She’s Dead, She’s Female, She Must Be the Witch!

The 1,400-year-old-burial (News Team International).

There is a well-known set of standing stones in England called the Rollright Stones — actually, a dolmen plus a “circle” plus a larger standing stone, believed to have been erected at different times in the long Neolithic period.

So they have had at least four thousand years to accrue folklore, not to mention for the name to change from an Old English meaning of “the land of Hrolla,” referring to the surrounding area, to something suggesting rolling. For example, they are often seen as “the king” and his “knights,” all turned to stone. The ceremonial magician Wiliam Gray, who was creating rituals and texts in the 1960s and 1970s, with some overlap with new Wiccan groups, wrote a book of ritual based on them, The Rollright Ritual.

Comes now a metal detector hobbyist who finds an ancient (but not as ancient as the stones) skeleton there. This news story gets a lot wrong: the stones are Neolithic, not Bronze Age (big difference((But see Ethan Doyle White’s comment)) ), a patera ((Since the patera was used for pouring ritual offerings, I have long assumed that it is the direct ancestor of the paten, which holds the bread in the Christian Eucharist.)) is not both Saxon and Roman, but Roman (but not for “cooking wine”), and there is absolutely no reason to say that this is the “Rollright Witch.”

No wonder archaeologists mistrust the news media.

But here is something interesting: the reporter — who cannot even be bothered to Google “patera” or “Neolithic”—a fully willing to buy into the “ancient witch” myth, to the point of quoting unnamed “experts” that this apparently high-status person was the legendary witch, in other words, that there were 7th century or whenever, high-status female witches buried among standing stones. All it lacks is some sort of Marion Zimmer Bradley-esque college of priesteesses. Maybe this is the Bradley-ization of archaeology reporting in the popular press.

3 thoughts on “She’s Dead, She’s Female, She Must Be the Witch!

  1. The Rollright Stones are a fantastic site that is always worth a visit. Little surprise therefore that it remains a regular haunt for contemporary Pagan groups who view it is an important ‘sacred site’ imbued with etheric earth energies and ancestral connections. (I use it as a case study in my paper on the use of megalithic folklore in Wicca, which appeared in the Folklore journal a few years back).

    However, the newspaper is not necessarily so wrong in referring to the Bronze Age in this instance. While the dolmen (as a surviving remnant of a chambered tomb) is most likely Early Neolithic in origin, the adjacent stone circle — which is today known as the King’s Men — might actually be Early Bronze Age in date. The stone circles of the Atlantic Archipelago were a phenomenon which spanned the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (these, of course, being modern-day divisions based purely on one form of technology), and problematically very few of them are accurately dated using carbon dating or similar scientific methods.

    1. I knew that this item would touch both your interests in the history of magic and British archaeology! Yes, perhaps I am too hard on the reporter for confusing “Ages,” but I was still dumbstruck by the idea of cooking wine in a patera for a libation.

      1. Generally I’m a little sceptical of the whole interpretation as presented in the mainstream media sources. I mean, I devoted my master’s thesis to the study of magico-religious specialists in the Anglo-Saxon burial record, and it was on that subject that I presented a paper at a Cardiff Uni conference last month (which I hope to turn into a research article at some point).

        In this inhumation the finds, as currently described, don’t shout out “ritual specialist” to me, but it may be that other artefacts have been found and not advertised to the press, lest they encourage some of the more unscrupulous metal detectorists to turn up in the middle of the night with their shovels (which is a serious problem here in the UK as it is almost everywhere in the world). And then there’s the whole issue of sex and/or gender – I think it highly unlikely that an osteoarchaeologist has been in and examined the bones at this stage, thus allowing for a (fairly) reliable assessment of biological sex. The grave goods as described here are typically “feminine” yet we have various cases in the Anglo-Saxon burial record where biologically male skeletons have been found with “feminine” grave goods — and of course there are tantalising parallels there to the seidmenn of Old Norse literature.

        Basically, I’m really looking forward to when they actually publish the excavation report on this one, although it may well take several years.

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