Encounter with a monstrous head

9 Apr

Dr Green and I reached the final point of our expedition quite by chance. The end of our journey, marked by an encounter with a monstrous head that neither of us will forget. We had heard reports from locals about the existence of such a head, but had put this down to braggadocio or hallucination brought on my excessive Irn Bru consumption which I believe to be a local beverage with chemical properties that promote altered states of consciousness.

My source had told me that the monstrous head was located in a nether-world of scrap on the southern bank of the River Clyde. My first attempt to catch glimpse of this head, a solo mission, was unsatisfactory, the bulbous orb too distant when viewed from the north side of the river to reveal the details of its concrete physiognomy.

View from the north 1

View from the north 2

Upon approaching the supposed location of this concrete monstrosity, Dr Green and I spoke to various people who made a living breaking automobiles in this place. Surrounded by skeletal motor cars, carburetors and bent doors and wings, these men affected to tell us they knew nothing of a giant head. Yet we had already caught sight of the dome of its skull behind a portable cabin. 

View from the south

The men gazed on the head with awe and wonder from the safety of their own business premises and were soon evangelising about the discovery to colleagues.

view from the west

Yet Dr Green and I did not have the luxury of standing back. We had a duty, now we had come this far, to document and record this wonder of human endeavour, to pay our respects at the chin of the beast.

In order to do this we had to pass through a broken post-industrial world of cairns of scrap metal, clawing digging machines and the constant rumble of crushing and breaking. This was the end of all things, the bent remnants of our society piled high as if to reach heaven but only speaking of hell.

Scrapyard

We scrambled through an open fallen gate, circumnavigated some shacks and warehouses, and entered a broad and open yard, across which we espied the monstrous head behind two ruined mechanical units, one of them an omnibus.

two mechanical units

Closer we edged, until in front of us the huge bald head stood, balanced atop a linear mound of litter, tin cans, building material and detritus. The dome loomed over us and it felt like it had eyes in the back of its considerable cranium.

Helen and the head low res

The preposterously sized crown was propped up by wooden supports, better to enable it to loom over any river dwellers and pleasure cruisers sailing by.

As we hesitantly went closer to the megalith, it was clear that it had enormous orifices, dark holes that we could have climbed into should we have wished, although on reflection we decided that dragging ourselves into and along eye sockets and nasal passages would not have been the wisest course of action. It was better that we did not investigate too closely the sense organs of this thing. 

An over-sized blocked ear was located on either side of the skull, a closed porthole into the brain. This was a great relief for us as there was no enthusiasm for an exploration of an enormous external acoustic meatus or the accompanying skin flaps.

View from the east initials

Crude letters were daubed onto the eastern cheek and chin of the hideous noggin. We documented these photographically although could not and cannot discern the meaning of K P and J G. An incantation to be chanted by acolytes circling the head in a frenzy we supposed. Although the paintwork was not red, it had the character of blood that had dried.

Helen's photo

The proboscis emerged from a beard of green lichen, a moss-tache. We realised that this massive head had features that were disproportionate and exaggerated, its sharp angles directional, indicating the north, notably the mandible. Moss balls ran down the spine of the nose, beads of sweat that mirrored out own precipitative glands. A metal loop protruded from the base of the chin, clearly with the purpose of chaining sacrificial animals and – shudder – humans. And in the centre of the face were the eyes, voids into which our gaze could scarcely be arrested, eyes which somehow seemed to look up- and down-river at the same time. Thankfully the oral cavity remained sealed, forming a rictus grin; we had no desire to see what lay within.

front of the face

As we retreated back to our carriage, we vouchsafed that nothing in our previous existence prepared us for the magnitude of the foreboding, monstrous head that we encountered on the bank of the slow-moving River Clyde that damp Spring morning. 

Its dead eyes looked upon us as gods look upon ants. But more disturbing than all of this was –

an oblong void in the centre of the forehead suggested to us that there once had been a third eye a television screen located here broadcasting messages of hate and despair

What we feared more than anything else was that the rest of the body of this titan was there too, buried deep in the foreshore mud and sludge, awaiting re-animation. This prehistoric abomination, this monstrous appendage, this dreadful megalith, this…this…

 

Floating Head, Richard Groom

The Floating Head was one of many pieces of public art that were commissioned for, and displayed at, the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. This seminal and fondly-remembered summer event took place on the south bank of the River Clyde about 4km to the east of the current location of the Head.

canmore_image_SC01140807

The head is not visible in this photo of the GGF (c) HES canmore_image_SC01140807

The big Head was located in the Marina, which is on the left hand side of the map below.

GGF map The Glasgow Story

The Souvenir Brochure of the Glasgow Garden Festival notes that the artwork was essentially a boat. “British Shipbuilders Training … helped to fabricate Richard Groom’s astonishing floating head – in reality a cement boat – in the harbour itself” (page 79). I have been able to find a few photos of the Head during the Festival (sources in the acknowledgements), and it looks very different.

04 FLOATING HEAD GARDEN FESTIVAL 1988(1)

Big headurban glasgow blog sausage supper

Screengrab from home video c1645

Charlie Bubble flickr

The Festival ended in September 1988 and was dismantled, with various bits of art scattered around Scotland. In this air photo of the decommissioned site, the Floating Head is just visible, now out on the Clyde.

canmore_image_SC01140809

Glasgow Garden Festival site during decommissioning (c) HES canmore_image_SC01140809

At what point the Floating Head was floated downstream to its current location I do not know. The Head now sits on the south side of the Clyde, near the Renfrew Ferry terminal, in an industrial estate accessed via Meadowside Street, Renfrew (NT 5068 6862).

It has its own record in the National Record of the Historic Environment (canmore). HES fieldworkers visited this monstrous head on 14 May 2015, and noted: “It now sits on the south bank of the River Clyde, adjacent to a scrap yard. It comprises the lower hull of a boat with a fibre glass moulded head on the top. It currently stands upright on its prow and appears to stare north across the river.”

canmore_image_DP00228670

(c) ‘Floating Head’: canmore_image_DP00228670

Someone who works in a garage beside the yard the big Head sits behind told us that it had been there for at least 20 years, and that this place used to be a boat yard which might be why it was brought here. The Floating Head floats no more, but close examination makes it clear that it has many boat-like traits.

Propped up head

And now it has been erected, propped up, still an artwork but a very different one, a megalithic head watching boats travel up and down the Clyde, a source of puzzlement and wonder to all those who fall beneath its gaze.

 

Acknowledgements: I found out about the big head via Hugh Beattie, who posted the following photo on the My Clydebank Photos website. Hugh told me how to find the head, which prompted my two visits on both sides of the River over the past few weeks.

Renfrew big head

(c) Hugh Beattie

Helen Green accompanied me on the scrapyard fieldtrip, and provided one of the photos in the post above, so many thanks for the support when having to speak to strangers, not my strong point and for her observations which fed into the fanciful narrative that starts this post.

The staff of Renfrew Car Breakers were very helpful and allowed us access to their yard to take some photos. The Head is accessible by the various yards in this location, but permission must be sought, and it didn’t feel very safe. It is better viewed from Yoker on the other side of the River.

The images of the Floating Head in situ were found through various online searches, and attributed (from top to bottom) to: Owen of My Clydebank Photos, unknown, Graham Whyte video screengrab c16:45, Charlie Bubble (Flickr) and Sausage Sandwich (Urban Glasgow blog). If anyone has any other photos of the Floating Head I would love to see them.

My parents managed to find their old copy of the Garden Festival Brochure so many thanks to them for the archive work.

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The vitrification experiment

24 Mar

Do you remember that old TV show?

Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World

The Divine Comedy

Mysterious World

Sometimes an archaeologist does something so crazy, so visionary and so flamboyant that one can only stand back and admire the show. Trying to understanding what the heck happened in prehistory sometimes requires extreme acts (and I know this from personal experience). This post tells the story of an urban prehistoric experiment that took place almost 40 years ago in a local authority waste disposal tip (aka a dump) that combined innovation, ingenuity, furniture and weirdness in equal measure.

