Galoshans

Halloween on the banks of the Clyde, chasing down a witch in swirling wind and spluttering rain, weather fitted for late October. Early evening is neither the witching hour nor the devil’s hour but this does not mean that a haunting would not take place.

Galoshans – guising – trick or treat in descending order of Scottishness – terminology for transactional temporary arrangements entered into between children and adults. Deals are made at this time of year – allowance to walk the street, dress up, paint faces, stay up late, demand sweets from friends and strangers, all in exchange for a performance, however feeble. These contracts may last for only minutes but can echo across a lifetime.

And so the pavements are alive with ghouls and vampires, superheroes and robots, and sometimes even wizards, warlocks and witches. But not midnight, more like just-after-dinner time, as more than likely this will be a ‘school night’ and even the generosity of parents can only be stretched so far.

To Gourock, the car park of the railway station to be precise. Here be Galoshans, giant puppets manipulated by three people, one anonymously buried deep inside the torso, the other two working the hands and arms with sticks. Jerking unnatural movements, always on the edge of falling over, vulnerable to puffs of wind and surges of enthusiastic children, the giants weaved their way back and forth, moving to the beat of George Ezra and Taylor Swift.

Kids followed the giants around the car park, safely protected from the real dangers of the world and the night by gazebos, catering vans, an ice cream van, even a minibus and a static portaloo. This was an enclosure, the children and their patient parents wrapped in the kinds of things children really like – ice cream, crap burgers, terrible pop music. Amidst the whirling and the screaming wandered a whole family, each with an illuminated pumpkin for a head.

The giants were weirdly scary – a pirate, a white-skulled ghoul, Mel Gibson from Braveheart, a creature that looked like a living giant white loaf. In the middle of it all was the witch that we were looking for – Granny Kempock. Her trio of puppeteers steered her around the car park, swaying to Lizzo, awkwardly posing for photographs. Her green horrible face was topped by straggly grey hair and a black pointed hat of the type that seems only to be worn by cartoon witches. Around her neck was a rope connecting green skulls, neon death jewellery. The arms had too many joints and were serpentine, the hands like five-headed snakes. Her clothing hung around her like dirty white rags, and this translucent garb meant that the operator inside was visible, almost as if the giant witch had swallowed a human who was then forced to wriggle through Granny’s guts to escape.

The looming witch and the other giants tirelessly roamed the car park compound even as we retreated. We had witnessed history – local history, but we had also seen reflected back on us prehistory, local prehistory.

Just a few hundred metres away from this street party, solace was to be found with a silent and altogether more dignified incarnation of Granny Kempock, a standing stone on the edge of a cliff overlooking the back of the main street in Gourock. Standing stones always transform in the dark, and this one is no different, even if it was illuminated by a sickly orange street light. Located within a caged enclosure, mimicked by the enclosure of facilities down at the railway station event, Granny Kempock remained immobile, completely un-moved by the new single from Lewis Capaldi. If local myths are to be believed however, a person is also trapped within this version of Granny, a petrified witch, consumed by stone.

The contractual nature of Halloween was evident here too – this is a standing stone that is fogged up with stories of deals made with the devil or god, promises of protection, blood vows, eternal life, lost souls. Salacious stories collected by local historians and repeated by generations of locals bring this stone to life as surely as if they were her puppeteers. Dressing up the stone as a New Year’s Day rite continued until the 1970s, another key point of the year where Granny Kempock rises from the dead and de-petrifies.

The dual nature of this late October evening was powerful and moving. Two Granny Kempocks, one alive with movement and rhythm, surrounded by children dancing with the scary witch. The other dead, danced around in the past only by the recklessly heathen. Traces of prehistoric cosmologies, ancient ways of understanding the world and the passing of the seasons, preparation for the cold dark winter where witches haunt the alleyways and car parks.

Two Granny Kempocks. Polar opposites, doppelgangers, still holding this small Inverclyde town in their spell after all these years.

Notes

The Galoshans Festival is an annual event in the run-up to Halloween held across Inverclyde. An element of this event is street performance by local musicians and the Galoshans giants, all based on local myths and legends. The street party I attended on evening of 28th October 2022 described above was a street party, one of three that weekend, with others in Greenock and Port Glasgow.

The Kempock Stone is a standing stone in Gourock town centre, almost certainly prehistoric, perhaps not in its original location. There are many local stories and myths and rites focused on this stone, including an association with Granny Kempock, supposedly a local witch. I have blogged about this stone before and working on a paper on the local value of this monument with geographer Tim Edensor.

Some of the photos from this blog post were taken by Jan Brophy. The book extract comes from Rev David MacCrae’s 1880 book Notes about Gourock, Chiefly Historical.

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The twice-named stone

Rock art in a church. A little niche and in a little niche. Nice.

The church is St John Lee in the small village of Acomb to the north of Hexham, close to the bustling A69. Nestled beside the entrance to this church is a liver-shaped stone with carved cup-and-ring marks and some other wounds.

This stone is unfussily sitting, recumbent, on the church floor, accompanied by an information panel of some care and attention. The handwritten note tells us that this ancient sacred object – The Oakwood Stone – was found nearby and ‘many years ago’ dragged to this propitious location by chain.

Already plough-scarred

extracted from the land

farmed

harvested.

The Oakwood stone, twice named, vaguely reminiscent of MR James’s Austin the Twice Born and his enchanted oak carving skills. The Lee part of the name of the church refers to a clearing in the wood, cutting down trees and making recompense with symbols, a church.

It is appropriate that stone should come to rest here, as it was of religious significance to its makers.

From The Journal of Antiquities (link below)

There is an inclusive nature to this inclusionary act, protecting this homeless carved stone, not ‘Christianising’ it. This is refuge. There is no judgement here, no condemnation, just quiet reflection on the mystery of religion and the things folk do for their gods.

You can read more about this stone-and-church setting here: The journal of antiquities entry.

You may be interested to read about another prehistoric rock art panel that is entangled with a church in my blog post Between Reverend and Reserved.

The history of prehistory

One of the little-known pleasures of researching prehistory is excavating archives. This is because the material remains of the past can only tell us so much. Whisper it, but understanding prehistory sometimes requires an engagement with the written word. From antiquarian accounts and field notebooks, to scheduling and planning documentation, to personal archives and media repositories, there is a wealth of information out there that can tells us about the most recent history of even the most ancient of sites. Documents, photographs, sketches, and even letters can be as informative as a nicely excavated posthole or a sherd of Grooved Ware when it comes to forming our prehistoric narratives. Research into any prehistoric site must include consideration of the historic in order to fully contextualise that site.

In his recent book A Contemporary Archaeology of London’s Mega Events (UCL Press, 2022), Johnny Gardner has set out a persuasive case for the methodological toolkit of the contemporary archaeologist to include visits to archives and oral histories, as well as more traditional field skills such as excavation and survey. I would extend this to prehistoric archaeology. Making sense of how a site appears to us now and the range of tangible evidence likely to have survived can only benefit from consideration of historic engagements with these sites; the story of how the site came to be in its current incarnation did not end when the last Neolithic person trudged away at the end of a ceremony. Site formation process documentation is not just about understanding sediments, erosion, or animal burrowing. In the archaeological record nothing stays static for long and humans can’t help themselves.

This post has been prompted by the recent passing to me of some very special photos of the Cochno Stone, a rock art site in West Dunbartonshire that I have been researching since 2015. (Watch this lecture I gave in 2021 for the story so far.) This made me reflect on the journey I have been on searching archives, gathering images, and speaking to people about this site and other rock art panels next to Faifley. I’ve also been doing some writing about this and I’ll update this post with links when they come to fruition. I also did an online lecture on this theme in August 2022 for Kilmartin Trust Museum, which should be available to view here soon.

The point I want to make here is that good prehistory, like any other investigation of the past, can and should happen in libraries, collections, archives and living rooms, otherwise we risk limiting ourselves.

To help make this point I would like to look at photography and the research context for these images. So I’m going to look at two aspects of the Cochno Stone story through the lens of archival material: the painting of the stone by Ludovic Mann in 1937, and events in the years around its burial in 1965.

Material being used here includes the Ronald Morris archive; HES / RCAHMS / Glasgow Life / West Dunbartonshire Council archives; and material held by private individuals. The Ronald Morris archive was my first port of call very early on in the process. Morris was a solicitor turned rock art aficionado, the godfather of amateur rock art archaeology in the UK for many. He was active in the field between the 1960s and 1980s, but he didn’t ever see the Cochno Stone, his first visits to Faifley coming a couple of years after the 1965 burial. I was hopeful though that he might have acquired some photos of Cochno on his visits or through his network of local contacts. So I have spent a couple of sessions looking through his extensive and largely uncatalogued archive held by HES at John Sinclair House in Edinburgh.

The archive contains a series of record pockets, one for each rock art site in Scotland. The Faifley record cards are a treasure trove of information on the sites at Auchnacraig and Whitehill with photos, sketches, fieldwork notes, letters and so on, most of which did not make it into Morris’s publications. Other sources of material will be introduced below.

Morris archive material (top) Auchnacraig 1 file, (bottom) Cochno Stone aka Whitehill 1

Clearly significant archaeological events such as those discussed in this post should be documented well, one would think. But in fact, they are not. There are many photos of the Cochno Stone – try googling it – but in fact these have rather limited scope and tend to fall into one of two categories. There are a tranche of black and white photos that probably date to the years immediately after Mann painted the stone in 1937. These photos tend to show parts of the site, which has been helpful in making sense of the detail of Mann’s paintjob although some areas of the stone have never quite been captured.

The other type of photo are from the time of our excavations at the site in 2016, when the whole stone was uncovered for 10 days. Some of these are ‘official’ photos as it were, taken by me and other team members, and then shared online. Others were taken by visitors to the site, while there is some officially sanctioned HES photography on the canmore page for the site including images taken by their high-spy piece of kit. (This has over 50 photos of the site, a great cross section and well worth checking out.)

But I have been aware for several years that there are gaps in the photographic record for this monument. There are, so far as I can tell, no photos that have come to light yet that show the Cochno Stone before Mann painted it. We only have sketches from the half century between ‘discovery’ in the late 1880s and 1937. Until recently there was only one photo I had seen of the stone actually being painted. And there is real dearth of imagery from the period in the run-up to the burial of the stone in 1965 – a time when one would presume based on our excavation observations that the stone was at least partially grown over and Mann’s paint had largely faded into memory. So we have really good photographic coverage from 1937 to 1950, and 2016, but almost nothing between 1888 and 1936 or 1950 and 1965; clearly between 1965 and today the stone has been buried and beyond the realm of photography for all but a fortnight.

There is a real research imperative to tracking down photos from these gaps in our coverage, as these would, one hopes, shed light on the, say, the process of painting, and the changing condition of the stone through time. So I have spent quite a bit of time searching in archives for photos that might fill these time gaps, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to be passed photos and slides from others who know of my research interests. This has allowed the gaps to gradually be filled albeit it slowly and in limited quantities. However when a new photo comes to light it is almost always a thrill, but often poses more questions than it answers. This also catalyses further research, whether that be returning to the excavation archive itself, or going to a library.

