Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain

Pagan Britain. By Ronald Hutton. Yale University Press; 400 pages; £25. To be published in America in February; $45.

Ronald Hutton describes his new book as a history of religious belief from the “Old Stone Age to the coming of Christianity”. So it is, but also it is more provocative than that. With “Pagan Britain” he has written a thoughtful critique of how historians and archaeologists often interpret ruins and relics to suit changing ideas about religion and nationhood. Intriguingly for a historian, Mr Hutton makes plain just how little evidence there is for belief systems of the distant past.

An authority on the 16th and 17th centuries at Bristol University, Mr Hutton has written widely about the Stuarts, the Druids and witchcraft. Despite his extensive research into Britain’s early religious history, this book is fascinating for its caution. He takes nothing for granted, whether he is analysing the Palaeolithic rock carvings at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire or tracing the stone circles of Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Callanish in the Outer Hebrides. The gods displaced by the spread of Christianity may have been native, or perhaps Roman. No one can say for sure. The remains of religious rites are “often not easily distinguished from those of political, social and festive ritual,” he writes. It is all “a category of great ambiguity, little amenable to definition.”

To drive home the vagaries of past faith, he writes about “Lindow Man”, a preserved male body found in a peat bog in Cheshire in 1984. Analysis reveals that this man was 25 or so when he died horribly around 2,000 years ago. The archaeologists who have presented this discovery at the British Museum in London (where it can still be seen) have used it as possible evidence of human sacrifice during the Iron Age. But this conclusion, Mr Hutton says, is “insecure”. One pathologist thought the man had been strangled; another did not. And little distinguishes the remains of a ritual killing from those of a murder. “Lindow Man”, Mr Hutton concludes, “can be used to exemplify the triumphs or failures, the prowess or the limitations, of modern archaeology.”

Mr Hutton is most interested in the reasons why archaeologists, historians and religious figures (including present-day pagans) choose to interpret artefacts in a certain way. Gender politics, nationalism and commerce all play a part, he says. “Whether or not there was ever an ‘Age of the Goddess’ in Neolithic Europe,” he writes, “there certainly was one among European intellectuals in the mid-20th century.” Similarly, visitors to Cheddar gorge in Somerset learn at the new visitor centre that they will see gruesome evidence of possible cannibalism among Palaeolithic peoples. That the Cheddar museum has managed to attract 1m visitors since it opened five years ago may, Mr Hutton says, have been “largely due to its promotion as the only [museum] in Britain to be dedicated to cannibalism”. Another museum in Torquay interprets similar material with rather less dramatic results.

All this is more playful than waspish, but it is play with a purpose. Mr Hutton leads readers to question not only the ways in which Britain’s ancient past is analysed, but also how all history is presented. He is also a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscapes. Though he offers many interpretations of each archaeological finding, such variety serves to expand the reader’s imagination rather than constrain it.

Towards the end of this engrossing book, Mr Hutton laments the way the open-ended questions of ancient history and archaeology appear unsuited to television, a medium that prefers definitive answers. For this reason, he writes, a programme that teaches viewers “what is known and what the options are, and then invites them to choose between them, is unlikely to get commissioned.” Here, too, he may well have a point. But it would be a pity if he were right.