The East Tullos Yorkshire Television vitrified wall experiment was recently brought to my attention by Richard ‘Scarfolk‘ Littler in a twitter thread that he posted that celebrated eccentric characters and stories covered by the legendary and seminal 1980 televisual experience Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. One of the images that he posted took my breath away. It showed a familiar archaeologist but with an unfamiliar facial hair arrangement, a wild-eyed expression and in the middle of doing something inexplicable.

The tweet

Professor Ian Ralston OBE DLitt FRSE FSA FSA (Scot) MIFA and Abercromby Chair of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh appears to have been, at some point in the past, The Pagan Man with a Stick. He also seems to have been on one of my favourite TV shows from when I was a kid, which means that I may have watched Ian in action 15 years before I first met him, and on further reflection perhaps this film subliminally made me the archaeologist I am today. Although using this logic I could just as easily have become a Bigfoot hunter or an Alien abductee.

arthur_c_clarke_mysterious_world_tv titles

Broadcast over one series and 13 episodes in 1980 on ITV (my memory convinced me that there must have been so many more episodes) the programme featured, between the adverts (no doubt starring Leonard Rossiter and Lorraine Chase), some of the world’s most mysterious mysteries, from cryptozoology to pseudo-archaeology to the supernatural. This heady mixture of nonsense was presented in deadpan seriousness and a cast of eccentrics, academics and self-proclaimed experts brought the whole thing to life. Stories were separated by brief pieces of camera by Clarke himself leaning against a tree somewhere hot (Sri Lanka).

I used to have the book as well, the cover of which shows what might be found beneath Stonehenge if they ever build that tunnel.

Book Cover

It is not every day that a young, but respectable Chas ‘n’ Dave lookalike archaeologist gets to star in his own 10-minute slot in a portmanteau mystery TV documentary, and so I wanted to look into this a little further. The urban fringe landfill location was enough for me to tag this under the category of urban prehistory and write a blog post about it which I have duly done.

The story of this unique vitrification experiment was broadcast in Episode 3 of the show on the theme of Ancient Wisdom, from 11 minutes in. (Some of the other stories on the programme do not seem to me to represent wisdom.)

This account of the vitrification experiment was subsequently supplemented by a detailed and fulsome report on the experiment in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland written diligently by Ralston himself and published in 1986

It is from these two sources that I piece together those momentous spring days in 1980.

Paper title

Quote 1

The experiment entailed the construction of a full-scale 8m long section of wall replicating a hillfort rampart, with the aim to reproduce the effect of vitrification. In effect, this process entails the melting of rocks within the core of such walls (perhaps with internal ‘timber-lacing’ to fuel fires), the end result of which is a glassy stone that is fused and melted together. This is a relatively common trait of later prehistoric fortified sites in Scotland, notably in Angus, and Argyll and Bute. Arguments have long ranged about whether this was caused by accident or design. As archaeologist Andy Heald put it fairly recently, ‘Some think vitrification was a status symbol, some think a settlement would be set alight and inadvertently vitrified in the process by attackers and some think it’s a structural thing to do with strengthening the walls of the fort.’

This heated (pun intended) dispute was the attraction for Arthur C Clarke’s crack team of mystery-chasers: “it was this contrast in views that constituted ‘the mystery'”… as Ralston puts it in his report. This doesn’t seem to me to be a mystery on a par with the Bermuda Triangle or the Nazca Lines, but I guess they had hours of schedules to fill.

The segment of the programme starts with a sweeping view of the laughably pronounced Iron Age hilltop enclosure Tap O’Noth. Ralston arrives on top, bestriding the landscape and then sitting on the ramparts pointing out vitrification while not even appearing to be out of breath. The light levels are low and there is mild peril for sensitive viewers – will he make it back down to his parked car before darkness falls?

Ralston on Tap o Noth

The voiceover person (who is not Arthur C Clarke but sounds suitably serious about the whole business) expresses the mystery of vitrification: was this something that just happened to occur when a fort wall caught fire, or was it the result of, “some technique now lost to strengthen the walls by welding the rocks together”? Gosh, I wonder.

The TV show voiceover further noted that “Ian Ralston, in an ambitious attempt to crack the mystery decided to build his own Iron Age fort”. This was to be done using materials and finance provided by a Mr Nick Lord of Yorkshire Television and where better to carry out this large-scale experiment than in the salubrious surroundings of a smelly dump near Aberdeen. The image on the screen melted from the misty hills of Aberdeenshire to the site of the vitrification experiment. The show was careful to show Aberdeen as if it had just been hit by a nuclear attack.

Aberdeen

The rampart section, based on various real forts, was realised, as with so many experimental archaeology projects of this scale and vision, through a series of compromises, imaginative bodges and visits to DIY shops. Ralston takes up the story:

Quote 2

Granite was chosen for the rampart exterior and gabbro for the interior, with wooden beams inserted inside to form the lacing (the internal structure of the wall). The construction project took place over four wet and windy days at the end of March 1980, with a combination of labour by the team of seven and a small fleet of support vehicles doing the work. Ralston was heavily involved in the heavy stuff, having made it down from that mountain top after all, his vigour undiminished.

Construction

Wall nearing completionThe conflagration itself was facilitated by the application of ‘dripping’ (animal fat) to the ends of beams protruding from the rampart while other artificial accelerants were on hand just in case, and a large pyre also had to be constructed up against one side of the wall to get the fire going due to ongoing inclement weather. With a cavalier attitude, Ralston got stuck into the building project with a fag hanging out of his mouth, right next to the stores of paraffin and beef dripping.

Ralston smoking

The fire was started around noon on the 1st of April, with a stiff breeze causing some anxiety. The conflagration as Ralston called it was monitored carefully and managed proactively, with regular truck-loads of wood having to be brought on site to feed the fires and pyres to keep it all burning and raise the temperature within the wall.

Wood supplies seem to have been running low because at one point a delivery of knackered old furniture (or what Ralston called “a miscellaneous cargo of domestic refuse, delivered by the Aberdeen Cleansing Department”), was poured onto the pyre.

A load of old furniture

Despite trying to control air flow into the core of the wall using a tarpaulin, by early evening and five hours into the burn, the internal wall temperature was only 13 degrees. “At about this time the writer clambered onto the top of the wall”. In other words, the shit just got real.

Ralston on the rampart

Ralston on the rampart TV version

This dramatic intervention by Ralston, flying in the face of a risk assessment that had almost certainly not been written anyway (this was 1980 after all), signaled an intensification of pyre building and fire management, which through the course of the evening began to pay dividends as the core temperature of the wall rose steadily.

Sunset

By strategically starting big fires at certain points around the wall in relation to wind direction, the experiment began to meet expectations and the team allowed themselves a dinner break from 9pm to the back of 11pm. By now the wall was collapsing in places and the fire was massive. Then they all went to bed / the pub.

The next morning the team arrived back in the dump to find a smouldering, hot smoky crumbling wall, with fires still burning inside. The wall was monitored and slowly dismantled by hand and machine from 8.30am, with team members raking through the guts of the unstable structure for evidence of vitrification and a small quantity of glassy stones was recovered.

Vitrified material

This material was carefully stored in conditions that retained the high scientific integrity of the samples.

Schweppes vitrified stones

Despite Ralston’s assessment that the fire would have continued to burn for another 24 hours, he also noted that, “the structure appeared markedly unstable and Yorkshire TV, with filming schedules completed, was not prepared to accept the insurance risk represented by the wall any longer. Accordingly, at 1600 hrs, some 28 hours after the experiment had started, the wall was bulldozed flat”.

Bulldozer

This allowed further observation by the archaeologists, but after all of this hard work, was the mystery of vitrification finally solved? The voiceover on the TV show was not so sure, suggesting that the meagre evidence for melting rock (3kg of glassy stone) only posed more questions than it solved. If this was the case, it would surely take half of the trees in Scotland just to vitrify one fort the size of Tap O’Noth, the voice claimed ludicrously and misunderstanding the whole nature of extrapolation.

Ralston’s account of the experiment was more balanced, noting the errors made during the process that had became clear as the fire took hold, and some of the inauthenticities that were essentially unknown variants on what might have happened in the ancient past. He was able to show that under the right circumstances vitrification could happen in such a timber laced rampart, but he could not say for sure what cultural activity (warfare, ritual closure of a site, accidental fire) caused this to happen in the Iron Age.