Paint: 1937

When I started work on the Cochno Stone, finding out more about the painting in 1937 was a primary aspiration. The painting of the stone by Ludovic Mann and with help from George Applebey is one of the defining moments in the biography of this monument. Notes in Mann’s own archive so far have revealed only circumstantial evidence for what Mann did and why he did it. Speaking to George Applebey’s son, also George, also revealed little on what happened in that summer of 1937. Mann’s work at Knappers / Druid’s Temple that summer completely overshadowed his time at Cochno, to the extent that almost no newsclippings could be found that even showed the paint never mind reported on the event. This is surprising as Mann was very much an influencer and serial media user at the time, as I have written about elsewhere. My attempts to work out what Mann was up to can be found elsewhere (Brophy 2020). Suffice it to say that this eccentric act has in its origins in Mann’s obsessions with prehistoric eclipses, cosmology and metrology.

The actual act of painting, which must have taken quite some time and been very complex, is even trickier to make sense of due to a lack of documentation. One photo in the public domain supposedly showed Mann himself painting the stone. This was published in Ronald Morris’s 1981 book The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway). The caption for Plate 111 notes, ‘L. M. Mann painting in the carvings about 1937’ and the photo was taken from the J Harrison Maxwell collection.

This doesn’t really look like Mann is painting (is it even Mann?) so this is probably a posed shot once the job has been completed and this is certainly one of the most detailed photos of this feature of the site. It reminds me of a rather better-known image, again probably posed by Harrison Maxwell, this one featuring Mann and Applebey. This digital version held by HES was scanned back to front by RCAHMS for some reason, the correct version is also included for reference.

Canmore_image_SC01062363

During preparation for The Mann the Myth conference in Glasgow in 2019, Glasgow Life curator Katinka Dalglish passed me a photo she had found in the Mann archive they hold that does actually show someone painting the surface of the stone. At first I assumed this was Mann himself but his hair is not the same as the chap who is definitely Mann in the above photo. Here coloured paint is being applied (probably red, maybe blue) using a course brush and messy paint tin. The stones and white sheet / paper may relate to a rubbing being done of the stone at the same time.

Glasgow Life

Then in May 2022, I was emailed a selection of scanned photos. These photos had been sent to a Mrs Bowie of Clydebank by Ronald Morris in 1979. In turn these had been passed to committee members of the Clydebank Local History Society, Dave Carson and then Sam Gibson. It was Sam who kindly sent me the scans. One of these immediately blew me away: another paint job shot.

This remarkable photo shows another team member – a woman this time – working on the stone, probably painting a cup-and-ring white. Here, the paint tin is clearer, with some on twitter suggesting this might be Crown brand. A brush sits beside the paint, and the brush is slightly less coarse than the one branded by the unknown man above. This suggests that painting the stone was more of a team effort than I had initially presumed. But who are these members of the painting team?

One last look: 1964

The Morris archive contains a folder for the Cochno Stone (aka Whitehill 1). It is disappointingly thin (as he did not actually see the site) but did contain some fascinating photos from 1964 and perhaps 1965.

There are tantalising notes and photos regarding a 1964 excavation carried out by the University of Glasgow’s Horace Fairhurst. This is accompanied by an incredible series of photos showing four middle-aged men on a large rock surface, examining the stone and even lifting flaps of carpet-like turf expose the symbols beneath. There is some confusion in the published work of Morris and his notes as to whether this is actually the Cochno Stone or a neighbouring site that has since been ‘lost’.

What the third of these photographs clearly show is that the Cochno Stone was by 1964 apparently largely free of the paint that Mann had applied, this having weathered away after almost 30 years of exposure to the elements. This photo also shows quite clearly that the edges of the stone had begun to grass over, something we had suspected during the 2016 excavation. The stone was stained on the fringes and the paint survived, suggestive of these areas of the monument having been protected from weather to an extent.

Yellow paint lines from 1937 survived probably due to being grassed over by the 1960s

So far I have been unable to find any written record of this piece of fieldwork or established the nature of what Morris called an excavation at this time. Horace Fairhurst (1908-1986) was a geographer cum archaeologist, and the first head of Archaeology Department at the University of Glasgow in the 1960s (a post I currently hold). His most significant research related to medieval and post-medieval settlement in Scotland and the archaeology of the island of Arran. This may well have been an opportunistic piece of work carried out at the request of Morris, and seems to have been at most ‘having a good look’ at the site.

Horace Fairhurst (looking to camera) at Machrie Moor, Arran, in 1979 (source: Demarco Digital Archive)

Very recently another set of photos came into my possession that were taken around the same time, perhaps even during this fieldwork episode. My colleague Nyree Finlay found a small number of slides showing rock art sites within the archive of our now sadly deceased colleague, Alex Morrison. Two of these slides were taken of the Cochno Stone in 1964 and crucially are in colour. These photos have presumably never been seen outside the lecture theatre – until now. I am not sure if these photos were taken by Alex – he graduated in 1964 and so may have accompanied Fairhurst on a visit to the site as they shared rural settlement research interests. Unlike the black and white photos above, here the scale is a shooting stick, rather than a measuring tape.

These stunning images are very helpful in understanding what the Cochno Stone looked like in 1964, less than a year before its burial. Grass and weeds have encroached onto the fringes of the outcrop. Almost no traces of Mann’s paint survives. But perhaps most noticeably, the surface appears covered in scrapes and scratches of the kind one might associate with a lot of people walking on the stone and in some cases marking it: some letters are visible scraped into the stone surface as well as hints of the more deeply incised graffiti we found in 2016. The wall surrounding the stone seems almost ruinous in places with parts of this lying in weeds around the stone although the style survives on the north side. Finally, there is apparently a fence around the entirety of the stone, something I had previously not been aware of.

Within months the stone was buried. Perhaps this brief interlude of interest in the Cochno Stone by some archaeologists from the University of Glasgow was instrumental in the burial, or the visit occurred for the purposes of documentation before the the stone was covered over. This has yet to be established.

The Morris archive includes another significant image which seems to show the location of the Cochno Stone not long after it was buried. The triangular feature on the skyline is part of a metal fence atop the wall around the Cochno Stone and so this picture seems to have been taken from the south-south-west. Rubble or wall remnants appear in the foreground. If this photo was taken by Morris is might have been on a visit to the area in 1968; not all of the stone appears to have grassed over however at this time. Another note: this image seems to be from a proof, but was this photo ever published?

Concluding thoughts

The photos and records I have been fortunate enough to consult over the past few years have been transformative in my understanding of the 20th century story of the Cochno Stone. Yet even for the recent past gaps in knowledge and understanding remain, gaps that to an extent can be filled by talking to people and learning from their memories and experiences. Taken together, these very historical means of knowledge generation – archives, files, photographs, interviews – can help us to piece together the modern biography of prehistoric sites and their study. In turn, this final piece of the biographical narrative of such sites that stretched back thousands of years can be more fully understood. And the last chapter is almost always essential reading in any book for a good reason.

There is much more to unpick here. More photos and files remain to be consulted, and there are people to speak to. Excavating this kind of knowledge will probably be more useful in helping us to understand Faifley’s rock art than anything I could do with a trowel or a microscope. These are human stories, regardless of whether they were being written in stone 5,000 years ago or in 1937, or 1964. So my plea to prehistorians is – look to history!

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the staff of the HES search room for looking out the Ronald Morris archive for me to consult. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Nyree Finlay and Sam Gibson for providing me with some of the materials discussed above. Thanks very much to Michael Gannon for scanning the Morrison slides for me.

I have written a chapter on Ronald Morris’s archive in a book published to celebrate Stan Beckensall’s wonderful life and career in September 2022. The book is being edited by Kate Sharpe and Paul Frodsham and my chapter is called: Digging into the Ronald Morris archive: a Kilmartin Glen case-study. Full details as soon as I have them.

The other reference in the text relates to my own writing on Mann’s paintjob in 1937: K Brophy 2000 The Ludovic technique: the painting of the Cochno Stone, West Dunbartonshire. Scottish Archaeological Journal 42 [email me if you want a pdf of this article]

I also appreciate the invite to speak as part of the Kilmartin House Trust lecture series in summer 2022. The topic was using the Ronald Morris and Ludovic Mann archives. There was a great and well-informed audience of almost 90, and Ken McElroy created this disturbing image to market the talk. It must have worked!

An archaeology of artificial geysers

Has there ever been a contemporary archaeology of an artificial geyser? I’m not sure, and until very recently this is not a question that kept me awake at night. Regardless of the answer, it is probably time for such a thing to happen (again).

On a recent trip to Reykjavik in Iceland, a circular stone feature caught my attention during a visit to the Perlan, a geothermally-heated water storage facility that acts as a visitor attraction and is a landmark in the city skyline due to its hilltop location. It is the ‘number one attraction in Reykjavik’ according to their website.

Perlan sits within an extensive park with a network of pathways, and abuts the regional airport, which is actually a repurposed WW2 military airfield and so the area is also dotted with concrete and earthwork remnants of the former military use of this landscape. So there are already quite a lot of interesting humps and bumps for the archaeologist to ponder over before we come to the geyser.

Situated a couple of hundred metres to the south of Perlan on a slope down to the coast, and now located beneath a scary looking zipline are a series of features which relate to what was, until 2012, an artificial geyser denoted “Goshverrin” Strokur (“The geyser” Strokkur).

The physical remains

The remains of the artificial geyser consist of two circular stone arrangements, one of which was the geyser basin itself, the other a viewing and information zone. This is surrounded by remnants of a rope fence and warning signs.

View of the geyser setting from the information zone

The geyser itself erupted from the centre of a circular scooped basin some 4m in diameter bounded by a kerb of oblong igenous blocks. The floor of the basis is lined with cobbles of a similar petrology (at least visually) and within the central zone is an arrangement of irregular rocks set around a capped rusty pipe from which, presumably, water would forcibly leave when in operation. A layer of fine gravel is evident beneath this arrangement.

The basin is set concentrically within a larger circular enclosure, defined again by a block kerb. This setting is some 12-15m in diameter, with an incomplete boundary. This seems to have been some kind of demarcation, perhaps to keep viewers away from the hot water, and there are no obvious features in the space between outer boundary and the basin, a space that is now largely overgrown with vegetation.

Beyond this a now incomplete outer cordon marked by a rope boundary is evident in places, and some warning signs remain in place. The fence consists of evenly spaced – about 2m apart – squared wooden posts, most of which have warning signs attached to them; these are connected by a black rope. Separate free-standing wooden posts with warning signs are also evident outwith this cordon.

