Site G

23 Nov

What should we make of an archaeological site that does not exist in official records of archaeological sites? Without the seal of approval from the authorities, inclusion in the list of record of such sites, is there some doubt as to the authenticity of such a site? And in the void of archaeological engagement, what myths and tales might emerge for those who know the site better than anyone – dogwalkers, nighttime imbibers, those in the know, those who spend time at the site but don’t even know it is there? Is there a value in such urban urban prehistory myths?

In this post I want to consider these issues of archaeological invisibility through examining the unusual case of an abstract prehistoric rock-art site that in local walking routes is known as Site G. This is the story of how this site is gradually been reclaimed from obscurity by local people and school children, and highlights the enduring potential of prehistoric sites in urban places to have significance and value even in the least promising of situations. So let me transport you to the green belt border zone between Bonnybridge and Denny, in central Scotland.

Caught in the jaws of urbanisation, increasingly hemmed in by housing expansion, compressed in scope in the vice-like grip of progress, horizons narrowing, the Chacefield Wood rock-art site is a true survivor. It is a genuinely ancient site, a relic of a bygone age, a carved rock outcrop that increasingly only has the solace of the quiet trees that stand around it to rely on, timber guardians of an ancient secret that is mostly the preserve of local people, pram-pushers, lockdown walkers. Located within proximity to two motorways and the intersection that connects them, this place is better connected than most rock-art sites because of these arterial routes to big cities – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth. On a map even these roads take on a jaw-like quality, closing in on the carvings which are situated in a green tongue of woodland. Yet this connectedness, being on a route, has done little to benefit the profile of this this site which appears – until recently – to have been ignored by all archaeological recording processes in Scotland, left to the warm embrace of local knowledge, lore, and just about on a walking trail in a rapidly diminishing green space.

Surprisingly, little has ever been written about this lonely outcrop. It is not documented in the National Record of the Historic Environment in Scotland (with canmore its online portal). It is therefore not even officially an archaeological site, just a thing of conjecture. Is it real? If it is real surely it would be recorded somewhere officially? This is a place that is doubted in its authenticity, and a google search does little to breed confidence due to some mostly fuzzy photos of a rock in the shadows.

There are no archaeological sites documented in Chacefield Wood on canmore. The red dot is the location of the rock-art site, just off a main path.

Yet this is also a rock-art site that appears in the marketing of leisure by the local council, Falkirk. In a leaflet entitled Discover the Paths in and around Bonnybridge, that can be found online, the rock-art site appears as part of the Drove Loan to Chacefield Wood walk.

Marked in a general map of the area showing historic sites of interest with a G (although the location is not really made that clear due to the scale of the map and the size of the G) the site in described thus:

Chacefield Wood Cup and Ring Marks: The term “cup and ring carving” describes a range of rock carved symbols that are found mainly in northern Europe, although similar carvings occur in other countries around the world. In Britain the carvings are estimated to be around 4000 – 5000 years old which dates them to the Neolithic and Bronze ages. The purpose and meaning of the symbols is unclear. Many of the rock carvings are sited near or on cairns and burial mounds, linking the symbols with death, ancestors and an afterlife.

A very small image of part of a cup-and-ring mark is also included in this leaflet, a tantalising glimpse.

A more detailed map of the walk does not show the actual location of the rock-art site, perhaps inviting the intrepid explorer to spot the outcrop from the path, or preserving the enigmatic mystique of this place.

The site is on the database map for Scotland’s Rock-art Project which is the step before becoming an official site in the national record, although as far as I can tell the site has not been formally visited yet (they are nearing the end of the recording phased of the project). This at least gives the exact location of the site and a good grid reference (the site is ScRAP ID 3085), but the record form remains incomplete and there are no photos or 3D models in the system yet. The site remains, for the time being, unverified. Still, official recognition is getting closer, so perhaps this is a real site after all.

ScRAP map satellite image showing the location of the rock-art outcrop (blue dot)

Abstract prehistoric rock-art is having something of a renaissance in archaeology. Her excellent recent book, Design and Connectivity, Joana Valdez-Tullett (of Scotland’s Rock-art Project) places sites such as Chacefield into a broader Atlantic rock-art tradition, which sort of reflects what the Bonnybridge walk leaflet was hinting at. Suddenly Site G is looking a whole lot more significant, and its splendid isolation (it is the only site of its type in Falkirk Council area) is to extent mitigated by spiritual and cultural connections that have routes that expand beyond the motorway network of central Scotland. Plus, no rock-art site is alone that has friends….

Photos online (there are very few) show a humble site, a rather rough boulder with a set of at least three deeply-incised cup-and-ring mark symbols in a line on the upper part of the rock, with assorted cupmarks, some of which may be natural features that have been augmented or included in the pattern. On some images there appears to be the remnants of graffiti painted onto the stone in red, ghostly letters rather like those you would see painted above an old shop.     

Nice photo of the Chacefield site tweeted by Kenny Baxter @SporadicArtist (with permission)

With this basic information in mind, I went on a series of visits to this rock-art site during the summer of 2020, after a tip off that it existed from a friend, Michelle, who lives nearby. I was somewhat confused why this site was not documented in canmore, despite the fact that it looked legit. On my first visit I recorded a short bit of film on my mobile phone about my visit which has since been used for a teaching session in a local school. After parking nearby, and with only a vague sense of where the carved stones might be, the chase was on!

I followed a busy A road from the cul-de-sac where I parked, which was resplendent with front gardens containing boulders and standing stones, a good start. As I walked past, a postman emerged from his van and dropped several parcels into the gutter, perhaps surprised by my sense of purpose. I strode on, my walking style enlivened by the presence of a good old metal red and white 1m ranging rod, which would act as photographic scale, but was currently employed as a walking stick.

The trail into the woods was a good one, and I followed the main track, all the while tapping my metal pole into the ground with a regular metallic ping like a demented woodpecker. Looking from side to side in the time-honoured fashion, I eventually spotted a suspiciously conspicuous outcrop about 50m to the south of the path.

I walked over with a renewed sense of purpose and sure enough, this was Site G! The site was actually spread across two adjoining outcrops, with one zone of cup-and-ring marks (north stone), the other just cupmarks (south) although on later visits I came to suspect there were rings here too. Simply staring at cup-and-ring marks and tracing their depth with your fingers often seems to conjure up additional aspects of the assemblage, sometimes real, other times imagined.

There is no doubt in my mind that these are genuinely prehistoric markings, deeply incised, in a location that if there had been no trees would have had quite dramatic views of the surrounding landscape. Now the site is dominated by the hum of the nearby M876 and the murmur of dogwalkers talking to one another or on phones. The smooth rolling of pram wheels was another background aspect to my first visit, utter normality as I perched on a stone covered in 5,000 year old markings.

The stones were covered in a carpet of leaves, prematurely autumnal, as if the seasons had sped up in this location, rushing towards winter and the inhabitation of stone hollows with white crisp frost. Time can bend at prehistoric sites and nature dances according to the whim of the power of stone.

There were clear signs that this is a place that is used. Just hidden enough to be off the main trail, but not dark and dingy enough to be a truly secret spot, there was detritus all around of drinking, and the sociable eating of crisps and sweets. Smashed glass concentrated around the southern extent of the outcrop, with some fragments nestling inside the cupmarks themselves. These represented a kaleidoscope of possibilities, their sharp shards and angles contrasting with the smooth flow of the ancient symbols carved into the stone.

There were also a few instances of graffiti on the northern outcrop, near and perhaps overlapping with the cups and rings. Letters of indeterminate form, in red, white, blue, were carelessly daubed across the flow of the cup-and-ring marks, overwritten in paint. Defiant messages shouted into the void, forgotten slogans, passing fancies, fading youth, melting into the past.