This ambitious and eccentric project, made possibly by TV largesse (which only really went so far as the many compromises that had to be made demonstrate), shows the potential of educational and informative experimental archaeology in even the most unpromising of locations. This was not the first vitrification experiment nor was it the last, but it was perhaps the most urban.

Even more urban than an equally ambitious and bonkers vitrification experiment that was carried out in the industrial setting of Plean Colliery, between Stirling and Falkirk, by V Gordon Childe in 1937. (The National Geographic recently called this an ‘audacious experiment’.) The Plean vitrification experiment was carried out with Wallace Thorneycroft and a response to questions raised by vitrified material found at a number of forts in Scotland, including one recently excavated by Childe himself at Rahoy, Argyll and Bute. In this case, Childe and Thorneycroft asked / told staff at the colliery to construct a ‘murus gallicus 12 feet long  by 6 feet wide by 6 feet high’ based on detailed sketch plans.

The Plean wall spec

The structure was constructed from materials to hand on the mine, such as fireclay bricks and wooden beams. This gave the wall the appearance of being nothing more than another industrial structure in a mining landscape, and it lacked the rugged organic look of Ralston’s wall. Also, and perhaps this is where motivational inauthenticities creep in, this wall was designed purely to burn and for no other reason.

Plean colliery experiment 1937

The conflagration of this wall would have had an urban audience, with houses overlooking the site, and one presumes the poor sods who built the thing would have been allowed to stand and watch. 4 tons of kindling and logs were used to create a pyre to cause the wall to burn and effect vitrification in its core.

Plean fire and vitrication

Childe reported that, ‘the fire was kindled at 11am on March 11 in a snowstorm’, and the wall began to collapse internally within an hour, reaching peak core temperatures in five hours. 20 hours after the fire was started, glassy bubbled rock was picked out of the smouldering debris. As with the Yorkshire Television experiment, the means to vitrify rock had been explored successfully, but the cause and motivation remained unclear.

As an aside, a curious Edinburgh University Abercromby Chair runs through this thread. Ralston currently holds that role as did Childe, both of whom carried out peri-urban vitrification experiments. And Stuart Piggott, another Abercromby Chair, was on a different episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Stuart Piggott

I feel a Venn coming on. In the future, PhDs will be written about this.

Venn

The wonder of the vitrification experiments is that they failed to answer the ‘why’ question even if they were able to shed some light on the ‘how’ and ‘WTF’. Experiments and excavations continue to this day, with for instance an ongoing community and educational project involving the Forestry Commission at Dun Deardail, Argyll and Bute.  Here, the unanswered question, the mystery of vitrification and the melting of rock, offers fertile ground to involve and empower lots of people.

destruction-dun-deardail-cropped-low-resedited

Dun Deardail ablaze (c) Forestry Commission

When reflecting on the 1980 TV show, Ian Ralston told me that that the tweeted still photograph brought back memories although he did not define whether his recollections were negative, positive or bamboozled. He told me,

this is the Arthur C Clarke ‘The Mysterious World of…’ Yorkshire TV escapade … of the vitrified wall on Aberdeen City rubbish dump c. April Fool’s Day 1980 and that’s the unprepossessing surroundings of the tip in the background. I’m holding the torch I was given in due course to ignite the wall”.

He then went back to sorting out Brian Hope-Taylor’s historic Doon Hill excavations in East Lothian from the 1960s (and that would make an amazing blog post…but that’s for another day).

Holding the torch is a nice metaphor for what Ian Ralston was doing here, as well as a literal description. Of course, the great Professor and Edinburgh successor to Childe and Piggott is not quite ready to hand that torch over yet, but when he does, it is important that archaeologists continue to burn bright with enthusiasm, be hirsute with dignity and dream crazy dreams of impossible projects on the urban edgelands.

The end

Sources and acknowledgements: the tweet that started all of this was one a series of brilliant screen grabs and out-of-context comments from the TV show Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious world from Richard Littler. His tweet and screen grabs of Ralston and Piggott have been used in this blog post. Please follow him and buy his books.

The academic publication about East Tullos vitrification experiment was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 116 (1986), pages 17-40 and this is open access via the journal’s ADS page. This was the source for several quotations and the black and white images in the post. The account of the Plean vitrification experiment came from the same journal, in this case volume 72 (1937-38), pages 44-55. This was the source of the several black and white images about this experiment. 

The colour images are stills from the TV show itself, while the images related to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious world are available widely online. The image of Dun Deardail ablaze came from the Forestry Commission website about that project, link in text above.

For an interesting critique of these kinds of experiments, and accounts of the work at Plean and East Tullos, with images I have not included, see this blog.

 

 

 

What happens when the polluter can’t pay? The sad case of Station Brae

2 Mar

This blog post has been written with Lauren Welsh, who thanks to the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow, was a paid intern on an urban prehistory placement in June 2017. I asked Lauren to come up with an idea for a blog post, and she suggested we visit and investigate an amazing urban prehistory site in her home town of Dreghorn, North Ayrshire….Station Brae.

Never heard of it? Read on to find out why.

NB In this post, my contributions are in italics.

Lauren meeting Steve Timoney UHI

Lauren discussing Balfarg henge with Dr Steven Timoney, UHI, during the placement

During the summer last year, I was lucky enough to undertake a placement as the Urban Prehistorian’s Intern. This was a fantastic opportunity and I learned so much about what happens behind the scenes when planning community archaeological events and outreach to keep the public informed.

Whilst on this placement I undertook some of my own research into Community/Public Archaeology and I must admit it left me a bit bewildered about how this branch of archaeology is treated.

Where I live, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by lots of archaeology from many different periods. My biggest interest lies however, within prehistory and so focused my research on this. Before I began my research, I was aware that there was a prehistoric monument found in the village next to mine, it is known as the Drybridge Cursus.

Drybridge cursus canmore_image_SC00842714

Drybridge cursus from the air in 1977 (c) HES canmore_image_SC008427

Wet Drybridge extract

Pictures of a walk KB did along the Drybridge cursus in the late 1990s (source: Brophy 2000)

However, when I started investigating in more detail I found that this was not the only substantial and interesting find from prehistory in this area.

In 2003/04, archaeological investigations were taking place in my little home village of Dreghorn, in advance of a new housing development at Station Brae. This work took place just before 53 houses were built by Wimpey Homes next to Dreghorn cemetery. The excavations were reported on in Discovery and Excavation Scotland. It was suggested that the excavations had found a ‘probable timber hall’ which is ‘comparable to those at sites such as Balbridie, Crathes, the Claish, and smaller examples at Balfarg and Raigmore’. Like the structures that are mentioned, the Station Brae structure is thought to date to the Neolithic Period. The site is also described as the prehistoric remains at this site as being in a ‘density and scale seldom seen in Scotland’.

Excavation photo

Station Brae excavation site viewed from the east. This image is from an unpublished draft report on the first stages of the excavation that came into our possession.

This site is clearly a rare find but the only information in the public domain about this important site is the DES article.  This goes on to mention that there were a number of archaeological finds that accompanied this impressive timber hall structure. From lithics and Grooved Ware to Carinated Bowls and kilns, this site has a lot of interesting prehistoric archaeology which is often lacking from prehistoric sites. Evidence for later prehistoric activity, and an early medieval settlement were also found here.

Station Brae location map

The urban location of the Station Brae site

Given that this appears to be a site that should be of national importance due to the number of prehistoric artefacts and that is considered to be a timber hall structure, it is extremely confusing that a very small amount of people have heard of it (myself included even prior to my research into the excavation).

I had known about the Station Brae site for many years, as I have been documenting evidence for Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland (in reviews published in 2006 and 2016) and have even written a paper on Scotland’s Neolithic timber halls (published in 2007). However, in all these reviews, Station Brae has proved an elusive site, and attempts in the past to get further information on the excavations – even a coherent plan of the timber hall or possible Grooved Ware associated oval structures – have got me nowhere.

