Iron Age v Iron Works

13 Jun

Crannogs are not usually known for making dramatic entrances.

But in the nineteenth century the crannog that once stood in Kilbirnie Loch, North Ayrshire, erupted from the water due to decades of industrial dumping, in a stark illustration of what can happen when prehistory runs into the juggernaut of industrialisation.

The remarkable event that lead to the discovery and investigation of the Kilbirnie Crannog in summer of 1868 was most colourfully captured by Robert Love Esquire a few years after the event.

Love account of the site's eruptionA small stony island had been noted in this location before the slag-eruption. It was known locally as the cairn.

OS 25 inch to mile map

But nothing had prepared local people for what popped out of the water, demanding attention and re-evaluation, nothing less than a prehistoric ejaculation.

Subsequent investigation of this mound spewed forth in the southwestern corner of the loch showed it to be a crannog, an artificial island probably dating back to the Iron Age. The island measured 22 x 24 metres across and was up to 1.25m in height above the water level. It was located 60m or so from the shore of the Loch and was connected to the land by a perilously narrow causeway that dribbled from the loch shore. This may have been a more substantial bridge to the crannog in the Iron Age.

Excavations were undertaken in 1868 soon after discovery. This revealed that the island consisted of several layers (starting with the lowest, earliest phase):

  1. Chunky logs held together with wooden pins and iron nails
  2. Brushwood including branches of hazel, and ferns
  3. Gravel and sand deposit of up to 50cm thickness
  4. A stone ‘pavement’ with evidence for a hearth (a scorched sandstone flagstone)

On top was also the indication of rectangular buildings in the form of postholes and scattered animal bones. Little else was recorded of this excavation, but we can presume that this was one of many such artificial islands with a house on top found in this part of Scotland, and it would have been supported on wooden piles driven into the bottom of the loch.

Soon after, this crannog became completely engulfed by the slag and furnace waste being dumped from the nearby and ever-expanding Glengarnock Ironworks, as shown quite clearly when we compare Ordnance Survey mapping from 1858 and 1911.

OS 1st edn map

OS 2nd edition map

Industrial revolution 2 Prehistory 0

canmore_image_SC00569897 Ironworks

Glengarnock Iron Works in the twentieth century. (c) HES canmore_image_SC00569897

Occasionally, other prehistoric secrets popped out of this muddy loch foreshore, including an amazing and decently preserved wooden log boat as documented by the ubiquitous Ludovic McLellan Mann. He recounted that on Tuesday 22nd April, 1930, a Mr Thomas Miller investigated a wooden stick protruding from the muddy foreshore of the loch and found it to be a canoe made of oak. The photo below shows the industrial waste-land that this boat was found within, the massive slag heaps in the background dominating the local landscape.

Log boat from 1930

And so it came to pass that the crannog had, by the turn of the twentieth century, been engulfed and eradicated by the industrial sludge, a victim of industrial terra-forming where even the loch could not hold back the heavy metal, its southern shore gradually creeping north.

Fast forward to 2017. The ironworks, once the major employer for the towns of Glengarnock and Kilbirnie, was finally closed in 1978 and this void was filled (at least spatially) with Glengarnock Business Park. The Iron Works had gone the way of the Iron Age (overtaken by steel and then the Romans, er maybe not the last bit), to be replaced with business units, car parks, shiny new fences and corporate branding. The location of the crannog was covered with a car park, a road verge and a steel fabrication factory. So it goes.

Canmore location map

Modern map of the Glengarnock Business Park. Crannog location marked with blue circle.          (c) HES, CANMORE, OS and anyone else I have forgotten

I visited Kilbirnie for the first time ever on 5th April 2017. I had been invited by Gavin MacGregor of Northlight Heritage to come along and help lead an urban prehistory walking tour to find the crannog location. This walk was one of a series that Northlight had been leading in partnership with the recently established Garnock Connections Landscape Partnership Scheme.

Garnock connections advert for walks

We gathered in the early afternoon, after I had consumed a massive cake, in a diner in the renovated Radio City cinema, and after introductions, our small group set off on the quest for the crannog. We left the centre of town and passed an old railway platform on the now defunct Caledonian Railway, then followed a pleasant core path away from town towards the ruins of the Glengarnock Ironworks.

It really was a massive cake incidentally. One of those caramel tarts that used to be commonplace in school dining halls when I was a child, shiny with little brown vermicelli things on top, and rich with an interior cream deposit. Note to self: I am not good at describing bakery.

walk low res

We passed the ruins of a slaughterhouse and a cairn of bricks, and then a bin with a skull painted onto it. It felt, as we neared out destination, that we were slipping back in time, deep into prehistory.

walk images

skull on bin low res

Finally, we began to see the footings of buildings in the scrubby vegetation on either side of the path, ruins of the trappings and infrastructure of industry. One of our group worked in the steel works and pointed out where various offices had been located. He told stories of explosions in the night when he was a kid, the outcome of massive amounts of red hot slag being dumped into the much-abused Kilbirnie Loch. He was an old man, but not old enough to remember the crannog.

Our destination was reached, a most unpromising and placeless location, partly a car park, partly a bushy protuberance under the guise of landscaping.

crannog location low res

As a group, we stood in the location where 2,000 years ago we would have been under water, and a timber house would have stood resplendent on the loch. The encroachment of industry onto this body of water had turned this location from one of elite settlement, to corporate blandness, a Ballardian transformation and perhaps the inevitability of capitalism.

Crannog location chat

How many prehistoric sites now lie beneath, or have been found during the construction, of business parks, warehouses and industrial units?

More to the point, what can we do about it? Sure, such discoveries allow us to gain valuable information about the past (unless the site, like this crannog, had already been swallowed up) but can they be made into something more useful than just data sources? Conversation on the walk constantly turned to how we could make more of the heritage (industrial, railway, prehistoric) of Kilbirnie, to engage and educate locals about the deep time in the place they live, and to attract tourists and visitors to a town often bypassed en route to Arran. One of the locals even told me they had a longterm plan to build a crannog reconstruction in the loch, a crazy idea that floored me and inspired me at the same time. I had not thought this big, but why not?

radio city

Warehouse

The heritage of the town is gradually being foregrounded again, whether in the re purposed Radio City building, or in the recently decorated windows of an abandoned and ruinous warehouse building adjacent to the local Tesco in the town centre. These windows, covered in historical images created by local school kids, include medieval objects that have been found in Kilbirnie Loch over the years, giving up some more of its watery secrets under the relentless pressure of heavy industry.

warehouse 2

One day I hope that Kilbirnie residents and visitors will be able to walk the old and ancient paths of this town, following the railway lines that were once the arteries that connected this place to the industrial heart of Scotland. These paths may lead to a spectacular watery eminence, Scotland’s newest crannog, or at least a QR code telling you what was once here.

The best resource this town has though, is not the prehistory, or the industrial heritage, or even the amazing massive caramel tarts. The places and the things can only take us so far, and what energised me most about my visit was not the crannog beneath the steel fabrication car park but the people and their memories of the iron and steel and explosions and junior football teams and mills and slaughterhouses and railway platforms that were once stood upon. The people and their vision for the future, borrowing inspiration from but not stuck in the past.

Sources and acknowledgements: primarily, I would like to thank the local people, and team from Garvock Connections, who accompanied Gavin MacGregor and I on our urban prehistory walk to the crannog. Their enthusiasm and ambition was infectious, and I hope to work with them in the future to re-invigorate Kilbirnie’s Iron Age!

The sources for the discovery and excavation of the crannog are almost certainly repeating the same account, with the original account being that of archaeologist Cochrane-Patrick. All three of these sources can be found in full online with some careful googling:

  • Cochrane-Patrick, R W.1873 Notices of some antiquities recently discovered in North Ayrshire’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 9, 385-6.
  • Love, R.1876 Notices of the several openings of a cairn on Cuffhill; of various antiquities in the barony of Beith; and of a crannog in the Loch of Kilbirnie, Ayrshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 11, 284-8.
  • Mann, L M.1933 Some recent discoveries, Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society New Series 8, 139-42.

The maps were all sourced from Scotland’s National Map Library

 

 

 

 

 

An unexpected curio

15 May

‘……the site is not possessed of any notable features’ (Cash 1906)

‘What remains of this monument is not impressive’ (Highland Council n.d.)

General view Aviemore ring cairn low res

 

A description of a megalith in the words of others

‘Aviemore Ring Cairn (2200 BC)’ (Source 1)

‘The monument was once located in open fields….’ (3).

‘The circle is on the Seafield estate, and…is ignored by the estate officials’ (1).

Marshall 1962 photo

(c) Mae Marshall 1962

‘This cairn was built as a major landmark in the open, farming landscape of prehistoric Strathspey, though a housing estate has grown up around it recently’ (3).

‘The Aviemore stone-circle stands about half a mile north of Aviemore railway station, not more than 60 yards from the high-road, and just behind the United Free Church’ (1).

‘The circle can be found at the far end of the village, not the end that goes to Cairngorm’ (8).

‘As you head north out of Aviemore look out for a residential road called Muirton (on your right hand side). Then beyond the Ambulance and Fire Station, turn left (it is all signposted). In a little housing estate is a small circle of stones….’ (6)

Stone circle sign low res

‘Address: Scottish Ambulance Service, B1952, Grampian Rd, Aviemore, PH22 1 RT’ (google)

Location map from CANMORE

‘This is a Clava-type cairn’ (3).

A Clava-type ring cairn, as described and planned by Henshall, except that only three stones now remain of the perimeter of the chamber (4).

‘Stone circle’ (4).

‘Aviemore Ring Cairn and Stone Circle (about 2400-2200 BC) originally consisted of a rubble bank, flanked by kerbs both inside and out and surrounded by a ring of standing stones’ (8).

‘It seems evident that this circle has suffered considerable disturbance’ (1)

‘There is very little cairn material left, and the central area seems to have been disturbed. The outer kerb is almost complete, with a diameter of 42′ and slight traces of a bank against the outside; only 5 of the inner ring stones are now visible. The outer ring of monoliths now consists of 4 stones set about 17 ft. from the kerb, but there were 7 in 1877’ (2).