Immediately to the northeast of the geyser arrangement itself is a smaller circular enclosed and paved area, furnished with four information boards, that I took to be a formal viewing area for when the geyser was activated. This is shown in a photo above. It is a circular space again, about the same size as the geyser central feature, but surrounded by a more substantial wall. The floor of this area is cobbled, with a concentric design centred on a single square cobble and triangle arrangement. Set into the walls of this enclosure are a set of four information boards; these show clear signs of a lack of maintenance and are partially concealed by overgrown vegetation.

These boards essentially present information about Iceland’s volcanic setting, how geysers work in general, and specific details about how this fake geyser was operated. This is given in Icelandic and English, with accompanying geography textbook-like diagrams. The relevant text (and accompanying illustration) to explain how this all worked is:

“A hole was bored ?0m into the ground and outfitted with a steel pipe connected to a water conduit charged with geothermal water of temperature up to 125 degrees C. An interchangeable section in the upper part of the steel pipe makes it possible to constrict flow at that point. This equipment determines the height of the eruption …. confined basis surrounds the opening”.

To the east of these information boards, and also set into the same wall, is a metal box with a locked door. There is a sticker of a skull in the centre of the door and graffiti across the object. I assume this is either how the geyser was operated ie a control box, but I suppose it is possible that it is hatch leading to some subterranean access to the geyser workings.

Operation

The geyser appears to have been a very good simulation of a natural geyser, the most famous on Iceland being Strokkur. This erupts on a fairly regular cycle, at least once every 10 minutes, and shoots lukewarm water in the air up to 40m in height.

Strokkur in 2015 (photo: Jan Brophy)

This phenomenon is caused by spring water leaching downwards coming into contact with volcanically heated rocks, the pressure of which shoots water and stream through a vent or opening at the ground surface. This repeats itself on a cycle which can be interrupted or even completely altered by earthquakes and volcanic activity.

1882 diagram of the Great Geyser, near Strokkur (wikipedia creative commons licence)

The artificial geyser at Perlan therefore was an attempt to demonstrate this phenomenon in a relatively controlled fashion. I can find very little information online about its origins or use. It was constructed by The Reykjavik Heating Utility company and the travel website Petit fute had this to say:

To remind people that Reykjavík was named after the fumaroles of the many hot springs that once existed, the capital’s heating company decided in 1995 to recreate an exact copy of a geyser. Today, geysers and other steam jets have disappeared from the capital area due to the lowering of the water table. The new real-fake geyser, inaugurated in January 1998, operates for two to four hours a day and reaches a height of 20 to 30 metres.

The last time I can find evidence for it working was in summer 2013 in a blog, also the source of this photo.

There are surprisingly few photos of the geyser erupting to be found online but these suggest it was quite spectacular.

Wikipedia
Mike Mozolin

There is also some video footage online as well of course (this example from 2012):

The videos are useful as they give some more insight into how the geyser worked, with a good deal of steam before main eruptions, and the basin filled with slowly draining water after the event. It is likely that this cycle will have had implications for the localised flora and fauna in the same way as weird creatures congregate at ocean floor vents.

Pre-eruption
Post-eruption flooding of the basin

Weirdly, until recently there was also an artificial geyser inside the Perlan building, shooting water from the basement beside a central stair well. I think this was decommissioned when the building was revamped in 2018-19. It does look rather feeble but tourist guidebooks were still advertising this until quite recently. When the book is written about the typology of artificial geysers, file this one under ‘fountain’.

Gerry Images

Geysers are spectacular natural places but subject to human manipulation. In some instances soap has been used to provoke eruptions, as used to happen at Great Geyser, and I was witness to at the Lady Knox Geyser, Waiotapu, in New Zealand. Here, a guy stood beside the orifice and told us all about ‘geezers’ before dropping a huge bar of soap down into the vent and running off to the side quickly. There followed an ejaculation of soapy warm water turning into a full scale geyser eruption that lasted quite a while. This rather hollow experience is ‘presented‘ to the public daily at 1015 am.

Lady Knox geyser, NZ, in 2009 (Photos: Jan Brophy)

Incidentally, the type of soap used to stimulate a geyser eruption is known as a surfactant, and this practice has ceased in most places for environmental reasons. I would imagine the Perlan geyser eruption was started by someone pressing a button, perhaps in that metal control box, and did not require the use of soap.

Toward an archaeology of artificial geysers

Various comments on TripAdvisor suggest the Perlan artificial geyser stopped working in 2012, and there were plans to get it back up and running as recently as 2018. The fact a zipline goes right across the top of it now suggests it may never work again and will continue its decline (or elevation depending on how you see it) into the archaeological record and it looks to me like it is, to all intents and purposes, a ruin. Not only that but a significant ruin too: this an extremely rare example of this form of architecture with a fairly limited geographical and cultural distribution.

There is no doubt that this is now an archaeological site, and one that could benefit from some work. I would suggest the complex should be properly surveyed and mapped, while expeditious excavation may reveal information about the visitor experience of this site and allow study of any micro-environment caused by repeated soaking in warm water. (This might also identify whether soap was ever used here as a surfactant.)

Why bother? What can archaeology tell us here? Even although it was made in 1995 and went out of use within two decades, there are already few memories and images associated with it, and it will soon fall from oral tradition. Archaeology combined with ethnography should be applied to this site before it is too late – at some point places, regardless of how old they are, might as well be prehistoric. Otherwise, when archaeologists rediscover this site in 700 years time, they really will be starting from scratch when it comes to making sense of this diamond geyser.

NB If such a project has already been done by archaeologists at Reykjavik University, my apologies!

Buried alive

For the next issue of History Scotland magazine, I have written an article on Scotland’s urban standing stones. In this blog post I want to expand on the rich story of one of those standing stones, the Lang Stane in Aberdeen. At the end of the blog post there can be found links to posts I have written about some of the other stones mentioned in the article.

Hidden in plain sight, only the throw of a fish supper away from Union Street in Aberdeen, stands the Lang Stane, a most peculiar example of urban prehistory. This angular standing stone is squeezed into a niche in a wall, looking remarkably like a human corpse that has been crammed into a coffin, buried alive. The stone has a kinetic, restless energy, as if at night it tries to escape from the confines of its premature burial. Inscribed – branded – across this stone cadaver in what I assume to be the torso area is the word LANG STANE in capital letters, with a suggestive slight pause between the two halves of its name, the deep breath taken before the coffin lid closes. Curious linear marks run across the stone, mostly natural erosion lines – wrinkles – but some hint at rough treatment at some point in the stone’s life – scars.

Is this actually a prehistoric standing stone? If it is, clearly something happened between 2000 BCE and AD 2000 that caused the stone to end up in this unorthodox setting. It’s shape has led some to suggest that it was once part of a recumbent stone circle, commonplace in North-east Scotland, although it is unknown what happened to the remainder of this monument, most likely a victim of more interventionist farming practices and early urbanisation in the post-medieval period. Canmore offers little more than a description of the stone, largely drawing on a brief note from Wyness’s 1965 book City by the grey North Sea: Aberdeen, a surprisingly rare mention of this stone in a book about the city.

The stone is shown alone in the 1746 Map of the Burgh of Aberdeen by G&W Paterson, here a solitary stone near a windmill; it sits poised to be swallowed up a tidal wave of urbanisation coming from the east, beside the track that would become Union Street. When the inevitable happened at some point after this map was made, according to Wyness, the stone was “built into the niche at the rear of Messrs. Watt and Grant’s building” and the street named Langstane Place. The niche is on the corner with Dee Street, named for the river, not the Tudor alchemist.

Extract from G&W Paterson’s 1746 map of Aberdeen (National Map Library of Scotland)

Appropriately for Aberdeen this stone is made of granite, and so it blends in with the background stonework and niche, three shades of grey. This is a big lump of stone, measuring 1.8m height, 0.68m breadth and 0.3m thick. It is pointed at both ends, more so at the bottom, which has a slightly green tinge. We have no way of telling which way up this monolith stood in any earlier incarnation in a stone socket; for all we know it is propped upside down, a cruel fate indeed. Little more can be said about this stone now, and I don’t think any form of direct analysis of the stone itself could shed more light on the story; this has moved from the purview of prehistorians to those who like to dig in archives.

The stone is enjoyed by some regardless of how old it is or how it got there despite the unpromising surrounds. A series of wonderfully strange photos can be found online showing the stone in various compromising situations. In the Megalithic Portal, The Captain documents the stone is “now presented in an alcove behind Burger King …. The poor thing seems neglected amongst the bins and street signs, but at least it is still here.” This is reinforced by a Google Street View image that looks like the work of Cold War Steve. Why not create your own versions?

7 Dee Street, Aberdeen (from The Megalithic Portal)
My own google street view attempt looking west along Langstane Place

There is a really lovely blog post written about the Lang Stane by the author Ailish Sinclair, who includes the stone in her historical novel Fireflies and Chocolate (GWL Publishing, 2021). She suggests the stone was moved to the niche in the 1960s but this must be a confusion with the published note on the stone by Wyness. She also notes a “faint six pointed star just below the text” carved onto the stone although I confess I could not find this on my visits to the stone. She also notes, “I like to pay the stone a wee visit when I’m in the vicinity, all tucked away and squished into its alcove as it is. There’s no scenic rolling hillsides or lush forests for the Lang Stane as enjoyed by its contemporaries!”. Such standing stones are indeed in unfamiliar surroundings, their present setting having been occupied perhaps for only 5% of the lifetime of the megalith.

I visited the Lang Stane twice in preparation for this blog post and the magazine article. I was of course drawn to the incongruity of the stones and its context, an unintentional masterpiece of urban juxtaposition. It sits on a curving street corner in the aforementioned bespoke niche, raised slightly from the pavement level on a sort of kerb, but not the kind of kerb that was in common use in the Bronze Age. Above it is an antiquarian road sign with a portentous finger pointing up the street and over the head of the stone.

The niche itself is in many ways as interesting as the stone itself, as I also found to be the case at the London Stone. It is defined by clean rectangular grey granite blocks, with shaped blocks forming an arch. The tidy look is somewhat let down by a metal cable concealer running vertically just to the left of the stone and a downpipe beyond this has caused unsightly water stains to form on one side of the niche. No history has been written about the niche, nor do blueprints or architect’s drawings exist (so far as I know) to show if and how it has developed through time. However, this old archival photo (source) suggests that at one point like so many urban standing stones this one was caged or held in position, in effect pinned down to avoid resurrection. And there was a much larger niche at this point too, coarser in stonework, wider in girth; indeed the different stonework suggests that this is a different niche, although presumably in the same location. Hints in the current stonework suggest there have indeed been modifications here.

The Lang Stane (date unknown)

I could see no offerings behind or beneath the stone, and nothing was draped from it, although surely from time to time football scarves are wrapped around it. The stone shares this streetside location with bins – a lot of bins as most of the images above show. Graffiti can also be found nearby: SAVE TREES FREE SPIRIT according to a 2007 photo on the the Megalithic Portal. This is a city centre edgeland, a place of smells and oozing liquid, a visceral street corner location, no place for a standing stone. But exactly the kind of place where we do need standing stones.