Yet the site is now in the literature. In a paper published in 2006, I celebrated the discovery of Station Brae ‘putative timber hall’ via developer-funded archaeology although made a curious mistake when adding it to a distribution map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland – I forgot to add it as a dot to a map previously published by Gordon Barclay, and a penciled in x still survives on the map as evidence of this in the published version. Oops.

Map from Brophy 2006

X marks the spot. A map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland. Station Brae is immediately to the west of Biggar Common on the coast (source: Brophy 2006)

In a review of timber halls written around the same time, the site was again mentioned although here it was simply viewed as a possible parallel for other Neolithic timber halls, except the Grooved Ware connection was puzzling (this pottery style would be too late for such a big roofed building). However, I was working from the original DES report only and the site did not make it onto a terrible map I produced of Scotland’s Neolithic halls. This doubt fed into a much more recent review of Neolithic settlement evidence in Scotland, where I had grown a little fed up with the situation. I described Station Brae as a ‘tantalising, but as yet unpublished, discovery’ (2016, 216). Despite my high hopes for this site, it has not yet made it into wider synthesis of Neolithic settlement sites, simply because nothing is really known about it.

PSAS 2007 map

Station Brae did not make it on to my terrible 2007 map

Given this last paper was written over a decade after the excavations, and I again failed to find out anything about the site, this troubled me. The same old DES source was all that underpinned it, and that was starting to feel a bit tired.

This is clearly a frustrating situation – but one that I am not entirely unware of, having run up against similar road blocks for various reasons, from time-limited confidentiality clauses inserted into excavation contracts by developers, to sites being published in obscure online locations in reports that require a lot of guesswork to locate via google, to publication being delayed for all manner of reasons. But this seemed a more intractable problem. And that has proved to be the case, although Lauren brought it home to me that it is not just Neolithic archaeologists that are frustrated about Station Brae….

What bothered me the most about this discovery is that it is less than 500 yards away from my house and yet I knew nothing about it (which is interesting as I have always had a keen interest in archaeology).

So, what happened? Why has there not been more done at this site to help the locals (and wider public) understand the importance of this site as well as what it helps us to understand about other prehistoric sites similar to this one?

It is certainly strange. The site itself sits in a larger prehistoric landscape. As previously mentioned, there is an impressive cursus monument located at Drybridge and is only about 1 mile away from the Station Brae site. Also, in Drybridge there is a single standing stone, although there has been no known work conducted to say whether the stone is prehistoric or not.

 

 

The next village along this route is Dundonald, where today a beautiful castle stands on top of a hill. There have been excavations carried out at the castle which date the archaeological remains back to the early Bronze Age (hopefully the subject of a future urban prehistorian blog post! -KB). There have also been excavations in Kilmarnock recently as well, where (ironically) a Neolithic ‘timber hall’ site was found in 2017 by GUARD Archaeology during development work.

Dundonald Castle from the air

Dundonald Castle (photo: Richard Hughes)

A final important site to mention in this geographical area is Shewalton Moss. This is ‘bog land’ that runs to the Northwest of Dundonald and is known locally to have produced a number of prehistoric artefacts including urns, pottery, flint scrapers and polishers, hammer stones and arrowheads, indicating substantial prehistoric activity in the area (although it is proving difficult to find records of these finds).

In an article in The Herald newspaper on 19th April 2004, the significance of Station Brae was stated in a very public forum. This was at worst based on a press release, at best on an interview with the director of the company who carried out the excavations, and I have highlighted in bold some particularly juicy comments.  

‘The site suggests a 5000-year-old village similar in scale to the group of stone houses at Skara Brae, Orkney.’

Tom Addyman, excavation director of Addyman Associates, who carried out the ongoing dig at the housing development, said….”We found 750-odd pieces of Grooved Ware, which is one of the largest collections in the south-west of Scotland. The area is now known as a type site for the Neolithic period, which means that all other sites will be compared to this one.”

Neolithic pit

Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said: “Finding evidence at this date for settlement, in the form of building foundations and for pottery making, is extremely rare, and promises to help us understand the lives of the people who built the great ritual monuments like henges and early stone circles”.’

There are some spectacular claims here, although the comparison of all other known Neolithic sites in Scotland with Station Brae has thus far proved impossible. Mike Pitts’ aspiration for this site remains unrealised.

A drip-feed of information was put out via the media offering further tantalising details. Site director Tom Wilson was quoted by iAyrshire as saying:

“This is only one of five [timber halls] to be discovered in Scotland and we think it dates back to around 3500BC. It would be a farming community with around eight huts taking pride of place in the site. We have also found pits with pottery and a giant fence that must have circled the village. Although other Neolithic villages have been found in Scotland, this is the only one I believe has been permanently lived in. We can see where the huts and kiln would have been. The residents moved further up the hill in the winter as the land was prone to flooding. We’re really like detectives and so far we have found some important artifacts including grooved-ware pottery and a kiln that we think is the oldest found in Scotland.”

I am salivating just reading the description of what was found here. Sorry, I’ll just go and wipe my mouth.

Back again.

One thing that Lauren said that really struck home was that people in Dreghorn knew that an ancient settlement had been found in the town, but that was all they knew about it. It was like the site had taken on a mythical quality of its own, which would be all well and good but underlying this is a community who have been let down. Because archaeologists came, excavated, spoke to the papers, and then went away again. And that was it.

Lauren did some research as part of the placement that suggests that Dreghorn has embraced the discovery to an extent. It has become something of a branding for this place that it is the ‘Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’. Not snappy but pretty cool. References to this (erroneous) claim can be found online in various places, for instance in the wikipedia page for the town. I guess this impression was given by Tom Addyman himself who told the now defunct Today newspaper on 27th February 2004 that:

“People have always lived here, and have wanted to live here. Can’t think of any other site that has that depth and layering of occupation.”

The Neolithic discoveries in the village have, since the excavations, taken on the status of a a thing, although based on only wafer thin tit-bits of information.

Villages of Britain image

 

As has already been touched on, the local people (and even some not so local) seem to have heard about Dreghorn and its impressive little title. It seems strange to me that no-one has really ever done any further ‘digging’ to see why it got the title in the first place. It is just something that is accepted. The information about the Station Brae site is out there (what little of it there is) but the information that can be found about this site in the public domain should be enough for the public to start questioning ‘what happened?’ Having spoken to a few locals about this and showing them the information in the public domain, I have found that the unfortunate reality is that they view it as ‘suspicious’. They tend to feel that something strange has happened at this site. The information tells us that this is a nationally important site and yet nothing further has been done to promote this or even investigate this. I must admit, I feel the same as them, although I can also see the dangers of this way of thinking as ‘professionals’ in this field can find it hard to gain and keep trust of the public as it is.

During the placement, Lauren and I visited the location of Station Brae. This is now a grassy bank with a flat top, crowned with older houses and a garage block with an urban goal painted on it. Fine views down to the Annick Water hint at the ideal location this would have been to live 5,000 years ago, just as it is now.

Station Brae

There is no indication whatsoever of what was found in this area before the adjacent newer houses were constructed, either in the lie of the land, or information for passers by and residents. It is impossible to imagine a timber Skara Brae standing here once, this village before the village.

After the visit, some discrete enquiries were made. What happened here? Without divulging too much information, it appears that the excavations were far more extensive and expensive that planned, and that the money simply stopped coming. No-one could afford to fund adequate post-excavation analysis, nevermind writing up the excavations, although enough resource was available for the material culture to be inspected and safely packaged up to go into storage. None of this stuff has been mis-treated, but nor has its full potential been realised.

The site is in limbo. There is no money to cover the substantial costs of analysing a very large assemblage of material (and that is just the Neolithic stuff I know about). Specialists would have to be paid, and someone or an organisation commissioned to write it all up, a major task as I well know being in the middle of writing up an excavation monograph myself.  

Sadly, this is not an isolated case and other sites across Britain have been left in the same kind of situation: excavation done, archive and materials packaged up and put into storage, no more money to write it all up, and perhaps no real motivation or will to go back and sort it all out. There is only thing worse that having to write up an old excavation from a decade or more ago – that is writing up someone else’s old excavation, and in a sector as dynamic as heritage, this is likely what would have to happen. This is comparable to academic archaeologists, who have their own backlogs (as do I) but at least we have the safety net of a contractual situation that vaguely encourages us to spend some time sorting things out, and a career-progression motivation for publication.