Plan from Cash 1906

Cash 1906

‘The second or middle circle is fairly complete. It consists of probably thirty-six stones’ (1).

‘The south stone stands 4 feet 10 inches high, and has a shape roughly suggestive of a cloaked human figure’ (1).

‘The most northerly lies close in to the second circle, and has, I am informed, probably been recently moved into its present position’ (1).

‘A cup-marked stone is said to have been found at the base of one of the monoliths, but there is no evidence of it today’ (4).

‘The cup is 3 x 1½ x 1¼ inches’ (1).

‘These ceremonial stones were placed here approximately 4000 years ago…’ (6).

‘It was probably built about 4000 years ago by farmers and herdsmen and may have had cremated human bones placed in it’ (5).

‘The Aviemore Stone Circle is now engulfed by a housing estate. it …. has been quite sensitively preserved (although a little more room round the edges would have been appreciated)’ (7).

Undated photo in the snow

Highland Council SMR

‘Although the houses encroach right up to the stones, giving the impression that the circle was nothing more than a civic monument to spice up a humdrum estate, when you actually get here you appreciate the fine qualities of the site. It is a fine circle, and surprisingly easy to imagine how things would once have been before the houses were built during Aviemore’s expansion in the 1960’s’ (9).

‘The site as it stands is in a poor state of preservation and its location is severely compromised by the close proximity of the modern, cul-de-sac housing estate. The only possible value in this is that the site serves as a shock example of how not to treat archaeological monuments, and possibly survives as an unexpected curio in this late-twentieth century, white-harled bungalow landscape’ (3).

General view Aviemore ring cairn 2 low res

‘Despite the fact that this ‘stone circle’ is within the village of Aviemore, I quite liked its semi-urban location, nestling like a village green ground suicide-grey bungalows at the back of the fire station’ (9).

‘It is nothing hugely exciting but worth a quick peek nonetheless’ (6).

 

Historically interesting but obsolete noticeboard

Noticeboard low res

AVIEMORE RING CAIRN

AND STONE CIRCLE

This circular gathering place

once consisted of a circular rubble

bank edged by kerbs inside and out,

all surrounded by a ring of standing

stones. It has been covered by soil

for its protection and the inner kerb

is not now visible.

It was probably built about 4000

years ago by farmers and herdsmen and

may have had cremated human bones

placed in it.

The monument is scheduled and in the

care of Badenoch and Strathspey

District Council. It is an offence to

damage or disfigure it*.

 

*With the exception of state-approved urbanisation.

NB ‘The existing panel should be replaced with one that makes full use of modern printing technology to produce a visually exhilarating effect’ (source 3).

‘There must be a sense here of righting the wrongs that have been done to this site’ (3)

NB Recommendation yet to be enacted. Righting of wrongs yet to be enacted.

 

 

Urban prehistory (Source 10)

Good or bad?

Better or worse?

Authentic or inauthentic?

Rural or urban?

 

Ruin or ruined?

 

Challenge or opportunity?

 

Sources for the quotations in this blog post:

Source 1: Cash, C G. 1906 Stone circles at Grenish, Aviemore, and Delfour, Strathspey, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 40, 1905-6, see pages 249-50. [Free to download online via the Society]

Source 2: Grant 1885 Stone circles and other ancient remains in Strathspey, Transactions of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club 1, see pages 55-6.

Source 3: Highland Council Sites and Monuments Record document. This undated document was prepared for Highland Council by Graham Robins, Community Archaeologist for Badenoch & Strathspey. [Source of the two old photos.]

Source 4: Canmore (National Monuments Record of Scotland).

Source 5: On-site noticeboard.

Source 6: Trip Advisor entry (the only one for this site, rated Average).

Source 7: Megalithic portal page for the site.

Source 8: Owen McCafferty for Scotland Guides.Org

Source 9: Modern Antiquarian forum discussing the site

Source 10: My own eyeballs.

Thanks to Jan for providing photos of the site and keeping me company in the drizzle.

 

 

The last days of a stone circle Part 2

7 Apr

One year ago, on 7th April 2016, the Sighthill stone circle in Glasgow was dismantled and buried.

Permanently closed.

Permanently closed

The first part of my story of the final months of the Sighthill stone circle can be found here. This is the second, and final part of my account, focused on the last 18 days of this remarkable urban megalith. When discussing the use of stone circles from prehistory, we at best can hope to have a resolution of a decade or generation; for Glasgow’s stone circle , which stood for little more than one generation, I was able to refine my study almost day-to-day, with a visceral immediateness. So immediate that at times the charcoal was still smoking when I recorded it and I witnessed events as they happened, the ultimate fantasy of the archaeologist.

visits table

My documentation of the Sighthill stone circle – constructed by a team lead by Duncan Lunan in 1979 – began in early 2013, with my objective to use archaeological field methods and psychogeographical activities to document the ways that the stone circle was used. This included the assessment of use-wear patterns, the collection of found objects, photographic documentation and urban wandering. During the months leading up to the removal of the stone circle from the Glasgow skyline, I visited the monument repeatedly to monitor and record activities taking place there (see table above). I also inveigled myself into the destruction process itself, attending meetings in portacabins, learning about plans, drinking powdered coffee, wearing a hard hat. This culminated in access to the demolition itself.

As previously reported, my visits in February became technical fieldwalking exercises, picking over the stuff of old industrial Glasgow that had been used to construct the artificial park that the monument was located in. I collected fragments of gravestones, constructed by other monumental sculptors for very different reasons, lead squashed onto marble in memoriam.

IMG_1452

This was a landscape imploding, undergoing the brutal process of being demolished but also de-toxified due to its industrial past, and in the final days and weeks Sighthill the housing estate and Sighthill the park became home to big machines, fences, piles of rubble and horrid smells. Outsiders looked on in wonder at the plan to remove the standing stones even as they celebrated the demise of the High Rises.

Herald 14th Feb 2016

The Herald, 14th February 2016

IMG_5375

 

21st March

On a dull and overcast morning, I visited the Sighthill stone circle for the sixth time that year, this being the morning after a final equinoxal celebration had taken place within and around the standing stones. The afternoon and evening before, people gathered amicably, fires had been set, liquids were consumed, pottery was fired, and positive but bitter-sweet words were spoken.

solstice bike

I wanted to see what archaeological traces these activities had left behind. Like a detective chasing a serial killer, this was the hottest crime scene visited yet, with the maximum chance of collecting good quality evidence before the weather and by-standers intervened and the trail, once again, went cold. This was my big chance and I was not disappointed.

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Hearths and firespots littered the stone circle, and these were photographed with scales and sketched in my notebook. Some of the megaliths had been scorched by the fires which had danced amidst the stones just 12 hours previously. Fragments of ceramic and all sorts of other bits and pieces were collected from the stone circle. The monument was sampled and narratives constructed.

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The stones themselves had been changed in other ways, marked with clay-soaked hands, caressed with slippy fingers. I could have, had I wanted, taken fingerprints. I could have, had I wanted, sampled for DNA.

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IMG_5407

Atop one of the stones, ashy powder was evident, although whether residue or deposit I could not tell.

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Weird inexplicable bits of wood were strewn around the stone circle, like props from the workshop of a serial killer; Ed Gein’s charred rocking chair?

IMG_5404

The evidence spoke of what I had witnessed the day before: fire, fun and feasting. A fitting end for this magnificent megalith.

 

 

4th April: Monday

The Final Countdown had begun and I knew the monument was to be removed in a few days’ time. Helen Green and I had been invited to the official dismantlement of the stone circle, and so now I was killing time, visiting almost aimlessly.

It was a miserable day. The park looked terrible, like a hungover clown.

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This green space, as a functional place of leisure, had been given days to live.

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As I walked up to the stone circle I passed a park bench upon which had been daubed the word: G O I N G

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The Sighthill stone circle itself glowed in the rain, the stones having an almost liquid quality, straining from their roots in the mud and concrete, trying to walk away from this mess, trying to escape their fate. And failing.

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wotrkman low res

Traces of the equinoxal fire remained, albeit reduced.

Pathetic dampness.

IMG_5495

There was a new development too – a grey fence had been erected to form a rough circular enclosure immediately to the north-west of the stone circle. Within this profane space, an enormously deep circular shaft was evident, a shaft that led down to an abandoned and forgotten railway line deep beneath the park. Two workmen with hi-vis jackets stood within looking shifty and feckless, watching me with suspicion as I recorded the stones, perhaps thinking I was secretly recording them. A thin young man dressed in a cheap black suit walked up to the stones, asked what I was doing, scuffed his shoes on the grass, and slouched off again.

Surveillance was increasing, the stones disappearing into a chaos of paranoia and misinformation. This was the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end I sagely thought to myself.

 

 

5th March: Tuesday

48 hours to go and at least the sun was out. So was Jack Forbes, the man whose mother and wife has enjoyed the stone circle so much that their ashes had been scattered in the circle, and the central megalith acted as a memorial to both women. I met Jack for the first time at the Equinox event and found him to be humorous and humble, surprised that anyone was interested in his story or that of his family. Shocked that Council plans for the demolishing of the stone circle had taken note if his circumstances. It was a privilege and great coincidence to be there at that time with Jack, as the removal of the stone circle began on this day.

As I approached from the park below, I saw that the metal fence around the railway shaft had been extended to wrap around the stone circle as well.

DSC_1725

Inside this arena, groaning crunching pawing machines could be heard, and as I reached the top of the treeless slope, having waded through sawdust and bone dry leaves, approaching the circle in the only way that was possible now that the park had largely been closed, I saw that work was afoot.

DSC_1738

A turquoise digger (a peculiar colour for such a machine I thought at the time and still do) raised its crooked arm up and down as if serving tea and biscuits, while a dumper truck say nearby, its bucket raised in supplication. One lump or two?

