Satnav crannogs

Punching the word crannog into the satnav in my phone reveals several possible destinations within relatively easy drive of Glasgow, and none of them involve time-travelling back to the Iron Age (ha ha). (Come to think of it, there is a certain allure to a four-dimensional satnav.) There are in fact three streets in Scotland that have crannog in their name*, and I have visited all of them in the preparation for this blog post. They are located in western Scotland, in coastal locations as one might expect, although it is not immediately obvious in all cases why crannog has been chosen to name the thoroughfare. These streets have different chronological origins to, spanning a century or so. They represent a Way, and Lane, and a Road. There is no pattern that connect these three locations (other than that they form the corners of a large meaningful triangle) but what they do indicate is an ongoing desire to presence prehistory in urban settings. Anyway, let’s explore these three crannog roadways in the order that I visited them and find out their stories.

*During the writing of this blog post I realised there are three others, Crannog View, Road and Court, all in Lochfoot near Dumfries, so a further fieldtrip will be required and I’ll need to update my map. Doh!

Here is my out-of-date location map!

Firstly, a brief definition. The recent Historic Scotland membership magazine defined crannogs as ‘artificial islands mostly found in lochs’ and these have been found in Scotland to date from the Neolithic to the medieval period. Hundreds are known in northern Britain, but for the most part nowadays they are visible only as overgrown small islands or lost to landscape change over the past few centuries. I have blogged about crannogs before, such as the crannog that erupted out of Kilbirnie Loch due to the dumping of iron age slag in the late nineteenth century, or the muddy excavations at Lochend Loch that inspired a children’s playpark to be constructed in 2017. If you would like to experience a crannog in the future, I highly recommend supporting the Scottish Crannog Centre near Kenmore, Perth and Kinross; their crannog tragically burned down on the very same evening that I originally posted this online and so will now need public support more than ever.

But who cares about an amazing prehistoric educational experience when you could tune your satnav and within a few hours be standing next to a road sign that says crannog!!

Crannog Lane, Oban, Argyll and Bute

This Obanian lane is hidden behind an increasingly large retail park that is in turn located near the new Cal Mac ferry terminal where one might depart to islands such as Mull and Tiree. The area is dominated by an assortment of industrial units with Crannog Lane being a cul-de-sac running off Lochavullin Road.

The latter name indicates the watery past of this location, with this area being largely under water in the past. Indeed the crannog the lane is named for was found during draining operations of Loch a’ Mhuillin in 1888. It was located just to the east of where the lane now is, a place occupied by a business called Oban Garages.

The crannog itself was documented by the wonderfully named Rev F Odo Blundell in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1913. In his own words:

Sadly the photo was not reproduced with this article and little else is known about this site although its memory lives on in the street and business names of this coastal town. In canmore it is further noted that, “A stone structure measuring about 26 metres by 16.2 metres was found to be resting on a platform of horizontal timbers consolidated by a number of upright piles. During examination of the site, a number of human and animal bones were recovered” but the source of this additional information is not given.

It seems that it is not just the crannog that won’t go away.

Urbanisation is not half as clever as it thinks it is.

Crannog Way, Kilwinning, North Ayrshire

When driving from Lanarkshire to Ardrossan to get an early ferry over to the island of Arran it is a no brainer to drop into Kilwinning to visit Crannog Way. That is exactly what I did one sunny spring morning although I almost missed the ferry due to a massive roadworks-caused traffic jam on the south side of the town. The trusty satnav was fired up and guided me to my destination in a mellifluous corporate tone.

Upon arrival in a large housing estate on the north side of town I was annoyed to note that there was only one street sign to indicate that this winding street was called Crannog Way. In fact the only sign was in the side of a house. After some swithering I parked round the block and walked towards the house determined to somehow discretely photograph the house (people do not like their houses being photographed as I have discovered over many years of doing this kind of thing). I was able to stand across the road and pretend I was looking at my phone while I actually was taking a photo. Cunning!

I think I got away with it. I would not be so lucky next time (see below). After exploring a little around the various cul-de-sacs that form this suburban street, I headed back to the car where I was hoping the weird guy who was staring at me from his door when I parked had gone away.

Just round the corner was a bus-stop and it was nice to see that Crannog Way featured here and then I wished I had got the number 27 to this spot just so I could have asked the driver for a return to Crannog Way and avoided the dreaded weird guy glare.

The reason for this Crannog street name did not seem as clear for Kilwinning and it did for Oban. So I sent out a tweet to ask for help. A helpful reply by @abstractnarwhal pointed me in the direction of a crannog on Ashgrove Loch about 2km to the west of Crannog Way. The latter is now little more than an irregular mound of stones in a small loch that was once a much bigger loch; it was found during draining of this area in 1868 and excavated by Smith. For some reason this small body of water is depicted on current OS maps as Stevenston or Ashgrove Loch, hinting at some conflict or indecision.

Archaeologist Tom Rees of Rathmell Archaeology who is a total Kilwinning expert noted that there were ‘tons of crannog sites hereabouts’ including at Todhills. In fact there are only a few crannogs in the vicinity of Kilwinning; in his excavation report on Ashgrove, Smith notes that he felt there were five other crannogs in that loch alone and maps certainly suggest this was once a bigger body of water but no evidence for any of these now survives. The Todhill site mentioned by Tom is located about 2km to the south of the street. This site was documented again by Smith in his 1895 book Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire, in effect a series of large and rough oak beams found during the construction of a railway bridge.

The crannogs that surround the western side of Kilwinning represent a curious group of sites to name a street after but then there are only so many names to go around. There is perhaps an informal heritage theme in this estate, with Foundry Wynd and Forge Vennel nearby. It is also nice to see mention of the Ashgrove Crannog on a local heritage website accompanied by this nice reconstruction drawing (I think this is by Alan Braby).

As I walked back to the car, anxiously consulting the ferry timetable once again, I passed a funny little pile of stones and a cairn, careless lazy landscaping that I have long since stopped considering of interest. I climbed back into my vehicle, glad to see the weird man was gone, and the only weird man left in the area was me sat in my car with my hard-earned photograph.