My first visit ended walking back to the car, a spring in my step, happy to have visited the best rock-art site in the Falkirk area, guided by a corridor of lush vegetation.

While I was at Site G I noticed that there was a horrible looking green pool of water between the path and the outcrops, full of bottles, half-submerged plastic bags, slick with an oily surface of glossy green rainbows. Even as I was standing at the rock-art two people passed by and one of them pointed to this pond saying ‘That’s stinkin’. I found out later from Michelle that this revolting pool is known to some locally as Shrek’s Swamp.

With this local hydrological phenomenon for orientation, Michelle was able to positively identify the rock-art where in the past she was not so sure. Her kids had a great time playing count the cupmarks!

Being a teacher, the next obvious thing to happen was that Site G, this unofficial, largely unrecognised rock-art site, was to become the focus for some teaching sessions at the fairly local secondary school where she works, with Jan (aka Mrs Urban Prehistorian). As it happens, they had both taught classes for the People and Society course around the Cochno Stone rock-art site, so this was the perfect opportunity to talk about prehistoric rock-art using a local example.

One thing that interested me was the locality next to Shrek’s Swamp and the potential for narratives and stories to emerge that connected the rock-art and this local landmark. Myths and stories about rock-art are something that Joana Valdez-Tullett has been keen to explore and celebrate, and here we had a chance to myth-make about the Chacefield rock-art site, spinning stories about the symbols and how they were carved in the same way as children playing on the Cochno Stone must have done, and Ludovic Mann did with his paints. So the People and Society class were challenged to come up with their own tall tales linking the cup-and-ring marks and Shrek’s Swamp.

I recorded some video about this with Jan, and then the kids were set to work, after learning all about prehistoric rock-art and the Cochno Stone in the classroom. The results were amazing!

These are stories that reflect the current reality of this rock-art outcrop: ‘Its for the teenagers. They all cut about there with there friends’. But there are also stories of escapism and magic that transcend the grey blandness of this stone: ‘The myths behind the stone is every colour represents a colour of life’.

Some stories not pictured above link the creation of the symbols on the stone to the Shrek universe: ‘Donkey wants to kill everyone in the world and so he plans the whole thing on the rock…’, while another tale suggests that the rock was so shaped to allow rain water to gather on the stone so Shrek and donkey can drink from it each morning…’and now it is for people to sit on’.

These fantastical tales are a product of a class that was unusually engaged by this series of classes, so I am told, and mirrors what people have always done about the places that they live and the ancient megaliths they encounter within them. They spin tall tales to tell their children, or let their imagination run riot to the amusement of adults, all to explain the mysterious away. More often than not such stories contain an element of truth, or at least a whole lot of insight. In the past it is not such a stretch to imagine that cupmarked stones were places that people hung about, that water gathered in the hollows, that the carvings had meaning to those who made them, that the symbols reflected the colours of life.

This might not be getting the Chacefield Woods rock-art site a place in the national record of monuments – but this a valuable form of validation.

In the absence of archaeologists trying to make sense of Site G, then why not let these children, some of whom already were aware of the rocks and swamp, having seen them, present their version of events? Who are we to say they are wrong? Will these tales be consulted when the modest story of this rock-art site is told by archaeologists when Chacefield is finally given the official recognition of a canmore entry, a photogrammetry model and completed recording form in the ScRAP database? Probably not. But in the minds of local people, dog walkers, teenagers cutting about with one another, we cannot stop colourful stories being told, and why should we want to. There is more to Site G than meets the eye.

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Michelle for telling me about this site, and for Jan and Michelle for making this part of their teaching, in what I know is precious classroom time. Thanks to the pupils who took part, who were happy for their artwork to be featured in my post. Jan and Michelle also provided some of the photos in this post.

I would also like to thank Joana Valdez-Tullett and Maye Hoole (both Historic Environment Scotland) for engaging with me about this site. Joana’s book, referred to above, is:

Valdez-Tullett, J 2019 Design and connectivity: The case of Atlantic rock-art. BAR Publishing.

Thanks also to Kenny Baxter aka @SporadicArtist for allowing me permission to reproduce his photograph of the site.

Neighbours to the dead

22 Oct

An account of a visit to a roadside chambered mound on the island of Skye at a time of special restrictions

An autumnal visit to a chambered cairn, believed to be ancient, having been investigated by various workmen and authorities ‘back in the day’. My researches had suggested to me that this monument sat in urban splendour, in the small town of Broadford on the island of Skye off the west coast of Scotland, an area I was able to reach by means of a bridge rather than boat as I had on my previous travels with a van full of bones*. In order to trek to the cairn, which goes by the local name Liveras, the automobile was parked near the Post Office, pharmacy, trinket shop, and an establishment vending candles bearing the mark of the island. We duly paid and displayed.

The main busy road was crossed avoiding incident, and we began to walk down Liveras Park, a road that curved down to the shore and quickly took on the form of a tarmac trackway along which were placed private residences, a manse – ministerial pile – and a Bed and Breakfasting establishment. It was between two of these buildings and their associated perfectly maintained gardens that the rounded eminence became apparent, a vegetation covered barrow or cairn on the roadside.

The mound itself was crowned with a great display of trees, while ferns and weeds and shrubs filled in the spaces between the splayed trunks of this arrangement. The roots of these established vegetations must surely be cutting deep into the cairn, easing apart the well-placed orthostats in the belly of the tomb, introducing spaces and light where before there was only darkness. The mound melted into the roadside, verge-like, with a covering of the first leaf falls of the season, another layer in the stratigraphy of Liveras.

My extensive research into this monument, conducted over 10 long minutes using the oracle that is google, told me that this cairn had been the subject of crude antiquarian investigation in the nineteenth century. In a talk given to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on 9th January 1832 Donald Gregory Esquire told the attendant audience:

The accidental opening of this massive mound seems to me an unlikely explanation for what may have been more correctly characterised as an exercise in curiosity. However this account hints at the hollow heart of this tree-topped low eminence, from which some treasures were recovered along with the remains of the ancient dead.

The stone object Gregory tells of is a stone-bracer or wrist-guard, worn by an archer, and a second object of similar nature was later recovered from the beach nearby, suggesting it was discarded there during the 1832 foray. The form of this monument – Neolithic – and the recovery of these Bronze Age objects, suggests multiple occasions of human burial at this place, so close now to a manse inhabited by one who commonly ministers to the dead.

The wrist-guard was made from stone from the Langdales in the Lake District and even now resides in a drawer in storage at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It is pictured on a coloured board of information that stands just a few paces away from the cairn.

Death was taken very seriously then‘ begins the writing on this board of information, as if this were not the case now. Perhaps this was a monument constructed by the ancients to cope with excess deaths, locking them away in a safe of stone, the combination code of which was only known to a select few.

Daubed onto a wooden service pole sticking from the side of the cairn was the letter H painted in yellow. This was next to a yellow indicator of electrical flow beneath the earth with its own black H. Thrust into and beneath the lip of the cairn, indicators of another type of power at work here.

This plot will never be built on. There will always be a gap between the manse and the bed and breakfast, and so all those who reside in those buildings will continue to be neighbours to the dead.

Sources and acknowledgements: This chambered cairn is of a Hebridean Type and a little more information can be found in canmore. The account by Gregory can be found here (google the title, a pdf is available online):

Gregory, D. 1857 Notes regarding various remains of antiquity, both of the earlier and middle ages, observed during a recent visit to the Hebrides’, Archaeol Scot, vol. 4, 1857. Page: 364

The final photo in this post was taken by Jan Brophy.

The * indicates another story for another time.

Hot mess

21 Sep

Hot mess: a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination.

Is that really a standing stone?! So must passers by in cars on the A8 near Edinburgh Airport ejaculate with great frequency as they pass by a very prominent megalithic upright in the shadow of an industrial unit. And well they might wonder what is going on when they spot out of the corner of their eye a right old hot mess of temporal entanglements.