Monitoring the activity carefully was Lindsay Dunbar, an archaeologist, whose task it was to ensure as topsoil was stripped in advance of the removal of the stones themselves that nothing was damaged. Lindsay works for AOC Archaeology Group, and they had been contracted to do some of the archaeological work related to the Sighthill re-development, with one of their tasks being the documenting of the stone circle and monitoring of dismantlement. The day before they had carried out a laser survey of the standing stones, creating crazed images that would have made great JG Ballard book covers.

AOC scan2

Provisional data from the laser scan (c) AOC Archaeology Group.

Lindsay had also been party to implementing the mitigation strategies put into place to (as sensitively as possible) deal with Jack Forbes’ family matters. The topsoil where ashes had been scattered was scraped away carefully and would subsequently be buried with the standing stones for future resurrection. Offerings that had been laid around the base of the central standing stone for several years (as I have been documenting) were gathered up before machining started although I cannot now recall whether these would be stored for later, or returned to Jack.

DSC_1728

Jack was genuinely touched by these gestures, and I was pleased to see promises made by the Council and remediation specialists VHE were made good upon when it would have been just as easy to sweep all away in the quiet of a dull Tuesday morning. I had a nice chat with Jack and Lindsay, and we watched together as the fabric of the stone circle was gradually peeled away, exposing little else other than stark standing stones jutting from soil like dirty teeth in dirty gums.

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To the side of the stone circle, the railway shaft was clearer than earlier in the week, a sinister wormhole. What was down there?

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I can have a good guess. I’ve watched lots of horror films.

Everything must GO.

 

7th April – Thursday

This story has been told before, in many papers and by many observers. In a sense the very last day of this stone circle was the least interesting of its many last days because of its inevitablity and necessity. The journey had been so much better than the destination. As Jarvis Cocker once sleazily crooned: What exactly do you do for an encore? 

The day was stage-managed of course, perhaps even spun. The Council and VHE wanted to ensure nothing that looked bad would happen, and so had ensured that a stone was ready to be lifted, the effect that they were after a painless tooth extraction with minimal use of anesthetic and oral numbness fading as quickly as possible. A little film was made, and my presence at the dismantlement was viewed as an act of support for what was happening, and perhaps I was condoning all by being there.

 

 

What was I doing there? Was I a neutral and dispassionate observer, documenting a necessary (lets not say evil) sad event? Was I there to leer at the demolition porn being played out in front of me, in the thick of throbbing machines and lots of men dressed like the castoffs from the Village People? Maybe I was just a useful idiot after all. However, Helen was also there, and she is far too sensible for any of these roles, and so I assume in reflection that we were there to the bitter end to pay our respects.

The morning started hi-vis and portacabin-style.

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Everyone was shuttled up to the stone circle and we gathered together there, in a controlled members’ only space which reminded me of the UFO scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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There was a ‘genuine sense of anticipation’ as a huge digger loomed over one of the standing stones, the chosen sacrificial victim, which had been bound in yellow straps and now mutely dangled from the digger’s grip.

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Duncan Lunan was photographed – papped in fact – along with Linda. He was interviewed. Even I was interviewed (but not photographed, except by Helen, and only because I asked her to).

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me being interviewed low res

The stone was slowly popped from its pre-broken concrete socket and hoisted into the air. The small crowd of Council and VHE staff, friends of the stone circle, journalists and vaguely interested machine drivers, looked on, er, agog.

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The stone dangled for a little while and was, after being photographed a few million times with smiling humans standing in front of it, carefully laid into the back of a truck and covered over like a corpse. It would be remiss of me not to mention that as it dangled it swayed slightly in the wind like the aforementioned hungover clown.

Cameras and notebooks were packed away, the crowd queued up to hitch a ride back to the portacabin HQ, and we all drifted away from the scene. As we left, we were aware that the remainder of the monument would be quickly dismantled away from the gaze of onlookers, and indeed within a few days the megalith was gone, and the stones buried in a huge pit a few hundred metres away, one day to rise again. As I drove past on the M8 a week later, something was missing. How quickly will this feeling dissipate? And how soon will that damned devilish shaft be filled with concrete?

 

 

The last days of a stone circle in summary

A monument impossible to reduce to photographs.

A monument impossible to reduce to memories.

A monument impossible to reduce to images with scales.

A monument impossible to reduce to spreadsheets and context numbers.

A monument impossible to reduce to sketches and plans.

A monument impossible to reduce –

A monument impossible –

A monument.

 

FOR JACK FORBES

 

Sources and acknowledgements: I would first of all like to thank VHE and Glasgow City Council for inviting Helen and I to the dismantlement of the Sighthill stone circle and to allow me to be part of conversations in the run up to this event. In particular, I would like to thank Graeme Baillie, Gareth Dillon, Jackie Harvie, Peter Patterson, Ed Smith and Muir Simpson. I would also like to thank Andy Heald for keeping me abreast of AOC Archaeology Group’s work at Sighthill, and to Lindsay Dunbar; thanks also to AOC for providing me with some of the initial laser scan images for my records, one of which is reproduced above. Thanks to Duncan and Linda for information and advice related to the stone circle, and finally thanks to Helen for giving up so much of her precious PhD time to visit Sighthill with me, always pushing me to think about the monument in new and interesting ways.

 

 

 

David Moyes Road

26 Mar

road-sign-low-res

Recently I was invited to visit an excavation that GUARD Archaeology Ltd had been undertaking for several months since September 2016 at a site with the wonderful name of David Moyes Road in Carnoustie, Angus. The site is located on the northern edge of the town, right next to the High School and across the road from a very white and very recently constructed housing development, shiny with suburban possibilities.

It was another reminder, should one be needed, that amazing (as well as mundane of course) prehistoric stuff is sometimes only ever going to be found by archaeologists because of urban expansion and development. A lack of cropmarks in this location, previously arable land, means that it is unlikely research excavations would ever have taken place here except those of the most speculative nature which frankly no-one can afford to do anymore.

So instead we await the serendipitous discovery of wonderful things not because of any archaeological research framework or a cunning plan cooked up by heritage professionals, but because of factors such as social need, economic consideration and the planning process.

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I was shown around the site by the site director, Alan Hunter Blair, and he gave me a really good insight into the discovery process of the site, what had been done on site and some provisional interpretations. With characteristic bad timing, not only did I arrive on site on the last day of the excavation, but I also came at tea break, cardinal sins for the excavation visitor but almost always the way it happens. Politely, none of this was mentioned as Blair and I wandered around the site, pointing at a hole here, pondering a hollow there, pausing over oddly arranged or unusually large stones and generally basking in a wonderful crisp late winter day beneath a broad blue sky in the midst of some truly spectacular archaeology.

site view blue sky urban backdrop

This is a remarkable site, for which there has already been a good deal of positive media coverage both locally and nationally including STV News.

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The Sun extract

The Sun headline (above) is especially impressive – discovery in a Scottish BUILDING SITE!!! Why this should be a surprise is not clear, given that nowadays building sites are precisely where many major archaeological discoveries are made.

In fact, the site was identified in advance of the construction of two football pitches (not a housing or school development as I had supposed) with my supposition being that drainage and other ancillary elements of these playing fields required the complete excavation of the site, which as it happens will prove to be beneficial not just to archaeologists, but to the local community and politicians as well – and not merely in terms of knowledge creation, useful as this can be.

spear with scale STV image

The bronze spearhead during excavation. Image (c) Katielee Arrowsmith / SWNS.com

GUARD have characterised the highest profile discovery during these excavations as a ’rare and internationally significant hoard of metalwork that is a major addition to Scottish Late Bronze Age archaeology’. This includes a spearhead with gold ornamentation, a spectacular and rare discovery, and organics associated with some of the weaponry. (GUARD have posted online a nice video of some work on the hoard being done, as we like to say, ‘back in the lab’.) This hoard was found in a pit within a settlement consisting of several Bronze Age roundhouses.

GUARD drone image of the timber hall during excavation

The putative timber hall from the air (c) GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

As a Neolithic nerd, what has got me more excited about this site however (apart from the fact that is could well end up in the archaeological literature as ‘the David Moyes Road site’) is the discovery of a potential early Neolithic timber hall of massive scale. This building, defined by a combination of postholes and slot trenches could be as much as 35m in length, a third longer than any other Neolithic building ever found in Britain. A second ‘Balbridie’ size timber hall was located immediately to the south of the giant timber hall, a timber structure measuring a modest (but still bloody huge) c.20m by c.7m. The phasing of both buildings and dates will need to await post-excavation work for confirmation, but from my own experience of excavating a Neolithic timber hall at Claish, near Callander, 2001 with Gordon Barclay and Gavin MacGregor, the David Moyes site felt early Neolithic which if often how these things work for me (at least until the C14 dates come in and ruin it all!)..

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The unexpected discovery of this amazing site during the construction of a public leisure facility shows how urban expansion and social need can drive forward our understanding of prehistory. Which is great, but what I am more interested in here is how this archaeological discovery resonates with the local community and how it might benefit people other than completist academics like myself. The burden of paying for these excavations, probably costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, and delaying the development, is born by the local authority and therefore it seems to me that there has to be more benefit to the people of Angus than just knowledge generation and some expensive baubles for the National Museum of Scotland.

Thankfully, the heritage sector is now actively exploring the social, as well as archaeological, benefits of such a discovery. For instance, David Moyes Road is located right next to the local high school and so site tours and visits were an important element of GUARD’s educational outreach programme during the excavation. They have noted:

‘In tandem with the excavation, GUARD Archaeology have brought community benefits and added value to the work by providing tours and presentations for local schools, including Carnoustie High School and Monifieth High School. Work experience for two students (from Carnoustie High School and Brechin High School) was also provided. Each of the students were trained in core skills in archaeology and were provided with a bespoke training plan and an archaeology skills passport for potential future careers in archaeology’.

More broadly, politicians are keen to celebrate the discovery rather than moan about how much it is all costing which is good news. The Angus Council communities convenor, Donald Morrison, saw the discoveries as a source of local pride, stating, ‘It is clear that Carnoustie was as much a hive of activity in Neolithic and Bronze Age times as it is now’. Alliteratively named councillor Bill Bowles opportunistically used the discovery as an indication of the long term attractiveness of living in Carnoustie, musing ‘how many generations of people have been living and working this land because of the prime agricultural land?’ The local MSP, Graeme Dey, and others have expressed the hope that the local area will benefit from the discovery and excavations in the form of information being made locally in the form of something like an exhibition and that may well be in the cards in the future.