Diagonally across from the stone is a carry-out food place called Langstane Fish & Chips. This ensures a regular supply of punters walking to and fro to collect kebabs, sausage suppers, burgers and pizza slices. The standing stone is an irresistible place to eat beside, with the ritual consumption of food likely the kind of thing that happened around this stone millennia ago.

I started this blog post with the observation that this stone reminds me of Victorian photos of open caskets, the public display of bodies, memento mori. This postmortem photography was very popular for a while, a means to memorialise the dead on film. In some cases, the corpse was arranged as if asleep to give this impression in the photograph. Sometimes this was done publicly with the bodies notorious criminals, to show that they were indeed dead, and to kill myths and legends there and then, yet unintentionally creating a legend nonetheless.

This process, quite alien to us now, as alien in many ways as erecting a standing stone, captures for me some of the more ghoulish elements of urban prehistory. The Lang Stane sits on display, exposed, and for all intents it plays dead as drunks stagger past, and tourists trace the contours in the granite with their fingers. Photographers are drawn to it, not for the beauty of the stone but the weirdness of its setting, and like the dead it can do nothing except accept how it has been posed for our benefit.

But the Lang Stane, like other urban standing stones, does not ask for our sympathy, but might benefit from our thoughts, our concern, our whispers, a little care. It is resilient and will no doubt outlive us all. At least it is still here.

Weep not for me my parents dear,
I am not dead but sleeping here
‘.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan who accompanied me on both visits and took the night-time photos in the blog above.

Links to blog posts about some of the standing stones in my Historic Scotland article (details of this article will be added when it is published):

Granny Kempock, Greenock – In the shadow of the stone (Urban Prehistorian post 84)

Dagon Stone – Dagon Day (UP post 7)

Hoar Stane, Tulllibody – The solace of deep Anthropocene time (UP post 97)

Ravenswood Avenue standing stone, Edinburgh – Behind bars (UP post 28)

USAs / Urban Solstice Alignments

This blog post is a collaborative effort between journalist and author Jimmy Thomson and myself. It concerns the phenomenon that I have taken to calling USAs (Urban Solstice Alignments). Jimmy is the Sydney-based polymath who first brought this concept to my attention, leading to an earlier blog post I wrote on the topic, What would we do if the sun died?, which focused on the most famous USA in the USA (and indeed the world), Manhattanhenge. In this new post, we’ll focus on the logistics of finding and making sense of urban solstice alignments through both analogue and digital means. By searching for the phenomenon, will we destroy its magic?

How to find your own Manhattanhenge by Jimmy Thomson

I have been promising the Urban Prehistorian for more than a year to write something about how to discover your own Manhattanhenge in a town or city near you. Now, I should make it clear that I am neither a geographer, cartographer, astronomer nor a mathematician.  I’m a journalist, author and travel writer with all the lack of useful skills that implies.

Manhattanhenge is a phenomenon that occurs when the rising or setting sun appears between the high-rises of New York and shines directly down its East-West aligned streets. People travel to New York to see it, and it occurs on two days in both May and December, so it’s a big deal (to some).

But given that it’s just the rising sun appearing or the setting sun disappearing between buildings or even the sides of a steep valley, surely this must occur elsewhere. And it does, although possibly not as spectacularly as in New York or, indeed, Stonehenge. In fact, you may be able to find one near you and this is how to do it.

Firstly you will need to identify a long straight road that drops towards the horizon and has no obstructions (like buildings) at its farthest end.  To get the full effect, you the sun to appear on the horizon where the diffraction of light through the thick layers of the atmosphere has greatest effect.  Basically, we’re probably talking about somewhere over water or flat land.

You don’t want the street to be perfectly aligned East-to-West as that would only work close to the equator.  The best streets in NYC for viewing Manhattanhenge are on 118 degrees, which is  full 28 degrees south of East.

Then you will need Google Maps and two free online apps called SunEarthTools and another named Mapping and Distance Tools.  There are other online apps that will do what we want here and if you can find them and get them to work, go for it. Basically you want one app that will establish the compass direction of the road line, and another that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise at that point on the horizon.

So first we identify a likely location – a long straight road, dropping to the horizon, with high sides and no obstructions.  This is where Google Maps comes in handy as you can use the 3D satellite view to check for obstructions and the height of the buildings along the sides.

For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen Hooker Boulevard running down to Mermaid Beach (the thin while line in the centre of this image above, from Google Maps), in Broadbeach in the Gold Coast area of Queensland, Australia.

Why there?  Because I know that whole area has a lot of high rises that go all the way down to the beach.  It ain’t Manhattan but a quick scan of Google maps confirms that the road is straight and runs roughly East.

The next thing is to use Mapping and Distance Tools to draw a line from where you might view the phenomenon to where the road runs out.

The display in the top left corner will give you the azimuth or compass direction that this line follows.

In this case the road runs straight down a line heading 79 degrees from North.

Then we move on to the SunEarth app where we can fiddle with the times and dates to find out exactly when the sun will rise on or near that point on the horizon.

This tells us that the sun will rise there at a few seconds before 6.04 am on April 16, this year.

Now, the sun doesn’t go straight up, it also travels north or south as it rises, so you might want to adjust by a day or so to get the best effect when the sun has fully risen. SunEarth will show the variations hour by hour. So there you go. 

Find some canyon, concrete or otherwise, pointing roughly East-South-East in the Northern hemisphere, or ENE south of the equator, and start working the map apps to find the optimum date, and you have your own Manhattanhenge.

This can work just as well for sunsets although obviously you change the principal direction from East to West.

This may now be factored into holiday planning as well as potential romantic first dates for geeks, especially if you go for sunsets.

Most importantly, you may also have acquired a new appreciation of how clever the Mayans, Egyptians, Druids (if indeed it was them) and all the ancient standing stone cultures were.

The ubiquity of USAs suggests this is all a big coincidence but that doesn’t invalidate the experience that some people have of this phenomenon by Kenny Brophy

In a recent study of the levels of entropy of urban networks, Geoff Boeing suggested that ‘networks such as streets, paths, and transit lines organize the human dynamics of complex urban systems. They shape travel behavior (sic), location decisions, and the texture of the urban fabric’ (2019, 1). However, what if another organisational factor was at play here – the sun?

The alignment of straight urban streets towards solstice sunrises and sunsets as discussed by Jimmy is a recognised international phenomenon. There are actually quite a few of these, almost all with the suffix -henge, making of course a conceptual connection with Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in England that is commonly thought to have solar elements built into its architectural organisation. (Perhaps we should call this particular effect Stonehengehenge.) These events generally happen on a day or two each year, and sometimes draw crowds of early risers wearing sunglasses.

And so in North America, we have Manhattanhenge, in New York, but there is also Chicagohenge, Montrealhenge, Torontohenge, and Phillyhenge (Philadelphia). It is perhaps not surprising that the best-known examples of this phenomenon are in North America. Boeing’s study concludes that, ‘on average, US/Canadian study sites are far more grid-like than those elsewhere, exhibiting less entropy and circuity’. This is certainly the case for Manhattan, Philadelphia and Chicago. Boeing’s data shows why there is a Manhattenhenge but not a Bostonhenge.

Boeing 2019 Figure 3
Cities that have USAs are more likely to be organised high-entropy cites (bottom left) (Boeing 2019, Fig 7)

Furthermore, opportunities to witness such events seem to be increasing: the equivalent in Washington DC is called ‘DC Henge week‘ reflecting the inherently non-precise nature of aligning the sun and skyscrapers, and this can all work for sunsets as well as sunrises, doubling the equinox fun. These events are perfect for instagramers and tweeters, wonderfully hashtaggable.

Chicagohenge, seen from West Adams Street on March 12 2020 (photo: Tim Hara from Adler Planetarium webite)
Phillyhenge September 5th 2012 (from Hidden City wesbite)
Torontohenge (@serenevistas)

Further afield, there are USAs in Australia (Melbhenge) and has been made clear above, Jimmy has found one on the Gold Coast. There would seem potential for a Sydneyhenge but this one does not seem to have got much traction online. This might be a chance for Jimmy to get something started in that city, and often a -henge event can take on a momentum of its own once someone points it out and gives it a hashtag.

Melbhenge from twitter user @_jlrreyes (on Secret Melbourne website)

What is the value in the identification of such solar alignments? The phenomenon is often flagged up by city planetariums (planetaria?) as a tool to raise awareness of an interest in the skies in general, as is the case for New York and Chicago. Dr Rebecca Allen of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Melbourne has argued that, ‘Melbhenge is a great time to explore how our modern landscape reflects the efforts our ancestors made to track the motions of the heavens’ suggesting a deeper educational value akin to the aspirations behind the construction of the Sighthill stone circles in Glasgow by Duncan Lunan. There is a sense that these experiences are not so much educational as primal. Jackie Faherty, an American Museum of Natural History astronomer, has suggested that, ‘Daily life in the 2000s does not have the same connection to the solar system that daily life hundreds of years ago did. Moments where we get to see an interplay with the sun or the planets with our everyday experiences such as a city grid are a reflection of how the human experience is complemented with a connection to the bigger picture of the cosmos’ (USA Today). Maybe it just makes us feel small and insignificant, an effect cities already have on some people.

One of the most pressing questions I suppose that some of those who witness a -henge USA are surely, ‘are these deliberately built into the city design’? Or ‘is this just all a big coincidence’? One way to look at this could be around the statistical probability that in a large urban network there would not be at least one street that aligned towards a solar solstice event.

This is explored albeit perhaps not from the point of view of the latter sentence in a website called On solstices and city planning designed by Demeter Sztanko. Here is presented street plans of hundreds of cities and big urban areas across the world showing where solstice alignments occur. This data comes from some kind of algorithm that has been focused on Open Streetmap: Sztanko describes his work as ‘pure math’ (The Guardian). I suppose this shows that by looking hard enough and by asking the right questions, -henge events are commonplace and everywhere. One does not need to focus on one street in one city as Jimmy suggests when one could algorithm an entire country. I do not mean to downplay the complexity of this piece of work as it presumably needs to take into account the location of the city in relation to the equator as well as the street plan, but it does show how USAs happen accidentally, an unexpected (and more often than not un-noticed) outcome of building a city. This website also fails to demonstrate causality: just because a pattern is evident does not mean that it is significant or deliberate, something Sztanko acknowledges. ‘Unfortunately I don’t know whether these alignments are intentional or just happen to be such on statistical basis’.

I suppose the sheer quantity and banality of the data ultimately points towards this being a unexpected byproduct of urbanisation. To illustrate this, I used this website to explore a city close to where I live – Glasgow. There is indeed a Glasgowhenge. In fact, there are potentially many of them in the area, due to the northwest-southeast trend of many streets. Most of these are short stretches of road and one would have to carry out some fieldwork to establish if they have the correct criteria for working as a -henge event as set out by Jimmy earlier on. Some are interesting from a coincidence point of view, such as Kenmuirhill, Mount Vernon, which runs close to the location of a Bronze Age cemetery that was excavated in the 1920s by Ludovic Mann. A short stretch of Cochno Road, near the Cochno Stone, also fits the bill.