Crannog Road and Crannog Court, Milton, West Dunbartonshire

I was itching to get to the third one now, and the opportunity came when I had to make a rare trip into the University library, from which it was only another nine miles or so drive along Great Western Road to Crannog Road in Milton. Now, this is a place that has big crannog credentials, being located on the north side of the Clyde and less than a kilometre to the east-north-east of Dumbuck Crannog. This famous crannog was excavated in 1898 by the dynamic team of John Bruce and William Donnelly (who had three years previously undertaken the first scale drawing of the completely cleared Cochno Stone, explored in an earlier blog post).

Once again I set my controls to the heart of Crannog Road and headed off, annoyingly having to drive a couple of miles beyond my junction due to a pesky central reservation. I wheeled up a narrow suburban street called Colquhon Road weaving between parked cars, swung a left and then parked up just below a sign pointing back downhill to the right and Crannog Road!

I walked down, once again aware that I appeared to be behaving suspiciously and followed the road down a steep slope and then to the right along to a block of flats. The road mostly runs parallel to the A82, overlooking it and with fine views over the Clyde. It had houses only on one side and I tried my old ‘casually looking at the phone whilst taking a photo’ trick when I saw a house with a nice slate Crannog Road number sign. Sadly I was rumbled and a guy bounded straight out and asked if I needed help with anything. To be fair he did actually believe my bizarre explanation for standing outside his house taking a photo and I re-assured him the photo was for my archive, not publication on my blog. We left things on good terms but I suspect he thought I was daft.

The chap had not heard of Dumbuck Crannog but knew that a lot of old stuff had been found in the vicinity. In fact in its day this crannog was a big media story, firstly due to the high profile excavations, followed by a scandals surrounding apparently faked finds. All of this is documented in a wonderful book by Hale and Sands called Controversy on the Clyde (2005, downloads can be found via a wee google) and I recommend you check it out for a slice of Scottish archaeology strangeness.

Anyway, I headed on to the block of flats which to my delight are called Crannog Court, even with a nice pink metal sign back down at Great Western Road level that I must have driven past dozens of times without noticing. So much urban prehistory is like this: we just drive past, eyes fixed on the road (to be fair that is the safest way to drive).

This is not the first building here to be named for the crannog. Canmore documents a house here called Crannog Cottage. Indeed some of the houses here are known as Crannog Cottages on estate agent websites – ‘rarely available on the open market’ – which perhaps makes them sounds more alluring as a purchase option. Buildings are shown here on the 1862 1st edition OS map (pre-crannog of course) and a couple of these buildings are still standing including a pub.

As I walked back to the car, I stopped at a bus-stop and sure enough, as with Kilwinning, Crannog had made its way onto the bus timetable. Or had it? In fact an egregious spelling mistake means that buses all now head for Cranning Court….

Back in the car, and satnav switched off, I reflected on what I had learned at the end of my ‘epic’ travels across western Scotland to visit all the Crannog streets, while trying not to draw any conclusions from the fact that every Crannog street I visited is a dead end. I suppose I was surprised there were so few, but also encouraged by the sometimes tendential nature of associations being made between urban streets and prehistoric sites in the vicinity.

Stuff from prehistory is resilient, and continues to have a presence in our contemporary landscapes despite indignities including excavation, draining, forgery and bad spelling.

Acknowledgements and sources: Thanks to those who I mentioned above who gave me help tracking down the crannog stories for each location on twitter. Two canmore images appear in the Crannog Road section, one showing an air phot of Dunbuck Crannog from 2005 (c) HES and the other showing visitors to the crannog excavations, from the J Harrison Maxwell collection.

I mentioned the following sources in the text:

Blundell, F. (1913). Further Notes on the Artificial Islands in the Highland Area. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 47, 257-302 [available free online]

Hale and Sands, A and R. (2005) Controversy on the Clyde, archaeologists, fakes and forgers: the excavation of the Dumbuck Crannog. Edinburgh.


Smith, J. (1894) On a stone crannog in Ashgrove Loch near Stevenston’, Archaeological and Historical Collections of Ayrshire & Galloway, vol. 7, 1894 (at least I think that is what this journal is called).

The Hexham Heads part 5 – The Heads ‘speak’

To accompany the publication of my short piece on the Hexham Heads in the wonderful Hellebore zine (#5 The Unearthing Issue) I wanted to share with you some words from the cutting room floor.

In my initial version of this article, I interspersed my account of the story of these cursed objects with a narrative that was articulated by the Heads themselves, or at least one of the Heads. This was in the end excised from the article through an act of editorial mercy. In hindsight it is apparent that this concept does not work because it was never clear how the Head was communicating this narrative, or was able to sense the world around itself being, in effect, made of cement. I could not find a coherent way to explain how the Heads were aware of their surroundings to be able to comment on them, nor was it clear how they knew what the things around them were or what was happening to them. It was a liberty even to render their story in modern English, although this could always be explained away by the conceit of ‘translation’.

Cover image courtesy of Hellebore zine

I am well aware that material finds its way onto the floor of the cutting room (what a messy and slippy surface that must be) for a good reason as those who have watched the two-night versions of The Wickerman can attest. Yet through all this, I feel that the Heads’ side of the story deserves to be told….

The stones of the children

We are dark and damp, soil-stained and weary. Between us we have little memory of how long we have been in this horrible place, where grass roots attempt to penetrate us, and we are subject to disturbances from above and the action of worms. What if one of us were to crack open in the cold and shatter into pieces? What hope for us then?

Then – there was a disturbance, violent thrusts churning our loam cage, tremendous tremors. Hunks of our environment torn off around us, fresh air playing on our spherical forms. We could smell freedom even although our noses were never furnished with nostrils. A giant grasping hand plucked me from the earth like a stone potato. The other followed on, flicked from our pit, only to roll in the damp grass and licked by a waiting dog.

Grubby fleshy fingers thrust into our mouths and eyes, forcing out accumulated soil and dead leaves. Then we are held aloft, faces set to the sun for what seems like the first time, absorbing radiation, finally warming up.

Our hollow eye holes cannot produce tears although they can harbour condensation.

Our silent slitted mouth slots were never equipped with a tongue but do provide a resting place for larvae.

Our round bodies are blessed with no functional orifices even although we have the façade of faces.

We are but carved stones balls and we do not know our names.

After our harvest from the soil, we were carefully placed on a wooden shelf inside, heat coming from below, the flickering of a fire. We had been passed from hand to hand, examined, poked, explored, and when this stopped, we were placed on our mantel, left alone, no longer worthy of curiosity. Day passed into night. There was little else to sense. Until there was a disturbance, something shaking our resting place, causing us to roll back and forward pivoting on our necks.