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Angus 2013 - 288

More broadly, the local media coverage emphasising the site as possibly being one of the earliest indicators of farming in Scotland plays well with a County whose ‘Welcome’ road sign includes the slogan, Scotland’s Birthplace, a phrase associated with the Pictish heritage of this region, but now being pushed back millennium by GUARD’s excavations. Cynically one could therefore argue that the Council are getting value for money after all, using the excavation results and positive publicity to market and even re-invent Angus.

This is the paradox of archaeology today: it is a game played to very different rules from when I started in the business over 20 years ago. Many of our most exciting new discoveries are being driven by the agendas of developers and policy-makers, responding to social needs such as, this the David Moyes Rd case, health and wellbeing. Excavations are taking place in a climate where accountability, transparency and ‘value for money’ are always factors, and the results of excavations are measured as much in ‘numbers of individuals impacted on’ or social media likes and re-tweets, as the quantity / quality of material recovered and the academic impact.

Nowadays, everyone has a stake to hold, and an angle to work.

As a result of this. the dissemination of excavation and post-excavation results immediately via social media, local press and business websites has become a complex mixture of self-justification, feel-good headlines, agenda setting – but the key thing is that usually there is some damn fine archaeology right in the middle of it all.

There is nothing wrong with any of this, we are simply on a different merry-go-round now. Indeed I would strongly argue that this kind of public accountability is good news for archaeology and archaeologists, as it more closely connects our discoveries to communities who might benefit from them. Inevitably the system will be gamed, and our stuff will be exploited for hard and soft gains by others. That’s the price we pay for being relevant, and these new engagements and ways of doing things are encouraging creativity and impact that would have not been possible in the 1980s and 1990s.

One final thought. The David Moyes Road episode has one other lesson to teach us. Archaeology often benefits society more through its controlled destruction via excavation techniques than it does fossilised under ground for future generations. The dance of discovery, destruction and dissemination allows people to learn amazing things about the places they live or go to school or play football.

Let development continue, let landscapes evolve, lets keep finding stuff and lets never stop sharing and celebrating it.

If the price we pay is that some of our major sites have stupid names, then so be it.

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The wrong David Moyes (source: FourFourTwo magazine)

Sources and acknowledgements: I firstly would like to thank Warren Baillie of GUARD for inviting me to visit the excavations at David Moyes Road and Adam Hunter Blair for giving me a great tour of the site and missing his tea break. The GUARD quotes in the post all come from their project website (link above) and the politician quotes come from the local press article shown above. 

 

 

 

 

 

Words here

55 / 45

21 Feb

You might think that prehistoric monuments and things that happened thousands of years ago have nothing to do with contemporary political debates about identify, nationalism and borders. You may well also agree, as I do, with Niall Sharples who wrote over two decades ago that “the archaeological record of earlier periods should not normally contribute to the discussion of a nation’s identity”.

But not everyone thinks like this.

Prehistoric monuments can become the plaything, for innocent or sinister reasons, of those who wish to make claims about national boundaries, ethnic or national identities – or to influence your vote. Such appropriation of the prehistoric past is always troubling in my opinion, although it could be argued that there is a sliding scale of badness at play here. At the (far right) end of the scale we have a recent iteration of the mission statement of the British National Party (from the 2000s, now removed from their website) which stated: “We enthuse with pride at the marvels of architecture and engineering that have been completed on these islands since the construction of the great megaliths 7,000 years ago”. Papers in the book pictured below warn against such corruption of prehistory for political ends: we should always be vigilant for such occurrences and expose them.

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It is with interest then that appeals to the ancient past have become embedded in the discourse of Scottish independence, a process which concluded in 2014 with a vote of 55% to 45% to retain the status quo, but which inspired widespread political debate and continues to resonate strongly today.

I became aware of how this can manifest itself even in that most banal of places, the TV archaeology documentary. There is no doubt that nationalistic passions were released by the BBC TV programme Britain’s Ancient Capital: secrets of Orkney, broadcast on the BBC in January 2017.

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Social media responses to this show included ‘the BBC is scandalously pushing…Neil Oliver’s tendentious, ludicrous and anachronistic British unionist line’. The well-known political persuasion of lead presenter Neil Oliver (clue: it’s NO, not YES) has been taken by some viewers as a driver behind the ‘Britain – not Scotland’ narrative evident in the programme, Oliver being accused of ‘shrill British patriotism’ and of being a ‘British patriot’ (which may or may not be an insult depending on your perspective). Although I was publically critical of the content of this show, I happen not to buy this politicized critique of the show, with my reservations about this programme rooted more in its repetition of the tired old tropes of Neolithic studies in Britain.

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It came as something of a surprise to me to find out last year that a cairn had been constructed in 2014 right on the border between England and Scotland, a cairn that was an explicit rallying call for British unionism, a monument for those who did not want Scotland to become independent from the UK in the aforementioned referendum that took place in September of that year.

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This is a ‘Scottish’ cairn: it is called The Auld Acquaintance Cairn, a Rabbie Burns name, located on the Scottish side of the Border, a reconstruction of a Bronze Age Clava Cairn. But it had a ‘UK’ team of builders and cheerleaders, invited to come from all corners to help in its construction, emerging into the world through shared labour, motivations and symbols, to create a whole that was stronger than its parts, Better Together.

It is a NO monument, not a YES monument.

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NO or ON? (source: The Times (paywall))

It was built by the 55 for the other 45.

But. Despite being infused with unity and togetherness, constructed with good intentions as well as sweat and tears, I fear that its existence has, and continues to have, the potential to be divisive, festooned as it is with symbols and words that could be interpreted by some as divisive, even offensive.

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Built in the months leading up the referendum in a frenzy of fear that YES might win, it could be argued that this is a cairn that has served its purpose. But, since the conclusion of that debate, the cairn has become something of a monument to victory, a celebration of something not being lost, a vindication but perhaps also a warning from the past, literally a folly.

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The Auld Acquaintance Cairn was the brainchild of the polymathic Conservative MP Rory Stewart. The project to construct the cairn over summer 2014 was in part crowd-funded through an organisation called Hands Across the Border, whose website offers an archival (pre)history of the cairn. It is in a location that is cupped by a the gentle meander of the River Sark, the border between Scotland and England, but sits in the shadow of a placeless shopping mall.

The cairn was constructed in the period June to August 2014, and is a spectacular monument, consisting of some 130,000 stones.

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Laying the foundation stones of the cairn, summer 2014 (source: North News & Pictures)

Volunteers and visitors were encouraged to bring to the location stones from wherever they were from, thus ensuring the cairn was constructed of stones from across the UK, and beyond (with for instance a fragment of the Berlin Wall included). It is claimed over 10,000 people added a stone or helped with building the monument, with dry stone dykers doing the fiddly bits. Visitors were also encouraged to paint messages onto the stones, giving the cairn a colourful appearance which still survives several years later.

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The cairn during construction. The flagpoles in the background are now gone (souice: available in various cropped versions online, happy to update if this is your photo).

Various ‘celebrities’ spent time helping build the cairn or visiting the monument: Scotland’s only Tory MP David Mundell was there when the foundation was laid, grizzled explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes made an appearance on 28th July, and actor Joanna Lumley put in a shift three days later. “Historians Simon Schama, David Starkey, Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, the ‎philosopher AC Grayling, Field Marshal Sir Charles Guthrie, and the writer Alain de Botton have all contributed stones to the cairn” (Cumbria Crack) as has the famous mountaineer Doug Scott CBE (Cairn Builder Extraordinaire?).

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Fiennes (source: Hands Across the Border)

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Lumley (source: Sunbeam Music)

The cairn was a focus for events such as barbeques, teddy bear picnics, public shows of emotion, and a music festival called Brit Rocks! A poem – Cornerstone – was written for the cairn by Charlotte Higgins and carved onto two flat square slabs which were placed within the interior chamber. And apparently, some No voters and those who supported their campaign but who could not vote (i.e. anyone not living in Scotland) camped on the cairn overnight as the results of the referendum came in.

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Source: Hands Across the Border

A large map was erected on site where visitors could mark where they and their rocks had come from, although the map appears to have had no room for 80% of Orkney, all of Shetland or much of western Ireland. Europe’s not there, natch.

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Source: Trip Advisor (link below)

As the cairn was being constructed, a short film was made about the project by The Economist. In the film, Rory Stewart described the monument as ‘a model of our country’ and the only physical manifestation of Better Together evident in the UK at that time. More emotively, he suggested that Scotland and the Rump UK were rather like a couple whose marriage was on the rocks and that one partner only needed to say ‘I love you’ to reconcile the partnership. (Was he really saying that the UK was basically just like a very unhappy marriage that neither partner should leave?) The Project Manager Angus Aitken went further, calling the cairn a ‘geological love letter to the Union’, that far into the future would stand as reminder of a time when the people of the UK came together through the medium of dry-stone walling.

Then – the referendum happened and the NO / Better Together campaign won. The border upon which the cairn sits remained softer than an egg that had been in boiling water for 60 seconds, and all inhabitants of Scotland were encouraged to pull together and move forward.

Hand Across the Border state on their website: “Now is the time for everyone to reconcile their differences and create a stronger better Britain.”

Whether this is better facilitated by the retention, or destruction, of the Auld Acquaintance cairn, depends if you are one of the 55 or the 45. Like megaliths, divisive political debates can have a long afterlife.