Yet this standing stone demonstrates a key characteristic of urban prehistory – resilience in the face of change. These kinds of monuments act as a sort of fulcrum around which change happens, but yet retain their own internal integrity. This can be in the face of indignities such as bad planning decisions, a lack of care, vandalism, or even just being ignored.

The more cynical observer might even presume that this ancient survivor is giving our world of cars, commerce, and industry, the megalithic finger.

What is going on here? A quick visual inventory adds up to the sum of nothing much that makes sense. A standing stone. A cairn. A picnic bench. A fire escape. Some kind of rusty ventilation unit. A generic industrial estate building. It is all rather confusing: these seemingly random and largely disconnected things appear to lack synergy. It is as if some kind of time travel experiment has gone wrong and smashed together a whole load of things that existed in this single space but in different times. More of a peculiarity than a singularity. It is all rather surprising.

I guess a small percentage of the curious drivers or passengers in passing vehicles who spot this crazed arrangement might do some research when they get home or when it is safe to google. They might then stumble upon the fact that this is indeed a ‘real’ standing stone and not an unreal standing stone (in itself an interesting concept) and that it has stood here for rather a long time. Indeed of all of the things that are arranged in this location, it is by far the oldest, even older than the rusty ventilation unit. It is everything else that is out of time, disparate elements of this tableaux that have gradually accrued around the standing stone as if it were a magnet attracting 20th century crap.

This standing stone has been in the shadow of buildings for a long time, in the nineteenth century being close to a farm, Lochend Farm, which gives the stone its modern name. It’s prehistoric name? Who knows. By the 1940s the stone had moved (in context, not literally) from relatively rural isolation to being situated within a knotwork of rail lines and roads. Soon it would lie directly beneath the flightpath of the airport, and be made to ever so slightly vibrate according to flight schedules; the busy A8 road nearby is another source of vibration and gives this stone no peace.

1955 map. The standing stone is shown as an un-marked dot to the SW of Lochend Sch.

This is a standing stone that has been a mute witness to an ever-changing set of surrounds, from the turn of the seasons, to constructions and activities associated with thousands of years of human activity, the churn of change. One might imagine a stop-motion film of the life of this stone, extracted from the stability of bedrock or an outcrop, dragged, heaved into position, followed by a process of slowly moving from the centre of the lives of people, to the peripheral vision of a tired commuter.

A small noticeboard beside the monument, and its modern-looking cairn, tells the sum total of the story of the stone from our perspective, a banal account of pathetic ignorance, our know-nothing stance on such sites, which don’t make the textbooks, barely trouble maps, and warrant just one sentence in the National Monuments Record of Scotland. The local context is given more prominance in this megalithic short story:

 IT IS POSSIBLE THAT IT IS AN OUTLIER OF THE BURIAL AND RELIGIOUS SITE AT HULY HILL ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROUNDABOUT ALTHOUGH IT COULD HAVE STOOD ALONE. STANDING STONES OF THIS TYPE OFTEN HAD CREMATED HUMAN BONE AT THEIR BASE ALTHOUGH IT IS BELIEVED THAT THEY WERE NOT PRIMARILY BURIAL MARKERS

Situated on the other side of a huge roundabout and intersection is Huly Hill, an enigmatic and rather larger prehistoric monument consisting of a mound and three standing stones. Our industrial estate monolith appears to be little more than an appendix, a footnote, a PS, to this place, despite the fact we know bugger all about Huly Hill either, and what’s more, it is not even as easy to see from a car.

The standing stone is now associated with this industrial unit, part of an industrial complex rather than a sacred prehistoric complex. It stands outside the fire exit of a shapeless and colourless block that is inhabited for the time being by Element. The unit has all sorts of corridors and rooms, containing machines, desks, revolving chairs, meeting rooms and those plastic things that dispense water. This is probably not a permanent state of affairs – this place – this standing stone – was a ‘development opportunity’ in 1982 and will be so again. This building won’t he here in 50 years. But the standing stone will. It will outlive us all.

The standing stone in 1982 (c) HES

I visited this standing stone twice in 2019, in a more innocent age, after many years of yearning to touch its cold surface, rather than view it through rectangular voids in a fence, which has always given the stone the appearance of having been drawn on graph paper to scale. On my second visit I was able to get to the stone itself on a midweek visit. In the reception area, I barely needed to explain myself, as if visitors to the megalith were not as uncommon as I had supposed, something I found re-assuring. Here to visit Standing Stone. This way sir, how do you like its office?

As I was taken along a series of corridors, I began to feel sorry for the standing stone, alone despite the staff who sat at desks just metres away behind tinted glass. There is no escape for this megalith, no chance of peace to be found while humans work around it oblivious to its elegance and mystery. The office block arches around the stone, a semi-panopticon, but only with a dis-interested audience of sandwich munchers. As I approached the fire doors which stood between me and the stone, I speculated as to whether the stone was at times the victim of the tortures of office workers, cigarettes stubbed out on its grey flanks by bored smokers during tea break.

I pushed ‘bar to open’ and emerged into a different sonic environment from the low hum and muted sounds of the office environment. Ahead of me was the standing stone, hemmed in by monobloc and the kind of gravel one can buy in garden centres (sub-standard cairn material imho). This location was haunted by the drone of cars and motorcycles, and the muted roar of overhead planes. These machines fly over the stone constantly, silvery echoes of the comets and shooting stars that must have been witnessed over the monument thousands of years ago when the skies were darker and quieter.

I did not go back through the fire doors, now locked to me, and scrambled around the grassy exterior of the industrial unit to get back to the front of the building.

Despite the hot mess, the botched landscaping and compromised setting of this monument, it remains a constant, a fulcrum point. This is despite the peripheral role it plays in the life of almost everyone who encounters it. The stone has probably never been busier, never been seen by more people, yet it has an invisible quality. Office staff and lab technicians look through its transparent patina, familiar to the point of banality. Oh, you want to see the standing stone? Why?! Drivers and bus passengers shoot by, focused on the forthcoming traffic lights and road intersection, seeing the stone as a blur, never truly in focus except in the eventuality of a traffic jam.

Yet….in this ever-changing world we live in, the Lochend Farm standing stone offers a constant, unchanging, re-assuring presence, not moving or evolving, not in need of an upgrade or reboot, and never becoming obsolete. Just what we need in 2020 if only those who encounter this magnificent megalith would realise it.

Notes: The Lochend Farm standing stone was described by Smith in 1877 as ‘large standing stone..of coarse greenstone’ on the ‘south side of the Edinburgh to Bathgate road’. This brief note concluded, ‘It bears no sculpturing or inscription of any kind and measured about 10 feet in height from the surface to the ground’.

Coles (1903) showing the plan view of the Lochend Stone & Haly Hill stones

Coles, in 1903, added little more to this description in an account more focused on nearby ‘Heelie Hill’. Upon walking from the railway station to the cairn and standing stones, ‘the first object to arrest the eye of the antiquary is a great monolith, over 9 feet in height’. Coles did some recording, as the illustration above shows.

Thereafter there is no further archaeological engagement with the stone, which as the black and white image from 1982 above shows, stood in the farm ground near the expanding A8 road for some time. The post-1982 construction of the industrial estate here was when the landscaping of the stone, with gravel cairn surround, must have occurred.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to the staff at Element who allowed me access to the standing stone.

Sources used above for images and the notes section:

Smith, JA 1875 Notes of rock sculpturings of cups and concentric rings and ‘The Witches stone’ on Tormain Hill; also of some early remains on the Kaimes Hill, &c; near Ratho, Edinburghshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 10, 141-51.

Coles, F 1903 Notes on….(4) a cairn and standing stone at Old Liston, and other standing stones in Midlothian and Fife….Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 37, 193-232.