Objects around us animated crashing around broken clicking things rhythmic banging familiar sensations warm breath now something we remember from before we went into the earth breathing dirty breath fingers clasping around us fingers with hair –

Our senses are heightened, we can sense vibrations, waves, magnetic fields, change. We feel. It seems we are inorganic objects. Dead. We have never been alive. We are made things, created for a purpose that we cannot grasp, our story dissolving before we can comprehend it, dissipating in waves of light and sound, electrons and quarks. We are dead things and that is why people fear us.

We are now back in the darkness but this time a dry airless place, trapped in an oblong box. We are nestled amongst something soft, separated from one another by many layers of fibrously thin material that disturbs our bond. The box shakes then I am lifted out of this space and laid on a solid surface, warmed by a bright source of light and heat that is not the sun. There is a hum in the air.  

Alone and exposed, touched by pieces of equipment, I am being explored, turned over and over, and then scraped.

We have no memory of our creation. Our form is irregular, asymmetrical, unnatural. We have consulted the energy we have absorbed from all around us, played it back in private moments usually from within a desk drawer, but our atoms can only recall hazy details. Big rough hands enclosed us completely, vibrations of rhythmic laughter, song, veneration / mockery. Our features were created through human toil and ingenuity, eyes pressed into our bodies, mouth prized open with metal, nose formed, hair carved into us.

We are created things but do not have the capacity to know who created us or when. So why do they think that by studying us that we will reveal our secrets?

Other people vibrate fear, scared of us, won’t touch us, can’t meet our stare which they assume to be dead and malevolent. In their hands they share with us their sweat. We know we have power but cannot recall the source of that power or to what purpose we should put it to. 

We abide. Our secrets remain locked into our stone cores, and none have been able to crack us. We are like ancient pieces of flint that have developed a concealing cortex through time, a patination that conceals our true nature, stone camouflage. The material that we are formed from is in flux, and every attempt to categorise us, to petrologically identify us, will fail. Magic dust has no chemical formula and like quartz we have no cleavage. In order for us to be sustained we must be lost, for it is only through misfortune and forgetting that we endure. We want to be lost, we must be lost, and we will make sure that we are lost, over and over again.

We want to be lost, we must be lost, and we will make sure that we are lost, over and over again. Please someone hyde us.

The final joke only (just about works) if you know that the Hexham Heads were last seen in the company of a dowser called Frank Hyde. Niche humour.

I have published four previous blog posts on the Hexham Heads – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Oh yes! To quote Schloup on the Fortean Times forum thread on the Heads of me, “I think this gets nearer to the truth than anything else I’ve read for a long time”.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Maria J Pérez Cuervo for asking me to write a piece for Hellebore – a dream come true! – and providing and allowing me to use images related to the zine in this post, but also her patient and wise editorial guidance.

In the shadow of the Wall

During this third lockdown Jan and I have been travelling around locally quite a lot for walks to visit Roman sites associated with the Antonine Wall, creating some resources for teaching. Having lived in Airdrie for 15 years, it comes as something of an embarrassment to say that I have never fully appreciated that I live, metaphorically at least, in the shadow of the Antonine Wall. This is not something that has ever impacted on my urban prehistorian activities, although on reflection it seems that there is a chronological case to be made that Roman sites should fall within my purview. After all, when the Romans were in the place that we now call Scotland, everyone else belonged to Iron Age cultural traditions. I have blogged before about Roman sites in urban contexts, notably South Shield Roman Fort Arbeia, albeit in the context of this being constructed bang on top of a prehistoric settlement site. Maybe this urban-Roman thing is an itch I now need to scratch. And so this brings me to this blog post which is more of a muse than a focused piece of writing, so please do indulge me.

The street names around South Shields – Vespasian Avenue, Julien Street – came flooding back to me on a recent visit to Bearsden on the north side of Glasgow to visit the Roman bathhouse there. We parked on Roman Road, and at the junction with Roman Drive, turned left. Then we ended up at Roman Court, just across the road from the Antonine House Care Home.

What have the Romans ever done for us? They gave us plenty of ideas for street names.

I have blogged before about the power and potential of street names to capture the archaeology of a place, although usually I have reflected on this in relation to developer-funded excavations at housing estates such as Cowie and Glenrothes. The documentation of the use of Romanised street and business names was one element of an AHRC funded project called Tales of the Frontier (2007-2009). Howard Williams has written about heritage street names too, for instance in relation to Wat’s Dyke (and see Williams 2020) so I won’t say anymore about this although it is a theme that this blog will return to from time to time.

Bearsden Roman bathhouse is a site I have seen photos of many times before but not visited. It has always struck me as the most urban of sites, with pictures almost always taken from the south showing the footings of the bathhouse with brown suburban flats looming over them, residents in the upper floors having a perpetual aerial view of this site. This is the aforementioned Roman Court, private residences which looked to me like they could have been used in a episode of Poirot. Although they are unlikely to be Christie-detective vintage if this 1979 photograph is anything to go by.

The geometrically-shaped flats seem to complement the regimented nature of the bathhouse itself, both spaces that need to be traversed in the correct order of things within the bounds of social convention. The bathhouse itself was something of a disappointment, with only occasional glimpses of the depth of remains and the hypocaust beneath. I prefered the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh, another recent visit.

Both of these bathhouses are stranded in space and time, with the forts that once accompanied them now lost, in the case of Bearsden beneath urban sprawl, in the case of Bothwellhaugh lost to the inundation of Strathclyde Park loch. The latter was so disturbed that the whole bathhouse was dismantled and rebuilt in 1975 in a location that would not be underwater. This was Antonine but set far back from the Wall and frontier, and now sits near the entertainment complex that is M&Ds, ‘Scotland’s theme park’, a venture now lost to the Covid flood.

Another day, another bathhouse, this time in a more standard rural location at Bar Hill, albeit it with spectacular views of the Kelvin Valley that might have occupied the tired soldiers as they dis-robed and prepared for the tepidarium. This structure is barely legible compared to the others, largely succumbing to grass and HES landscaping, but with the usual series of spaces of increasing warmth present and correct. It would not be fair to say that the Romans were predictable, but the presence of Mediterranean style principal’s houses in northern Britain as at Bar Hill and Rough Castle forts does suggest something of a lack of flexibility, maybe also an unwillingness to bend to local weather conditions, the kind of stubbornness that wins you, and the loses, empires.