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Source: Cumberland News / (c) STUART WALKER

On a visit to the cairn in 2015, a year after it had been completed, Ian Jack recounted in The Guardian how the cairn was less noble in appearance than in aim. The banality of personal messages painted onto little stones was a little too much for him. He noted, “A monument intended to celebrate beautiful generalisations – political unity, friendship between peoples – has been altered (an old-fashioned aesthete would say damaged) by the intrusion of the specific and the everyday.” The solitude of the cairn was also noted (ie no one else visited while he was there), but so too was the noisy traffic flying past on the nearby M74 (the article calls it the M6, what this border zone of the motorway is known as in England). This sense of loss and disappointment is shared by a few (but by no means most) visitors to the cairn who have recorded their impressions on Trip Advisor (‘#4 of 5 things to do in Gretna’). One visitor called the monument ‘a mis-managed pile of stones’ which is actually quite a good definition of cairn.

The cairn was also vandalised that year, with Stewart saying at the time, “I respect that nationalists will continue to put forward their own arguments, but I fail to see what these vandals hoped to achieve by targeting the cairn at Gretna, other than to manifest their bitterness and resentment for the way in which the Scottish people ultimately chose to vote last year.” (Cumbria Crack). This vandalism appears to have included the daubing of ‘offensive slogans’ on the cairn, the breaking of one of the poem stones in the cairn interior, and removing the noticeboard next to the site and throwing it into the River Sark. This noticeboard floated down river, and was found on a beach a few months later by a dog walking former local MP, who returned this back on site for a photo shoot.

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Source: News and Star / (c) JENNY WOOLGAR

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Source: Daily Record (link below)

Was this a ‘nationalist stunt’? Graffiti on the cairn stones, reported on by The Daily Record, would suggest some political motivation for at least this aspect of the vandalism, with phrases added to the monument such as “Nicola Sturgeon is coming to get ye!” and “Don’t blame me a voted Yes”. In a poll, 54% of Record readers found the graffiti offensive, 46% did not (number of participants unknown) which mirrors almost exactly the result of the referendum.

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When I visited recently with Jan, I was surprised how tidy and well-maintained the cairn is, almost three years after construction started. I was also surprised that there were no signs to tell visitors where to park or how to walk to the cairn, the only indication we were in the right place being a pair of plain noticeboards beside a gate in the car park of the Old Toll Bar Café, the first or last chance for refreshments in Scotland depending on your direction of travel across the Scotland – England border located 100m to the south on the red sandstone bridge over the River Sark. The noticeboards explain briefly the history and ethos of the cairn and advertise some internet links of varying currency, and also include sketches that were prepared when the cairn was being planned.

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The noticeboard text is explicitly political. It is noted that the cairn “is a testimony to the United Kingdom”, situated right on the current border, but in a place that was once neither Scotland nor England, but rather ‘Middleland’. As far as I can tell, this is a tenuous-to-mythical historical convenience, promoted in the writing of Rory Stewart for instance on his website. Here, he argues that there is ‘nothing natural’ about a border between England and Scotland, and that the fact there is a border at all simply relates back to the Romans drawing straight lines on maps for their own convenience. (It’s amazing how some of the most potent legacies of colonialism can be traced back to the gratuitous use of such an innocent piece of stationery, the ruler.) Stewart argues that Gretna and the cairn sit in what used to be a Middleland, an ill-defined ‘upland’ zone between Edinburgh and Sheffield with heartlands in Northumberia, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.

This frontier zone is the focus of Stewart’s most recent book The Marches (Jonathan Cape, 2016), where he recounts walking along parts of Hadrian’s Wall with his late father as well as a solo long distance walk across Cumbria. I have not read this book, only reviews, but it seems to fit well with a man who is passionate about the Borders and the borders and borders that should not be borders, restless to understand how the past, and landscapes, can help people define themselves. The Middleland theme is played out in this book too: it is an upland rural landscape (although it is far from all being upland and rural) “… a land naturally unified by geography and culture for 2,000 years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers”. It all sounds a bit W G Hoskins to me.

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Before Scotland and England, and amidst the periodic enforcement of a border here by ruler-wielding praetorians, Stewart in his website musings suggests that this area belongs to a misty-eyed time when there was “no single English ethnicity, or Scottish language”, and people on either side of what we now see as a border “married each other…wore the same clothes, ate the same food, lived the same life…and sung the same ballads about their exploits”. And yet why chose these specific traits to suggest cultural similarity? Why select certain centuries in the past and then set them up as a norm? This Borders romanticism would be less of an issue had it not been an explicit driver for the loud cairn construction campaign, drawing on the ancient past to legitimize modern political decision-making. In fact, it could be argued that Stewart misunderstands the nature of identity, mistaking shared actions, material culture and pragmatic accommodations for shared hearts and minds. Stewart’s arguments echo long-running discussions about the Dalriadan Scots in Ulster and Argyll, where archaeological and historical evidence has been used to argue for, and against, modern political boundaries. Such claims and connections can be dangerous, contested and illogical – on both sides of the argument.

More troubling still, the cairn builders seem to suggest that the political unity that a Yes vote in the referendum threatened has its origins in prehistory. The noticeboard goes on to say: “A cairn is a traditional northern English and Scottish marker in the landscape”, going back as far as the Neolithic. (Stewart repeats this in the short film linked to above.) This is nonsensical and a dangerous argument to make: are we now to define modern identities due to shared Neolithic monument traditions? Again, this reminds me of arguments related to Ireland. Matthew Stout (1996) has written about archaeologist Emyr Esten Evans’ ‘Ulster exceptionalism’, an attempt to demonstrate that megalithic tombs in Northern Island were different from those elsewhere on that island, with obvious political motivations. And cairns are not just found in Scotland and northern England – they are found across Britain and Ireland, and if anything you could argue there is an east-west divide. Furthermore, cairns come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and dates – it could be argued they are a very human thing to do.

Most ludicrously of all, the design template for the Auld Acquaintance cairn is a Clava Cairn, a monument style that is found almost exclusively in Inverness-shire. Very regionalised traditions in prehistory were commonplace and do not lend themselves well to narratives of British or UK wide continuity. And so all we need to do is select which monument types fit our argument depending on what boundaries we want to break down, or defend.

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The design for the Auld Acquaintance cairn. Source: on site noticeboard

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A Clava cairn. Source: Visit Scotland. (c) Paul Tomkins.

Back to our visit. We went through the gate and walked the short distance to the neat and tidy cairn, which has lost the fringe of slates and stones that were evident when it was first constructed. A noticeboard was located here too, although the aforementioned map which had stood on the site in 2014 showing where the component stones had come from, had been removed. I was immediately impressed with the scale and quality of the construction: this would have taken a lot of work, supporting claims from those involved in building that this was a project that meant something personal to them.

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The cairn material consisted of many different types of rock and stone, with some of the stones brightly painted, with unsurprisingly a preponderance of red, white and blue. Personal messages with names, thanks and so on were commonplace, as were union flags.

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One of the stones was painted red and referred to a place neither Scotland nor England: Ulster. Taken together with the Butcher’s Apron graffiti shown above, this demonstrates that political gestures, no matter how well meaning, will be appropriated for all sorts of different (or tangentially related) agendas, old scores being settled, old wars being refought. If you make claims to deep time, expect others to do so as well.

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Another contained a message for our post-Brexit times: THE PEOPLE SPOKE FOREVER, the idea that a decision has been made, and everyone should now get together and make it work. A decision that cannot be overturned or even argued with. Maybe it is a warning. As with everything about this megalith, it depends on who you are: the 55 or the 45.

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Another stone was decorated with a more primeval symbol – a prehistoric cup-and-ring mark. Using the logic of this cairn we perhaps need to abandon more national boundaries, as these symbols can be found across many EU countries.

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There was evidence that some messages were becoming less focused on the ethos of the stone, with an Orcadian flag (which itself was defaced by vandals in 2015), and stones with messages written by tourists visiting the monument on holiday. There is a growing sense of the routine about this monument, and as time passes it will be more and more difficult for Hands Across the Border to retain the meaning of this cairn despite their aspiration for this to be a permanent reminder of the NO vote.

The interior of the monument was entered by a narrow corridor lined by smart red sandstone blocks, topped with stacked slates, and with gravel crunching underfoot.

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At the end of the passage was the circular central chamber with high walls, 2m tall, enclosing and restricting views of the outside borderzone. Inside, a yellow stone slab was propped up against the back wall, containing one half of Charlotte Higgins’ poem; the other stone, broken in 2015, was only partially restored. The relative peace and solitude of the interior of the cairn, surrounded by beautiful stone work, and words which spoke of wars and memorialisation, was the most impressive and sombre element of an otherwise garish monument. Powerful or exploitative? It all depends. 55 or 45?

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We wandered back out, and away from the cairn. There was a low hum caused by a tanker spewing wood chips into a metal container beside the cairn. The surrounding field was scrubby and untidy, a ghostly and abandoned camp site with electrical power fittings for caravans jutting from the ground like gravestones. These were arranged around a derelict and boarded up toilet block. Ahead, we saw a massive blue sign on the northbound side of the M74. It was a giant metal flag, the saltire, adorned with the words ‘Welcome to Scotland’ with some tiny YES stickers stuck to it. Lying twenty or so yards from this sign was a discarded and broken placard, the one quarter or one eighth remnant of a very different roadside message that once said NO THANKS. Right on the border, on the banks of the Sark, YES and NO not so far apart after all, both little more than a blur in the eyes of motorway-hypnotised drivers speeding past, even in the slow lane.

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By strange coincidence, on the day of our visit, the front cover of The National newspaper was concerned with borders too. This is a Scottish paper that describes itself as ‘The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland’. The headline read: ‘TRUMP WON’T CROSS HADRIAN’S WALL: State visit will not include Scotland’. Behind this lay a weird montage of Hadrian’s Wall with the disembodied heads of Donald Trump (no hair) and Nicola Sturgeon (with sun rays shining beatifically from her chin like a golden beard, glowing in anti-Trump hirsuteness).

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Scottish nationalists can play this game too in other words – here we have the misuse of the ancient past to make a political point about modern borders. Here, we have the common mistake of likening Hadrian’s Wall to the Scotland – England border, the straight line across Britain’s middlelands that Stewart was talking about. Here we have in one gloriously daft image the old myth that Scotland somehow repelled the Romans while England did not, and that this division is ancient and meaningful when it comes to defining modern identity. It is not and it does not, but that will not stop prehistory and our ancient past being used again and again in this ongoing debate. It was no surprise to me when I found out while researching this post that Rory Stewart was also planning a referendum-focused human chain of tens of thousands of people along Hadrian’s Wall in 2014, showing that this boundary is endlessly exploitable to people of all political beliefs.

