Levallois

16 Feb

There is something Neanderthal in the suburbs of Paris. Or at least there was.

Line 3 of the Paris Metro terminates in the west at Levallois. So what?

This observation, which I can’t believe I had not thought harder about in the past, led me to an interesting story at the cusp of archaeology as a modern discipline and a new candidate for the label of the first urban prehistorian. It also made me realise that archaeologists often take for granted the familiar labels that we use, and often don’t stop to think about the historiography of these terms and from whence they came.

metro low res

Levallois is a name most archaeologists should be familiar with, as it is describes a reductive technique used by Neanderthals to make flaked stone tools back in the mists of time. There is a good deal of discussion as to the significance of this method of making tools – to what extent does this indicate the agency of Neanderthals and their ability to think ahead and in abstract terms tens of thousands of years ago? Is this a technique that was recognised, shared and duplicated across a wide geographic area (not restricted to Europe), or is this simply our characterization of a narrow aspect of the archaeological record? Such ‘types’ are the bred and butter of archaeology, for good and for ill.

levallois-technology_monnier_1_2

The Levallois technique (from Monnier 2012, (c) Nature Education)

The attribution of a site name to a type of material culture, architectural style or craft technique has a long tradition in archaeology, although not all terms have had the longetivity of Levallois and often we find modern and more boring ways to describe stuff we find in the archaeological record. My favourite example, now sadly rarely used, is the British late Neolithic pottery style Rinyo-Clacton Ware aka Grooved Ware, only really now known beyond prehistoric archaeology through the name of a Russell Hoban novel. (As another aside, one of the best future urban prehistory novels ever written is Hoban’s Riddley Walker.)

Hoban book cover

Whither Levallois?

Nathan Schlanger has noted that this Parisian suburb has gained ‘everlasting archaeological notoriety’, as if often the fate of obscure places where a technology or style of object was recognised for the first time.

However, it is not clear exactly when the first Palaeolithic stone tools were recovered from sand quarries in the Levallois-Perret area, but it was probably in the 1850s. At this time Paris was an expanding city surrounded by quarries and urban development.

Montmatre quarry

Monmartre gypsum quarry in the 19th century (source: Written in Stone blog, link below)

Matthew Pope and David Herisson via the medium of twitter suggested that Victor Commont ‘first described’ the Levallois technique, decades after these initial discoveries.

But the earliest publication of the tools themselves was by Jules Reboux. The images below appear to be from the first ever description of these lithics, which came out in 1967. (This is dated 1951 in an online source but this appears to be too early.) Here, Silex Tailles means knapped flints (thanks Becky Wragg Sykes!) and the title of the pamphlet notes the ancient, geological context from which they were found. The specific reductive preparation of the flints was noted here, but it was not yet called Levalloisian.

Cover of Reboux publication

Image courtesy of David Herrison

 

Levallois drawing from 1850s

Knapped (worked) flint from a Levallois quarry (Reboux 1867)

These initial discoveries were courtesy of excavation and fieldwork by Reboux in the 1860s and 1870s. He was a geologist and antiquarian / archaeologist who lived near the edge of Paris at the time, and Schlanger suggests his work in the likes of Levallois and Clichy was akin to proto-rescue archaeology. In fact he appears to have been the first urban prehistorian.

He wrote in 1866 (in French I assume), ‘dedicated research has for long been undertaken in distant lands, when we have under our own feet, in Paris itself, the most certain proofs of the ancient stone industry’. 

Apparently Reboux spend years visiting quarries, monitoring  building sites, and surveying railway cuttings, all around Paris and collected thousands of worked flint tools and objects.

There seems to have been a good deal of innovation around Reboux’s work at, and about, Levallois. Schlanger suggests that one of the sand quarries at Levallois was also the location of one of the earliest documented episodes of ‘comparative experimental flint-knapping’ during a fieldvisit lead by Reboux on 30th August 1867. And Reboux published, in 1873, a stratigraphic section of a quarry at Levallois, one of the first drawings of its kind in an archaeological context ever attempted.

Reboux stratigraphy

Reboux’s stratigraphic sequence, combining archaeology and geology, based on a section at Levallois-Perret. Published in 1873, reproduced in Schlanger 2013.

It isn’t clear when the objects found at the quarries at Levallois became the objects upon which all similar stone tools were compared in terms of their manufacturing process, although Victor Commont wrote about Levallois tools and debitage in the 1910s, noting differences with other Palaeolithic stone tool ‘industries’.

Victor Commont

Commont was credited with bringing the study of the Palaeolithic in northern France into the ‘scientific era’ by Tuffreau. Like Reboux, although decades later, he was an observer of discoveries in quarries, in this case near Amiens, and studied the Quaternary from his home in Edinburgh Street.