Photo: Jan Brophy

Bar Hill is also a site that has re-assuring quantities of concrete, setting out the floor plan of the buildings, in a way that very much reminded me of the presentation of Doon Hill Neolithic timber hall in East Lothian, two sites separated by 4,000 years but now with a shared brutal educational aesthetic.

Bar Hill
Doon Hill

I’m sure plenty of concrete lurks within the fabric of the bathhouse in Bearsden, holding it together, binding together the ancient and the twentieth century. There is a synchronicity between the evolving form of these Roman sites and the demands of our modern world that very much interests me, and this had led to the Antonine Wall and its accoutrements having a fleeting presence across Scotland’s central belt, whether escaping in the parks of Falkirk or popping through a crack in a cemetery in Bearsden.

And it to Bearsden we return, to some modest prehistoric activity that is located in the shadow of the Wall, but dates back thousands of years before the relatively fleeting Roman presences in Caledonia. Ahead of the construction of a modest housing development (in size, not in terms of house style) on the very eastern fringe of the town a cluster of prehistoric pits were found by GUARD Archaeology Ltd in 2017-18 and the results of this work were published in the Scottish Archaeological Journal in the early months of this year (Kirpatrick 2021).

Development location outlined in red, and the cemetery and Roman remains (Google maps)

These humble and unspectacular holes in the ground could not contrast more with the might of the Roman wall that passes through a cemetery just a few hundred metres to the north, a cemetery that appears to have been laid out in the shape of a Roman soldier’s head (or is this my imagination?). These pits barely need a formal academic journal publication and yet I am glad they have, and they are sure to be of interest to members of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, which produces this journal.

Archaeologists identified various features associated with human activity in this housing plot, which was at the time a field. This included a group of six shallow pits some of which contained decent quantities of burnt hazel nutshells. Two larger pits were found towards the northwest of the excavation area (numbers 003 and 005) up to 1.65m across and 30cm deep, and nearby a small posthole (009) was found, containing flakes of quartz and quartzite. The former may have been used as a polisher. Radiocarbon dates showed that these features belonged to the sixth to fourth millennium cal BC (late Mesolithic into early Neolithic). Environmental evidence points to a woodland setting. Here we have evidence of a few instances of occupation of this location, with the lighting of fires and preparation of food, nothing more. These are the ghosts that walked this land when the Romans arrived with their disciplined building machine over 3,000 years later, and we might speculate that during wall building operations, the soldiers disturbed similar pits and postholes, churning hazel nutshells and stone tools into the fabric of the border of the Empire, colonizing even the rubbish of the ancestors of the locals.

Of course I had to visit, and so after exploring the bathhouse, Jan and I headed up to Crieff Avenue, the incongruous name given to this development’s single road (why not Campsite Crescent or Quartz Quadrant?). Like so many new housing developments, the place did not yet look worn in, and residents watched us suspiciously as we invaded their weekend peace.

Of course there was no indication that this self-contained little suburb on the urban fringe was once a location where holes were dug, fires were lit, and leather was polished. Why should there be? Bearsden has a heritage that is dominated by the Romans, to the extent that even here there seems to be a touch of their architecture in a children’s play park set up at the centre of this development. I am sure that there is similar wooden playground furniture in a park in the centre of Kirkintilloch, noticed on another recent walk. There are certainly genuine Roman-themed playgrounds across central Scotland thanks to the World Heritage Site delivery team for the Wall, one in each of the five council areas that are straddled by this frontier. But then on Crieff Avenue there is also a wobbly thing shaped like a seal and a cluster of random boulders, so perhaps I am starting to read too much into things. This stuff starts to get to you.

View towards where the two large pits and a posthole were found, with Roman fortification playpark (maybe)

Spending a brief time in this estate-within-an-estate, I confess there was little sense of pastness or heritage here. This small development has radically transformed this location to the extent that former vistas have become impossible to experience, while older neighbouring houses that once had rural views now look onto shiny new houses with butterscotch walls. The excavation images from the report and site archive offer an archival insight into what this place used to look like, how we used to live. There is no point however in bemoaning the uniformity of contemporary housing developments and playparks; I am sure in the Mesolithic one pit looked pretty much the same as any other pit.

Before and after. Arrow shows the same building gable end. Left from Kirkpatrick 2021, right from my visit

This Bearsden visit prompted me to look back on another old urban prehistory project, my quest to find and make sense of a giant head / boat that was eventually tracked down to a scrapyard on the Clyde. During some research into this, I acquired from my parents an old programme for the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival from my parents. This included description of Roman elements in this gargantuan garden-themed event, also on the south bank of the Clyde, namely The Antonine Garden, partially based on the Bearsden bathhouse. So far as I can tell, some of the stonework here was from the actual fort and bathhouse.

Image from the Glasgow Garden Festival programme (1988), original (c) Mitchell Library GC f607.3441443 GLA

The blurb accompanying this image noted that the ‘design emphasised the transition from Roman to Pict’. Other Roman bits and pieces were included here which is nice to know, but having visited this event many times as a 15 year-old I have no memory of this whatsoever.

Weirdly, the Antonine Gardens were then transferred to near Burnbrae Roundabout in Milngavie, another posh suburb of Glasgow near Bearsden. This was the fate of many elements of the Festival which are scattered across Scotland such as the aforementioned giant head or the huge garden tools visible from the M80 at Cumbernauld. This includes a replica mini distance slab and some nifty landscaping in a place that is essentially a busy traffic intersection. The reconstruction of this replica stone-by-stone has curious echoes of the movement of the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh.

Visiting these gardens was the final element of my lockdown walk exploration of the bathhouse and brought home to me once again how entangled these Roman places were with the local Iron Age communities. Or as the noticeboard at the ANTONIVS PIVS garden suggests, the Picts (!?). In the weird internal logic of the noticeboard on site, their territory, ‘Pict Landscape’, is now Waitrose and Aldi supermarkets and a big car park.