Screen grab from Solstices & City Planning website: Glasgow. Red lines = solstice aligned street sections

But there are essentially no possible solstice alignments in the city centre, the grid layout of much of the city north of the Clyde running in the wrong direction. Furthermore, in Boeing’s data, Glasgow is no Chicago when it comes to grids and entropy.

From Boeing 2019

Having said that, there is more than one type of Glaswegian prehistoric urban alignment if Harry Bell is to be believed, his network of aligned sites somewhat more free-form and not dependent on either street layout or the movement of the sun.

The map from Harry Bell’s Glasgow’s Secret Geometry: the City’s Oldest Mystery.

A combination of the high-level data at mapping level, followed by fieldwork at the right time of the year, would no doubt illuminate some fun experiences to be had some mornings or evenings in some cities around the world. This is probably enough to be getting on with.

USAs are derived from two different overlapping human urges – pareidolia (seeing patterns in things) and an obsession with the sun. In USAs this becomes entangled with our concepts of time and the calendar, and desire for urbanisation. In that sense if it is fascinating contemporary human phenomenon. What is remarkable about the song and dance, the branding, the crowds, the sunglasses, and the search for meaning is that in almost all cases this is meaningless in the sense that whatever we think we are experiencing was never intended to happen. This does not invalidate the experience of a USA but it does suggest that we are making this stuff up as we go along and reading our own meaning into the experience. As Boeing notes, cities can be ‘planned or unplanned, ordered and disordered’, and the same could be said about stone circles and henges.

There is nothing wrong with any of this, and searching for a -henge in the streets of you city, or on the screen of your laptop, is not in itself futil. Reading too much into whatever you find might well be, but then that is what makes us human, and connects us to the original henge builders from millennium ago.

Sources and acknowledgements: I must thank Jimmy Thomson for writing part of this blog post and encouraging me to think about USAs again. This blog post also makes reference to this academic paper:

Boeing, G 2019 Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy. Applied Network Science 4: 67.

A pint of prehistory

Prehistory is frequently justified but not always ancient. In this ghost story for Christmas, I am going to take you on a journey from the walls of a pub, to the pop charts and a board game, via the portal of a crop circle.….

Imagine now that I am the ghost of urban prehistory, taking you by the hand, flying out of the window and up, up and away into the snow. Below you, once you get control of your faculties, emerging from the mists of time and space is a familiar stone circle. Stonehenge! But thankfully we are not stopping there, not just yet, our engagement only as tangible as the ghosts passing through in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor. Soon below us emerges a much larger setting of stones, recognisable as Avebury due to the fact that it is occupied by the living as well as the dead. Then Silbury Hill whizzes past, momentarily mistaken by you for the defunct mound at Marble Arch at London. Atop the mound nestled in the depression lies a sleeping deer. Pausing only momentarily to fight off a pigeon, there below looms the lengthy grandeur of West Kennet, a long streak of megalith, then things become a blur of whiteness, chalk ups and downs.

You awake with a start. You have in your hand a pint of foaming nut brown ale and the sky – or rather the ceiling – is dancing, Rich vibrant colours assault your senses. The Southern Lights, Aurora Stonehengis.

Your are in the Barge Inn, Wiltshire, located near the village of Honeystreet and on the bank of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The walls here are adorned with a wonderful mural that showcases the very best of the local Neolithic archaeology along with some crop circles and other weird and wonderful things that occupy the spaces between archaeology and arcane-ology.

The mural is the work of artist Vince Palmer, the ghost of urban prehistory tells you as he puts another pint on the table you appear now to be sitting at. The beermat, you notice just before it is eclipsed by the glass, is a Scarfolk Brexit pastiche, ‘Britannia’s Folly’. The mural is sometimes known as the ‘sistine chapel of crop circles’. It was painted in 1997 ‘on the day Princess Diana died’ went on your ghostly drinking partner, quoting from the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald newspaper. The walls are adorned with crop circle imagery and artworks showing Stonehenge and Avebury, and crop circle enthusiasts used to meet here to compare notes and new discoveries.

Crop circle typology

Suddenly the ghost is gone, and you are left alone to gaze upwards at the ceiling, an inverted and fantastical prehistoric world. You need a better view of this.

The mural and the crop circles set off all sorts of connections in your brain, your cells lighting up like Christmas lights on a bush. Lying on the pool table you notice a discarded copy of the Fortean Time magazine issue 413 (Christmas 2021). Flicking through it in your hyper aware state, beer bubbles on your breath, you land on a weird article by the Rev Peter Laws on boardgames of a Fortean nature. A two page spread focuses on one of the most bizarre of all such games, in a piece entitled A boardgame from an alien? It is a board game about crop circles and …. Stonehenge.

Taking another sip of your Hopback Brewery’s Crop Circle ale, the story unfolded in front of you like an abandoned cardboard origami dog. During the filming of a BBC / Japanese TV documentary on crop circles in 1990, six crop circles appeared in a field near where filming was happening (in Wiltshire?). This was a moment of high excitement for Project Blackbird, with definitive evidence being sought for the crop circle phenomenon that was accelerating at that time.

Operation Blackbird researchers (Hoaxes website)

Within these circles were found, amongst other things, numerous board games pinned down by sticks, this cardboard diversion called Crop Circle: Mystery Adventure Board game.

BBC coverage of the hoax / Hoaxes website

The imagery of this board game contains several references to Stonehenge. The box has a stylised complete version of the monument amongst the complex imagery on show, with the promise of a ‘revelation of the ancient wisdom’ on the roll of a double 6. Inside Stonehenge formed the centrepiece of the board itself, being depicted in plan form, with baked in solar alignments.

Peter Laws / Fortean Times

Laws notes that, “In the game players become druids or aliens who must place the altar in the centre of a miniature Stonehenge made of blocks” so to that end there were little blue wooden (?) Stonehenge megalith building blocks as well. Board Game Geek documents that this game also included a treasure hunting element and had different covers through time. They note, “This may be the strangest game you have ever seen!”

Stonehenge building blocks (Board Game Geek)

The crop circles within which the board games and other objects had been placed in the dead of night were essentially crap and clearly some kind of prank. One of the team members involved in Operation Blackbird got a note delivered to them the next day, with a claim of responsibility for the crop circle board game prank from the JAMMS. Of course this is a reference to the Justified and Ancients of Mu Mu, also known at the time as the internationally successful band The KLF.

Fortean Times / Peter Laws

Interviews and research by Peter Laws lead him to conclude this was a fake letter and had nothing to do with Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. Yet to coin a phrase of our time, it might not have been true but it was believable. As Laws notes also, they created their own crop circle depicting their band logo. But moreover The KLF are the most prehistorically orientated band that have ever existed with mad dabblings, claims, threats, and artistic creations connected to Wiltshire’s Neolithic monuments in particular an intriguing strand of their career.

Now you are vaguely aware of another ghost, one that is substantially, er, bonier than the urban prehistorian, and likes to point a lot. This ghastly skeletal robed figure is holding a tablet and has just, so it seems, done a google search for KLF and Stonehenge. A bony finger points you to the small screen and beckons you to scroll.

It becomes clear that Stonehenge is a recurrent theme in the work of Cauty and Drummond, going back to Cauty’s time designing fantasy posters for the chain Athena in the late 1970s in the style of his more famous posters for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Like the crop circle board game, this poster included two versions of Stonehenge – a stylised ‘complete’ iteration and a plan view.

Jimmy Cauty’s Stonehenge poster

Someone slaps you on the back as they stagger past on the way to the gents, momentarily breaking this magic chain of thinking. You snap to the side, noticing a hooded figure pointing with a rather bony finger towards a previously un-noticed television set in the corner of the bar. On it is playing a frosty version of The KLF video for their song Last Train to Transcentral. A miniature film set in grainy black and white is the backdrop for a race between a police car and a train, both KLF branded. From time to time megaliths loom in the background amidst a dystopian industrial wasteland.

More connections are made. This film-set is closely reminiscent of Jimmy Cauty’s recently toured artwork Estate, an “interactive dystopian art exhibition featuring four scale-model concrete tower blocks”.

Jimmy Cauty by L-13 Light Industrial Workshop (The Skinny)

One these four blocks “appears to have functioned as a pagan religious centre” (NowThenMagazine). This contains a stone circle. Cauty told The Skinny magazine that his favourite thing in Estate was visiting “Brenda, the teenage Queen of the Iceni Tribe who lives in Iceni Heights….she draws spiral patterns and maths equations on the concrete walls”. Prehistory + crop circles = ??.

Stone circles from The Estate (source: NowThenMagazine, link above)

Just before you disappear down a JG Ballard High Rise rabbit hole, someone slots pennies into a jukebox that again you had not been aware of and on kicks What Time is Love followed by that daft song they did with Tammy Wynette. It was all a big joke for The KLF wasn’t it, except when it wasn’t. John Higgs’ 2012 book The KLF: Chaos, magic, and the band who burned a million pounds documents the Discordian roots of the band and their eventual demoralisation by their own excessive acts. There is a cruel side to their humour. Higgs documents a time when just to piss off Julian Cope no less, Bill Drummond threatened to flatten Silbury Hill with a bulldozer. When Cope heard this “he went white, it was a shock to see him like that actually”.

Some of the most infamous KLF acts surround their appearance at The Brit Awards in 1992 when they appeared with grindcore band Extreme Noise Terror, machine gunned the audience and dumped a dead sheep at the venue. Higgs notes, “As the band left the stage a voice declared over the PA that ‘The KLF have left the music industry’. It was only meant as a joke. They didn’t realise at the time that it was true.” What is less well known is after this event the band took their Best Band award and buried it at Stonehenge. It was subsequently “dug up in the vicinity of the mystical stone circle by a local farmer” (source).

Film Threat

It keeps coming back to Stonehenge. It was here that The KLF in another guise (The Timelords) played out part of a weird relationship they had with now disgraced glam rocker Gary Glitter, who appeared with them once on Top of the Pops almost by accident. The NME documented a solstice visit that in hindsight can only be viewed in the poorest of taste.

The Cope threat presaged aspirations to destroy or modify prehistoric monuments, something that becomes very clear to you when your attention is brought back to the tablet by your creepy pal who you notice has not even touched the bag of peanuts sat between you.

According to Clash Music, “After founding a digger firm called ‘K2 Plant Hire’ with Jimmy Cauty, they nearly bulldozed Stonehenge on the basis that it either needed fixed up or flattened as ‘unworkable’. After looking into hiring helicopters to repair it, they realised all the airspace around there is military controlled, so Drummond and Cauty decided to have their photos taken with Gary Glitter in front of the ancient site before flying off to the Sierra Nevada to blow all their cash making a road movie.”