The term was further refined and given its classic modern characerisation through new discoveries and experimental flint-knapping in the early to middle twentieth century. Much of this hands-on and intellectual heavy lifting was undertaken by Francois Bordes. A significant figure in Palaeolithic archaeology in the twentieth century, Bordes was responsible for refining our concept of the flake method of Levallois in notable publications during the 1950s such as ‘Technique Levallois et Levallois ancient’ in L’Anthropologie 56 (1952), and in his 1961 book Typologie.

Typologie book cover

Lewis Binford even had a go at the Levallois in various famous studies around the same times as Bordes, and the concept, and what it tells us about Homo Neandertalensis, is still a very important aspect of Palaeolithic archaeology across the world.

Sadly I have reached the depth of my knowledge about this technique and I have little sense what the current state of play in Palaeolithic studies is with regards the Levallois so apologies to colleagues working in this field! Unless someone wants to write a fictional story called something like Monsieur Levallois comes to town I am unlikely to learn any more.

However, there is one thing left for me to do. It is clear that a visit to Levallois itself by Metro is needed to bring this narrative to a satisfactory conclusion and I’ll do this next time I’m in Paris. I’ll remember to pack a cow….

Levallois postcard

‘Man pushing a cow into a bus’ (photographer unknown)

 

Sources and acknowledgements: I’m indebted to the many Palaeolithic experts who responded to my plea for information on twitter (link in text above) and directly to emails. Thanks especially to Nathan Schlanger and Dene Wright who helped me via email, as well as the following tweeters.

  • David Herrison = @david_herisson
  • Joseba Rios-Garaizar = @jorios
  • Matt Pope = @MatthewPope
  • Becky Wragg Sykes = @LeMoustier
  • Helen Loney = @Worsted2

Apologies if I missed anyone, and these good folks cannot be held responsible for how I have mangled their responses and pointers to sources of help….and most of the quotes in this post have benefited from the translation skills of others such as Schlanger.

The following academic sources were also consulted in preparing this blog post:

  • Pettit, P. 2009 Francois Bordes. In R. Hosfield, F. Wenban-Smith & M. Pope (eds) Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859-2009, pages 201-212. Lithic Studies Society, London.
  • Schlanger, N. 1996 Understanding Levallois: Lithic technology and cognitive archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6.2, 231-54.
  • Schlanger, N. 2013 One day hero. Jules Reboux at the crucible of prehistory in 1860s Paris. Complutum 24.2, 73-88.
  • Tuffreau, A. 2009 Victor Commont. In R. Hosfield, F. Wenban-Smith & M. Pope (eds) Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859-2009. Lithic Studies Society, London.

A sense of the mining landscape that was nineteenth century Paris can be gained by reading this fascinating blog post about Paris’s historic gypsum quarries (Written in Stone blog). This was also the source of the Montmartre quarry picture.

The source of the Levallois technique drawing is another interesting source (find it here): Monnier, G. (2012) Neanderthal Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):11

 

Illustrations (unless source given in the caption)

Hoban and Typologie book covers – widely available online

Stone tool drawing – this was reproduced in Schlanger 2013, but the original drawing was published in 1867 in the following place:

  • Reboux, J. 1867 Silex tailles associes a des ossements fossiles dans les terrains quaternaires de environs de Paris. Congres international d’archaeologie et d’anthropologie prehistorique, 2e session: 103-9.

Stratigraphic section from the quarry at Levallois – again this was reproduced in Schlanger 2013, but the original drawing was published in 1873 here:

  • Reboux, J. 1873 Des trois epoques de la pierre. Bulletin de la societe d’anthropologie de Paris 8, 523-31.

Victor Commont from Tuffreau 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Dene Wright for information on the Levallois technique.

 

Monnier, G. (2012) Neanderthal Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):11

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King Lud

2 Jan

King Lud lr1

Drink to King Lud

whose knuckle bones were

carried north

by a favoured son –

carried north

from Lud’s Gate to

Wishaw

a place that was then called  Wygateshaw

home from home

one gate to another

the Best of Caledonia

a hand of friendship

in those darker ages –

King Lud llr2

From Lud’s fortress

Fleet of foot

to Mother-well

Moderwelt

the lady’s well

water to water

border crossing

bribing Tennents with tributes

making merry

smoking area

& beer garden

at rear –

King Lud sign 2

 

Ludovic Mann wrote of Lud in Glasgow –

The moon was termed Ur, Ara, Er; and Cu, Cua, Kai, Clu, Glo, expanded to Llud, Lug, Lach, Cluth –

the richness of moon nomenclature –

the Temple of the Moon

to the north of the Clyde

drink to King Lud

whose knuckle bones were

carried north

and it is said his ribs

were

dragged

to

Hookland.