Oh my Goss

13 Aug

Archaeologists are collectors and hoarders. We go through life amassing our own assemblages, perhaps in compensation for all the things we find during fieldwork and excavations that we must hand over to someone else.

My latest collection obsession was prompted by the kindness of Hugo (as in Hugo Anderson-Whymark of the National Museum of Scotland) during the Neolithic Studies Group visit to southwest Scotland in May 2019. During a lunchbreak on a sunny Saturday in Wigtown, he presented me with a small package – a present for me! I carefully unwrapped – excavated – the package that he presented me with and inside was a very small ceramic pot. Directed to read the tiny writing on the base, the reason for this gift soon became clear. This was a very small replica of a prehistoric urn. I could barely believe such a thing existed.

Later than day back in my weird Kirkcudbright B&B room (a short walk from some of the locations used in The Wicker Man) I turned the little fragile pot over in my hands, absorbing the writing on the bottom:

MODEL OF CINERARY URN FOUND AT GLEN DORGAL NOW IN TRURO MUSEUM

On the side of the pot was, weirdly, a crest for the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil. What was the Celtic connection?

This was all very exciting, and Hugo filled me in on the astounding truth – that there were lots of such tiny ceramic prehistoric urns, made (primarily) by Staffordshire ceramics manufacturers WH Goss in the late 19th and early 20th century, based on a variety of later prehistoric pots and urns, with a host of town crests upon them. How could I not have known about this? There is even a Goss Collectors’ Club for fans of the ‘crested urns’ and other china keepsakes made by Goss.

Entry for my Glen Dorgal urn from the Goss Collectors’ Club website

The story of these little pots – the crested urns – goes back to the nineteenth century. Essentially they were cheap tourist souvenirs, produced between 1858 and 1939, and which were embossed with the crest of the town or place where they were being sold. WH Goss used a huge range of historical influences for the shapes of their little urns, in part with an ethos of making these little pots educational and informative. Thus there are countless examples of little urns in the shape of medieval pots and jugs, Roman vessels, leather bags, goblets, drinking urns, milk urns, tankards, all in the order of 60mm to 80mm in size. In each case the object that the china replica is based on is written on the base with a Goss stamp, although this became less common through time thus reducing the educational value of the urns. Other companies such as Arcadia made knock-off cheaper versions of some of these urns.

Pine and Pine 1987

So why are some of these little objects china replicas of prehistoric pots? In a 1995 paper about this phenomenon, Catherine Johns stated that the idea came from Adolphus Goss (1853-1906), son of founder of the Goss company William Henry Goss. Goss Jnr. wanted to produce educational and informative keepsakes of holidays and daytrips for working class tourists. The prehistoric pottery range designs came from the pages of Llewellyn Jewitt’s 1877 The ceramic art of Great Britain (2nd edition) and so, as Johns notes, even at the time, some of the terminology used was out-dated (‘Celtic urn’, ‘ancient cup’). As Anderson-Whymark has tweeted, this book had a fine collection of wood cut illustrations of prehistoric pots including one of the Glen Dorgal urn that started me off on this journey.

Image of my Glen Dorgal urn from Jewitt, tweeted by Hugo Anderson-Whymark

And so a modest range of prehistoric inspired crested urns were developed, Johns documenting 18 different styles based on Beakers, Food Vessels, and assorted cremation urns of Bronze Age date.

The prehistoric pots, the Hythe Crypt skull, and bust of Goss (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

These miniature china urns are pretty good replicas of the originals, in some cases retaining fine detail such as surface decoration, almost impossible to see except close up. Some retain the asymmetries and irregularities of the original.

Johns did a remarkable job of tracking down what the original pots actually were due to a random selection of information and nomenclature. For instance the handled vessel pictured below was called by Goss the ‘Brixworth Ancient Cup’ which is of course a Beaker: for those if you who like this kind of thing it is No. 626 and Fig. 1066 in Clarke 1970!

Real pots (image from Johns 1995, individual photo rights in captions

Pretty cheap at the time (something like 6d), these little urns have become collectable. More information on each pot can therefore be gleaned from annual sales catalogues, produced years after production was wound down. These contain good pictures and info on all Goss pots, not just the prehistoric ones, and show the wide range of town crests on show, not all of them obvious tourist hotspots.

Images from the 1975 The Price Guide to the models of WH Goss

Generally purchasing these crested urns today is quite an inexpensive business. Hugo’s gift was worth about £2.50 in 1975 as you can see above from the price guide for that year, and in 1999 was valued at £12.50 (Pine 1999). However, I very much doubt Hugo paid that in the charity shop he found the object, and on Ebay such pots now sell for a few quid. Ebay has devalued the market to the extent that at any time loads of these are being auctioned for not much money. Almost no-one else bids for them in my experience.

Devizes Bell-Beaker crested urn for sale!

One quirk of these pots is that almost all have a different town crest and object locaton, but some match. So for instance I have a ‘Devizes Celtic drinking-cup’ urn in my modest collection, with the town crest of Devizes. These are a usually more expensive due to rarity although I don’t think mine cost anything more than normal, nowhere near the £33 it was worth in 1999 apparently.

Matched Devizes urn with Pine 1999 entry in the background

I don’t need to tell you that these objects are immensely collectable for prehistorians. After tweeting about Hugo’s gift and my first crested urn, archaeologists Neil Wilkin and Mark Knight came out as Goss collectors. Hugo has a massive collection by his own account, and legendary Scottish prehistorian Alison Sheridan has some too. Crested urns are held in the collections of the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland.

Image courtesy of Neil Wilkin
Image courtesy of Mark Knight

Of course this started me collecting, and I have now amassed a decent little corpus of crested urns, with more or less all of the 18 types represented by at least one example. In some cases, where small and medium versions were produced, I have one or both. My dad even built a nice display shelving unit for them.

The act of collecting these urns has its own excavation parallels. Coming through the post, most urns have been wrapped up a box and bubble wrap, mimicking the ways that complete pots might be removed from the ground and taken to the lab for analysis. Each act of opening packaging is another form of excavation, unwrapping multiple layers of protection, revealing something beautiful at the end of the process. The material culture of posting and packing these little urns holds its own fascination for me.

Is this urban prehistory? Of course it is. The collection of these weird versions of prehistoric pots seems to me an opportunity to bring the vessels of the ancient dead into our domestic spaces. An opportunity is afforded to trace herringbone designs and lozenge patterns with our fingers, or hold these vessels up to the light which shines right through, literally bone china. Placing these wee pots onto shelves and mantelpieces has echoes in antiquarian practice, where ancient rude urns would be collected from the ground and placed on display by wealthy landowners, only to become lost in the mists of time, turned to dust.

The Goss crested urns are entangled in the Bronze Age, the antiquarian age, the practices of archaeology, the postal service, online auctions, and the lives of collectors.

Johns argued that, ‘there has always been a subtle underlying implication that a natural predilection for designs based on those of antiquity is a mark of an educated and sophisticated taste’. The Goss miniatures sought, in a sense, to democratise this snobby perspective, and open up objects of educational sophistication to suit all pockets and grace the most modest of mantelpieces. What Adolphus Goss started, Ebay finished. Prehistory for the people!

Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Hugo for his kind gift and generous explanations of his collection and advice on how to build my own. Images from Hugo, Neil, and Mark used in this post were all tweeted in response to my excitement at this Goss-giving.

The following sources were refered to in this post:

Catherine Johns 1995 Educational souvenirs: models of British Bronze Age pottery in Goss heraldic porcelain. In Ian Kinnes and Gill Varndell (eds) ‘Unbaked urns of rudely shape’: essays on British and Irish Pottery for Ian Longworth, pages 211-8, Oxbow Books.