It is almost too easy to use prehistory as a lesson from which we should learn – and yet, all we are doing is projecting our own concerns and concepts onto the mute archaeological record back to a time when these words and ideas would have made no sense. Often for the best of intentions. I have sympathy with this tweet from only a few days ago (at the time of writing) and yet there are so many assumptions at play here that just I don’t know where to start.

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In the Channel 4 TV sketch show from the 1990s, Absolutely, there was caricatured Scottish nationalist character played by Jack Docherty called McGlashan. He was a failed writer who continually pitched ideas for anti-English and pro-Scottish plays to his long suffering posh (English? Scottish?) agent. One of the plays he comes up with is called Nip Nap Shite (‘well, you’ve certainly got an eye for a title’). In this play, the SNP (then a party a million miles from government) stand a candidate called McGlashan in a general election against then Tory MP John Major. “He’s so brilliant and Scottish, right, he wins with a 50,000 majority”. In another and much shorter sketch, McGlashan cycles up to a very non-descript Scotland-England border crossing. He looks around, crosses into England, shouts some abuse and then quickly cycles back into Scotland again. The border is quiet, the road empty.

Here we have Scots comedians laughing at ourselves, our complex identity in relation to England and the UK, our fascination with borders and seeing how far we can push them, for a laugh. The same issues of identity that Rory Stewart has been wrestling with – them and us / them or us? The 55 or the 45? Or just the 100?

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The Auld Acquaintance cairn. Built on a border that is not a border. Made in a style neither local nor logical. A monument to British unionism drawing on a mythical ancient past to inform modern political identity. A place that is about uniting that can’t help but divide. Borders and boundaries that still confuse to this day – soft / hard, busy / quiet, first / last, 55 / 45. It all depends.

But one thing I am sure about – should auld acquaintance be forgot that megaliths and Roman walls should never be used to legitimize political arguments, to support the construction of walls, to make claims of identity, or to tell us how to vote.

Sources and acknowledgements: I have throughout this blog made use of information about the Auld Acquaintance cairn from the websites for Hands Across the Border and Rory Stewart (links in the text) – these have both been accessible and useful sources, and have helped document a most remarkable project.

Images used from these sources have been credited as such. I have attempted to give a source for more or less all images used above: no source means the photo is mine. The Marshes book cover is widely available online, as is the Orkney BBC TV show screengrab.

The book pictured at the top of the post was published by Cruithne Press in Glasgow in 1996 and is well worth a read. The Niall Sharples quote and Matthew Stout example both derive from papers in this book.

I did not provide a link to the BNP website. If one wishes to find the current cached source of the quotation from their old manifesto, google the phrase. I’m not doing it for you.

This post benefited from the insights of Steve Driscoll and Dene Wright, and Jan who accompanied me on the visit to the cairn.  

The language of size

5 Feb

‘Monuments orchestrate human experience. Their size is so important because it is one of the ways in which this is achieved…this particular property of monuments, what WH Auden called ‘the language of size’, also means that particular information can only be obtained in a prescribed sequence’ (Richard Bradley Altering the Earth (1993), 47).

 

Yesterday all the past. The language of size

Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion

Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;

Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

WH Auden, ‘Spain 1937’

 

I used to walk along cursus monuments and call it work. This was my PhD research, an investigation into the Neolithic past. In fact, on reflection what I was doing was encountering contemporary rural landscapes in a subversive manner, following ancient routeways that have been lost amidst the organisation of the land today and which do not appear on any maps. I thought at the time that I was revealing insights into lost Neolithic lifeways and getting inside the minds of shaman, novices and ritual travellers. What I was in fact doing was exploring alternative ways to move around the landscape, following ancient routes, cutting across the geometry of railway lines, roads, fences and field boundaries, ignoring the straight lines of the twentieth century and instead following, slavishly, straight lines that were dug into the land over 5000 years ago.

I was creating my own cartographies, a mad man walking across empty fields taking notes and photos.

There can be no middle ground, no compromise, because there is nothing in the landscape today that respects Neolithic cursus monuments. The act of walking along a cursus therefore was one that showed no respect to the way we construct our landscapes today, a provocation, but when I was walking along cursus monuments and calling it work I did not see it that way.

The thrilling cover of my PhD.

The thrilling cover of my PhD.

Recently I walked along a cursus again, the first time I had undertaken one of these selfish walks since the 1990s, although I have visited a few cursus sites in between. ‘Cursus monument’ is a category of enclosure that dates to the first millennium of the British Neolithic (c3800-3300BC). These are rectangular enclosures, defined initially by lines of timber posts, and subsequently earthworks, with internal ditches and external banks. Like many archaeological categories, the label cursus hides a good deal of variation, with monuments ranging in length from 60m to 10km, and in width from 20m to 180m. Clearly, this material and morphological variability casts doubt on these all being part of a coherent phenomenon, and it is likely these sites (over 100 are known in Britain and Ireland with a few Euro-cursus outliers) were probably expressions of religious norms and local need. The earliest sites appear to have been constructed by the first generations of farmers in eastern and southern Scotland. The sites long been considered by archaeologists as serving a processional and ceremonial role within Neolithic society, although whether they were pathways for the living or the dead is unclear.

The definitive book on cursus monuments, written by Roy 'Dr Cursus' Loveday as I call him.

The definitive book on cursus monuments, written by Roy ‘Dr Cursus’ Loveday as I call him.

The longest cursus monument in Scotland is, like almost all of these sites, known only as a cropmark. In other words, the monument has long disappeared from the visible spectrum of the landscape due to the processes of natural decay, erosion and hard core modern ploughing. 98% of cursus monuments are only known to us because they appear as cropmarks on air photos, the buried postholes and ditches transmitting themselves to us through differential crop growth rates visible from the air and light aircraft. Through this flaky and unpredictable medium, we can track the routes of cursus monuments across modern rural landscapes (cropmarks can only really reveal themselves in arable cereal crops and usually under drought conditions, no use looking for them in the turnips and rasps).

cropmark-image-from-i-spy-book

From the I-Spy archaeology book. Because kids can are always spying cropmarks.

This is how the East Linton cursus, East Lothian, was discovered, although the true scale of the monument was not initially clear due to the monument being partly built over. The western half of the cursus (NT57NE 67) was initially recorded from air photos taken in 1981, although the presence of the cursus ditches was not identified until the early 1990s by RCAHMS and Historic Scotland staff including Rebbeca Jones and Ian Armit. The latter described the cropmarks at Drylawhill as….

“….two parallel ditches running approximately E to W some 60m apart. The ditches vary in width from 2m to 3m and follow a somewhat erratic course, giving the impression of having been constructed in discrete lengths rather than as a single unitary construction. This variability of width and segmented construction are characteristic of cursus monuments. The ditches can be traced for a length of almost 300m, and undoubtedly extend into the field to the E, although no cropmarks are visible there to enable their full extent to be assessed” (Discovery and Excavation in Scotland journal, 1993).

This spoke of an enormous enclosure, of unknown length, although entirely invisible and unknown in the modern landscape. Armit’s suggestion that the monument might continue to the east was prescient, although he might also have noted we have no idea where the western extent of this giant monument was located, and his width estimation was short, it being more like 80 to 90m across.

The Drylawhill end of the cursus, taken from the SE. (c) HES canmore_image_SC00925219

The Drylawhill end of the cursus, taken from the SE. It runs top-left to bottom-right. Note the cemetery in the foreground. (c) HES canmore_image_SC00925219

I was cataloguing aerial photos in the same vicinity, on the north side of the village of East Linton, in 1999 when I worked for RCAHMS. I noticed a set of cropmarks in the field to the east that had first been recorded in 1976 and then again in 1995, and had been classified as an ‘enclosure’ which is about as vague a cropmark interpretation that is it possible to give. This site was called Preston Mains (NT57NE 29). This looked to me as if it was on the same orientation and had the same form and width as the Drylawhill site, and some nifty ruler work on a 1:10,000 map sheet suggested that these were indeed two parts of the same enormous monument. In this case, the Preston Mains end of the cursus also had a rounded terminal, at least giving the cursus one known end. This revelation (and one of the few occasions where I was left punching the air in my role as a civil servant) meant that the Drylawhill-Preston Mains monument was, in fact, the East Linton cursus, measuring at least 1.25km in length and up to 90m in width.

The Preston Mains end of the cursus, taken from the S. (c) HES canmore_image_DP00163891

The Preston Mains end of the cursus, taken from the N. The parallel ditches of the cursus run more or less left to right, above and parallel to the road. (c) HES canmore_image_DP00163891

transcription-from-my-phd

 

A walk along a cursus in the past in the present

I visited and walked along the Drylawhill end of the cursus (before I knew about the other half) with fellow PhD student Andrew Baines on the 30th June 1996. Fragments related to this walk exist in my field notes and PhD. I undertook a Tilley-esque landscape phemomenology approach, although the only thing I can remember about it now was knocking on a door to ask permission to walk across the field, and being made a cup of coffee by a nice lady in a white fluffy dressing gown. (That can’t be right surely…..)

Field notes

Field notes

fieldwork-notes-1996

I was making my own cartographies.

Bam and I walked both east, and west, along the cursus section, at that time the only recognised fragment of this huge monument that had been mapped. My notes are perfunctory and almost illegible; the photos stuck into my PhD with cheap glue, and then badly scanned at a later date by a librarian. At least I now have a pdf of my thesis – it previously only existed on eight floppy disks and as boxes of slides, the crumbs of a research project.