 

 

 

Notes:

This post has been written to mark the beginning of the Hookland Year of the Moon.

Mann’s quotation comes from his 1938 book Earliest Glasgow. Temple of the Moon.

The King Lud pub is located at 9 Craigneuk Street, Craigneuk, Wishaw.

The Holy Knowe

14 Dec

The Holy Known newscutting

183 West George Street, Glasgow

May 10, 1946

 

SIR, -this attractive and symmetrical

glacial mound at Lennoxtown, known for

generations as a sacred place, is threatened

with removal to make place for three tem-

porary bungalows despite their being much

open adjoining ground.

 

Elderly people tell me that as boys they

worked the field where the mound is situ-

ated, and that the tenant farmer of those

days insisted that no agricultural work was

to be allowed upon the mound-not even the

rolling of the grass. It is some 25 years

since I was first taken to see the place.

 

Nowadays the newcomers to the district

seem to know little about the site, and

apparently care nothing for it, and as

members of the controlling District Council

they favour obliteration, doubtless stirred by

the extreme urgency of the housing shortage.

 

Thus goes on the deplorable and unneces-

sary work of destruction of sites near Glas-

gow-sites which ought to be kept in pre-

petuity as a source of delight for all thought-

ful people. It is sad to think that during

the last five years in Glasgow and district

more ruthless slaughter of sites of archaeo-

logical and geological interest has been

carried out than during the whole of the the

last 100 years.-I am &c.

 

Ludovic Mann

 

a sacred place –

HK1

 

newcomers to the district – 

HK2

 

not even the rolling of the grass –

HK3

 

they favour obliteration –

HK4

 

three temporary bungalows –

HK5

 

this attractive and symmetrical glacial mound –

HK6

 

ruthless slaughter –

HK7

 

kneel before –

HK9

 

a source of delight for all thoughtful people – 

HK8

 

Fact check: the letter that forms the basis of this post and my Lennoxtown visit was published in The Scotsman newspaper. As with many other Ludovic McLellan Mann observations, there is no corroborating evidence for the presence of this Knowe, nor its folk and archaeological significance. If such a mound existed, its contours have not troubled mapmakers. And it is commonplace to find that prefabricated houses from the 1940s were not ‘temporary’, even if this mound was. The ruinous ground behind the three bungalows on a natural rise was once occupied by the Free Church of Lennoxtown, which was used as a drill hall for “D” Company, 7th battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War, and a school also once stood upon this acclivity. 

Map 195x

Putative location of The Holy Knowe (OS map, 1956)

 

How old is a piece of stone?

3 Dec

There can’t be much left to write about the London Stone, an urban megalithic curio that The Guardian newspaper called a ‘psychogeographer’s landmark’. This strange roughly cuboid limestone block, located at 111 Cannon Street in London for at least half a millennium, may well be a solid lump of stone but it consists more of myth than molecule.

the-london-stone-at-st-swithins

There are so many legends associated with this roughed-up beige 76 kg stone block that it strikes me as weird that it has consistently been located in such an un-legendary location. Although in the past the the London Stone has by historical accounts been set into the wall of the former St Swithen’s Church, it has also in more recent times been contained by a rather crappy cage in the wall of a WH Smiths and before that a Sportec sports shop and even The Bank of China. This was after a near miss during the Blitz.

London_Stone-WHSmith

Wikipedia: creative commons, John O’London

Rex Shutterstock photo Daily Mail

Rex Shutterstock photo Guardian 2016

Above two images both Rex / Shutterstock, sourced from The Daily Mail 12022016

There is little point in rehearsing the many stories associated with the origins, meaning and biography of the London Stone. There is such a depth of lore about this object that I am sure that it deserves more than the one or two paragraphs afforded in most books about London; certainly, a lack of time permitted me researching this as rigorously as I would have liked.

For the time being, to cut to the urban prehistoric chase, let’s focus on how old the LS actually might be. Peter Ackroyd (London: the biography, 2001), suggests that it, ‘is of great antiquity’, but ‘as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to survive from prehistoric times’. Two pages tell the story of the Stone in John Matthews and Caroline Wise’s The Secret Lore of London (2016); they describe is a ‘worn stump’ and a ‘geomantic mark-stone’ of, at oldest, Roman origin.

London Lore book illustration

Reproduced in The secret lore of London (Matthews and Wise)

In The Stones of London (2012) Lee Hollis suggests that the London Stone may be little more than a Roman gatepost that has taken on all sorts of myths and legends depending on the political needs of those who told those stories. Ed Glinert (The London Compendium, 2004) calls the Stone a ‘totem for the city’s safety’ which has prehistoric overtones, but more broadly draws on myths about the Stone not being removed from the city. And so on. Each account draws on the same pool of lore, include lots of secondary referencing, and indicate the limitations of the historical text as a source as authors attempt to peer back into the murky mists of time.