Nicholas Pine 1999 The concise encyclopaedia and price guide to Goss china. Milestone publications.

Roland Ward 1975 The price guide to the models of WH Goss. Antique Collector’s Club.

Lynda and Nicholas Pine 1987 The story of the Staffordshire family of potters who invented heraldic porcelain. Milestone publications.

Coatbridge Carnac

21 Jun

As I explore the places near where I live on foot, within the approved 5km or so limit, I ask myself: ‘Do I just see urban prehistory everywhere? Is it just me? Or are allusions to the prehistoric hard-wired into our urban spaces, industrial estates, retail parks, and housing estates?’. I am coming to suspect the latter, as the alternative would mean that urban prehistory is simply a product of my own delusional state of mind, a pathological condition.

So that’s fine then. On to the business of this post.

Urban exploration is seldom a walk wasted. And following a path, or a desire line, just that little bit more, towards the end of a long walk, if often the time when unexpected discoveries are made. And so it was recently on a lockdown walk in the Lanarkshire sun. On a wander that had already delivered olfactory pleasure drifting from whisky barrels biding their time in warehouses with their doors flung casually open, Jan and I pushed on just a few minutes more, in the shadow of Tesco Extra that from the rear had the appearance and scale of an airport terminal.

A deserted path ran along the backside of this massive grey warehouse, pitted with black doorways at the bottom of unwelcoming stairways. Someone has spray painted a brick wall ‘Mind the steps’ while a bunch of dying flowers hung from a rusting banister nearby, a plaintive sad simple note attached: RIP. An accident on the stairs? We became overwhelmed by the sound of the shop, a low capitalist hum, as if the building were not really a shop but a huge power station feeding on the energy of queuing shoppers.

I glanced off the the right, along a narrow but concrete-paved pathway that led to a clearance, within which were I glimpsed a few inverted shopping trollies, and a pile of big angular boulders. Attracted to this – what other word can I use? – cairn, I pushed aside the foliage, and emerged out into an opening, where other blocks were arranged in more cairns. Huge sandstone discs, like giant tiddlywinks, were arranged in a snaking line. The chase was on, with each break in the vegetation leading to more megalithic revelations.

This cannot be a coincidence. The place we stumbled upon is some kind of landscaped public art, perhaps industrial in spirit, almost certainly not prehistoric in any way whatsoever in the mind of the creator, and yet I cannot help but see these blocks, these lines, these deposits, as prehistoric-esque, to coin a clumsy compound word. Why would anyone see these piles of boulders as anything other than cairns? One even took the form, I am sure, of a fallen standing stone.

The fallen standing stone (photo: Jan Brophy)

Consider the basic facts of the matter. In a hesitant line some 150m in length, punctuated by bushes, squeezed in a green triangle between the Faraday Retail Park, Coatbank Street, and South Circular Road, there are multiple cairns and fallen megaliths of granite and sandstone.

These stones are a 1980s palette of oranges, greys, and pinks, and arranged casually, but the sheer size of some of the boulders meant that there could have been nothing casual about this. In the shadow of high rises, near the din of traffic noise, this is surely urban prehistory?

In the shadow of high rises

In one clearing, two trollies lay tied to one another by the chains attached to the pound coin slots. One trolley was from Tesco, the other Asda. This unholy coupling appeared to have been deliberately engineered, perhaps for my benefit, a Ballardian touch that I appreciated. Trollies were strewn all around, their metal carcasses ridden in, broken, borrowed, stolen, then finally dumped amidst this Coatbridge Carnac.

The coupled trollies

The abandoned trollies give this place the feel of a mortuary space for excarnation, their defleshed skeletal frames picked clean of their consumer flesh, the tin cans, the multi-packs, the boxes and packets, and left to tarnish in the sun. Exposed to the elements, their wheels silently spinning in the breeze.

Place of trolley excarnation

Gareth Rees recently tweeted about coronavirus and his specialist subject, retail park Car Parks. (Would he choose this topic were he on Mastermind?) One picture, showing ‘bizarre trolley alignments’, made me think about the new affordances that shopping trollies have for us during pandemic. Arbiters of safe social distanced space in shops. Delineations for queues outside shops. And perhaps they should also be viewed as vectors of the transmission of Covid-19 via unwashed hands and surfaces, things to be handled while wearing latex gloves.

It was difficult to make sense of this mostly abandoned piece of landscaping behind the Faraday Retail Park. The gravel surfaces that most of the boulders and stones had been laid atop were overgrown with weeds, and broken bottles and bent cans were strewn all over the place. Litter accumulated around the base of standing stones and collected in the unusual angles created by stones like tangled limbs. Fires had been set in the shadow of some cairns. This was a place that was hidden in plain sight, just off the road, just behind a retail park, and yet seemed like another world that belonged to someone else. We were trespassing, and yet the only life that we could detect here at 4.30pm on a Monday afternoon were rabbits. Lots of rabbits. Some hiding behind shopping trolleys, perspective creating the illusion they were in cages at the whim of a mad scientist.

Someone tweeted later that evening that this place was known as a rabbit run, and the various meanings of this phrase seem apt for this place. Someone else told me it was a failed attempt to establish a Japanese garden behind the Retail Park, although many of the stones looked to me like the byproducts of the heavy industries that used to dominate this landscape. The huge sandstone discs were, I am sure, remnants of bridge supports, although from where I have no idea. Still another theory goes that this is a liminal place that marks the boundaries between the territories of two Coatbridge gangs, perhaps borne out by the tags sprayed onto some of the blocks.

Marking territory, Buckie deposition

Yet the scale of all of this did not quite compute with any of these explanations. The megaliths that we encountered in that liminal space, that edgy edgeland, seemed to me like they belonged to the fantasy worlds of Doug McLure, or James Franciscus, beneath, beyond, impossible, deeply strange, and yet enchanting. It was our world – my world – and yet not quite of that world. Shoppers nearby largely knew nothing about what we had encountered, in this space that in the end was deemed suitable only to plant shrubs and erect standing stones and cairns. It is defiantly not a shop. But maybe a little bit prehistoric.

As we emerged out of this nether region, passers by on a better-used path looked at us suspiciously, as it urban exploration in that place was unusual behaviour even for lockdown walkers. Little did they know that only a few metres away, amidst the trollies, the rabbits, and the rubbish, lay the Coatbridge Carnac.

Lockdown megalith

14 May

We are all paying more attention to the familiar than ever before. The lockdown is making psychogeographers of us all, walking familiar paths with new levels of intensity, experimenting with new routes and unfamiliar trails, all in the name of fulfilling our daily government sanctioned exercise. Escaping the shackles of our homes for those fortunate enough not to have to shield or quarantine completely has become for many of us an essential daytime ritual. Our modes of movement and engagements with others have changed too. Crossing the road to avoid someone has become an act of polite kindness. The pavements have become enlivened with chalk, colourful expressions of home-schooling, support for key workers. Hopscotch is back in fashion. Windows and doors have become adorned by rainbows, thank you notes, messages for those who venture outside on our behalf. The pavements have become assemblages of discarded coronavirus protection, blue rubber gloves discarded here and there, officially approved single-use plastics. The urban landscape around us is slowly changing, and we are documenting this on foot, through smart phones, navigating this new world with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and nostalgia.

Covid-19 is making us walk differently.

It was on just such a recent walk that I encountered, literally six minutes’ walk from where I live in Airdrie, a rather special modern standing stone, set within a stone circle of smaller blocks, all bisected by a footpath.

pic 2

low res 2

This sturdy megalith is adorned with a palimpsest of graffiti in multiple colours and hands. These obscure phrases, such as the prominent Jobby Josh MS hint at invective sprayed onto rock, letters shaking with anger (or laughter). Rushed sentiments, two word autobiographies, befitting a crime scene on a public path with many possible witnesses.

low res

The stone circle is almost lost amidst vegetation, its legibility compromised by the pathway. Beside the standing stone focal point, these smaller stones seem almost after-thoughts, and yet they form a clear circle of boulders, none of which appear to be adhering by social distancing principles.

low res 3

The whole arrangement is part of the Millennium Park on the north edge of Airdrie. I can’t find anything out about this park, but it consists of playing parks with poor post-industrial land quality grass. The stone circle and standing stone sit to the south of the playing fields, beside a confusing jumble of paths and paved settings.