1990s-walk-photo

The notes are not informative. Eastbound walk: ‘ Start on low plateau and walk down slope….’ and cue some imaginative speculation about what could be seen from various parts of the cursus depending on where is actually extended too. Desperate stuff really.  The conclusion of this experience was that a hollow that the Drylawhill end of the cursus crosses may have been a meaningful element of any procession along this routeway when the monument was in its prime, but it is a detached and partial account, with no beginning and no end. The ‘bones of the land’ (as Chris Tilley would say) may have been more or less the same as those experienced in the early Neolithic, but little else about this experience was authentic or even, to be frank, of any use. This is because I was too fixated with trying to imagine away my surroundings, ignore the church to my right, the woodland plantation ahead, the houses to my left and right, none of which are mentioned in my notes. At the time these modern intrusions intensely annoyed me as they buggered up my views of the broader landscape. Little wonder that the final account was banal and added about 100 words of my 100,000 word PhD; this is one cursus walk that ended up on the cutting room floor.

 

A different walk along the same cursus in the present in the past

In January 2017, 20 and a half years after I last walked along this cursus, I returned, now the urban prehistorian, not a youthful bullshitting PhD student trying to make sense of it all. This time I was armed with a better sense of the extent of the cursus monument, but also a clearer understanding of the nature of what I was about to do. This walk would follow the entire route of the cursus despite the modern obstacles in the landscape. The stuff of the modern landscape would be part of the experience, not censored from the final account. This would mean climbing over walls, walking along tarmac, crossing roads, tenaciously staying within the boundaries of the enclosure even in the big blank space in the middle of the cropmark that has largely been destroyed. (My walk was based on the assumption that this was indeed a continuous monument: prove me wrong!)

I walked west to east, heading for the terminal of the cursus, and this time I was not in the shoes of a Neolithic shaman: I was in my own shoes, which are a far more comfortable fit.

Map

map

 

Pictures

walk-1-to-4-v2

walk-5-to-8

walk-9-to-12

 

Words and illustrative images

The field detained me only briefly. I had been here before. Amidst tender young crops, I stepped carefully, almost tap dancing. choosing my footfall carefully, following or seeking tractor tramlines, this modern stuff already mediating my bodily engagement with the disappeared cursus and keeping me looking down, not ahead. The landscape as friction, fighting back.

I could sense ahead of me an impenetrable wall of trees, and a wall, a wall bounding a cemetery, the cemetery slipping downhill from a church on a mound. The corner of the cemetery wall jutted into the cursus interior, a geometrical assault on the organic earthwork, a point of fusion between past and present, a boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead, a portal between the past and present. At the base of the wall smashed vodka bottles and crushed cans had been deposited at this most powerful and liminal of locations.

the-corner-of-the-wall-low-res

I clambered over the wall and jumped down amongst the tombs and the rotting Christmas wreaths, baubled wraiths.

I built a cairn here, a time machine.

the-cairn-low-res

In the cemetery, grid-like paths sat awkwardly on my conception of what the cursus might have looked like here. These were incompatible realities. The dead had been buried on ancient ground, even on the ditch and bank, ghosts on top of ghosts.

Megalithic tombstones littered the graveyard.

megalithic-gravestone

I looked back along the cursus (never look back).

The sun dazzled me (never turn back).

Forward then, into the shadows, to the other corner of the cemetery, and a small walled off area filled with soil, a barrow made of earth dug to form fresh graves, a ramp for me to clamber up and over the wall.

Beyond, I found fake red flowers and sticky oasis at the foot of the wall, and a discarded wellington boot. Eclectic offerings.

fake-flowers

wellie-low-res

The cursus here cuts across a patch of dense woodland, which I pushed through. This was the wildwood of prehistory, but not prehistoric, despite the improvised wooden shacks and dens, lined with tarpaulin and willow benders that clung to a field boundary wall.

shack

I was in the trees for a minute at most, and then crossed a track, and a rough roadway, before passing some bollards and entering the lost section of the cursus, a place where it can no longer communicate to us via the medium of the cropmark.

I passed between the bollards and across the track which is essentially a long driveway to a garden centre, and passed along a lane, hemmed in on all sides by orange hedges punctuated by driveways with shiny cars and men in their boots removing, or stashing, boxes in their gaping rear ends. No-one looked at me as I consulted my map, took my photos, wrote my notes. As I moved from trees to tarmac, a murder of crows piped up from above, an ominous soundtrack accompanying my transition into the suburban cursus. Four or five white houses with oddly shaped gardens lie within this section of the cursus, while some straddle the ditch and bank, probably destroying these during construction.

Written on The Dean was the word slow: I took this entirely seriously and literally.

slow-low-res

conservation-area-low-res

This was a middle class zone that had the feel of being a Ballardian gated community without the gates. A sign said this is a Conservation Area although its very existence has not been efficacious to the preservation of prehistoric earthworks.

the-hedges-low-res

Within this section of my walk my movements were entirely constrained and controlled by the urban infrastructure. I did not feel like trying to climb over 8-foot-high hedges or walking through gardens, and felt reluctant to tell householders of the unique situation of their property. And so I moved through the cursus in a curious zig-zag, until I emerged onto a main road – Preston Road – which broke the conspiracy of silence of the estate I had been in. This road runs obliquely across the cursus route.

I noticed on the pavement a curious blue arrow, spray painted, and pointing away from a small drain rod point. By following the arrow I came across a proper big drain on the roadside.

blue-arrow-low-res

I squatted and peered down into the drain, almost as if trying to look back in time, and saw myself reflected back in the dirty water below, which somehow had a rippled surface. Deep down under ground, this drain, and the system of pipes that it fed into, had been inserted right into the middle of the cursus, ripping into the monument in a way that felt much more invasive than erecting houses or laying road surfaces. The drain offered a window into the guts of the monument, maybe even beneath the cursus, a barred window back in time. The past was down there and god knows what else.

drain-low-res

Cars roared past, and shaken, I continued my walk, down the driveway of a National Trust for Scotland property, Preston Mill. This visitor attraction is closed to the public over the winter but I walked down the red ash track, once again cutting across the line of the cursus at an unnatural angle. At a convenient point, I climbed over another wall, and began the final stage of my walk.

line-low-res

The final 500m or so of the cursus route was back in fields again, although the crop here was very different – not fresh healthy growth, but carnage – brussel sprout carnage. Two fields lay ahead of me, strewn with the carcasses of sprout plants, literally frozen in places despite the low cutting winter sun. The overall impression was of the aftermath of some apocalyptic Lovecraftian battle, with parts of Elder Ones and other unspeakable beings littering the fields, green tentacles and drooping fronds lightly crunching underfoot. Sprouting sprout stocks jutted from the frosty soil, with orange bubbles of sap spewing from their green musculature. The sprouts that were left behind were scattered around and felt like cold bullets.

sprouts-1

sprouts-2

I traipsed across the field, surrounded by yellowing leaves and infinite tiny cabbages, and the topography dipped ahead, until I reached a point where I could no longer see the far end of the field ahead where the cursus ends. A few steps up a steep slope and over a modern trackway raised by viewing position and once again the cursus route was clear. This kind of bodily and sensory engagement is what landscape phenomenology is all about, experiencing sensory restrictions which are not apparent on maps or air photos, and which may or may not relate to the intentions of the cursus builders. Stage-management of experience, or just one of those topographical variations one would expect to find along such a massive monument? Maybe the brassicas know but dead sprouts don’t tell tales.

blue-line

To my right loomed a sewage plant, just beyond the southern boundary of the cursus. Like the constant sound of cars roaring by, this industrial effluence treatment plant was a modern intrusion that was tough to ignore. It also reminded me again of the drain I had peered down earlier on, and that what lies beneath is invariably unrefined shit.

Finally, after 10 minutes of solid trudging east across these fields of sprouts, I reached the place where the cursus terminates per the cropmark evidence. This was an unremarkable place, overlooked by some farm buildings, and hemmed in by hedges which restricted visibility to the east. Looking back to the southwest, I saw Traprain Law, a major East Lothian landmark and a flat-topped hill that may have had sacred significance in the Neolithic. But I could play these games all day – what could I see, what couldn’t I see, what might or might not the significance of these solipsistic visibilities be?

terminus

Terminal view

Another selfish walk concluded, I wandered back to my car which I had parked near the western end of the cursus in the cemetery car park. I mentally compared what I had just done with my walk of 21 years ago where my scope had been so limited, an experience that started and stopped in a field, never daring to venture beyond the edges of the rural. This confinement ultimately led to boring and unsatisfactory observations about what this place might have been all about in the Neolithic.

google-air-photo-with-cursus-line

An urban cursus walk, with the rough route of the middle 1km of the cursus monument marked on a google earth background.

The walk I had just undertaken, over soil, grass, pathways, tarmac, and clambering over three walls (two more than I would normally ever countenance), following an ancient routeway that cuts across modern urban sensibilities, was an explicitly psychogeographical journey, and allowed an extended mediation on the use of land here in the ancient past and the contemporary present. This might not help us re-think the Neolithic, but it was an experience that allowed me to further reflect on my own practice and the limits of what we can say about the world as archaeologists.

 

Footnotes: repurposing the cursus?

Could the East Linton cursus be about to make a come-back? During 2016, a series of housing developments were proposed to the north and west of East Linton, including a new estate of over 200 homes in the field that the western Drylawhill end of the cursus is located in. This has caused concern in the village with a facebook site set up to combat ‘excessive expansion’ in the area.

A report written by Wallace Land Investment and Management, who own 34 hectares of this land, made a number of recommendations about the Drylawhill development – one of which is to ensure that no building work takes place on the route of the cursus monument. Instead, this should be left as a linear and broad green space. They note:

‘East Linton is part of an archaeological landscape. This includes [the] Scheduled Monument of the Drylawhill Cursus within the site. No development will take place on the Drylawhill Cursus site. The setting of this Scheduled Monument will be taken into account with development set back creating a buffer’.

This is connected to ‘ensuring access to important archaeological remains and provision of a new park’.

development-proposal-map

Wallace Land Indicative Development Framework: urban prehistoric entanglements abound. The linear cursus green space is a striking element of the proposal.

