Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Knickers in a rag tree: contemporary votive deposition at a prehistoric monument

Today we took a visit to the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire. With my archaeology head on I should probably have been more interested in the Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monumentality – or even the adjacent Anglo-Saxon cemetery. However, what caught my eye was the evidence for contemporary votive deposition practices. The use of prehistoric sites for modern New Age spiritual processes is not exactly an understudied phenomenon. . has long been associated with neo-Druidism and a range of other modern paganism practices; and rag trees can be found at many prehistoric monuments, such as Avebury. This is also true at the Rollright complex – consisting of an early Neolithic portal dolmen, a later Neolithic stone circle and a Bronze Age standing stone – a rag tree has grown up to the east of the stone circle, a wide range of small votive depositions had taken place on the stones themselves and a modern willow sculpture had also been co-opted as a kind of rag tree.

Two things in particular interested me. First, the ad hoc nature of the rag trees. The notion of tying a rag or strip of cloth to a tree deemed as having some spiritual significance is an old one, and one that has been revived by many followers of the constellation of New Age beliefs and practices that have grown up from the 1970s. What I found particularly intriguing was the range of items that had been used as rags. There were obviously a range of textile rags and ribbons- either torn from larger pieces of fabric or originally intended for wrapping presents or decorating clothes. More striking was the wide range of other items that had been tied to the branches of a tree and the willow sculpture. I noted a torn strip of J-Cloth, bits of bin bag and carrier bag, knotted receipts, a fragment of military uniform – most spectacularly there was even a pair of women’s knickers! This seems to suggest that whilst some people had come to the site with the deliberate intention of tying a rag to the tree, for many others it was an entirely an extemporised decision, using  materials  to hand – whatever could be scraped up out of a car footwell, a handbag or a coat pocket. The decision to tie a rag often seems to have been an improvised action rather than a formally planned one with advanced intentions.  I suspect that there are other issues relating to intentionality at play here – whilst those who plan ahead may have a more coherent sense of the symbolism and meaning (personal and cosmological) behind the act of tying a rag to the tree, those who act on the spur of the moment may have done so for other, perhaps less theorised reasons. There may well have been an element of mimesis and copying an intriguing practice rather than anything more structured.

A second thing I noticed was the distinction between the range of a objects placed on the stone circle and the items placed on the portal dolmen. On both there was wide range of organic and deposits, including flowers, sprigs of mistletoe and berries. However, the only inorganic objects, primarily coins and the occasional other item, such as a small knife, were only found around the dolmen – the key difference here is that whilst there is complete unfettered access to the stone circle, the dolmen is surrounded by an iron fence, which whilst allowing items to be tossed onto the stone, prevent their unauthorised removal (although a padlocked gate in the fence would allow authorised access to the deposits). I wonder whether coins and other objects were sometimes placed on the stones but were quickly removed- I can imagine small change in particular being something that inquisitive children (and impecunious adults) might easily remove.

So in summary – there are some interesting tensions at play in the depositional practices at the Rollrights; the balance between planned and ad hoc deposition, and also the distinction between the retrievability and non-removal of items. The evidence of burning in the centre of the circle and an attempt to either hide it or reinstate the damaged area also raises issues about authorised and un-authorised ritual activity on the site (as a Scheduled Monument the burning of fires at the site is forbidden). It would be interested to carry out a more formal longitudinal study of the practices at the site- I’d like to have a better sense of the distinction between more formalised ritualised practices, such as those carried out by organised pagan groups and more informal and personal individual acts of deposition.

For some more reading about contemporary votive depositional practices have a look at

Foley, R. 2010. Performing health in place: The holy well as a therapeutic assemblage Health & Place 17(2):470-9