The plans for Neolithic modification were even more dramatic. In the seminal 1988 book The Manual by The Timelords (aka Drummond & Cauty), the plan was set out in more detail: “we originally wanted the record fronted by real daleks. we could not get permission. it was after that we came up with our car idea. we then wanted to smash the car into stone henge or have a helicopter place it on two of the vertical stones whose horizontal was missing. we thought of dragging it to the top of silbury hill, digging a hole and tipping the car in, nose first, with about four feet stuck in the ground and the rest stuck in the air, so that it looked like we had just arrived from outer space” (source: Andy Burnham on megalithic forum).

Bill Drummond: How to be an Artist

What hold did Neolithic monuments have on The KLF and their other guises? We may never know but through time these engagements moved from destructive to transactional. They tried to sell art outside Stonehenge. In 1997 psychogeographer Stewart Home wrote in The Big Issue that “the KLF are performing again and will do anything to raise enough money to purchase Stonehenge from English Heritage and use it for ritual purposes”. At the same time they tried to buy the Rollright Stones, according to Drummond in Sarah Champion’s book Disco 2000.

Was it all just a capitalist joke, a subversion of social values, an attempt to rule the world through chaos? In this sense Drummond and Cauty were shamanic figures, orchestrating their own ritual-magic, machine-gunning convention, chasing immortality, desperately clinging to the old ways, coveting megaliths.

You snap out of your early 1990s dance music trip and come back to earth with a bang. A bell is ringing loudly behind you, someone calling ‘last orders please and remember to put your fucking mask on when you stand up!’. You realise that you are still in the Barge Inn. There is a sense of time running short now and you become aware that you won’t have time to go outside to see the sarsen stone outside the pub that once had a Banksy painted on it….or did it? It is all rather confusing and a sensory overload is fast approaching.

The Heritage Trust / Wiltshire Gazette & Herald

Worse, you are starting to feel…..woozy.

A trip to the toilet seems in order and for the time being at least there are no ghosts to guide you so off you pop through a side door and a corridor, following the arrows on the walls that you hope will lead to a Stonehenge-free urinal. However a wrong turn later and you are in a annex to the building, no longer in the ancient canal-side pub, but more of a fancy youth hostel. Your eyes are drawn to a stage on the left-hand side of the space, a modest arena for musical performance although it would not have accommodated The KLF, their kit and entourage.

At the back of the stage is a mural, a weird tableaux of temporal and spatial dislocation, showing what you presume to the pub you seem to be trapped in surrounded by prehistory and pagan symbols. A standing stone in the foreground, Silbury Hill (again!) in the background, and a green man partially obscured by a stack of speakers. Things start to go woozy again, and you feel yourself drawn to the image like a fly to a venus flytrap, knowing that what lies inside is sticky but perhaps worth it. You drift towards the open door to the left of the mural, still hoping for a toilet but fearing for the worst.

The door leads to inky blackness. Bill Drummond’s voice (you assume) comes from somewhere to your right, the aural equivalent of the leather bag with hands from that MR James story, dripping from a hole in the wall into your ears. He says in a mellifluous Scottish accent: Stonehenge is a crap circle. Stonehenge is a crap circle. (Or did he say crop circle??) Then you are enveloped by what feels like a huge towel, not with arms thankfully, but nonetheless a struggle ensues in the dark…..

Then! You are safely back in your bed fighting with your bed curtains [or insert 21st equivalent] and realise that was all a dream and it happened in one night, of course it did, because of course 3AM is eternal when in the company of Timelords. You have not even missed Boxing Day.

As you wipe the sleepy residue from your eyes, your attention focuses on a wall to your left. There are two pictures hanging from the wall that you don’t remember seeing there before. Slippers are slipped on (as in put on, not a comedy stumble) and you head over for a look. Screwing up your eyes as if staring into the sun, the pictures start to come into focus, and the events of the last 1500 words come flooding back. Was it really all just a dream?

Time for another pint of prehistory, You never know what it will lead to next.

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Susan Greaney and / or Jack Rowe for alerting me to the murals in the Barge Inn, and Andrew Watson for accompanying me to a recent visit there. I think all online sources and image sources have been made clear above, any photos with no credit are my own. I also want to acknowledge Peter Laws and his FT article for sending me down the particular path that this blog post ended up travelling which came as much of a surprise to me as it did to you.

The Venus of Niddrie

Following lines across the landscape – roads, canals, disused railway lines, desire lines – in an instinctive way, tracing the route of least resistance, reveals connections across space and time that are often unexpected. Walking between two prehistoric ceremonial centres in central Scotland – Cairnpapple Hill and Huly Hill – focused our attention on the spaces in between. Far distant from either of these ancient-yet-modern places, in a slump, many kilometres to go, we had a prehistoric encounter without knowing it. 30th April 2015, on a pilgrimage to Beltane, we encountered the Venus of Niddrie.

Prehistoric pilgrimage – Gavin MacGregor in 2015 (photo: K Brophy)
A pilgrimage back to the Niddrie Woman – John Latham in 1990 (photo: Murdo MacDonald)

In Cal Flyn’s wonderful book Islands of Abandonment. Life in a post-human landscape (William Collins, 2021) there are a few entanglements with my own blogging, notably a trip to Inchkeith, my islands of animal and ceramic middens in Talus. My modest journeys around the post-prehistoric places of Scotland cannot compare with Flyn’s evocative depictions of resilient post-human places, but where out paths have crossed has made me think. Nowhere more so than the red shale bing landscapes of West Lothian.

Flyn writes about these bings. Silbury Hill-like red eminences and amorphous mounds that dominate the landscape around towns and villages such as Broxburn, Winchburgh and Niddrie; seen from the M8 motorway one is reminded of the red sandstone outcrops in central Australia. These awesome spoil heaps are nineteenth century remnants of an industry that extracted oil from shale for use as paraffin, a sort of Victorian fracking, which produced a lot of waste and changed this place, perhaps forever. These changes include many unintended consequences.

Winchburgh and Greendykes shale bings from the SW in 2012 (Crown Copyright)

The mining and extraction industries of central Scotland have left behind these legacy landscape features, terraforming via waste products. There are familiar landmarks with names – the Five Sisters, the Mexican Hat. As Flyn notes, they are also places of rich biodiversity against all odds: “…ruinous, utterly neglected sites such as these have become refugia for wildlife”. Life as we know finds a way and it seems that this way is easier to find when humans leave it alone. Yet these are also weird and alien places, ‘quasi-Martian landscapes’ as Craig Robertson has called them, that had a troubling impact on the authorities and an unknown psychological impact on local communities.

Completely slipping my mind until I read the chapter in Flyn’s book focused on these ‘waste lands’ was the fact that these artificial miniature mountain ranges were a target for the artist collective the Art Placement Group (APG). I visited a fascinating exhibition about the work of this group at Summerhall, Edinburgh, in autumn 2016 called Context is Half the Work. As the exhibition notes explain,

“The Artist Placement Group (APG) was founded in the UK in 1966. The group initiated and organised placements for artists within industry and public institutions where they would research, develop ideas and projects in-situ. According to the APG principle, artistic practices and knowledge no longer needed to be confined to the studio, but the reach of the artist could extend to commercial, industrial and government contexts in order to contribute to social and organisational processes at all levels”.

Source: Context is Half the Work exhibition archive

The exhibition focused on seven projects delivered by the group working with different branches of government, the civil service, industry, and the media in UK in the 1960s and 1970s, including placements with British Steel and STV. One such project was work done by John Latham (1921-2006) across three months with the Scottish Office and Scottish Development Department (SDD) in 1975-76. (Sadly I can’t find my photos from this exhibition in my cavernous office and so I am relying on archived websites to fill in details in my memory here, especially the exhibition archive.) However I have tracked down the physical booklet that I took away with me that day.

As the Tate explains, the Art Placement Group was an attempt to radically change the role of the artist in society; during Latham’s placement with the SDD, he was tasked with “reimagining these giant spoil heaps … and finding them new purpose” (Flyn 2021, 36). This is when something remarkable happened, because Latham proposed that nothing should be done to the bings. “He attempted to save them from destruction by having them declared ‘works of art’” (Exhibition archive). His rationale was surprisingly prehistoric.

Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters 1976 John Latham 1921-2006 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02071

Latham argued that the huge shapeless shale bings around Broxburn and Niddrie were actually giant piece of land art representing what he called the ‘Niddrie Woman’. Cal Flyn notes that Latham suggested that they “had been constructed by 10,000 hands over decades, along the lines of ancient hill figures like the Cerne Abas Giant or the Uffington Horse” (pg 36). Flyn and Roberston both note that he even compared the arrangement of these bings to Palaeolithic ‘venus figurines’, while artist Lucy Lippert in 1983 saw a parallel for these artificial mounds in Silbury Hill, a Neolithic hill with sometime fertility associations. The different bings were allocated body parts of this woman – the torso, the heart, the head and the limb. This was a powerful reallocation of these bings from one sphere of human endeavour – the economic – to another – the spiritual.

Latham’s Niddrie Woman, inverted with south to the top (source: Tate)

Proposals for sculptures or beacons on the top of these bings never came to pass and it would be interesting to find out what civil servants who tasked him with rethinking these bings made of his ideas which were in effect a plea for them to be left alone and not redeveloped or removed. Robertson suggests that they found it compelling, but also notes that in hindsight Latham’s proposal “lacks objective analysis and by turns is sentimental and ponderous, philosophical and stoic. His commentary is biting and highly subjective, castigating planning decisions that failed to consider ‘the bigger picture’.”. One of the implications of his vision is that these bings are more valuable as land art than they are as industrial heritage, even if they are land art only by dint of him suggesting this to be the case.

The view from the air inspired much of Latham’s thinking about the Greendykes shale bings in particular, a collection of several spoil heaps. Robertson writes: “An aerial viewpoint was deemed by Latham to offer a perspective and scale of an otherwise unobtainable human consciousness, and played a hugely important role in his work.” This in interesting as the aerial view has been critiqued by archaeologists such as Matthew Johnson and Chris Tilley (and me!) as being reductive, detached, even non-human in relation to prehistoric possibilities. Latham’s consideration of the bings in West Lothian as being elements of the Niddrie Woman bring to mind the fantasies of the Nazca Lines, or Harry Bell’s Network of Alignments in Glasgow: confections created somehow that cannot have been viewed from above. Thus the Niddrie Woman is an impossible thing, illegible on the ground. Yet it is the spatial and temporal impossibilities that make the whole notion so compelling.

Aerial photograph of Niddrie Woman (source: Tate / Ministry of Defense Crown Copyright / Estate of John Latham)

The Winchburgh shale bing is listed in Scotland’s National Record of the Historic Environment and is one of two of these shale bings to be Scheduled Monuments. Noted industrial historian John Hume called this a “spectacular shale-oil bing of flat-topped type” in his 1976 book The industrial archaeology of Scotland volume 1. This is far removed from John Latham’s visionary and eccentric characterisation of this landscape feature from the same year.