Beside the standing stones is that folk horror trope, a rusting and seemingly abandoned children’s play park, with various rides that look to me like they would require the user to self-administer a tetanus injection upon dismounting the various rusty rides with their twisted paint-flecked poles and corroding springs.

satellite

Google maps. Stone circle marked by red arrow.

This weird bit of urban leisure planning is more of a place to pass through than tarry, although even here were discarded rubber gloves, lying around like five-fingered condoms.

sta alert

It was here I decided to film a short recruitment video for our taught postgraduate MSc Landscape Archaeology course. I wonder what the corporate machine of my employers will make of that?

PGT video

Why have I never spotted this standing stone before? Why did is take a global pandemic of ruinous proportion for me to properly perambulate around the place I have lived for 14 years? My lack of interest in the place that I live, my dependence on the car to get to and from the railway station in town, embarrasses me.

pic 1

But every time I now walk past this stone, I can’t get this stupid grin off my face. Walking, and looking, will help us emerge from lockdown. When that does happen, let’s not forget what we have learned on our coronambulations.

Acknowledgements: the photos and video were taken by Jan Brophy. 

 

Facing our dystopian future

6 Apr

This post reproduces a short provocation that I gave during the last workshop of the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded Scotland’s 3rd Millennium Archaeology workshop series. Abbreviated as 3M_DO_2019 (#3M_DO), this event took place in Edinburgh on 10th December 2019. The workshop series, organised by Alex Hale of Historic Environment Scotland, and co-organised by Antonia Thomas, UHI, and myself, had the aim of ‘contributing valuable archaeological perspectives to the political, economic, and environmental challenges facing Scotland in the present day.

The final workshop was a chance to reflect on the three previous workshops, and consider future directions for contemporary archaeology in Scotland. These issues are yet to be resolved, with a final event delayed by Covid-19, but we hope to produce an output, or outputs, from this workshop series in the coming months. I would like to thank Alex and Antonia for inviting me to speak at the final workshop, and Gavin MacGregor for support and inspiration.

My brief was to summarise thoughts on workshops to date, and future directions and issues, and I called my provocation Facing Our Dystopian Future. Some of the ideas and even words in this short presentation have been used in earlier blog posts. Links to sources and related material have been added to the text where you might want to follow up on these snapshots and I have slightly edited the text in places where it was rubbish.

When these workshops started, I was not sure if archaeology was part of the problem – or part of the solution.

Of course, it is both.

And not only can archaeology affect change for the good, but it can also document change as it happens.

We are uniquely positioned to document material history and future site formation processes.

As Simon Sellers wrote in his novel Applied Ballardianism, archaeologists see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. 

It is time to rethink what an archaeologist can be and should do. This is what this workshop series has been about.

Tackling problems.

During this Brexit Age everyone is seeking the comfort of the past. Nostalgia is in abundance. There is more nostalgia than we need. Supply has out-stripped demand.

Some wish for a fantasy Britain, of the 1950s, or perhaps the 1930s. Others seek the comforts and strictures of the Victorian era. Steampunk memories.

Still others seek the relative golden hour of Blairism and the years around the turn of the millennium.

But where will this nostalgia lead?

And is there any comfort to be had in the past? Or is this a delusion?

Welcome to Brexit Britain, where practices, materials, lifeways, are inexorably becoming prehistoric.

Our dystopia is not that of the Orwellian vision of Big Brother. Or Huxley’s Brave New World.

Our dystopia is that of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, of Will Self’s Book of Dave, of a regression to prehistory.

We need to be ready for the Second Iron Age – and who better to prepare us for this task than archaeologists?

Middens are indicative of accumulation and disposal, rise and decline. They are the ultimate material expression of consumption.

Middens mark the rise, fall, and will indicate our return to, prehistory.

Middens are contingent on abandonment, emergent in every place that humans exist, from a deserted military island to the urban core.

Middens passively grow, while awaiting collapse.

Middens are our cultural scar tissue, which we cannot help but touch.

Cairns of calcium and carbon. And plastic.

Because middens are not just of the past. Everywhere around us are middens-in-waiting, potential-middens, partial-middens, middens-in-hiding, proto-middens.

Living is an act of maddening middening.

If we must stumble into this prehistoric dystopia, then let us offer ourselves, the archaeologists, as expert tour guides.

We are not just over-producing nostalgia. We also have an abundance of plastic. Plastic has outstripped demand, and gone beyond need.

The focus on single use plastic and the Anthropocene will be defining issues by which archaeologists can demonstrate the effectiveness of our techniques but also the efficacy of our critical thinking.

Plastic democratises archaeology because everyone can become collectors of it. We have our own hoards, our own deposition strategies, our own stratigraphies and contexts.

Beach combers document the madness of what we have done. The frustrating pointlessness of what we use plastic for. The sea spews up our iniquities and shortcomings on daily base, each tide revealing a new charge sheet.

Collections of plastic adorn social media. Arranged in tableaux that have a creepy aesthetic.

But our typologies need to be more sophisticated than ‘blue plastics’ or ‘toy soldier plastics’. We need to arrange plastics that are found according to their potential for re-use and recycling. We should be considering moral categories for plastics that are collected too.

And as archaeologists we should be part of the conversation about the how we can put less stuff into the archaeological record, to compress our material footprint, and shrink future assemblages.

We need less single-use archaeology.

As archaeologists we are especially well place to document processes of collapse, entropy, decay, dissolution.

We know that nothing last for ever, that even the most enduring structures will return to their constituent parts.

Our job now is to reflect on recording the mighty structures of today in expectation of their inevitable crash tomorrow.

I was told once by a planning officer during a public inquiry related to Orcadian windfarm development that had wind turbines been erected in the Neolithic, the local tribes would have bowed down and worshipped them.

What seemed ridiculous to me back then, now seems an essential insight.

Wind turbines on Orkney are just another incarnation of the grey upright megaliths erected in prehistory. The turbines are the true Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

They are our source of salvation. We put faith in them. They will ensure our future wellbeing and fecundity, while staving off disaster.

They stand watch over us to remind us of what we have done – and what out futures may become.

How can we have anything but awe for these mighty structures? We have a duty to document them now, and after the collapse, surveying the future ruins of our civilisation.

Underwater sources of power are potentially more powerful than the on-shore farming of wind. But fishing for energy, sinking machines to the depths, does not provide the visual fix that we need to ensure that something is being done. That we are protected, and that our future is seen to being protected.

This is our equivalent of Neolithic pit deposition, putting significant objects beneath the surface to work for the benefit of the community, interceding with the gods on our behalf. It is an act of faith, of sacrifice.

Underwater machines offer the hope of safety but ultimately, when dystopia comes, what is left will be picked over by underwater archaeologists. Measurements will be taken, objects recovered from scatters across the ocean floor. Pipes and tubes will have become occupied by crabs, encrusted with barnacles. Conservators will have to deal with salt-rust and corrosion. 

We will probably document a futile gesture that was at least untroubled by sea water level rise, except for the destruction of the secret bunker that controlled it on a nearby beach, an achilles heel built into the system.

Water will gradually seep into the mechanisms of these underwater machines, causing malfunction, the source of power also being the means of their destruction.

We are on a collision course with the sun.

