Monday, 30 December 2013

Full circle in 2013


A new BBC Two series on sacred sites has just been launched, ending a year in which holy places have enjoyed a relatively high profile on the television.

Sacred Wonders of Britain, presented by archaeologist Neil Oliver, takes a historian's perspective on the subject as one might imagine. The programme was shown on BBC Two at 8.30pm on 30 December, and is available on iPlayer for a few weeks.

Neil Oliver was certainly in his element in the first episode, which looked at Stone Age sites from across the country. Avebury, Stonehenge and Orkney's stone circles are familiar territory, icons of a mysterious past that fascinates us as much as it continues to puzzle.

Undoubtedly the greatest problem with describing the rituals, traditions and beliefs of our ancient ancestors is that we have almost no idea what these were. The first scraps of written information about Britain come from the Romans, several thousand years after many of our most evocative ancient sites were built. Neil Oliver tried a number of theories during his grand tour. A few touched on some of the eternal questions that religions try to answer, passing references that were more thought provoking than informative (review in the Daily Mirror).

Neo-pagans have made attempts in recent years to recreate or reinvent some of these beliefs, and with such a tempting and largely blank canvas to fill the creative process seems set to continue. One of the advisers to the programme is Professor Ronald Hutton, an expert and adherent of this revival movement.

Quite what Neil Oliver will make of Britain's Christian heritage in the remaining two programmes remains to be seen. It is possible the three-part series is only going to address our most recent 2,000 years of spiritual history in a single episode, and terminate the narrative at the Reformation. It is an alternative view to treat our country's many great religions as a sort of spiritual fossil, lifeless artefacts from an unfamiliar past. Our own series on Britain's Holiest Places stressed a continuity of use that is just as accessible and relevant today as it was to previous generations. Archaeologists perhaps feel most comfortable among the dead, but to my mind any truly holy place remains very much a place for the living.

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