There is much that could be done from an archaeological perspective to add to the already-colourful story of the London Stone. There have been various different reliquaries that have held the LS, and this would be an interesting line of investigation both in terms of the form but also materiality of these cages and boxes, as well as telling us something about how people engaged with and interacted with the Stone, and what levels of control were exercised over that engagement.

4-London-Stone-in-Cannon-Street

From John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities of London (1791-1800)

Or perhaps a mapping exercise could be undertaken, considering the various different locations that the London Stone has been placed, on both sides of the street and with slight variation, and other possible places of repose. The location of the Stone vertically might also be traced, with pavement level and higher in the church wall just two variations. Again, how people encountered the London Stone and spatially where it was located might shed light on its social role, and this includes the bodily inclination needed to view the monolith: looking down or peering up.

london-stone-conserved-portrait

Helen Butler does some conservation work (c) Museum of London

The stone itself could (and I’m being fanciful here but what the heck) be the object of scientific study, with techniques such as XRF and Ramon Spectroscopy able to discover paint, blood, sweat, tears and semen stains (OK, maybe not the latter, that would need a CSI-style UV light source…). Use-wear analysis would be able to (theoretically) shed light on the exact metallurgical properties of the sword that was used to strike the London Stone by rebel leader Jack Cade in 1450 (but not what he had for breakfast that day).

jack-cades-rebellion

Stock image of Jack Cade waving his sword about, various sources online.

It is interesting how many old drawings of the stone focus on the detail of the container and not the stone, which more often than not seems to be a shapeless lump. This is perhaps because geometrically this thing is a shapeless lump. The Mail Online described it as looking like, ‘a large piece of leftover masonry’. So a 3D model of the stone would be nice so capture its slightly strange shape and rough surface, and might shed light in the mechanism of the breakage of the stone (it may once have been larger), as well as highlight historic damage and carvings.

London_Stone_scan

(c) Europac 3D

Indeed, after I had written these words, I found out that such a scan has indeed been undertaken by Europac 3D. This laser scan, undertaken to sub 1mm resolution, was done using Arctic Space Spider which sounds like something from a John Carpenter film but probably isn’t. Interestingly, this ‘revealed several man-made carvings, one of which is believed to have been made when Jack Cade entered London’ although I think that one was already visible with the naked eye. I think full results are yet to be published, but at last the Stone can be viewed as something other than a blurry block in a photo or as an etching of a blob in a box (see below).

Ackroyd book illustration

Reproduced in Ackroyd’s London: the biography

The London Stone, as it happens, recently spent a couple of years in the capable hands of the Museum of London’s archaeologists, and they undertook some conservation work on the Stone as well as putting the thing on display with a lovely purple background in their museum (and getting the aforementioned scan done).

John Chase photo Guardian Sep 2018

(c) Museum of London

One of the key areas of their presentation of the stone to the public was some myth-busting, and blimey there are lots of myths and stories attached to this object that they wanted to bust.

Myth number 1 that they ‘bust’ was: It has stood in London since prehistoric times and Myth number 2: It was an ancient altar used for Druidic sacrifices. Both of these centre on the suggestion that the LS is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric stone or even a broken standing stone. However, MOLA question the urban prehistory credentials of this rock, and thus by extension the legitimacy of this blog post. In fact neither myth is really busted, but rather some of the historical biography of the London Stone cited, with the underlying suggestion that there is simply no evidence that this was ever part of a prehistoric monument. They push is back possibly to Saxon or Viking times, maybe even Roman, but no earlier.

Assumed by some authors such as John Strype and William Blake to be a pagan stone, in fact this had no basis in fact and simply confirmed their own romantic proto-druid mythologizing, captured in this stansa from Blake’s Jerusalem:

Where Albion slept beneath the Fatal Tree,
And the Druids’ golden Knife
Rioted in human gore, In Offerings of Human Life…
They groan’d aloud on London Stone,
They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook…

Finally, MOLA get to the point and conclude: “There is no evidence for this, and London Stone, whatever its purpose, was certainly not erected before the Roman period.” Boo.

That’s fine, and also true. There is no evidence that the London Stone is prehistoric in origin. But does this matter? Some in the past have believed it to be the case, and some still do. The prehistoric credentials of this stone are nothing to do with reality, but perception, and this is often the way with odd megaliths and other urban prehistoric miscellany. We might as well ask: how old is a piece of stone? Because the fact that the London Stone is an oolitic limestone means that it is very old, dating to before 1,000,000 BC. It depends on how one frames the question.