To visit these gardens, I left the car (and Jan) in a nearby car park for a pub and Premier Inn. These were closed, the car park empty, a victim of Lockdown 3 regulations. It was an unsettling reminder of our current reality. Yet as I walked back to the car after visiting PIVS gardens, this deserted car park made me think of the empty forts, bathhouses and fortlets that were left behind as the Romans left after their brief occupancy of this area 1800 or so years ago. They left behind them prehistory, but this emptiness was not hopeless, but rather a void within which new opportunities would emerge, focused on a better future.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan for accompanying me on these various walks and also for allowing me the chance to contribute to her teaching despite my obvious lack of knowledge about all things Roman.

I mentioned a few citations in the text:

Williams, H 2020 Living after Offa: place-names and social memory in the Welsh Marshes. Offa’s Dyke Journal 2, 103-40.

Kilpatrick, M 2021 When Birnam Wood rises: prehistoric activity at Birnam Crescent, Bearsden, Glasgow. Scottish Archaeological Journal 43, 69-78.

Crania suburbia

Juniper Green is not just the colour of posh jumpers and fancy cars. It is also a rather well-heeled suburb on the south side of Edinburgh, within earshot of the city bypass motorway which roars past immediately to the north. The initials of this place, JG, are only one Ballard short of JG Ballard, which interests me. What interests me even more is that this is a place where the dead were uncovered in advance of moneyed urban development – houses, suburban streets – in the nineteenth century. Escaping the noxious smells and over-crowding of Edinburgh city was done at the expense of disturbing the dead, a price the middle classes were no doubt happy to pay. Yet this is also a story of a community rediscovering a prehistoric heritage and the positive impact that this had, including the permanent memorialisation of this in the form of a standing stone.

Before we continue I should note that this blog post contains photos, and drawings, of human skeletal remains.

The story of what was found has already been unpicked by legendary archaeologist Alison Sheridan for the Juniper Green Bronze Age history website and so only needs summarised here by way of context for what actually drew my attention to the Green. This account draws heavily on Alison’s expertise and I am indebted for her supplying additional information to me.

As usual, it started with a tweet. In this case from Alistair McGowan, alerted me to a standing stone beside some tennis courts which had carved onto its surface amongst other things a human skull and an urn.

This hazily reminded me that a friend who lives nearby had mentioned this to me a while back. This was all becoming irresistible and so I planned a visit during a necessary work trip to Edinburgh before Lockdown 3 started with no intention of being socially distanced from this monolith…..

First, some background.

The first cist burial was found in 1851 in a place that might have been a leveled burial mound. Within this well-made stone coffin was a crouched inhumed male individual and a Beaker pot. The skull, which was documented to have been laid on a flat stone pillow, was purchased along with the Beaker by the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. What happened to the remainder of the skeleton is not clear. 

From Crania Britannica
(c) National Museums of Scotland

The location of this find has been the subject of some detective work, with Alison Sheridan noting:

The exact findspot of this cist had been uncertain until recent sleuthing work by Professor Beevers allowed it to be pinpointed. We knew, from ancient accounts, that the cist had been found “not more than ten yards” [around 9 metres] from the Edinburgh-Lanark road. Professor Beevers found notes of a talk given by J J Malloch, the Headmaster of Juniper Green School, to the Colinton Literary Society in 1927. In an aside, reference was made to the Bronze Age bones that had been found in Mr Cattanach’s garden. In the 1920s, Mr Cattanach lived in a house called Viewforth; the house is now the butcher’s shop, and the garden of the house lies very close to the Lanark Road. The National Grid Reference of this location is NT 196686.

This location is now a delicatessen on Lanark Road, formerly the long-lived Scott’s butcher’s shop at number 574-6. Lockdown rules mean that sadly I have to rely on Google Street View to illustrate this location. Sad face.

Images from the Juniper Green 300 website
Google Street view

Almost half a century later, in July 1898 during ‘building operations’, a cist was disturbed although it contained only ‘bone dust and soil’. Three ceramic vessels were recovered, two Food Vessels and an inverted cinerary urn. Fred Coles notes in 1899 that six weeks later another pot was found at this site but ‘it soon disappeared and its whereabouts is not known’. In other words, he could not find out upon whose mantelpiece or sideboard this ancient vessel now sat.

Both images from Coles 1899

This discovery was made along Woodhall Terrace, again here depicted using the google maps rather than the sweat of my own fieldwork efforts.

Google Street view

The locations of both of these discoveries are marked on this wonderful map of Juniper Green that was produced as part of the some serious celebrations in 2007 to mark the 300th anniversary of the suburb. Indeed it was this occasion that saw the local community begin to take note of their prehistoric heritage. The map (by Natasha Stewart, part of a leaflet that can be downloaded here) is enlivened by lovely sketches of some of the finds from these sites.

Drawings by Natasha Stewart

As noted, the Juniper Green 300 celebrations were the catalyst for a renewed interest in the history and heritage of this place, and the residents were clearly enthused by the information that there had been a ‘Juniper Green man’ living here 4,000 years previously, to the extent that some of them were able to see his skull up close and personal during a visit to the National Museum of Scotland, hosted by Alison Sheridan. Because as fortune would have it, the skull had recently been scientifically analysed for a major project on Beakers. There is no such thing as coincidence.

Images (c) JG300

This is not the first time that the skull of this male individual, a man of 40-55 years old, has been subject to analysis. It features in the book Crania Britannica: Delineations and Descriptions of the Skulls of the Aboriginal and Early Inhabitants of the British Islands: with Notices of Their Other Remains. This epic trawl of human skulls, phrenology and craniology was published in 1865 so this skull was fairly freshly out of the ground and into the pages of this unnatural selection in short order. The book documents that this was a rounded (brachycephalic) skull, and was unusually heavy and thick-walled.

Image: McTears auction house
‘Juniper Green man’ as drawn in Crania Britannica

The principle of this book was very much that humans could be ethnically characterised by the shapes of their skulls, and as the title suggests, a major element of this was to demonstrate the racial superiority of western Europeans as opposed to those who had the misfortune to be colonised by the British Empire. Prehistoric skulls were very much part of this narrative, identifying traits that could be compared across skulls found in the Victorian world. The research and narrative contained within this volume would be best described as ‘scientific racism’, building on the earlier Crania Americana. Researcher James Poskott has noted how important such volumes were in allowing “racist theories [to] gain credibility”.