It was this bing that Gavin MacGregor and I encountered on our pilgrimage walk in 2015 where this blog post began. Our route from Cairnpapple Hill henge and cairns included passing through the partially ruinous Bangour Village Hospital (a former psychiatric facility), Uphall, then following a dismantled railway line from Ecclesmachan towards Niddrie and Winchburgh. The south to Newbridge and some standing stones.

Bangour
Industrial debris / cups and rings

But miles before Newbridge, ahead, lay the monstrous bing, and we were magnetically attracted to it, resisting routes of least resistance, cutting across the land.

We hugged along the south side of this bing closely on the footpath beside the Union Canal.

The red scree slope dominated our vision for about 15 minutes of walking, but at the time we did not understand this to be The Heart of the Niddrie Woman, the place where Latham’s ashes have been scattered.

The scree-slope plunged into the canal, bushes and scrubs hanging onto the side, almost on the verge of rolling down to the water, tumbling weeds, hinting at impossible fecundity. Cal Flyn wrote about the bings being symbols of fertility, Venus rising from the industrial ruins, prehistoric in all but name. If ‘Venus figurines’ were indeed teaching aids as some archaeologists have argued, then we can learn much from these giants.

Murdo MacDonald has written in The Drouth about a journey to the Niddrie Woman with John Latham in 1990, a different type of pilgrimage in a landscape of deep personal time. In this piece he also documents in detail the scattering of Latham’s ashes on ‘The Heart’ in 2006. This photo essay also includes evocative images of Latham surveying the different elements of the Niddrie Woman, a curious mixture of lunar wasteland and memorial to our extractive pasts.

John Latham On the Heart (1990, photo Murdo MacDonald)
Torso stratigraphy (photo: Murdo MacDonald)

When up close, one is struck by the stratigraphies of these spoil heaps, inverted geological strata, sections drawn into mounds that evidence this land being ‘stripped bare’ (as Flyn puts it) and reconfigured in random arrangements. There can be no definite purpose to these slopes and hollows, peaks and troughs, other than the convenience of disposal, and a lack of care for the living. One cannot help but admire the bravado of Latham’s act of landscape pareidolia, seeing patterns were there were none, summoning the spirits of prehistory to subvert our more recent heritage and its destructive tendencies.

On reflection, our pilgrimage walk passed by The Heart of the Venus of Niddrie with a respectful nod but little more than that. The red scree was almost too much to process, its meaning having been extracted by mining machines, leaving behind a waste product that escaped out imaginations, our sore feet, our hungry stomachs. Our focus was the prehistory where we began and ended our walk – and yet here it was in front of us in all of its scarlet beauty.

Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post was very much dependent on several sources that have been credited already in the text but for the sake of clarity these were:

Cal Fly 2021 Islands of Abandonment. Life in a post-human landscape (William Collins).

Murdo MacDonald date? John Latham’s Niddrie Woman photo essay. The Drouth.

Craig Richardson 2012 Waste to Monument: John Latham’s Niddrie Woman. Tate Papers 17.

Context of Half the Work. A partial history of the Artist Placement Group. Exhibition archive.

Lucy R. Lippard, Overlay. Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, New York 1983.

I would also very much like to thank Gavin MacGregor for suggesting and leading our pilgrimage walk back in 2016. May we do another – and soon.

Antiqua sub urbana

For most people, decolonial narratives are largely confined to the world of academics and cultural organisations getting on and doing this good work, except when government ministers and journalists decide to make a scary anti-woke fuss about it. However, in spring 2021, as we emerged from yet another lockdown, a carved critique of familiar colonial narratives was erected on a pavement in the centre of Falkirk, a statement in stone aimed at giving back agency to Iron Age people who once lived in this area. This public display of ‘flipping the script on colonial narratives’ as Louisa Campbell has so memorably put it has the power to open up new conversations about both Roman and ‘native’ relations, although there are problematic aspects of this new Antonine Wall distance sculpture that I want to reflect on here.

This political carved stone – a newly created distance sculpture for the Antonine Wall – was installed in central Scottish town Falkirk as part of the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall Project which is delivering a programme of instillations across the five council areas in central Scotland that the Antonine Wall traverses – from west to east, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, and Falkirk. This has included Roman-themed children’s playparks and art installations as well as a series of replica distance sculptures.

Callander Park playpark (photo: Warren Baillie)
The Silvanus sculpture, near Croy, during construction in February 2021 (by Svetlana Kondokova and Big Red Blacksmiths)

For me (as I am not a 7 year-old child), the most exciting is the series of replica sandstone distance sculptures which are (almost all) copies of original carved stones found along the Antonine Wall. These iconic stones included information about the construction of the Wall in that location as well as a good deal of aggrandisement of the Emperor by blowing smoke up his ass in Latin abbreviation format. The Hunterian Museum has a fine collection of these stones, and a range of replicas. These objects are perhaps better known as ‘distance slabs’ but I am in agreement with Campbell’s deconstruction of this terminology.

Screengrab during a talk by Louisa Campbell to Glasgow Archaeological Society in December 2020 (image: NMS)

While much ink has been spilt on the imagery, wording and position of these stones, their study has more recently been elevated by Louisa Campbell, based at the University of Glasgow, whose brilliant analysis using pXRF (portable X-ray fluorescence) and Raman spectrometry has shown that these stones were originally painted, adding to the psychological impact these stones would have had on the indigenous population.

Bridgeness slab colour visualisation (by Lars Hummelshoj, reproduced from Campbell 2020 with permission)

The bold colours such as reds and yellows with white would have added to the effect of these stones as they often depicted poor Iron Age people being trampled under Roman horses or killed by their colonisers, making the locals face up to their trauma on a near daily basis. This was the Iron Age equivalent of the impact of the rich claret of a Hammer Horror film on a cinema audience in 1957 and I suppose in some cases would also have been ‘triggering’ for certain Iron Age people to use contemporary parlance.

The replication of a range of these distance sculptures over the past 18 months does not perhaps present the public with the bold colours of the originals, but nonetheless they do have an impact on the viewer even today as stunning and powerful pieces of art. These were all sculpted old-school style with actual hand tools and real craftsmanship, by artists including City of Glasgow College stonemasonry students. These are generally set into sandstone walls and have accompanying information boards. Jan and I managed to visit all of these, mostly during lockdowns.

The Eastermains sculpture, Twechar, still under wraps in January 2021
Eastermains unveiled by February 2021
The Old Kilpatrick installation, in June 2021
The Arniebog distance stone plinth awaits the distance stone, January 2021, at Auchendavie
Bridgeness, July 2021, an earlier replica with new noticeboards

I must admit that one of the things that always put me off Roman archaeology was the depiction of non-Roman people as ‘natives’, a term I have always found unsavoury. The terminology being used is now changing, and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall team are doing their bit to humanise the ‘defeated’ locals who were no more and no less Iron Age people living a typical farming lifestyle who ended up in the path of an expansionist empire with a professional army. Think of the opening scenes of the movie Gladiator but set in Kilsyth. There is a little content on Iron Age people on the project website, and a wooden Iron Age ‘chief’ stands at the entrance to the Callander playpark. Also included is a (wooden) hoard of Roman coins, of more later.

Callander Park entrance (The Scotsman)

But the most interesting element of this change in messaging about the militarised Roman focus on the Wall is the new Falkirk distance sculpture. This really rather special piece of art was commissioned by the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project with the aspiration of disrupting the colonial narrative of Wall sculpture. The stone itself was designed and carved by Jo Crossland and Luke Batchelor. It depicts a subversion of the normal sculpture imagery, showing Iron Age people at peace in their daily lives or at war defending themselves. By depicting aspects of their lives that are not defined by their defeat and subjugation, it renders local people as active agents, not passive fools.

The sculpture knowingly adopts the tropes of the Roman originals, in terms of composition, writing and the Roman numeral dating (MMXX) but also subverts at every opportunity from language to the pictures. It shows a broch (and indeed there is a rare lowland broch near Falkirk, Tappoch) and a carnyx, the Iron Age battle horn. A Roman soldier is trampled underfoot by a horse, a direct reversal of imagery on stones such as Bridgeness. The stone also acts as a tribute to the ‘legion’ of volunteers who engaged with the project, although to me it works best as a political statement. The commissioning brief for this piece of work asked for such an approach: “The design should include reference to the local Iron Age population…”. 

Louisa Campbell has written about the replica sculptures and in particular the Falkirk example. She notes that the images on this new stone directly respond to consultation responses from the public. “These images explore wider perspectives in the story of the Roman occupation of Scotland as requested by members of the local communities consulting on the project who expressed a desire to incorporate scenes of local people fighting back against hostile Roman attacks” (2021, 21). This is about a desire to see a community marginalised in Antonine Wall imagery and narratives given a voice; it shows an underdog story.

Original drawing by and © Josephine Crossland and Luke Batchelor, first published in Campbell 2021, reproduced here with permission

However, this aspect of the consultation does trouble me a little. Are we in danger of replacing one myth with another, the evil colonist replaced by the noble colonised? The violent imagery on the new distance sculpture may serve for some viewers as a revenge narrative: are you not entertained? This reminds me a little uncomfortably of what many kids who grew up in Scotland at the same time as me thought about the Romans in Scotland – something I recounted in a recent paper about the past and Scotland’s independence referendum:

“…..dogged Pictish resistance against Roman invaders, the unconquerable Scots, in contrast to the English
who folded at the first sight of a Roman ship (a silly mythology engrained in the minds of Scottish
school children of my generation!) (Brophy 2020, 59).

Perhaps unsurprisingly media coverage of this new carved stone focused on the ‘fighting back’ narrative, such as a headline in The Scotsman on 30th April 2020, Northern warriors who fought the Romans in Scotland to be celebrated at Antonine Wall. So there could be a problem with the messaging here. On the other hand perhaps my stance here could be interpreted as victim blaming, not my intention. This is about nuance.

For me, the most significant element of the sculpture occurs in the bottom right-hand corner. Here we have a scene showing the handing over of the hoard of coins from Romans to locals (rendered in wood in the new playpark). This can be interpreted in a number of different ways – a bribe, a payment for services rendered, a transactional arrangement, a gift perhaps creating an obligation. Here we have in one image all of the complexity of the Roman-Iron Age relationship that is not truly reflected in images of violence regardless of who the perpetrator is, because not everyone who lived here when the Romans were about was killed, and some may have done rather well out of the situation. This is not to downplay the physical and psychological violence of colonisation, but the hoard does allow I think a springboard to open up new conversations amongst the public about the short occupation of southern Scotland. Perhaps more broadly it forces reflection on other colonial narratives, where Scots were the colonists and did the trampling underfoot.