In his book The Crystal World, JG Ballard writes about an environmental crisis where everything in the world gradually turns to crystal. This was one of a series of early novels that he wrote with a focus on climate emergency and the ways that humans are changing the world. He wrote these books half a century ago.

Ballard foretold the future, using his creativity to diagnose society’s pathologies, and make portentous prophecies about the outcomes. As with archaeologists, he observed human – material interactions, and he was especially interested in how people entangled with machines.

Human-machine interactions are a key aspect of contemporary archaeology, as fundamental as human-ceramic or human-megalith relationships are key for prehistorians.

Our insights should allow us to become advocates and activists for what we need to do to avert dystopia. We need to become prophets of the contemporary past.

In summer 2019 I visited Crystal World near Innsbruck in Austria. Ostensibly this is a showcase for the Swarovski crystal makers.

This is a deeply Ballardian experience. The main focal point of the whole gated compound is a huge green passage grave with the face of a Green Giant. From this earthwork mound poured a stream of recycled water, vomited into a placid pond.

Entry to this passage grave is affected behind this saliva-fall, where a straight passage opens up ahead, with golden walls. Walking along this passage brings you into a chamber, where amongst other things are displayed skulls of crystals, and a lifeless figure propped onto the back of a gem-adorned horse.

Inside this Green Giant passage grave, a series of disorientations and otherworldly experiences can be had.

This is a thoroughly retro-futuristic experience, at its heart cold crystal consumerism dressed up in art installations with Ballardian names: Emotional Formation. Transparent Opacity. Chandelier of Grief. Into lattice sun. Crystal Dome. The Mechanical Theatre.

These are the arenas in which the hypermodern are enacted. These should be our fieldwork destinations. These passage grave utopias.

Always start your investigation at the green, grassy mound, for this will be the nerve centre.

In the 2007 book Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape Sefryn Penrose and colleagues considered the archaeology of modern structures, buildings, and landscapes of England. Places that defined modern consumer and leisure behaviour featured highly – shopping malls, theme parks – but also places of transportation – railway stations hubs, airports, motorway intersections.

This Ballardian vision of what archaeologists should be studying and researching is inspiring and suggests that we should collectively be shifting our gaze from the past to the contemporary past.

The contemporary past is where the past now resides, all of it, and we are making new pasts on a daily basis.

One of the categories of place that was considered in this book is Television landscapes.

Recently I spent some time at Salford Quays in Manchester, a canal-side space station dedicated to the recording and broadcasting of television programmes. The skyscape was dominated by huge corporate logos – BBC, ITV, Granada Studies.

Bladerunner meets Coronation Street.

Moving through this landscape, amidst glassy broadcast buildings, felt like being on a reality TV programme. I assumed that I was being observed by cameras from various angles, monitored in a way I found uncomfortable. Groups of people sat in a park, ate in expensive bars, and I could not tell if they were merely visitors to the area, or extras in a film documenting my visit.

In the Blue Peter garden I noted memorials and monuments to dead pets, children’s TV as Pet Semetery.

Salford Quays and other places like it offer blurred experiences, neither reality, not the product of a team of creatives. I felt myself flickering in and out of solidity, almost as if I was being pixilated, about to be broadcast like Mike TV in the Chocolate Factory.

Penrose wrote of the television utopia, the Teletubbies set:

The mythological fantasy land of Teletubbies (1997), devoid in reality of preternatural greenness and baby-faced sun, was embedded incongruously in Warwickshire farmland. Field boundaries were marked by hedgerows that shielded camera operators, tracks and multi-coloured bouncing beings before the field was ploughed back to farmland – as if the teletubbies had never actually existed.

These colourful alien beasts with television screen stomachs and antennae ears are of course the perfect vector for the televisual age, and by gazing into their oblong glass bellies we can see our own futures being broadcast back at us on a loop.

The Teletubbies occupy a monumental landscape, focused on a grassy dome which is reminiscent of the Green Giant passage grave at the Crystal World.

Children must be used to seeing prehistoric structures. In the show In the night garden, the creature Makka Pakka lives in a riverside dolmen. It is almost as if our television producers and creatives are subliminally preparing our children for their dystopian future, but in a metaphor for Brexit Britain, this is being sold as a utopia.

This accords with Penrose’s observation that this is a landscape of deceit and deception.

Goodnight children and don’t have nightmares.

We have our own equivalent of the centrally placed grassy mound phenomenon – the now defunct Archaeolink Prehistory Park near Aberdeen.

Here we have the ruination of a set of ruins, a visitor attraction that was utopian in so many of its ideals, but has now become an overgrown dystopia.

Like the ruinous Bangour Hospital near Livingston, Archaeolink is about to be sold for housing development.

Houses will eventually be built on top of where a roundhouse once stood, although as documented by Gavin MacGregor, this had its door hanging off as early as 2013. The hearth has not been lit for some time.

Various urban explorers have been to this place, broken in, and carried out photographic and documentary surveys.

In some cases, they are literally archaeologists, in other cases they act like archaeologists, documenting the ruination and decay of this place. Urban decay, as with plastics, democratises what we do, and encourages diverse forms of archaeological engagement with the world.

This is a ghost village of confusing temporality. Everything has gradually slipped into a state of disrepair, with stuff left lying about as if the place was abandoned overnight. Timber posts are strewn about like limbs. Roofs have fallen in. The green mound has grassed over, and its glass façade is boarded up, looking like something from the set of an Italian science fiction movie from the 1960s rather than a defunct visitor centre.

Archaeologists document decay, although are not usually able to see it in real time as is the case at Archaeolink.

We must be the biographers of all emergent ruination.

I recently visited the Temple of Mithras in London.

Located beside the now buried stream of Walbrook, this Mithraeum has gone through various incarnations since its discovery in the 1950s. The most recent being funded by Bloomberg, with the Temple relocated to its original location beneath a golden office block.

This is a place that stinks of money.

A display of artefacts found during excavations ahead of the construction of this office compound includes a Roman table and stylus dated to 8th January in AD 57. This records the earliest written evidence for a financial transaction in Britain.

A reference point for visitors to visualise the stratigraphic depth of the Temple is the Bank of England, which is situated a few minutes’ walks away horizontally, and 7m vertically.

Before going down to the gloomy basement within which the Temple can be experienced, one has to pass several huge golden artworks.

Central to the myth of Mithras is the slaying of the bull – the tauroctony.

A sacred secret killing for the approval of the sun god sol. Eyes averted, hand wet with blood, creation in death. The myth remade in temples underground by lonely men trying to become gods.

In our archaeological practice, are we willing to get our hands dirty, to slay the bull, to take on the structural forces that shape and constrain us all today? Or will we be complicit and happy to remain within the bosom of capitalism?

What is contemporary life but an accumulation?

What are humans but constant accumulation and deposition?

Rubbish in, rubbish out.

We live on the dirty edgelands of the future.

We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.

Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.

And when our machines have collapsed or been overwhelmed by water, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens, our broken machines, our single-use plastic, and bulls slayed by overwhelming circumstances.

Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds. We should not depend on there being archaeologists of the future age, just curious and liberated animals.

It is all accumulating today.

We cannot be bystanders in this formation of the archaeological record.

We are tomorrow’s archaeology. Today.

Great crown of stone

20 Mar

Exactly a year ago, 20th March 2019. the new Sighthill stone circle was officially revealed to the media. Designed, as was the first iteration, by Duncan Lunan, this astronomically aligned stone circle has been constructed as a permanent and unique resource within the emerging new Sighthill just to the north-east of Glasgow city centre.

At the time when this new megalith began to emerge, it sat on a raised island amidst a giant muddy building site. Sighthill itself was yet to be reborn, the old variant having been more or less completely bulldozed and remediated as part of a £250 million redevelopment. The standing stones stood resplendent like teeth, their concrete foundations exposed like white gums. At the time they sat in a noisy landscape of construction, with the closest neighbour being a Mercedes car dealership, a Ballardian crash of epic proportions.