London Stone launched

Source: London TimeOut 05102018

Visiting the London Stone today seems to me a legitimate exercise in prehistoric speculation now that it has been re-instated in a new shrine on the former WH Smith site, still 111 Cannon Street.

London Stone wide view low res

The Stone has only been back in its old location for a few months, although now the weird cage has been replaced with a glossy shiny glass-fronted display box. This reliquary appears to be a throwback retro design referencing older versions of the container for the Stone, some of which are pictured earlier in this post.

London Stone new setting low res

Two black plaques sit on either side, one of which explains that we know bugger all about the London Stone, while the other says the same thing in braille (I assume).

The right-hand information panel begins with a malformed tripartite sentence.

London Stone plaque low res

Above the ceremonial repository, there is a simple bookplate inscription saying LONDON STONE and this appears to be part of a limestone facade of the fancy new building, thus mimicking the materiality of old Stoney itself. Has the architectural design for this glassy building been designed with the LS in mind?

London Stone sign low res

This has replaced the crappy but endearing WH Smith context of yore, and the new mini-high rise building is rather more glassy and glamorous. The London Stone has clearly gone upmarket. This is certainly a gentrification from its earlier status, described by Ackroyd as, ‘blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare‘. Nonetheless, the latter part of this statement remains true.

The London Stone obscured low res

The glassy nature of the building within which the LS is now encased affords views behind the Stone, a glimpse that was not within the gift of the stationer WH Smith. Here, disappointingly, the oolitic lump appears to be concealed behind a wall of mdf, although there is the hint of a small panel that might be removable with a smuggled screwdriver once this establishment opens for business, whatever that business might be.

Behind the London Stone low res

Observing those walking past the London Stone suggests that this is, at worst, of no interest, or at best, an over-familiar landmark, as few pedestrians paused to pay their respects. The noticeboard detained a few men with suits for a minute or two, while a woman with a pram did look at it as she perambulated past.

Road closed low res

I got the sense that this is a lonely Stone as I lurked in the area for far too long. This is perhaps why this geological curio literally engaged me in a short twitter conversation, expressing the surprising and hitherto un-expressed desire to be called Kevin. I duly obliged, walking past and affording LS this new moniker with a jolly shout of ‘hello Kevin’, although as yet this new persona has not been adopted widely.

Tweet 1

Tweet 2

Shall we ever get to the truth of it? No, of course not. And why should that matter? When we ask ‘how long is a piece of string’ we don’t expect a factual, empirical answer. The London Stone’s prehistoric credentials are not in doubt as far as I am concerned, elements of a story long told, whether that be the one about it being a broken standing stone or having served as a druid altar or some other sacred megalith of yore.

It doesn’t matter how old the London Stone is: we only need believe it to be so. This is rich narrative, a stone that does not roll but has gathered spiritual moss. As AD Cochrane has noted, ‘Down the centuries a parade of charlatans, poets, modern psychogeographic writers, alchemists, historians and eccentric clergymen have enriched the mythology of London Stone‘. If this isn’t prehistory, I don’t know what is.

There is one source that I was able to find that suggested that this misshapen hunk of rock was once part of a prehistoric monument. In a review of the former London Stone Pub (107 Cannon Street) a contributor to the website ‘Fancy a Pint.com‘ suggests that the Stone was, ‘possibly part of an ancient stone circle’. The same review also suggests that the pub contained, ‘gargoyles, cocktails in test tubes and other assorted horror ephemera’ so perhaps it is for the best that it closed a couple of years ago, to be replaced by The Cannick Taps.

London Stone pub

Photo: Fancyapint.com

Rare views inside the London Stone pub, which appears to have been a gothic extravaganza of poor taste, suggest decor that mimicked the grey metal cage that enclosed the Stone until fairly recently. Bad art imitates poor cage.

quaint-decor-in-pub

Trip Advisor – interior of the London Stone pub (deceased)

How old is this piece of stone? Who cares.

The London Stone is as the London Stone does. LS if you are into the whole brevity thing.

The London Stone abides.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: if you want to find out more about the London Stone, ask it questions on twitter via @thelondonstone – it / Kevin might answer back.

 

 

 

 

Ghosts

31 Oct

It is a cliche to say that archaeological sites are fecund with the ghosts of those who occupied, lived, worked, cried and laughed in those places in the past. Even the most unremarkable ancient place is likely to have been passed through by countless living but now dead humans and animals. Mute witnesses whom we cannot call to account. Spectral presences that haunt our efforts to write their stories with all of the constraints of the archaeological record and our imaginations.