Is it possible that the demands of a society voracious for new housing and urban expansion can also accommodate prehistoric monuments in a positive way? Could we see the establishment here of a park called ‘The Cursus’, the establishment of an archaeological walking trail and expanded information for the local community, new and old, about the ancient time depth beneath their feet? How will the presence of the cursus and other prehistoric sites here be brought to the attention of people living here? The construction of housing here offers amazing challenges and opportunities.

Watch this space. I will be trying to explore how the cursus can be remade for 21st century urban living, and how we translate into modern terminology the remarkable Neolithic language of size.

 

 

 

 

Selfish walks

21 Jan

What is the nature of the narratives that we write as archaeologists? What status do our accounts about the past have? I have long characterised my own writings about my chosen area of expertise, the Neolithic period, as being fictional accounts of an ancient past that we have no direct experience of. These fictions rely on research, evidence and facts that act as a framework for what I say about Neolithic monuments and lifeways; these in effect offer resistance to flights of fancy and nonsensical accounts of the past, although I have been accused of producing both of these in the past, my defence being that we cannot write about the past without writing about ourselves. One of the key reasons that archaeological accounts of the past have – let’s be generous – a fictional element, is that they are mediated through the present. Our archaeological engagements happen today and thus we must account for the circumstances within which we investigate remains of prehistory, although there is precious little of this kind of introspection in archaeology.

A good example of this is ‘landscape phenomenology’, which has been used to help make sense of Neolithic monuments, settlements and landscapes ever since Chris Tilley published his seminal but flawed book A phenomenology of landscape in 1994. This book offered the first comprehensive foray by Tilley into experiential fieldwork and one of the first uses of the philosophical concept of phenomenology in archaeology. Phenomenology is concerned with processing and understanding perceptual and bodily engagement, trying to make sense of phenomena by how we encounter them. So the description of our experiences of things is more meaningful and helpful than merely describing things in themselves; this should be an involved, not detached task. This is typified by an approach to Neolithic landscapes that is embodied and carried out on foot on the ground as opposed to a detached analysis based on maps, air photos and site plans.

phenomenology-of-landscape

Tilley achieved the remarkable sleight of hand of moving from ontological philosophy to archaeological fieldwork method. Thus, experiences one has today such as walking through a prehistoric enclosure, approaching a dolmen, or surveying the wider landscape from the entrance of a chambered tomb to see what can and cannot be seen, could be meaningful data in the study of how people in the Neolithic experienced and used those things and why those monuments were built where they were. This approach has many flaws and critics, but has been much imitated as a method over the past two decades in no small part because, as Jo Brück says, it is cheap and anyone can do it. To paraphrase Andrew M Jones, it is the theory that has launched a thousand student dissertations – including mine.

bender-and-tilley-walk

Map of a phenomenological walk around the Stonehenge landscape undertaken by Tilley, Barbara Bender and a baby (Bender 1998)

Tilley argued that taking his experiences in the contemporary landscape (all of his fieldwork happens there of course unless he has a secret time machine) and transposing his own personal observation, knowledge and insights derived from these walks back 5000 years can be done because of our shared human physiology, and the consistency of the ‘bones of the landscape’. (See what I mean about archaeology-as-fiction?) Issues of historicity and trees can be overcome so it seems although archaeologists from John Barrett to Andrew Fleming have voiced serious reservations. For my own perspective, I have always been a recreational user of phenomenology, but have never hooked. My first ever published piece of writing was back in 1998 in the now defunct magazine 3rd Stone where I felt confident enough to offer some tentative misgivings about how beneficial walking along Neolithic cursus monuments was although these related more to refining the method than destroying it (in much the same way as Frankenstein kept trying to make better monsters through the Hammer film series rather than just giving up after the first one and admitting it was a pretty bad idea all along).

3rd-stone-cover

Landscape phenomenology of the kind proposed by Tilley and others has as one of its explicit aims the imaginative recreation of the Neolithic landscape (except for all those troublesome plants which we can’t say much about with any precision), and this means that somehow the contemporary landscape has to be filtered out of the equation, in the same way as an augmented reality app might do so on a smart phone. In other words, the very context within which all archaeological engagements happen – the present – is subordinated by the past in the present, which is really just the present when you stop and think about it. It’s almost as if to carry out landscape phenomenology one has to don a pair of x-ray glasses that can see through the actual AD2017 and back to a version of 3017BC. I happen to think that augmented reality in this case means diminished reality and no amount of phenomenology hats can disguise this.

stonehenge-vr-trailer-oculus

Augmented reality is diminished reality (photo source: VR Scout)

Tilley called this ‘imaginative self-transposition’ which sounds a bit like a course you could do over a weekend at a lodge in the country somewhere, but is in fact the process of imagining away the present – the roads, field boundaries, planes overhead, car noises, funny smells – to get to the past, or rather the past as imagined by the archaeologist carrying out this process. Thus, we have the emergence of the selfish walk as archaeological fieldwork method, where, as Julian Thomas has put it, ‘the investigator bases their interpretation of a place or object on their unbridled subjective experience’. I actually don’t have that much against acknowledged subjectivity in fieldwork – I am a fiction writer remember – but I do disagree with screening out the context within which archaeological engagements happen. Because we have to understand the nature of our encounters to begin to understand the significance of those encounters; how reliable what we have to say about the Neolithic is contingent upon this.

Little wonder that Tilley has also stated that ‘a megalith in an urban environment does not seem to work’ because the more urban a place is, the more sensory and physical stuff landscape phenomenology says that we must filter out. It might be more correct to say that trying to draw conclusions about Neolithic activities, movements and monuments is harder in an urban or industrial setting, but then that depends on what you are up to in the first place.

If your interest is how the past and the present intertwine, if your concern is what multifarious and denuded ways prehistory appears to us in contemporary settings, if you are passionate about exploring what we can say about contemporary prehistoric landscapes – all concerns of mine – then in a sense it is easier to do this in an urban setting, as this jars more violently with social and disciplinary preconceptions of what prehistory was like. It electro-shocks a reaction, which can be one of intrigue or horror. But here’s the thing: it isn’t really prehistory, no matter with how much determination Tilley and others might walk along, or up to it, and experience it. Prehistory has gone, it’s over, done with. The less prehistoric a place or landscape feels, the more likely that prehistoric remains in that context will tell us something meaningful about our engagements with the past in the present and the conditions within which archaeological knowledge emerges. Some humility and honesty go a long way here.

It might also tell us bugger all about the past, but I am comfortable with that, plenty of archaeologists do that shit.

cursus-walk-with-map

Walking along the route of a Neolithic cursus. Maps are the tools of psychogeographers, not the enemy.

In fact, a much better way to deal with prehistoric monuments in a landscape context is to use psychogeography which Guy Debord famously defined as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. What better means could we use to explore how urbanisation has impacted on our ability to see and make sense of prehistoric monuments and activities? Psychogeography as a practice is not concerned with filtering out the present, but rather it embraces it as a necessary condition of being concerned with the past in the first place. The imposition of an urban grid replaces what went before, and thus necessitates actions that presence what went before in the present. Here, the urban change has to happen in order for the need, the want, to emerge. It goes without saying that urban prehistory demands urbanisation to have occurred.

The use of mapping in psychogeography as a means to plan or record walks and journeys accords far better with the reality of our urban encounters than vain attempts to forget maps and yet have to draw them anyway to report on our discoveries. Maps are not detachment, they are a record of the world that exist to be subverted, not ignored. Maps are the tools of psychogeographers, not the enemy. The dérive is a far more effective way to encounter prehistoric sites and monuments than knowing-a priori-assumption-laden walks between cairns and stone circles. Psychogeography can adequately allow for outlandish encounters and weird juxtapositions, celebrated as an inevitable and beautiful outcome of human palimpesting of the land, whereas landscape phenomenology can only lead us to bemoan things getting in the way, breaking up the experience, blocking views, generally ruining the megalithic aura and – well, just being annoying reminders that everything is really happening now, in the present, and not in the past. Psychogeography is not as half as visually dominated as landscape phenomenology is. And so on.

So, returning to my first point, I draw a very firm line between the two types of archaeological narratives that I write. Some are indeed fictionalised versions of the Neolithic, and are intended to offer my expert interpretation of the chaotic mass we call the archaeological record. Others are far from fictional – they are serious, factual reportage on encounters I have with prehistoric sites and monuments in the contemporary landscape. I don’t have to make that stuff up because it really happened to me. Nothing Neolithic ever happened to me, and if you have ever seen the huge polished stone axes they were knocking out and hitting one another on the heads with back then you wouldn’t want it to happen to you either. Urban prehistory can and should be a serious business because the traces of prehistoric actions are more useful to society if we understand how people encounter them today, than how they were encountered 5000 years ago.

Crap, this was supposed to be a blog post about me walking along a cursus monument in East Lothian. I’ll do that next time.

 

My thoughts in this post have greatly benefited from various conversations with Andrew Watson, although he may not agree with my conclusions!

The Stonehenge VR image came from the VR Scout Stonehenge webpage.

Academic sources referred to in the text:

  • Brűck, J 2005 Experiencing the past? The development of a phenomenological archaeology in British prehistory, Archaeological Dialogues 12, 45-72.
  • Barrett, J. and Ko, I. 2009. A phenomenology of landscape: a crisis in British landscape archaeology. Journal of Social Archaeology 9(3), 275-294.
  • Bender B 1998, Stonehenge: making space, Oxford: Berg
  • Brophy, K 1998 This is not phenomenology (or is it?): experiencing cursus monuments. 3rd Stone Magazine 30, 7-9.
  • Fleming, A 2006 Post-processual landscape archaeology: a critique, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16, 267-80.
  • Jones, AM 2007 Review of The materiality of stone, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17, 229-31.
  • Tilley, C 1993 Art, architecture, landscape [Neolithic Sweden], in Bender, B (ed) Landscape: politics and perspectives, Berg, 49-84.
  • Tilley, C 1994 A phenomenology of landscape, Oxford: Berg.
  • Tilley, C 2008 Phenomenological approaches to landscape archaeology, in David, B & Thomas, J (eds) Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, Leftcoast Press.