Interim report title

This is the only detailed information I could find about the site, an interim report from mid-way through the excavations, obtained via an anonymous source.

I want to make it clear that I am not trying to blame the excavation team or the company that undertook the excavations, which were clearly to a high standard and carried out with rigour and enthusiasm. The team did a great job of getting the media interested in the site and they cannot be held financially liable for further work that has to be done. They also clearly tried to make things happen with this site and recognised its importance.

In this case, the developer also cannot easily be cast as the pantomime villain. In an interim report written by the archaeologists that I managed to obtain when researching this situation, it was clear that in January 2004 there was already a problem. A section in the report entitled ‘Costing’ noted that ‘additional funding sources’ to cover post-ex and publication costs were being sought. It was further noted that these costs were ‘an additional and unforeseen (as well as unwelcome) burden’ upon the developer who had otherwise been helpful and accomodating. In other words, I am guessing that the whole unexpected Neolithic and Medieval settlement bombshell had the potential to destroy budgeting and profit margins in the months and years after the excavations finished and that the original tender for the work, offered in good faith, was simply inadequate to deal with the spectacular discoveries subsequently made. 

But I do want to blame the system.

The polluter pays principal is great when it all works, but what happens when it all goes to shit? Who has the ultimate responsibility of fulfilling the expectations of salivating prehistorians and a local population that have been left disappointed? How do we dance sites out of limbo?

There is an ongoing discussion in the heritage sector about this very problem.

Some say we should forget the older digs, write them off, dispose of the boxes of files, and move on.

Others say that Historic Environment Scotland (or Local Authorities) should step in and provide resources for these zombie excavations to be revived, albeit almost certainly at the tax-payers’ expense.

Another school of thought is that the whole system needs to change. A pool of money could be gathered using some kind of Development Tax, to be allocated as and when needed to ensure all remedial archaeology work related to development projects can be centrally funded and completed. This means that tendering would become less of a lottery, projects with almost no costs could not boost profits artificially, and really expensive excavations like Station Brae would not bankrupt anyone to deal with. Used in some European countries, this system might well be a solution going forward, but won’t help deal with backlogged limbo projects, of which there are, sadly, many.

This situation is all the more painful to me because of the urban location. Here, archaeologists, the developer and the system to one extent or another have let people down – the Neolithic people who lived here once, but also the current inhabitants of Dreghorn have been ill-served, with expectations raised of their town being a place of real significance in the ancient heritage of Scotland. There is now a brand to be lived up to – but how can the proud claim of deep time be evidenced, backed up, celebrated, with the site reduced to so many box files and packing cases?

Timber hall

With all this prehistoric evidence cropping up in such a small geographical space, maybe in the future we will be lucky enough carry out more investigations at the site of Station Brae. It would be great if more information on these sites could become available in the public domain so that people can learn about the history of their village and the significance of the archaeology that could potentially be lying in their own back gardens!

Going forward, hopefully by raising awareness of the site, it might encourage people to look further into what can be done to pull this amazing site into the mainstream. If we can go by what is reported in the draft report we have got hold of, then the finds from this site really could potentially be used to lend further understanding to a period of time we really don’t know that much about. Perhaps a crowdfunding initiative could be set up to find the funds needed to complete the post-ex work and write up required to make sense of what has been found here. If the community could take ownership and be proud of the potentially spectacular site that has been found here, I really think it would help raise an awareness that the public really do have an interest in sites like this, just as much as those who have a keen interest in the field and period. And who knows, maybe then, Dreghorn really would deserve its title,Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’, or at least they would understand why this title stuck in the first place!

 

Sources and acknowledgements: firstly, I would like to thank Lauren for all of her hard work over the course of the placement, and it was a treat for me to get to the Station Brae site as I had read that one paragraph about it for so long! Lauren took me straight there with the knowledge only a local can have, an expertise in this place I could never hope to have. I would also like to thank the wonderful staff at Dundonald Castle for their hospitality during my trip to North Ayrshire, and Richard Hughes for allowing his great photo of the castle to be included in this post.

I sought advice from several seasoned, wise and experienced heritage professionals in the preparation of this post, and although my sources shall remain anonymous, I would like to thank them very much.

I thought long and hard about not naming an archaeologists or other parties involved in the excavation at Station Brae. However, I hope that our post makes it clear that the system is at fault here, and not the diggers or funders. A cursory search would have revealed identities for those who wanted to find out anyway.   

The DES entry that started all of this off is: Addyman, T. 2004 Station Brae, Dreghorn (Dreghorn parish), Neolithic settlement with ritualistic component; medieval village’, Discovery Excav Scot, vol. 5. [open access, google Discovery Excavation Scotland]

In the post, a couple of my old papers were referred to. In case anyone wants to follow these up, they are:

Brophy, K 2000 Wet Drybridge: a cursus in Ayrshire. In J Harding & R Johnston (eds) Northern Pasts: Interpretations of the later prehistory of northern England and southern Scotland, 45–56. BAR: Oxford.

Brophy, K 2006 Rethinking Scotland’s Neolithic: combining circumstance and context. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 136, 7–46 [open access, google article or journal name]

Brophy, K 2007 From big house to cult house: early Neolithic timber halls in Scotland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 73, 75–96.

Brophy, K. 2016. On ancient farms: Neolithic settlement in mainland Scotland, in Brophy, K, Ralston, IBM and Macgregor, G (eds) 2016 The Neolithic of mainland Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, pages 200-235.

 

Heathen temple

9 Feb

churchyard low res

in a yard in the shadow of the church

amidst bent monuments and faded death markers

and dead flowers

protrudes from the earth the last fragment of a

heathen temple

that once stood in this location

now sanctified now a sanctuary

but once an altar upon which offerings were made

of an unholy nature pagan

with liquids unknown returning to the earth

dripping splashing running

to be absorbed into good christian graves

corrupting bones

countless years later many moons

have passed since dark and mysterious

rites were practiced here in a

heathen temple

that stood in this location

now a sanctuary now sanctified

bible-proofed

but chalk dust was spilled here

by antiquarian Mann inquisitive man

sketched out on the north face of this stone stump

mapping out the occult

crossing the cracks transcending planes

imposing acute and right angles

making connections that ignore

the topography of the megalith

inscrutable washed off by rain never repeated

photographed greyscale black and white

the last flourishing of a

heathen temple

that stood in this location

of the dead

Photo 3

 

Notes

The standing stone in the churchyard of Strathblane Parish Church, Stirling, is of unknown date although there is no reason to doubt that it has ancient origins. Nothing is known about the stone at all, although it was recorded in nineteenth century maps in this location and was briefly mentioned by John G Smith in his 1886 book The Parish of Strathblane. The stone itself is no more than 1m in height, with five faces, and a relatively flat top.

Photo 1

strathblane-stone-1886 map Northern Antiquarian

1886 map of the churchyard with standing stone location shown. This map was first posted online on the Northern Antiquarian blog post for the site.

At some point, the archaeologist and antiquarian Ludovic Mclellan Mann drew a grid on one face of the standing stone in what looks to be white chalk. The nature and meaning of this grid, consisting of connecting and overlapping lines and circles, remains unknown. Only one photograph records that this event ever took place.

canmore_image_SC01331278

Paul Bennett, on the Northern Antiquarian webpage for this standing stone, notes:

‘The fact that it stands by the church (rebuilt around 1803 out of its more ancient fabric) suggests that the site was a heathen temple or sacred site, redesignated by the invading christian priesthood’.

The truth of this may never be known.

Sources and acknowledgements: The grid-drawn-on-the-stone photograph is copyright HES and has Canmore image number SC01331278. It was brought to my attention by Katinka Dalglish who attributed the handiwork to Mann. Supplementary information, as is easily gathered from above, comes from Paul Bennett’s Northern Antiquarian page for this site: he always gets there before me! 