And this is rooted in archaeological reality. The hoard is a real thing, a clay pot found in 1933 containing 1925 Roman silver coins the latest of which date to the 3rd century AD, which is incidentally long after the Wall was built and in use. Were the locals ‘paid to behave‘? Todd in 1985 argued that the hoard “represents payments to a barbarian leader or dynasty in return for the maintenance of peace and order north of the Antonine Wall in the period c AD 160-230” suggesting how complex these colonial relationships probably were. The deposition of these coins, perhaps with ritual overtone as suggested of such hoards in the ScARF Roman panel report, adds another dimension to the significance of this deposit.

The Falkirk hoard (c) National Museums of Scotland

A fragment of textile – a ‘tartan’ – was found with this hoard and this informs the clothing worn in this sculpture by the non-Romans which is a nice touch, but perhaps adds another layer to the rebellious free-spirited Scot narrative that lingers in our national consciousness.

(c) National Museums of Scotland

This new distance sculpture is located on Cow Wynd, a street than runs south from the pedestrianised heart of modern Falkirk. This is also the location of a Roman Fort that once stood here, but now it sits surrounded by a tattoo parlour, a cafeteria, a hair salon and a ladieswear boutique. The closeness to the main shopping strip in town and the thoroughfare of commuters and walkers will ensure that this new monument gets plenty of glances. Those who pause to read the noticeboards and take in the powerful images on the stone might also pause to think, be provoked, by the message that it conveys, propaganda of a very different type to that practiced by the Romans.

Location map of the Falkirk Distance Sculpture (Google Maps)

However, the information board to the right of the sculpture notes that this stone celebrates the native people, a phrase I am uneasy with and I am surprised was included. Indeed I think that more information could have been included here to help the casual passer-by to have an informed perspective on what the carved stone is signifying and how subversive its message actually is. There is no doubt this carved stone will provoke shoppers and commuters as they pass by – exasperans transeuntes – but what message will they read into the scenes depicted?

As Campbell notes, “The depicted scenes conflict with the originals as a means of eliciting an emotional response in the viewer … inviting them to consider different dynamics and new dimensions from the contradictory perspectives of local Iron Age peoples who had a different experience of events than the Roman military personnel that typically frames the narratives of existing scholarship” (2021, 23-4). It would be interesting to do some research around how this carved stone is consumed and what message punters take from it; as ever, texts of any kind convey messages that are difficult to control. There is also an assumption that the reader of this stone has a familiarity with the other distance sculptures and their imagery that are being subverted.

This is an interesting intervention and an innovative way to re-present an often mythologised and misunderstood period of the past of this part of Britain. As a means to challenge colonial narratives I think it is partially successful although it presents a white – and still largely male – version of this story and simplifies some complex issues. This is inevitable given the format that has been chosen to convey the message. Perhaps the contextualisation around this could be stronger, and more scenes that convey non-violent relationships would also have helped.

Heritage is at its best when it discomforts us and forces a re-evaluation of what we think our past was, and so in many ways this carved stone is a success at telling a story about the ancient beneath our feet – antiqua sub urbana. How the stone is consumed by locals and visitors remains to be seen.

Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post owes a lot to Dr Louisa Campbell who brought the Falkirk stone to my attention and shared her expertise with me. Her papers were also very helpful (full references below). Louisa, Jo and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project gave me permission to reproduce images in this blog post for which I am grateful. I would also like to thank the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project and Emma McMullen for help in writing this post.

Sources mentioned in the text (all are open access and available online via links or googling):

Brophy, K 2020 Hands across the Border? Prehistory, Cairns and Scotland’s 2014 Independence Referendum. In Howard Williams, Pauline Clarke and Kieron Gleave (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Archaeopress. Download here.

Campbell, L 2020 Polychromy on the Antonine Wall Distance Sculptures: Non-destructive Identification of Pigments on Roman Reliefs. Britannia 51, 175-201.

Campbell, L 2021 Flipping the Script on Colonial Narratives: Replicating Roman Reliefs from the Antonine Wall. Public Archaeology DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2021.1961438

Todd, M 1985 The Falkirk hoard of denarii: trade or subsidy?, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 115, 229-32.


Michael

My dad Michael is a very talented and creative man. I’m pretty sure his skills working with wood and carpentry would have made him an invaluable member of any Neolithic community. Good with his hands. A solver of problems. An improviser. When I was growing up I remember seeing on a shelf at my gran’s house a rabbit he carved from a block of wood, and to me it looked almost alive, life breathed into it by my father’s hands. It was dad who made the lovely little unit that I display my prehistoric style WH Goss pots on so you have probably seen his handiwork before if you follow this blog.

When we took my parents off for a few days to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary between lockdowns in autumn 2020, it struck me that both of them, and in particular my dad, were to some extent entangled with prehistoric rock-art. The hotel where my parents went on their honeymoon was the Cairnbaan Hotel, just on the southern edge of the Kilmartin Glen, a hotel with rock-art branding and a cup-and-ring marked stone on display just behind it.

I asked my parents about the rock-art and the cairns and standing stones that this area is so famous for – had they visited them on their honeymoon? No came the answer, although in 1970 they would have all been extant and presented to the public to some extent. To rectify this regrettable omission in the honeymoon programme, we took them to Temple Wood stone circles, Nether Largie South chambered cairn, and one of my favourite urban prehistory rock-art sites, Kilmichael Glassary. The name of the site – Kilmichael, the church of Michael – was not lost on me and my father was all too happy to oblige when we arrived on site.

The location of this large rock-art panel has always excited me, as it offers a viewing platform over houses and gardens, and is surrounded by a wonderful grey Ministry of Works Fence. In contrast to almost all of the other prehistoric sites in Kilmartin, this is proper urban.

This is a bit of an urban rock-art hotspot with the main panel showcased to the public being Kilmichael Glassary 1. KG 2 and 3 are smaller individual rocks while KG4 could not be located during recent Scotland’s Rock-art survey work at this locale.

Data Scotland’s Rock-art Project map, Kilmichael Glassary site indicated with the arrow. KG1-KG3 are indicated by small blue circles and KG4 by the grey circle,

The main panel is richly decorated outcrop of schist with wonderful natural cracks, fissures and hollows perfectly complementing the wide range of carved motifs to be found here.

The ScRAP team recorded the following description of this site:

A large, exposed rectangular area of outcrop measuring 7.4m by 3.8m and up to 0.7m in height, which slopes gently to the SE at a roughly 20 degree angle. The rock is a friable, medium grain schist with numerous fissures, natural hollows and has – in places – a rough surface. The panel as been decorated with over 150 motifs, including 110 cup marks, 7 large cup marks, 2 dumbbells, 5 cups with tails, 4 extended oval shaped motifs, 8 cups with partial rings, 1 cup with a tail and a partial ring enclosing the cup, 1 cup with a tail and a partial ring enclosing the cup and tail, 1 cup with a ring and tail from the cup to beyond the ring, a group of three cups enclosed by a ring, and three key hole shaped motifs: two of which are open at one end and the third of which is completely enclosed. There are also additional grooves, up to 5, which partially enclose a number of motifs on the lower E side of the panel.

This is of course not the first time I visited this site; this happened with friends many years ago when we were enjoying the NVA Half Life festival in Kilmartin Glen back in 2007. In the gloom we crawled across the surface of the rock, tracing out the cups and rings with our hands, most of them with deep shadows in their bases, the darkness of the ancient past unknown. There was an earthy dampness about the outcrop and it felt soft to the touch.

I had my fish eye camera with me that day and after some digging around in an old photo album, I found analogue documentation of that visit. One image (top left below) was an accidental double exposure which intermingled two carved rocks of very different eras – Glassary and Dunadd.

Kilmichael Glassary / Dunadd montage

Rock-art is very common in Kilmartin Glen, and there are bigger and better panels to be found, notably Achnabreck which like Glassary is surrounded by a grey metal fence but is also perhaps the largest panel yet found in Scotland. It has its merits but it is rather….rural. I have visited this site many many times on fieldtrips and I recall once that a student found a golf ball jammed into a cupmark.

These kind of juxtapositions were at the heart of Half Life, and I looked back at a review I wrote about the experience for the Scottish Archaeological Journal. I noted a booklet that was issued as part of this event with essays by archaeologists real (Mark Edmonds!) and fictional. (I have no memory of this booklet nor do I know where in my dump of an office I might find it.) My review notes:

There I was handed a handsome booklet and map to accompany the Half Life experience, part tour guide, part spiritual wayfinder. I love maps, and the beautifully produced map of Kilmartin Glen with my pack depicts 16 key sites to visit and details of how to get there, but also features near invisible silver contours one can only see by moving the map against the light. The booklet itself is lavishly illustrated, with thought-provoking essays by archaeologists and artists. One of the themes of the booklet is the role of archaeologists in making the past opaque and mysterious through our activities and discourse, a sentiment I have a great deal of sympathy with. Fictional ‘journal’ notes by the archaeologist at the centre of the evening ‘play’ describe a local rock-art panel as ‘a ‘heritaged’ ancient monument, surrounded by railings and the static and safe interpretations that neuter the real power of a site’. This was brought home by my visit to site 15, a wonderful series of panels of rock-art at Achnabreck, each outcrop surrounded by a grey metal fence, one with a ‘wet paint’ sign still hanging from it. Each panel was approached by a wooden walkway, reeking of wood preservative, disenfranchising the visitor
from the pastness of the place.

I am not sure I would be so negative now, the creosoting heightening the power of the experience, laying bare the stark otherness of the past, rather than watering down the pastness of this kind of place. The stink of this place was the smell of the intermingling of the ancient and the contemporary, ritual freedom and managerial stricture, a powerful intoxication. The fence around Kilmichael Glassary serves the same kind of role, framing the rock-art panel as if it were really art, offering a buffer between past and present, living rock and houses.

There is a lovely description of a first visit to Auchnabreck by Thomas Legendre, the writer of the play that formed an evening centrepiece of Half Life:

At Achnabreck I approached an outcrop – one of several at that site – and gazed at the carvings. They seemed like depictions of atoms, solar systems, dartboards, raindrops with ripples fanning outward, and they looked like none of these things. Some included tails or
gutters connecting with others to form compound motifs, or else they simply merged into natural cracklines and clefts in the rock. I crouched down and traced the designs, comparing their worn texture with the cracks and fissures of the rock scoured by glacial action – and with a jolt I realised the carvings had been fitted between natural breaks or rifts in the surface,
incorporating its complex microtopography. These designs hadn’t been imposed on the landscape as if it were a blank canvas. They included the rock itself.

These tactile revelations were not for my dad, mobility issues stopping him from walking up to Kilmichael, crossing the stile back to the Neolithic, dropping to his knees to trace the symbols with his carpenter’s hands. Nonetheless, I will continue to regard Kilmichael Glassary as my favourite panel in the area, elevated by its urban surroundings and the fact that I visited it mid-pandemic with my mum and dad.

Sources: my review of Half Life can be found in Scottish Archaeological Journal 28, 153-55 (spine date 2006, actually published 2008). The Legendre piece of writing can be found here: Legendre T (2011) Landscape-Mindscape: Writing in Scotland’s Prehistoric Future. Scottish Literary Review 3(2):121-132.