01 Sandy Road 2.jpg

These phantoms of the past are always present as we visit archaeological sites (as we clinically call them), just invisible from the corners of our eyes. The dead are knocking once, twice, if only we would listen. Warping the thin rood screen between now and then, past and present, and bending the wind to their will. Light cannot pass through them, and forever their ancient haunts will be opaque to us, clumsily accounted for in our narratives, our excavation reports, our notes. Archaeologists are amateur ghost story writers with neither the elegance nor the critical ambiguity of MR James.

04 Ravenswood low res

Urban prehistory sites suffer more than most, and at this time of the year in particular. The harsh entombment of concrete and tarmac, brick and gabbion, combine to dull the kinetic urgency of the dead users and makers of prehistoric places with the misfortune – the curse – to haunt places now occupied by a different strain of zombie: commuters, shoppers, drivers.

03 Bargeddie l r

Only school children and certain sensitive individuals remain attuned to the specific frequency that prehistoric ghosts broadcast via. Sometimes the past bleeds through though, as if in a seance, and becomes a matter of record. Twisted clues offer fragmentary accounts, uneasy truths, partiality. We place our trowel on the ouija board trench surface and hope that a spirit will animate it, write the story for us, shatter glass.

05 Townhead lr

Archaeologists act in advance of urban expansion and development as ghost-busters, using highly sensitive equipment to pick up the wavelengths of the spirits of prehistory, then extracting those spirits by way of storage bags and boxes that are transported far away from the site and blessed with the obscure rituals of the trinity of lab analyst, the archivist and the curator. We do everything but consult with priests, and can be found in libraries furtively flicking through a dusty grimoire.

07 Succoth Place low res

As archaeologists we often state our case ‘in all seriousness’ and yet this is simply to cover up our fears, and insecurities. We laugh off the uncertainty of the past, the questionable proofs of prehistory, supported by the safety net of out ontologies which when analysed have all the supportive qualities of the spiral staircase in the library in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Aberdour Rd low res

Like many a Poe-inspired mansion in a Roger Corman movie, everything may end up in a suspicious but cathartic conflagration. All of us wish to be Quatermass, to discover our own Pit, and with it our fate and destiny.

Boydstone Rd low res

We must embrace the ghosts of our ancient past,  strain to listen to what they have to tell us, get everything on tape, play it back over and over again to hear their story until it stretches and snaps. For we ignore them at our peril.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talus

12 Oct

Talus. Noun.

  1. an accumulation of scree at the base of a cliff or steep slope
  2. an ankle bone
  3. a fortification

 

Automatic writing

The pressure of my thumb caused just enough 0.7mm graphite to ooze from my pencil. Sitting on a train, breathless, fumbling in my bag for the book. Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. This crumpled paperback that had become the roadmap for my increasingly eccentric visits to places in heavily urbanised or industrialised places with obscure prehistoric predecessors. This was no longer enough, I came to realise after writing 116 posts for my blog. I needed new kicks, fresh experiences, the hard stuff.

I opened Sellars’ book up at random pages and saw continual relevance to my own condition, just as the unreliable narrator of this fever-dream of a novel had also done. I began to scribble in the margins, automatic writing. The sections of the book that I applied marginalia to appeared to be random but were perhaps not. Bunker Logic. Scar Tissue. Emergence.

IMG_4723

This book was the archaeological fieldwork guide that I had always wanted. More profound than Barker’s Techniques of Archaeological Investigation. More informative than Drewett’s Field Archaeology. More grounded in reality that Hodder’s The Archaeological Process. More emotionally charged than the MoLAS archaeological site manual (3rd edition).

I came to realise that as a rulebook for surveying the deep time in our world one need do no more than read the complete fictional works of JG Ballard, Applied Ballardianism and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology.

IMG_4966

IMG_4967

Through this psychogeographik grimoire, I had found my hard stuff. The hard stuff of life.

The midden.

 

Calcium Cairns

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 the return of, 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.

 

In the Mesolithic of Oronsay, hunters and fishers would bury human finger bones in their shell middens.

In the Neolithic of Orkney, farmers would use midden material to insulate their houses.

Oronsay shell midden canmore_image_SC01453537

But 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 middening.

 

A Gruesome Inventory

The kitchen-midden was discovered on the far side of the small estuarine island of Inchkeith in 1870 at the base of a slope. This artificial organic talus consisted of cooking-debitage, eating-scree, of unknown date and origin. The midden was monumental in its scale, up to 3m high, thick with greasy charcoal.

Baskets of bones were removed from this midden for analysis back in Edinburgh. The scientist tasked with the analysis of these bits and pieces produced a gruesome inventory, scraped from the pages of an anatomical manual, notes from an animal autopsy.

inventory

Basi-occipital and basi-sphenoid fragments of grey seal skulls. Mastoid process and temporal fossa of sheep. Head of the ulna of a sheep. Fourth cervical vertebrae of a pig. Head of left tibia of an ox. Cannon bone of hind foot of bos. Toe bone of bos. Parts of jaw, and several teeth, of horse. Jaw bones of the rabbit. An assemblage of alien species.

