred Spaces and Landscape: Stonehenge and Avebury, 2008] Certainly the place is separate from its surroundings and has an attraction which transcends the everyday, for those who visit and pay pilgrimage.

It is worth noting that although Stonehenge is a manmade structure, it is also dependent upon the natural world in terms of its setting within the landscape, the stones used in its construction and the alignment of significant features with the position of the sun on certain dates. Thus it is possible to argue that its sacredness is both natural or manifest, but also dependent on human effort – in terms of its original construction as well as the ongoing efforts of conservationists seeking to restore the sacred landscape to an approximation of that of neolithic times. 

Although there is no firm evidence that Stonehenge was originally intended as a sacred place, it has been regarded as such by a variety of pagan groups since the early twentieth century. Druids in particular are closely associated with Stonehenge, due to their celebrations of seasonal festivals and rites of passage. However, the site also holds strong attraction for a diverse range of people who’s beliefs are somewhat more nebulous. In particular those attending the summer solstice celebrations. These include pagans, witches, new age travellers and curious tourists. This has raised debate about whether the celebrations are indeed spiritual, or more akin to a carnival. [Harvey, 2008, pg.41]. Many pagans, however, would interpret a carnival atmosphere as integral to the sacred, with an oft quoted maxim being “reverence and mirth in equal measure.” [Pete McCarthy, speaking in Desperately Seeking Something, 1996]

In 1986 Stonehenge and Avebury were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. UNESCO follows a practice of respecting the views of those who regard Stonehenge primarily as a sacred place, in using terms such as sacred site or holy site in it’s literature, whilst also adopting the language of archaeology in describing the stones as megaliths or menhirs. However it remains cognisant that the key purpose of World Heritage status is the preservation of these “famous parts of a global heritage shared by all humanity.” [Harvey, 2008, p.44] 

Unfortunately attempts to protect Stonehenge for future generations has sometimes led heritage bodies into conflict with those who interpret the site in terms of the sacred. This conflict reached its apogee in 1985 with the Battle of the Beanfield, when a Peace Convoy attempting to reach the 11th Stonehenge Festival was cornered in a field by police, resulting in serious violence and accusations of police brutality. [Sacred Spaces and Landscape: Stonehenge and Avebury, 2008] The consequence of these events was a severe curtailing of access for those wishing to engage with the stones.

Avebury is a neolithic henge monument, which encompasses the village of Avebury in Wiltshire, and includes the largest stone circle in Europe. It is a significant centre for tourism as well as an important place of religious observance and pilgrimage for those in the pagan movement, and together with Stonehenge forms a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to Nick Snashall, archaeological evidence suggests that Avebury was built as a place deliberately removed from human settlements and mundane life. Excavations have revealed few neolithic period human remains and pottery shards and no evidence of midden or rubbish deposits. [Nick Snashall, speaking in Sacred Spaces and Landscape: Stonehenge and Avebury, 2008] Snashall suggests that this may represent evidence for Avebury being a bronze age equivalent of a cathedral. She points out that the architecture of the site indicates that it was designed as an enclosing space, perhaps intended to circumscribe religious acts or to contain the spirits of ancestors or gods within one place. She stresses that the design and scale of Avebury would have involved considerable effort in furtherance of spiritual expression and that this points to people who “really valued ceremonial and spiritual life as being a core part of what was important to them. [Ibid.]

Attempts at conservation of Avebury have continued for several hundred years, beginning with the antiquarian William Stukeley in the eighteenth century, who made meticulous plans of the site, amidst the wholesale destruction of the standing stones by local puritans. [Burl, 1979, p.49.]. Excavation and study continued by antiquarians and archaeologists, culminating in 1937 with the demolition of several cottages within the henge, and the re-erection of many of the stones by Alexander Keillor. This it was believed would create a greater sense of a prehistoric landscape. [Dr. Robert Wallis, speaking in Sacred Spaces and Landscape: Stonehenge and Avebury, 2008]

Avebury has been latterly adopted and maintained as a sacred place, by practitioners of neo-pagan religions such as Druidry and Wicca who view the site as a “living temple”, which they associate with the ancestors and spirits of the land. [Blain and Wallis, 2007, pp. 41 and 48.] Avebury resident and witch, Gordon Rimes illustrates how he and other pagans regard the sacredness of the site when he says “I went to places, and I was just almost remembering things rather than learning things… whether it’s coming from my ancestors, I don’t know…, I feel a strong connection to the people that built this place.” [Gordon Rimes, speaking in Sacred Spaces and Landscape: Stonehenge and Avebury, 2008] Thus we see that for pagans such as Rimes, the sacred is inherent within the place, and manifests itself according to the manner set out by Eliade.

A number of Druid groups currently use Avebury for public ceremonies , which help to draw tourists to the site, particularly at pagan festivals such as the summer solstice. However, individual pagans also use the site as a place of spiritual or religious devotion. One of the consequences of such use is the potential for damage to be caused to the stones, for example cracking, caused by devotees leaving candles on the stones in cold weather.

Avebury is under the stewardship of the National Trust, who have sought to discourage the commercialisation of the site and to limit tourist access to the site in order to protect the stones. This has at times caused conflict with religious groups seeking to use the site for ritual and spiritual purposes. However, The National Trust has worked with pagans and others in order to establish a guardian scheme and visitor guidelines to facilitate the use of the site for ritual purposes “because they believe this was a major ceremonial site and it’s an appropriate use.” [Ibid.]

In conclusion, we can say that there are a variety of reasons why and how human endeavour has been directed to maintaining sacred places. For some, such as the Pagans and Druids, this may be that such places have a spiritual or life-affirming importance which they feel drawn to, and compelled to keep alive through ritual and ceremony. For others such as archaeologists and heritage organisations, the motivation might be to study or conserve the sites, sometimes by the removal and preservation of artefacts or by restricting access to sites in order to limit potential damage. Others may be motivated by economic realities, with businesses dependent on the revenue generated by tourist visitors to sacred places. Some might cross boundaries, such as Dr. Robert Wallis, who explains “I’m drawn to this place archaeologically. But … as well, it is a place of ancestral wisdom, it’s a place that I can come to, meditate in, perform ritual.” [speaking in Sacred Spaces and Landscape: Stonehenge and Avebury, 2008]. Competing interests may produce conflict such as The Battle of the Beanfield, or it may result in co-operation such as the Avebury Guardian scheme.



Burl, A. (1979) Prehistoric Avebury, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Blain, J. and Wallis, R. (2007) Sacred Sites Contested Rites/Rights: Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments, Brighton and Portland, Sussex Academic Press. 

Desperately Seeking Something: Series Two (1996), Kudos Productions, Channel 4

Harvey, G. and Bowman, M. (2008) ‘Sacred Space and Landscape’, in Brunton, D. (ed.) Place and Leisure (AA100 Book 4), Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 35-62

Pearson, M. Parker (2005) Bronze Age Britain, London, Batsford

Sacred Space and Landscape (2008) (AA100 DVD Rom), Milton Keynes, The Open University


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