Lost world

27 Jan

This blog post has been written to coincide with a paper I gave at the first ever Scottish Students Archaeology Society Conference held in the University of Glasgow on the weekend of 27th and 28th January 2018. My paper was entitled Houses upon houses: the impact of urbanisation on our understanding of Neolithic settlement in Scotland and at some point in the future will be available to view on youtube. I’ll update this post with a link when that happens.

conference logo jpgThe rather lovely conference logo

As part of preparing my lecture I revisited an urban prehistory site that I blogged about in May 2016, a Neolithic settlement site that was found in advance of a housing development in Cowie, near Stirling. The blog post, Houses upon houses, was a reflection on how archaeology could as a discipline do better to utilize the results of developer-funded excavations, in terms of how we synthesize such data, but also how results are disseminated and what community benefits might accrue from exciting (and even mundane) discoveries. In the case of this housing estate, some of the roads had been given prehistoric sounding names to reflect the remarkable Late Neolithic site that GUARD excavated in 1995. This was an easy win in a sense although does not necessarily tell those who move(d) into this area exactly what was found because their houses had to be built there.

Flint Crescent low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

A more imaginative and substantive development happened at Cowie that also drew directly on the prehistoric archaeology but in a potentially more powerful way than the street names – the creation of a children’s playground that was inspired by aspects of what GUARD found, although when I first visited this place I didn’t actually go to the playground because I didn’t find out about it until after the event.

In my first post about Cowie, I assigned the design of this playpark to Judi Legg and Mike Hyatt, and quoted on the design process:

Local children paid a visit to a pre-history park, Archaeolink, and many of the ideas they got from this visit as well as information about the pre-historic Cowie site itself have been built into the design of the park, which includes shelters, cooking and seating areas, and a raised beach, as well as mounds, tunnels, slides and a climbing wall. The children’s involvement in the design development has meant that the design concept which underpins the site layout contains elements which the children understand and which feel familiar to them. 

The co-production and imagination that went into this was impressive to say the least. The images I found online of the playpark, such as those below, showed aspects of the excavation results did indeed directly effect the design. For instance, a circular arrangement of mounds with structures inside mirrors the Late Neolithic double-skinned roundhouses found by Atkinson and team. That the material form of this – mounds and not organic structures – was not entirely accurate did not dilute the effect I don’t think.

Playground photo 1

Neolithic house planThe house that inspired the circular playground feature

The playpark itself was established a few years after the houses were built after a tragic accident there involving a child. The local community formed a group which campaigned for a safe playpark and the site – which overlies where some of the archaeology was found – was designed with the help of the children themselves, a nice example of co-production. The park cost £110,000 to build and was funded by Section 75 housing developers’ contributions, BBC Children in Need, the Stirling Landfill Tax Trust and Cowie Play Areas Group local fundraising events. Maintenance is provided by the local authority.

Playground photo 3

I wanted to close a loop, so the day before I gave my lecture I paid a quick visit to the playground which was both frosty and empty as I walked around in the beautiful and dazzling sunlight. Although I found that the form of the playground was creative and exciting, I was also disappointed to see that the site had suffered a decline over the past decade or so and some of the nice features built into the playpark were simply gone or were unrecognizable due to missing elements.

Panorama low res

The park itself is called Lost World, which I love, and this name was cast into the sturdy metal and wooden gate into the park, which can be reached by following a narrow pathway between two houses on Flint Crescent.

Lost world low res

Once inside the park, it is clear that this is a place that aspires for an organic look using timber and earthwork features that are unusually arranged to draw on excavation results. Boulders were also strewn around. It had a very naturalistic feel even although it channels an anthropomorphic place. The centre of the park is dominated by a curving long mound with tunnels running through it and slides adorning its sides, while there are normal and weird trees dotted around. A looping path meanders around the park and there is always something to look at. Boring it is not.

General view low res

A nice little Neolithic-style house was evident and in one piece, and although it looked more like a Wessex Late Neolithic house than an Eastern Lowland Scotland one, I suspect excitable children could not care less about that! Or maybe it is a little raised granary? It looks like the playground has interpretive challenges for visitors of all ages.

Neolithic house low res

As I walked around, it was clear that elements of the park were missing or had declined somewhat since the glory days of their first erection. In particular, the long mound, which I had to haul myself atop using a rope, had a huge gouge taken out of the middle to the extent that is had its own sandy stratigraphy.

Gap in the mound low res 1

Gap in the mound low res 2

Upon looking back at old photos, this gap was created by the removal of a large wooden structure that used to be here.

wildside designs photo

The park when first constructed: the wooden structure in the middle of the mound has gone leaving the gap that can be seen in my own 2018 photos (Wild Scot)

The circular earthwork setting, based on the Neolithic roundhouse plan, also appeared to have several somethings missing in the middle.

Then and now

Upon closer inspection, remnants of the structures that had once stood here (inspired by ideas of sitting around the fireplace in the middle of a house I would imagine) could still be seen on the ground, the archaeology of an archaeological playground.

Remnants

The former timber setting

Remnants 2

The former log seats 

The arrangement of boulders, a hearth of sorts, is barely recognizable anymore and this is where the problem with such well-meaning endeavours sometimes arises. There is the awkward question of sustainability. I have seen this so many times before. Noticeboards get dirty and difficult to read or simply become out-of-date. Signs are removed, fall down or become obsolete. Metal constructions rust. Wood falls apart or burns. Earthworks slump or have cars driven over them. No-one has the money to fix the problems. It is unclear who should do this work. The original players in making things happen have moved on.

In other words, attempts to celebrate, preserve and educate the public about archaeological sites often themselves fall victim to the processes of entropy that the archaeological materials underwent in the past that caused the situation in the first place.

None of this is necessarily the fault of an individual or organisation but something has gone wrong and sometimes it is not clear how the problem can be fixed.

General view 2 low res

As far as I can see Cowie’s Neolithic village, their own Lost World, is in danger of becoming lost again. This is not through anything other than a basic lack of sustainability and funding which are absolutely commonplace problems not just in the heritage sector but also in the age of austerity in which we live.

Tunnel low res

Yet this is still a wonderful park and there are more ideas and imagination stuffed into this small corner on the edge of a housing estate than is normal. Perhaps the local authority can be persuaded to tidy this up properly, or maybe the community can once again lift themselves to work in a common cause inspired by social need and prehistory. Suggestions made to me both on twitter and at the conference itself suggest to me that there could be a really nice project here, both in documenting this unique playground but also rebuilding, refreshing and – something that was missing I think first time around – really explaining to park users what this is all about. I will see what I can do to help make some of this happen.

It really is a place where it is possible to feel you can reach out and touch the past. Or at least climb up, slide down and crawl through the past.

Reach out low res

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the organisation team for the conference for asking me to speak and allowing me to take an urban prehistory angle! 

The excavation report for this site is available open access online. It is John Atkinson 2002 Excavation of a Neolithic occupation site at Chapelfield, Cowie, Stirling, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 139-192. The original photos of the playground with the wooden structure in the mound came from the Wild Scot website, as did the extended quotation and the information about the costs, funding and designers. The other old playpark photos came from Stirling Council Play Services and the Free Play Network. Thanks to those who suggested ideas at the conference and on twitter, I will actively be pursuing these.  

 

 

 

The old, Old Town of Edinburgh

9 Jan

Is it possible to rewrite the history books with a prehistoric discovery? How old is Old?

Recently, I spent a pleasant few hours following self-guided walking tours from the excellent Edinburgh’s Hidden Walks book (by Stephen Millar, Metro Publications 2017), walks which took us from the bottom of the Royal Mile and Holyrood Palace right up to the Grassmarket via a couple of local hostelries and three cemeteries. This is an area steeped in history of course, reflected in interesting anecdotes about famous people, amusing historical incidents and terrible hygiene.

Book cover

What struck me in particular while walking was the number of instances when historical locations and buildings were marked on the ground in some way, even when the buildings were long-since gone and the places completely transformed from when they were in use back in the day.

At the bottom of the Royal Mile, a circle of beige bricks set into the road between a taxi rank and the Scottish Parliament gift shop mark the location of the Girth Cross for instance. This was the edge of the sanctuary zone of Holyrood Abbey and a place for announcements and executions. Apparently it was removed by 1767, and as this was AD, not BC, its not old enough for this blog really.