Many shells were found too, listed in the analysis like an incantation. Tapes pullastra. Purpura lapillus. Pecten varius. Ostrea Edulis. Pecten maximus. 

It was concluded after this analysis and repeat visits to the island that, ‘there is no evidence as to the period when these rejecta were first cast forth’.

Cast Forth in the Forth.

 

Urban Midden

Hunter Street. There is no such thing as a coincidence so I told myself as I cut up from the Barrowlands Ballroom and headed towards the urban prehistory. I turned onto Hunter Street, folding a map and stuffing it into my back pocket. Across a railway line, over an abandoned tunnel. Ahead of me now were the rusty skeletal remains of warehouses, the Victorian city excarnated, exposed as if on a osteoarchaeologist’s slab.

The sign of the Hunter was affixed to a street light that had beside it a rusty totem pole, its evil twin, pock-marked with corrupted spirals and corroded cupmarks.

Hunter Street

Two drunks in navy shell suits kept appearing during my walk, as if they were being projected for my benefit on a loop by some unknown projectionist. One of them spoke to me tenderly, momentarily breaking the fourth wall, confusing me for his partner in grime, before realising his mistake and flickering out.

I was looking for hunters in the city, middenscapes in the shadow of the industrialised Tennants’ Brewery, makers of liquid gassy capitalism. From my perspective as I entered Barrack Street it seemed that the aluminium pipes that emerged from the brewery were connected directly to the Necropolis, Glasgow’s city centre cemetery, and for a moment I speculated that this must have been for the exchange of fluids. Through the beer haze I could also see the outline of Glasgow Cathedral, one of Ludovic Mann’s ancient Glaswegian pagan places, his Temple of the Moon. There is no such thing as a coincidence.

Moon temple view

Back on Hunter Street (confusingly re-appearing) I reached my destination. A block of modern flats and some old brick-built industrial units on Duke Street where a shell midden had been found during construction works in 1985. Ancient oyster shells had been found on the spoil from the job, and identified too late as being of archaeological significance. In prehistory, I reminded myself, everyone was swallowing oysters all of the time, as they were, as in Victorian times, not simply the preserve of the rich. The shells were then dumped in a pile, calcium cairns, middens.

The industrial unit was orange and glowed in the late afternoon sun, raking across the facade and revealing ghosts – ghost signs, phantom lettering, a typeset palimpsest of failed and out-dated businesses. The building was dominated by a monstrous sign: JAS. D GALLOWAY. TYRE DISTRIBUTORS.

Galloway

I wondered around the block onto a different section of Barrack Street (I was becoming spatially disorientated). I passed a pub – the Ladywell, suggesting an ancient spring or holy well once stood here. On the wall of a neighbouring car repair shop, an occult symbol had been crayoned onto a white-washed wall. Was it a spiral, or a malformed cup-and-ring mark, or a reversed number nine – or a shell, a mollusc, a midden-component?

the symbol

A constellation of coincidences? I reflected on the words written by Marion Shoard and quoted by the fictional headcase Philip in Applied Ballardianism. Urban edgelands allowed us to see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. In essence, socially fundamental constructions, materials and infrastructure often become restricted to urban edges. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

In prehistory, those conflicted spatially dangerous fundamentals were middens.

 

Organic Rejecta

under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow layers of practice the stratigraphy of a lifetime of generations of meals of daily routine of repetition and habit and routine and the accumulation of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow under the people under the streets pressing against the walls of the basements pressure toe bone of bos parts of jaw and several teeth of horse jaw bones of the rabbit tapes pullastra purpura lapillus countless rejecta under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow calcium carbon cairns

 

The Island of Dead Birds

Inchkeith today is a very different place from the island where the kitchen midden was recorded in 1870. Militarisation began in 1879 and continued throughout the first half of  the twentieth century transforming this small rocky eminence through the construction of concrete bunkers, control buildings and the infrastructure of ammunition supply.

This was a defensive, reactive place, but never saw action.

After this brief flourishing, the island has more or less been abandoned to nature (with most of the personnel withdrawn in 1943) like some kind of social experiment.

Quite by chance, this island of precaution has become an emergent prehistoric landscape with its own monuments, its own concrete vocabulary, its new middens.

The porcelain cairn –

The porcelain cairn

The fallen megalith –

IMG_E4562

The shit-stained monolith –

IMG_E4567

The island has its own sacred geometry, ghost paths and leys –

ghost paths

Bunkers abound, underground spaces for the containment of ammunition and men. The walls are burdened with a sinister anatomy of coat hooks and shelf supports.

