independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Stonehenge festivities criticised

Druids at the Winter Solstice in Stonehenge on the morning of the shortest day of the year

Festivities for this year's Winter Solstice at Stonehenge were well run, despite a Druid leader's claims to the contrary, heritage officials have insisted.

Hundreds of people attended the annual ceremony at the monument in Wiltshire at dawn today.

The historic Pagan event marks the shortest day of the year and the official beginning of winter.

Worshippers and partygoers watched the sun rise over the stones between 7.30am and 9am.

According to Stonehenge general manager Kate Davies, arrangements for Winter Solstice this year were similar to previous years, with English Heritage working to ensure a "safe and happy" occasion.

"Our staff received lots of positive feedback from visitors who celebrated the Solstice joyfully and peacefully," she insisted.

"On arrival, people gathered at the entrance to the Monument Field eagerly awaiting confirmation that it was light enough to safely enter the site and they were given free access from 7.30am until 9.00am.

"Visitors were able to park on Byway 12, on the A344 and in the old visitor centre car park. We also opened up the new visitor centre car park to accommodate even more people.

"We believe the majority of people who came along this year would agree that it was a well-run and successful Winter Solstice."

But a group of demonstrators, protesting against English Heritage's decision to display ancient human remains at a new tourist centre, beg to differ.

King Arthur Pendragon, who leads The Loyal Arthurian Warband group, was among those staging a boycott with a counter- ceremony on the periphery of the monument.

The group were dressed in flowing robes and held signs calling for tourists to boycott the site, banging on drums and singing songs.

Mr Pendragon said: "The Winter Solstice was incredibly over-managed this year. The situation with parking was awful and everyone was herded like sheep. People were asked to leave before midday, when in previous years they have stayed at the Solstice until well after 5pm.

"I got the impression that English Heritage wanted worshippers out of there as quickly as possible because they thought they got in the way of tourists.

"I'm sad to say that it was an utter shambles."

Chants of "rebury the dead" and "grave robbers" were shouted at the visitor centre by the group, while tourists were told "don't pay, go away".

Mr Pendragon said: "English Heritage's argument is that it's all about the history of Stonehenge. Well, kings and queens of England are all about the history but they are not digging them up and putting them on display, or ex-prime ministers, are they?

"There needs to be a change in the law. Pre-Christian human remains can be put in display, but ones afterwards cannot. Our ancient ancestors should have the same protrection under law."

English Heritage previously said that the idea of using replica bones was "very carefully considered".

A spokesman said: "Authenticity is important to tell England's story. We use real objects and artefacts because we believe they are the best way for people to come close to history.

"Research shows that the vast majority of museum visitors are comfortable with, and often expect to see, human remains as part of displays."

The remains are displayed as part of a "thrilling exhibition" in the new visitor centre which lies a mile-and-a-half west of the stones.

The exhibition is the first to explain Stonehenge to the million people who visit each year, two-thirds of whom come from overseas.

One highlight is the most advanced forensic reconstruction of an early Neolithic man's face, based on a 5,500-year-old skeleton buried in a long barrow 1.5 miles from Stonehenge.

It is his skeleton, displayed next to the face, among with other remains which have attracted such criticism.

Further work to remove the centre's old facilities, which were built in 1968, will begin in January.

The transformation is the largest capital project ever undertaken by English Heritage.

Press Association

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