Girth Cross location

Further west into Canongate, also on the road although this time towards the southern side of the Royal Mile is another circle of cobbles set into the tarmac, this one with the shape of a ‘Maltese Cross’ in the middle and with black and red colouration. This marks the location of where St John’s Cross once stood, a boundary marker between Edinburgh and Canongate.

St John Cross location

A plaque explaining what this brick circle denotes is on a wall nearby. In the OS Name Book of 1852 is says that this cross was removed ‘long ago’ but clearly not as long ago as prehistory. The Cross itself now sits in Canongate cemetery apparently, although when I was there I was more interested in finding the grave of Ebenezer Scroggie.

St John Cross plaque canmore_image_DP00160533

Plaque © HES canmore_image_DP00160533

Nearby, yet another indicator of a historic structure is marked on the ground but in a different format – angular arrangements of ‘brass studs’ (although to my optimistic eye they looked like golden bricks outside the World’s End Pub).

Brass tiles

These show the location and arrangement of the Netherbow Port, a gate in the wall around the town of Edinburgh. It was a place for controlling access and movement, and where executed heads were displayed on spikes; the gate itself was demolished in 1764, not that long ago really.

Netherbow Port British Museum

Netherbow Port (British Museum)

So, we are actually quite good at marking historical landmarks in urban landscapes, and tourists and visitors are expected to understand this vocabulary well enough to make sense of arrangements of bricks in the street. This sometimes needs additional prompting with plaques, while apps and walking guides can aid the imagination.

But we are nowhere near as good when it comes to marking the former (or even current but buried) location of prehistoric sites, structures and things. We should be lighting it up with neon signs.

IMG_3006

Graham Fagan, A drama in time, Calton Rd, Edinburgh (2016)

That is a shame because prehistory can lurk unheralded and unmarked in the most unexpected of places – such as Edinburgh Old Town.

I came to realise this when turning to the final page of the section of the book on the Grassmarket walk which had kept us amused between pubs for an hour or so. In a throw-away line just before another Burke and Hare anecdote, it was noted that:

Just past the White Hart is the Beehive Inn, also a former coaching inn. In 2008 archaeologists discovered signs of human habitation near to the Beehive that have been dated to between 1500 and 1300 Bc [sic]. Previously it had been thought that part of Edinburgh had remained uninhabited until the 13th or 14th century.

Book extract

#urbanprehistory!

A little research brought me to the stunning realisation that during works associated with the laying of a water pipelines and general improvements in the Grassmarket, Headland Archaeology Ltd had found TWO BRONZE AGE PITS deep beneath almost 2m worth of layers of urban crap in 2008. The Scotsman newspaper did not hold back in its excitement about this discovery.

EVIDENCE unearthed in the Grassmarket has revealed humans were there 3000 years earlier than previously thought. The surprise find – which experts say will “rewrite Scotland’s history books” – puts the earliest known civilisation in the area as far back as the Middle Bronze Age, or around 1500 to 1300BC.

Quite why this was all so surprising is not clear to me, given that this seems a perfectly reasonable place, perhaps on an animal drove route, that would have appealed to an itinerant prehistoric pit digger.

Little of detail has been published about this discovery as far as I can tell. The Discovery and Excavation in Scotland entry (2008, page 69) for the prehistoric features found during the excavations (which revealed much more significant later material as one would expect) was brief but probably comprehensive.

Prehistoric deposits – Two pits were exposed c6m apart in the excavation of an open cut pipe trench located along the S edge of the existing road on the N side of the Grassmarket. The pits were both sealed by a layer of colluvium and lay c1.8m below the modern ground surface. Radiocarbon analysis of material from the pits returned calibrated dates of 2200–1950 BC with a 95.4% probability (SUERC-19840) and 1500–1380 BC to 95.4% probability (Beta-242133). These features are considered indicative of sporadic use of this low-lying area in the Middle Bronze Age.

So there is an old town beneath the Old Town, as if we didn’t already know this, Edinburgh Castle itself having its origins as a fortification in the Iron Age.

But one problem remains – there is no plaque, no marker on the ground, to show tourists, visitors and rubber-neckers and the like exactly where this pair of ANCIENT pits were found. Until the day that Edinburgh City Council get their beige bricks out and become creative, you will find me sitting there, outside the Beehive Inn, pointing deep down into the depths of time. Possibly forever. Please bring me a pint.

Me Grassmarket

Sources and acknowledgements: I want to once again acknowledge the excellent walking book by Stephen Millar which in the end inspired this blog post, and I believe he has also produced three books of similar nature and tone for London. Jan accompanied me on the walk and took all the photos in this post (except the out of focus one of the book extract). The other images have been credited in the captions. For more information on Graham Fagan’s neon artwork, go here.

The mall and the mound part 2: The monument

29 Dec

In my previous post, I introduced the story of the shellmound in Emeryville, California. This site, sacred to the Ohlone Indians and with thousands of years of occupation, use, tradition and burials, was gradually denuded by the requirements of modern urban living, from the construction of a funfair atop the mound in the nineteenth century, to the extensive destruction of the site to create a level space for industrial uses in 1924. Excavations at this site in the early decades of the twentieth century confirmed that this site was not merely a massive midden site, but also a place of ritual and burial, with hundreds of burials, many with grave goods, identified. (Maybe this could have been established by talking to locals of Ohlone heritage?) But these invasive excavations were rescue and salvage digs ahead of development which all happened despite the feelings of the local community.

The second part of my Emeryville posts brings the story up-to-date, and reveals that little seems to have been learned from the lessons of the past.

Mound map

An amazing map showing various incarnation of the shellmound location (source)

 

The Mall

After decades of industrialisation and decline, the location of the shellmound underwent another dramatic transformation with the construction of a shopping mall between 1997 and 2002. This included further archaeological evaluation, and the realisation that despite everything that had happened here, elements of the shellmound – and human remains – still survived in situ. Environmental evaluations also confirmed that the land had been poisoned with heavy metals: it was ‘a singularly vile toxic brew left behind by the acid vats of an abandoned paint factory’ (source).

Reports suggest that there was uneasiness amongst those working on the site. Archaeologists requested permission to carry out a comprehensive excavation ahead of the development, but this was not permitted. Building workers were traumatised and many still refuse to use the mall to this day, given that human remains still lie underneath the shops and car parks. Hundreds of burials were simply reburied in the same location and sealed beneath a protective layer upon which the mall was to be built. I have read that some human remains had to be destroyed because of the levels of chemical pollution in the bones, making repatriation impossible.

abalone pendant 1999

Abalone pendant, found during 1999 excavations (source)

There is no doubt that this process was problematic and contested, and split opinions amongst archaeologists working ahead of development. Local archaeologist Allen Pastron said at the time, ‘The portion of the shellmound that I saw in 1999 was largely intact’ and he quit the project due to the continuation of the construction. On the other hand, another archaeologist working in the project, Sally Salzman Morgan, argued that change is inevitable and needs to be accepted. Yet the contested nature of the project is also evident in her acknowledgement that ‘We did find a lot of intact burials. It’s too inflammatory to say how many there were. But most were disturbed.’ I have been unable to find a report on the archaeological work undertaken as the Mall was being built.

Attempts were made to preserve the shellmound, stop it being damaged further and / or designating this as a protected sacred site. But in the end the local Council went ahead and approved the replacing of the industrial complex with the Bay Street Shopping Mall.

 

The mall

The mall itself is a typical Dawn of the Dead type of place, corporately shiny and trying too hard to be cool. The website for the mall states:

Combining retail, entertainment, hospitality and residential uses, Bay Street Emeryville invites customers to escape into a casual village designed for strolling, shopping and having fun. The character of Bay Street Emeryville is drawn from the rich history of its bayside site as a place where people have gathered for decades to live, work and play. Designed as an eclectic urban village set in an industrial landscape, Bay Street Emeryville uses architecture, lighting, landscape and environmental graphics to create a unique, contemporary atmosphere.

Remember, this is a shopping mall.