IMG_E4551

Animals have become complicit in re-making prehistory, the island covered in bird-build middens, accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds.

The bird built midden

Now, in its abandoned state, this concrete island is becoming something … other.

 

Talus

Middens

Mummified mice

Nests within nests by nests

Scattered cartilages and cartridges

Shells upon shells under shelves and on skulls

Pips amidst pipes and petrification

Calcium cairns. Concrete cairns.

Broken bunkers and bones

Talus Talus Talus

Middens.

 

Concrete Island

IMG_4559

Bunker archeology image Amazon

“Abandoned on the sand of the littoral like the skin of a species that has disappeared, the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military history…. (Virilio 2014, 46).

 

Dirty Edgelands

What is urbanisation but an accumulation?

A midden with prehistory as its dirty edgelands, if not in space then certainly in time.

We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.

Living on our own islands with our own futile defences, bunker mentalities, surrounded by lots of shelves.

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

And when our megaliths have collapsed, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens and our single-use plastic.

Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds.

We are tomorrow’s urban prehistory.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Gordon Barclay for inviting me to spend a day visiting various fortified islands in the Firth of Forth, amongst them Inchkeith. The few facts about that island that appear in the narrative above come from Gordon’s excellent handouts to accompany the trip and he appears in one photo striding towards an anti-aircraft gun position. 

The account of the kitchen-midden found on Inchkeith in the 1870s is (you can find it online by googling the title of the paper): David Grieve 1872 On the discovery of a kitchen midden on Inchkeith, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 9, 452-55. The jumbled list of animal bones in my post is adapted from this paper.

The limited information available for the Barrack Street / Hunter Street shell midden can be found in the canmore entry for the site here, and Sloan recorded in the 1985 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (pg 46):

“Deposits of oyster shell were reported from approximately this location during housing development in 1982. Although reported too late for active investigation a sample of shell was recovered from builder’s spoil; remains in the possession of the Committee for Early Coastal archaeology”.

This could be a Mesolithic site, but it could also be medieval, or anything in between. We choose our own myths about the past.

Ludovic Mann’s moon temple writings are included in his 1938 short book Ancient Glasgow: Temple of the Moon.

The photograph of a Mesolithic shell midden near the start of the post is of the site Cnoc Sligeach on the island of Oronsay, taken in 1911, and reproduced here thanks to canmore and is © HES: Early photographs of sculptured stones.

I must finish by paying a debt of gratitude to Simon Sellars for his brilliant novel Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018) for inspiring aspects of this post, and leading me to the chapter Edgelands by Marion Shoard (quote from this in the blog post) in Jenkins’ book Remaking the landscape (Profile Books, 2002). Sellars also led me to the majestic Bunker Archeology by Paul Virlio (my version being published in 2014 by Princeton Architectural Press). The image from that book was sourced from the Amazon page for this volume and a credited quotation appears above as well.

The definitions that start this post were adapted from wikipedia

Taunton axe

26 Sep

Serendipitous encounter with

the material culture of urban prehistory

unexpected discovery

the happenchance of sewage infrastructure

small find destined to be documented, drawn

and stored in a box

once found, then forgotten again

almost unknown

unknowable

indicative of an act: loss, disposal

or the outcome of a process: erosion, river-washed

the slow accumulation of the archaeological record

drifting until discovery

on the riverbank

beside the cricket ground

by Mick Aston off the Time Team.

stone axe from taunton drawing

Notes: on the 30th June 1974 Mick Aston, then a field archaeologist with Somerset County Planning Department, found the butt of a Neolithic polished stone axe on the spoil heap of a trench that had been dug beside the River Tone, in the centre of Taunton, for sewage works. The broken axe was green in colour, had been bashed around by the river, and was broken. Analysis by the Petrology Implement Committee identified the possible source of the axe raw material as Cornwall. The axe is now, I assume, in a local museum collection.

SomHERimage14159 Mick Aston

Mick Aston (right) in 1987 (c) Somerset County Council

The location of this discovery is now a pathway running along the eastern bank of the Tone, passing close by the Somerset County Cricket ground. The location is not marked by any formal notification. Nearby is a setting of three megalithic eggs in a wooden compound.

location today

Eggs

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks firstly to Andrew Watson for flagging up the axe discovery for me in the Somerset HER. Andrew also kindly took me to the location and gave me a guided walking tour of central Taunton.

The axe has site reference number 44418 in the local HER database. The discovery of the axe was published by Aston here: Aston, M 1975 A stone axe from Taunton. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 119, pages 70, 71. The axe drawing comes from that publication, and the photo of Mick Aston and colleagues was sources from the Somerset HER.