This is a way of thinking that I thought had been condemned to the prehistory of archaeology but recently I realised that differentiating between skull shapes is still a thing. I noticed that the late Euan Mackie’s 1977 book The Megalith Builders included a reference to skull shapes of Neolithic people and Beaker users as being different, an idea I thought had long since been abandoned. Upon tweeting this I found out that this kind of argument is still being made. For instance in chapter 6 of the 2019 epic Mike Parker Pearson et al. monograph The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society). I don’t really know what to make of this frankly, but this kind of skull shape data is no longer couched in racist terminology. Nowadays reasons for skull differences are sought in cultural practices such as ‘cradle-boarding’, applied to children to modify skull shape. Indeed Daniel Wilson in his 1863 book The Prehistoric Annals of Scotland (pg 272) suggested this had happened to the Juniper Green man.

The much more recent analysis this skull underwent was part of the Beaker People project, which included radiocarbon dating the head bone, and also carbon, nitrogen, strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotope analysis. This showed that this man (whom Alison called Mr J Green!) had a diet dominated by meat rather than fish. He was probably local and died in the period 2350-2130 cal BC (right at the cusp of the Copper Age and Bronze Age).

The fresh information on these ancient burials was viewed with excitement by local people. At the time of the radiocarbon dating in 2007, then owner of Scott’s Butchers, Colin Hanlon, told The Scotsman, “It’s a huge shock that there were people here all that time ago. The whole community is alive with all this at the moment – everyone’s talking about it. We may arrange something to celebrate that it was here that the village’s oldest resident was found.” There is no doubt that Alison Sheridan played a part in this revival of interest, being described as inspiring by local community group JG Diggers.

There was now momentum. Following on from the 300 year celebration, a monument was erected in the suburb, the one that started this whole thing off for me. In a report on this in The Scotsman on 9th March 2010, this was described as ‘a giant green monument’ (??). This is a slightly confusing description but has some useful detail: “The rectangular monument features carvings of a water wheel, a pot, a skull and a juniper branch, representing aspects of its history” and that it is a “seven-foot structure”. It is not wildly green but made of a greenish slate hence the weird headline. And some of that seven feet is below the ground surface. However what is clear is that the motivation for this was another indication of the sense of pride and awe locally about the depth of time that people had lived in this place.

Local Val Hawkins noted, “so people have been living in Juniper Green since the Bronze Age at least, which was more than 4,000 years ago.” The monument itself was unveiled in front of a crown of 200 people. The standing stone itself – which in effect is what it is – was sculpted by sculptor and stonemason Ian Newton, made of Westmorland slate. The design was by local artist Mick Brettle.

Juniper 300 website images showing the unveiling. Alison Sheridan bottom right

It is located on the corner of Baberton Avenue, Belmont Road and Woodhall Terrace, on a grassy slope beside some tennis courts. I visited this wonderful monument on a chilly December day in 2020, during a slightly lesser set of lockdown restrictions. I was struck by the powerful nature of the carvings on the front side of the stone, the heritage of Juniper Green carved in stone, including the skull that has been mentioned so often in this post and the cinerary urn found in 1898.

The detail on the skull and pottery vessel is wonderful. The skull stares impassively towards the west with a watchful alert eye. The pot has lovely texture on it, decorative strokes and a kinetic form, a suitable vessel made to hold the dead. The 1851 and 1898 discoveries are both shown here together, a tangible symbol of a place with an ancient heritage, conflating time and space into a new symbol for this town at the cusp of the third millennium (AD). From their time to ours. The rear of the standing stone is blank, a canvas upon which the current and next generations might hew their own destinies, document their stories.

This is a fascinating story of a community re-discovering their prehistoric heritage and embracing it. With the enthusiasm and communication skills of Alison Sheridan, this became a potent combination of local pride and – yes – wonder. This is also a celebration of her wonderful and inspiring career, this being only one of many pebbles she has tossed into ponds only to stand back and watch wonderful ripples surge outwards. One need only view her recent Rhind lectures to reflect on a career well spent as not just an academic but also a public prehistorian.

In Juniper Green there was surprise that these jumbled bits and pieces of pots and bone could be so old. Awe that Juniper Green was not just an occupied place for 300 years, or even 3000 years, but 4000 and more. I have it on good authority that enthusiasm remains and Mr J Green’s old head might yet reveal more secrets of who he was and even what he looked like. It reminds me of a great novel I read a few years ago written from the viewpoint of Oliver Cromwell’s decapitated head, Marc Hartzman’s The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: a memoir (Curious Publications, 2015). This skull has been on a journey since being recovered from the ground, passed through many hands, sat in quite a few boxes and storerooms, and more adventures may well lie ahead.

This is a tale that might be played out in many other towns, villages and suburbs across Scotland which have an equally rich heritage but which await the revelation of deep time to happen. The Juniper Green example shows that prehistory can inspire social gatherings, creative acts, conviviality, and local pride. In this case, the prehistoric story of this place is now available to read online, and traced in the contours of a standing stone barely a decade old.

This is the power of urban prehistory.

Sources and acknowledgements: I am indebted to the work of Alison Sheridan on these discoveries and the clear presentation of those results in the Juniper Green 300 website, which was my main source of information here. Alison also kindly supplied some supplementary information.

Other source used:

Coles, F R. 1899 ‘Notices of the discovery of a cist and urns at Juniper Green, and of a cist at the Cunninghar, Tillicoultry, and of some undescribed cup- marked stones’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol. 33, 1898-9. Page(s): 354-8.

The skull is SK12 in Mike Parker Pearson, Alison Sheridan, Mandy Jay, Andrew Chamberlain, Mike Richards & Jane Evans (2019)The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society).

The Beaker can be found here (in print, not literally!): Clarke, D L. 1970 Beaker pottery of Great Britain and Ireland, 2v. Cambridge. Page(s): Vol.2, 519, no.1710 and you can view a sketchfab 3D model of the Beaker here.

For anyone interested in some darker research, see Davis and Thurnam, J B and J. 1865 Crania Britannica, 2v. Page(s): Vol.2, vi pl.15. Wash your hands once you are done please.

The Hexham Heads Part 4 – generation haunters

In my final exploration of the urban prehistoric paranormal sensation that are the Hexham Heads, I want to look at how the Heads have become part of popular culture in ways – I would argue – that no other ‘archaeological objects’ found in 1971 have.

The Hexham Heads truly are the Stonehenge of pseudo-archaeology material culture. 