Bay_street_shopping_mall_emeryville

Bay Street shopping (creative commons licence)

And there is no mention of the hundreds of dead bodies beneath the feet of shoppers, most not even in their original graves – although I guess that is not a good look. The heritage of this place is mentioned however and it is worth quoting at length what the Mall’s website says as this is the (a) corporate response and statement on what came before the mall, and (b) a list of stuff that has been done to compensate for all of this unfortunate business, even although the word ‘compensate’ is not mentioned, and I suspect for many these reparations are inadequate.

The Ohlone heritage of this place is mentioned in utopian and simplistic terms, almost as if these people were children:

One day, a group of people, the Ohlone, arrived at the Bay. They stopped to gather oysters and mussels to eat. These were easy to collect from the marsh along the shore of the bay. There was also a large creek where they could drink fresh water. The edge of this creek was a great place to camp. When the tide was low, anyone in the village could gather oysters from the gravelly bottom of the bay or use a stick to dig clams out of the mud of the tide flat. This was a great place to live, with plenty of everything people might need: water, food, space, and the materials to make shelters. The Ohlone decided to stay and call this place home.

Curiously, the shellmound is mentioned under the heading ‘Today’:

Over time, the Native Americans inhabiting the site created an elevated landmark known as a “Shellmound” that they used for daily activities as well as a burial ground. By the late 1920’s the upper Shellmound had been demolished and the site transformed with industrial development.

These two sentences are self-serving, suggesting that the main damage to the shellmound occurred long before the shopping centre came along and attempting to legitimise the Mall’s construction in this location. Great pains have been taken to suggest that the Mall and activities that it hosts are little more than a continuation of activities that had happened in this location for thousands of years (except the burial of the dead). Such claims were made, for instance, in 2002, by the Emeryville Vice-Mayor Nora Davis who argued the ‘mixed-use’ nature of the Mall (shops, cinemas, restaurants, public spaces and art) was simply an idea previously invented by Native Americans. As an editorial at the time in The Berkeley Daily Planet stated (tongue in cheek):

Much like Native Americans once gathered at the Emeryville Shellmound to exchange goods, she said, Bay Area residents will come together at Bay Street to shop — at stores like Banana Republic, Gap, Pottery Barn and Victoria’s Secret. But while Native Americans relied mainly on a shellfish diet, modern shoppers will have restaurants like Pasta Pomodoro and Prego to choose from.

This editorial also stresses the extensive plans for reparation from both the city and the developer, although I am not sure how many of the ambitious plans actually came to anything. A promised website about the shellmound and the archaeological work that was undertaken may have existed once, but I can’t find it.

Back on the Mall’s website, there follows information on memorials, art and information in and around the mall and district that have been installed: an ‘interactive educational experience that invokes thought and understanding about the lives of the Ohlone people’.

Certainly, there have been art projects and installations in the area that reflect the heritage of this place as well as its contested nature. For instance, a park was established in 2004 with pieces by artist Sheila Ghidini. This includes a trilithon-like archways, one with a map of the area inscribed upon it, as well as information panels. Orange dots mark the actual location of the shellmound.

b-2-ohlone4-start Sheila Ghidini

bayst-pano_3-v3-big

Source: Sheilaghidin.com

This park was commissioned by the developers, and specifically designed to ‘honor the Emeryville shellmound’. It includes 10 ‘polished granite slabs…each….includes sandblasted text and images which note significant moments in [Ohlone] civilization, from a deadly measles epidemic to their first contact with Westerners.’

According to Megalithic Portal contributor symbionspacesuit, other aspects of the shellmound have been presenced in different ways locally, including a ‘metal arch  suggesting the profile of shellmound’ on a wall in the Mall itself, and material culture from the shellmound being displayed near toilets beneath a nearby IMAX cinema.

There are also some street names that reflect the past use of this location, such as Ohlone Way and Shellmound Street.

shellmound street

Source: Megalithic Portal

However, the most visible attempt to make good the ongoing hurt caused by the mall’s construction is the Shellmound Monument.

 

Monument

Due to the controversy caused by the construction of the mall and the perceived desecration of large numbers of burials, it was decided by the authorities to build a monument to the dead and the shellmound, which is located outside the mall at a road intersection and overlying Temescal Creek.

Aerial view of the monument SFGate

An early photo of the monument before it grassed over properly

Shellmound_Emeryville_the monument

Source: Creative Commons licence

The monument consists of a mound-like grassy knoll, and I have tried to make sense of what it actually represents in more detail. The slice cut from the mound seems to be showing sedimentary stratigraphy with shells embedded in the sandstone slabs. There is also a waterfall, maybe representing the bay? On one side of the mound is a strange looking structure which apparently is meant to be a traditional Ohlone basket. Some big random stone ball / bollards are arranged in an arc at the front of the monument.

BayStreetBasket

Ironically, this monument has become the main focus for the annual Black Friday protests against the Mall and the treatment of the dead.

/METRO

Source: East Bay Times

 

Hope?

I invite you to close your eyes; imagine the mall isn’t under your feet but you have ground. And that you’re some place that was here a long time ago, and that you’re going to take a walk and understand what was here before you. Source: Corrina Gould, in an audio walking tour of the shellmound location called An Unsettling Sound.

This is such a difficult situation and a salutary one for me as I blithely blog about how great it would be if we could replace prehistoric sites destroyed by development with street names, artworks and information boards. The Emeryville shellmound shows that this does not always work and in some cases cannot work, because if offers only the slimmest of reparation. These images from the Atlas Obscura sum things up better than I could: this is a place you can no longer go. Or if you do go, expect the experience to be consumerism.

Places you can no longer goFactories and mall cartoon

But should we have no hope? The annual protests, maintained by Corinna Gould, with hundreds attending, and many more boycotting the shopping mall, are a vibrant reminder of the value of heritage and community cohesion. The reparation attempts, no matter how piecemeal they appear, will raise awareness of Ohlone heritage to some visitors to this location. The compelling and tragic story of this place will make some people care. Perhaps at some point the dead will be treated appropriately as has happened in other instances in the region.

And perhaps lessons can be learned. There is an ongoing dispute related to a similar urban Native American site nearby, the West Berkeley shellmound. Here, there has been a good deal of debate about where the mound’s boundaries are and if new developments such as a ‘155 apartments, about 30,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, and a six-level parking garage’ (source) will impact on shellmound remnants. In this case, Corinna Gould and others have got together to propose an alternative vision for the development that celebrates the heritage of this location rather than obliterating it.

ohlone-village-site-concept-1a-aerial1

Chris Walker for the Indian People Organising for Change

In this case, at least, those with a stake in this place other than developers have a chance to make the news, shape the agenda, protest and make their case creatively before the worst actually happens. The case is currently under review (as of December 2017).

save west berkeley shellmound

Source: Tom Lochner, East Bay Times

I started this two part blog post with some introspection about my urban prehistory project, caused by Colleen Morgan’s excellent question to me in York. Having thought a lot about this over the past six weeks, it is clear that what the sad case of Emeryville tells me is that as a heritage professional, I should not assume that my tool kit will work for all occasions, and that I need to let go, talk more to communities and learn from them. They are after all experts in where they live, and I am not. There is also a need to be more pro-active and celebrate the prehistory of places before urbanisation sweeps it away. In 2018, that is exactly what I intend to do.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: as with the first post on this topic, I have leaned heavily on online sources for much of this post, mostly newspaper articles, which have been the source of the various direct quotations in the post. Quotes in this post from Allen Pastron, Sally Morgan and Rosemary Cambra all came from a 2002 editorial in The Berkeley Daily Planet. I am grateful for the supportive comments and permission to use images from local website The E’ville Eye News.

I would also like to thank Andy Burnham of the Megalithic Portal for pointing out to me the excellent webpage they have on the shellmound, with information provided by user symbionspacesuit which includes the map location linked to above. 

The monument picture comes from this weird website, while the aerial view of the monument is widely available online. All other images in the post have the source credited in the caption, and if anyone wants images removed or different copyright statements added, please contact me.

If anyone can point me towards a report on the archaeology undertaken in advance of the Mall’s construction, or the website about the Ohlone heritage of the Mall location that is referred to in the Mall’s own website, I would appreciate it.