A year on, residential Sighthill is now growing slowly, although the stone circle remains (just) in glorious isolation. It still sits in a brownscape of mud amidst machines of construction, but it is slowly visually and metaphorically being lost in an urban skyline. Yet even now, driving west along the M8 into the city centre, the Sighthill’s second stone circle is a fantastic site / sight, emerging as it does on the horizon off to the left. A similar and wonderful view can be gained by the pedestrian by standing on Baird Street bridge over the motorway.

The stone circle is surely Glasgow’s Angel of the North, a great crown of stone on the horizon.

This photo essay (my rather grand description of what is basically a series of photographs) documents the time I was privileged to spend in and around the stone circle on 20th March 2019 thanks to a kind invitation from Duncan.

Duncan prepares
Media scrum
The gathering
PPE and me
Pilgrims
High vis 1
Mud bath
The mints
Megalith bagging
Camera obscura
Alignment
Photo op
City limits
High vis 2
Through a crack
Great crown of stone
Mounds and megaliths
Artist’s impression of the circle when its new urban setting is completed (artist unknown)

Green bling

27 Feb

Oh, Edmund… can it be true? That I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest Green?

This post has two points of departure.

Firstly, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word bling in the context of prehistoric metalwork. This is a common enough trope used by archaeologists and the media. But is this really the correct word for how these objects functions in prehistory, or merely a characterisation of objects as being shiny, precious things – even if the objects in question were neither of these things in the Iron Age or Bronze Age?

Perhaps also there is an element of (inverted) snobbery here, of disparaging gratuitous wealth displays, and the appropriation of a word in mainstream discourse that would appear to be more at home in the urban dictionary. Take the case of the so-called Prittlewell Prince, whose early medieval grave was found in 2003 during road-widening in Southend: in the media and amongst archaeologists (from the Time Team to British Archaeology magazine) this individual became widely known as the King of Bling.

Secondly, I find almost all museums boring. Unless they are museums of weird things, or deeply strange, I am left cold by glass cases of inanimate objects, little text panels, maps, and assorted accompanying artwork and imagery. Museums of course can be deeply contested and problematic places, but for me I see them, usually, as reliquaries for cold dead things that we value today and see as representative which they may or may not be.

Museums confuse me with their fixed categories and compartmentalizations, their maze-like floorplans, the disorderly arrangement of things, the missing objects replaced by little loan cards, weird coffee, lockers with non-returnable coin slots, how much coinage to drop into the donations slot at the doorway. They are places of little stresses that I do not enjoy.

I realise how that both of my initial points of departure are contingencies related to the contemporary setting of the museum, that they exist to showcase prehistory (or whatever) in our own terms and not the terms of those who made the stuff (or whose bodies we display). They are places that for me have little sense of pastness, like big shops where nothing is for sale (except in the actual shop).

But on the other hand, as a recent visit I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford did remind me, museums can be fine repositories of urban prehistory. There are few places where urban prehistory exists in such a concentrated form, albeit it in a deeply fragmented and stylised arrangement. If you happen to want a hit of prehistory and are in a city or town, heading to the local museum is as good as a way as any to ensure that you your desire is fulfilled, your lust sated for the good stuff. Although I would argue that museum displays are really just a kind of methadone for prehistory addicts.

On the same weekend as I made my trip to the Ashmolean apres breakfast a conference was being held in Chester on the topic of The Public Archaeology of Treasure. This is one of a series of excellent student conferences organised by the tireless Prof Howard Williams of Chester University, some of which have resulted in publications including papers by students, and generously co-edited with students too. Howard has discussed the conference on several occasions on his brilliant Archaeodeath blog eg before the event and after.

The hashtags for this conference were / are #archbling and #blingarch and this is one of the things that I reflected upon as I sat on a lovely smooth wooden bench in the Ashmolean after failing to find a temporary exhibition of works by the artist Philip Guston that I was actually quite interested in visiting.

Because the European prehistory gallery that I had spent some time on at that point sure was full of bling, gratuitously so. But what intrigued me was how much of this bling was, er, green. Not gold, not silver, not even bronze, but green. Not always shiny, sometimes rather dull. And curiously the idea of green bling made a lot more sense to me because this opened up the category of bling to non-metallic materials. For instance, Neolithic jadeite polished stone axes, of the deepest green. Or wonderful ornate beads of glassy faience, in pale greens and turquoises.

Bling was on my mind for another reason as I pondered a vast wall of busts in the stairwell of the museum. That weekend I had been attending and participating in a continuing education conference on the topic of Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland: prehistoric and Roman. Organised by Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill, this is part of an epic series of conferences on historic matters. I was talking about cursus monuments of course.

Speakers used the word bling a lot over the course of the weekend. My notes for a great talk by the wonderful Dr Seren Griffiths showed that she used the phrase WEIRD BLING but I can’t recall the specific context.

On the Saturday evening, an excellent talk by the National Museum of Scotland’s all-knowing Dr Fraser Hunter on Iron Age stuff was frequently punctuated with the word bling, usually in relation to some shiny piece of metal like a carnyx, a torc, or a lunalae. (I am not confident about the correct singular or pluralisation of any of those words.)

Curiously my notes from Fraser’s talk included a sketch of a weird Iron Age spoon, and a pair of these caught my eye as I wondered about the European Prehistory gallery at the Ashmolean, taking in the sheer green-ness of it all.

The more time I spent in this gallery, the more green stuff I saw, in all sorts of shades, depths, tones, and materials. Lumps of malachite (nuggets of the purest green?), glassy beads, stone axes, torcs, axes, little metal things that I had no idea what they were, and the pair of bronze spoon-things. In fact it seemed to me that there was more green bling than gold bling or silver bling or even brown bling.

Obviously some of this stuff was not green back in the day. A chemical reaction has taken place. Metal corrodes to a coppery haze and loses its original colour over time. A lot of this stuff is green with age: unlike wood, here green does not depict youthfulness and flexibility. But quite a good deal of this stuff was green all along, with for instance the rich greenness of the stone azes brought to the fore by relentless polishing. Here green was the origin point, not the inevitable outcome. Green-ness was worth climbing the Alps for, perhaps even dying for.

And of course a lot of the bling found with the ‘King’ at Prittlewell had, with age, green-ed like this drinking horn fitting and hanging bowl.

My own experience of green bling came with the discovery of a dagger grave in a cist at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross, 2009. The first indication we had of the grave goods was a shaft of green poking from the beige cist floor, almost as if the dagger was a new growth, appropriate amidst a grave that contained rich evidence for Meadowsweet flowers (white bling). The dagger, once all the brown stuff had been cleaned from it, was revealed to be a wonderful green jagged shard of copper alloy with a whale tooth and gold pommel atop. Now, let’s not get started on whale bling.

So if we must use the word bling, and given the word has been used by the Howard Williams and Fraser Hunters of this world, then I guess we must, then let us at least rethink the parameters and temporality of what we mean. Let’s celebrate green bling, if nothing else because it is one of the most common forms in which urban prehistory appears to us, minty fresh, today.

Sources and acknowledgements: the quote that starts this blog post comes from the Blackadder Season 2 episode Money, and was, or course, uttered by Lord Percy.

I would also like to thank Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill for inviting me down to Oxford to take part in the conference.

Drinking horn image (c) MOLA and sourced from The Guardian and the hanging bowl image is also (c) MOLA, from Heritage Daily.

The Forteviot dagger image is (c) the SERF Project and HES.

Museum map taken from the guide to the Ashmolean which cost me a quid.

Finally, grateful thanks to Howard Williams for sharing his thoughts about bling. I am truly delighted to have found a topic to blog about that has not yet featured on Archaeodeath (yet!).