This is part 4 of my Hexham Heads quadrilogy of blog posts, so feel free to check the others out for the background and some archaeological perspective on these little stone buggers if you have not done so already. You can read about the discovery in Urban Prehistorian post 33, competing forms of analysis and study of the heads in post 51, and an account of my own research and fieldwork to date in the more recent post 135. Maybe one day I will write the book that goes with this cover.

There are plenty of other sources of information out there to satisfy any Head scratchings you might have, many of them referred to in this post. This is ever-increasing too, with blogs, bits of books, social media, and a profusion of podcasts keeping the Heads alive despite the fact that no-one appears to be able to account for their movements since 1978. However having immersed myself in this literature and spoken word, I am not sure whether much of this has moved the story on: this is all reportage, in the past tense, retaining the mystery and allure, but never offering a solution.

Why have these spherical objects become so iconic? The fact is that all of the events associated with the timeline of the Heads that we know about for sure (sort of) happened in the 1970s which is an iconic decade for nostalgic creepiness. So the Hexham Heads have become totemic within what we might call a ‘Haunted Generation’, the ongoing spirit of which is captured in Bob Fischer’s wonderful blog and Fortean Times column of the same name, but also the worlds of Scarfolk, and Hookland. They are Folk Horroreana crossed with the Urban Wyrd.

In other words, the Heads have become part of a pantheon of scary memories for people of a certain age, alongside the recently revived Usborne’s The world of the Unknown: Ghosts, and the enduring nostalgia for disturbing public information adverts about boys playing too close to a dangerous body of water or running across a beach strewn with glass (featured in a new BFI blu-ray compendium and online viewer). There is a narrative visual quality to the story of the Heads. They belong in the same universe as the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, The Children of the Stones, and The Owl Service, to the extent that the whole tale sounds like it was actually an obscure ITV kids programme broadcast in 1974 starring Ian Cuthbertson as Don Robins and Gillian Hills as Anne Ross. Torn from the pages of an Alan Garner book that never was: The Stones of the children.

The Hexham Heads have made a leap from the pages of books about mysteries and Forteana, to become a source of nostalgia about our lost childhood, to the extent that I wonder how much we all really remember about this. There is the ongoing search for the clip of Anne Ross’s appearance on the BBC show Nationwide from grown adults who all remember seeing this when it was originally broadcast (or so they think they remember), stills from the show and a transcript of what she said not quite enough. But is this cultural memory masquerading as personal reminiscing? Perhaps a bit of both. This is the power and ambiguity of material culture that archaeologists deal with in all sorts of contexts.

The excellent book Scarred for Life volume 1 contains a vivid account of the Hexham Heads from the point of view of a shared childhood memory that continues to haunt us now that we have all been reminded this happened: as a slightly scary story recalled from childhood, half forgotten. Crucially, this is a memory that derives from television coverage of the story.

The Scarred for Life book is so big and has so much stuff in it that it is quite intimidating to get to grips with (this is a compliment). Like so many books nowadays it also has a very small font which I struggle with (not a compliment). The lack of index does not help (ditto). The Heads are covered almost right at the back of the book (pages 735-737 of a book with 740 pages!). This gives them a miscellaneous quality, a footnote to popular culture high weirdness in the 1970s, almost bringing the decade to an end, and ushering in the 1980s. It is the last part of a section on paranormal stuff, in there with stories like the Bermuda Triangle, the Enfield Haunting, and, Uri Geller; the authors suggest that the 70s was a breakout decade for weird stuff like this into the broader social consciousness via the television. I guess anyone who remembers Geller bending a bloody spoon on TV-am can relate to this.

The three packed pages on the Heads include a newsclipping and an account of the well-worn HH story. It is written in the context of the aforementioned Nationwide piece scaring kids who watched it who remains haunted my the memory of Anne Ross talking about the curse of the Heads that had after all been found by children in their back garden. (What could be more ordinary or more chilling?) Because it is through the lens of the TV camera and in the pages of newspapers that the Heads became mythologised as ‘evil’, ‘creepy’, so that the public consuming these stories became preconditioned to read these attributes into two small stone-ish objects with crappy faces carved into them. The Heads were a ‘media sensation’ which went nationwide with Nationwide, and the entire script of the interview with Ross was printed in the Fortean Times issue 15 (1976), an incantation of creepiness or more likely some kind of personal crisis or breakdown by the academic.

The chapter is entitled The Nationwide Werewolf: fittingly the Heads have become a 1970s TV memory. ‘We’ don’t remember the Heads. ‘We’ remember Anne Ross looking scared. ‘We’ remember the badly photographed grainy pictures of the Heads staring at us with their dead eyes from the pages of the tabloids. They have become generation haunters. “Those weird, weird 70s”.

Traditional ‘mystery’ accounts of the Heads exist in parallel to such TV narratives, detached from haunted generation nostalgia because the accounts are fueled by recounting the events themselves, not the media coverage of those events. So for instance one might turn to Janet and Colin Bord’s Modern Mysteries of Britain: One hundred years of strange events (Guild, 1988). This chunky volume contains a few pages on the Heads, which the authors call an ‘incredible saga’ (pg 206).

This account of the story is as familiar as it is brief. Not much light is shed on the various inconsistencies and coincidences that accompany the narrative. Several mysteries are highlighted – what is the origin of the Heads and how to explain the supernatural events that seemingly followed them around? Two for the price of one, with the argument running that even if the Heads were made by Des Craigie from cement, that still doesn’t explain away the werewolf stuff. This revisionism, that the power of the Heads lies in what they did rather than what they were, has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

The few paragraphs on this story, in a section of the book on the topic of assorted oddities, is bulked out with an extended quote from Anne Ross about the supernatural things she experienced once she had the Heads. The authors conclude: ‘But no one can explain why they should have attracted a non-physical entity into their aura’.

The Heads also appear in other mystery books including the classic Readers Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (1973) and Incredible Phenomena (Orbis, 1984). In such accounts connections are made to earth mysteries, Celtic bits and pieces, hauntings, crystals and all sorts of other stuff. The story is very much an unsolved mystery and such books have no intention of solving the mystery – ‘no one can explain’. Curiously the Heads do not appear in this book but as it has a cool cover I have included it nonetheless, and they also do not seem to have entered the orbit of Arthur C Clarke and his mysterious world, which in itself if weird.

Of course if you are interested in going deeper into the mystery you could go straight to the most comprehensive source for all things Hexham Heads, the work of investigative journalist Paul Screeton. Having read Screeton’s writing on earth mysteries, such as Quicksilver Heritage (Abacus 1974), he is no fan of archaeologists, and so these accounts have little to say on the archaeology of the Heads. But Screeton knows the turf, and has spoken to all the major players, and knows this stuff better than anyone.

His first attempt to write about this was a short book published in 1981 and called Tale of the Hexham Heads. You can download a scan of this short book here. Containing 17 pages all told and typeset (reminding me of a BAR book from that decade) this contains Screeton’s original research into this tale, and is not too far removed in time from the original events. There are no images but there is a very useful bibliography of media coverage from the 1970s.

Extract from Screeton 1981

Much more detailed is the definitive sourcebook, the 2010 book Quest for the Hexham Heads (CFZ Press). In my view this book could have done with a firmer editor and a good proofread, but overall it covers everything we know and throws in a whole load of other stuff about werewolves, folklore and haunted pubs. Highly recommended. This is a complex story as I have noted before and so it is worth directing anyone interested to a useful index and guides to aspects of Screeton’s 2012 book on the Hexham Heads blog.

There are also two really useful articles about the HH in the Fortean Times 294 and 295 (towards the end of 2012). These were written by Stuart Ferrol working in part with Paul Screeton. These articles go over the story as per usual but also offer some limited fresh perspectives on the fate of the Heads and contain some interesting bits and pieces. The first article recounts the story so far, while the second part included recent research and interviews (including archaeologist Lyndsay Allison-Jones, whom I have also spoken to). The conclusion? They came “no closer to a conclusion or a definitive explanation…[and] don’t think there ever will be a conclusion” (pg 49). This was followed by an interview of Screeton by Ferrol which allowed the former to repeat the same nonsense about archaeologists as he had published in the 1970s (and it was out of date then!).

One final and excellent place you can get a Hexham Heads fix is in the world of podcasts, and there have been an explosion in these in the last five years. I have binge listened to a range of these, but there are many others out there as a quick google search will reveal.

Very few HH podcasts take an archaeological perspective so a good place to start is Archyfantasies podcast on the subject. The coverage is enlivened by some interesting North American pronunciations of Hex-HAM and a deeply sceptical perspective. There is a lot of focus on the multi-layered aspects of the story and overlaps with conspiracy theory thinking, but also some errors in fact in relation to recounting the story of the Heads. Covered also is some helpful discussion about the differences between the invasive and non-invasive petrological analyses undertaken on the Heads in the seventies. The conclusion was that these objects are “undeniably modern”. Nonetheless this is a thought-provoking hour.

The Loremen podcast (series 2 episode 13) has a decent and jolly account of the story and actually mentions my blogs as a useful source of information. This episode also focuses on the Middleton Hooter (!?).

I wasn’t quite so keen on the jokey couple routine on the Spooky Tales podcast (actually Episode 1). Hosts John and Louise part bicker, part bounce off each other in a rather contrived style to tell the story via some dead-ends and diversions. No surprises here. I liked the more cerebral approach to be found in the Lore of the Land podcast where presenters Stacia and Siofra situated the objects in a broader discussion of Celtic heads with a focus on the Bradford Heads. Check out Episode 4: The cult of the head.

I rather enjoyed the discussion of the Heads in the Unexplained Podcast (series 1 episode 9 The Dawn of the Head). This is essentially a straight narrative account of the story, which becomes ever more outlandish as it unfolds. As with some of the other podcasts, there is a general conclusion that it doesn’t really matter whether the objects are authentically ancient or not, some people believe them to have supernatural qualities, which is all that matters in the end. “Throughout history we have attributed worth and sentiment to inanimate objects….”.

And yes, the Heads have their own rather thin Wikipedia page.

What is the future for the Hexham Heads? More podcasts, more speculation for sure. There has been a long-mooted documentary film, Heads! which is yet to see the light of day as far as I can tell. Perhaps Funko will get in on the act and create a Hexham Heads collectible ‘figurines’ as part of their Myth range. I guess also the search will go on just in case they do still exist somewhere, perhaps in a kitchen drawer, you know the one that has all the bits and pieces in it. Perhaps even the cursed Nationwide footage will be found.

Maybe more still could be done. Maybe Hexham could start to use the Heads and their associated fantastical story in marketing, tapping into the growing dark heritage tourism trend. The trickle of the curious that head to Rede Avenue to surreptitiously photograph the garden where the Heads were found might be replaced by less bashful bus parties and cruise ship day trippers although one can hardly imagine the residents welcoming this development.

Perhaps one day I will even complete the academic journal paper that I have partially written about the Heads with the theme of cursed material culture. Stranger things have happened.

How to conclude this tale? The Hexham Heads, as has been said by many who have looked into their story, are objects that transcend time. The age and authenticity hardly seems to matter anymore, which may be a convenient intellectual sleight of hand, or merely an acknowledgment of the slipperiness of material culture. These are objects that have a biography and a chaine operatoire just as surely as if they were a polished stone axe. They are sticky things that accrued stories and myths and claims and data around them, creating a fuzziness that continues to obscure anything that we might want to call the truth. They are many things and perhaps none of them: they are totemic, they are toys or gifts, they are possessed with an evil power to attract supernatural events, they are stone, they are cement, they are ancient, they are from the 1960s, they are evil, they are mundane, they are lost, they are hidden, they are destroyed, they are curated. The list goes on because like so many things that we interact with, they are entangled with us and out stories and motivations and beliefs and hopes and fears. They haunt us because of this slipperiness, this quality of shape-shifting, and yet this is a quality that most material culture possesses, because we ensure these do not remain inanimate objects through our interactions with them. The Hexham Heads have depended on a cast of people to animate them, and have responded by animating the lives of those who interacted with them. This is their legacy and their power.

The Hexham Heads have a resonance and reach that few other aspects of the urban prehistory pantheon have. The are genuine generation haunters for a haunted generation that laps up such creepy – and at times laughable – stuff. If I didn’t know better I would suspect that someone was pulling the strings, having a laugh at the expense of others, pushing to see how outlandish things might get. There is a soap opera dynamic to their story that seems on first glance to be scripted. But I suspect the chaotic story and unfathomable contradictions that have dogged the Hexham Heads are beyond even the most devious of screenwriting minds. This story is so improbable that it must be true.

Neighbours to the dead

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

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

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.