Archive | November, 2012

The Airdrie miniliths

25 Nov

They are all around us. Monoliths. Miniliths. Totems.

Minilith 2

They are tall, slim, sleek, colourful, engaging and often located at entrance points, junctions and route ways in our urban centres. They are there to guide movement, dispense information and attract attention. In recent years, they have become ubiquitous elements of urban furniture, perspex, aluminium or fibreglass slabs erected at street corners, junctions and places of interest. The choice from within the urban signage industry of names used to market these signboards is interesting: monoliths, miniliths and totems are all words used in archaeological discourse. The tallest standing stone in Britain is the Rudston Monolith, in Yorkshire. Settings of short standing stones in northern Scotland and SW England are known as miniliths, an example of which, from Battle Moss, Caithness, is shown below. And the idea of some timber posts in the Neolithic acting as totem poles is a realistic possibility as demonstrated by the carved heads on posts at the Maelmin henge and timber circle reconstruction in Northumberland. The appropriation of these quasi-archaeological terms for urban signage is not surprising; perhaps these are our 21st century versions of little and large prehistoric standing stones.

The town of Airdrie, near Glasgow, has recently benefited from the erection of three miniliths at strategic street corners. (Monoliths tend to be broader slabs, miniliths slimmer but not shorter versions). North Lanarkshire council announced in summer 2012 the erection of these three colourful information slabs, stating ‘three monolith signs containing directional and map information will be installed at Graham Street, Hallcraig Street/Buchanan Street and Gartlea Road by Coates House. The maps will detail the main destinations and facilities in the town centre’.

These pillars of plastic-type material are identical to one another in basic form, each standing 2.2m tall, 0.52m across, and a slim 13cm in width. Supports beneath pavement level go to a depth of 0.65m. (To successfully erect a standing stone or timber post in prehistory, it is widely believed that 1 unit of length below ground was needed to support 3.5 units of length above ground. This is almost exactly the ratio used for the Airdrie miniliths.) The information contained on them has a standardised format, albeit some detail varies. Key locations, places, buildings and services are indicated with simply triangle-arrows, while a colourful map depicts Airdrie town centre. The information is listed on both sides, although the way finding elements vary. The minilith location is written on the slim side. The miniliths are made of a shiny plastic-type material, and so waterproof; the background colour is a glossy black. They were designed by Fitzpatrick Woolmer, a company based in Rochester.

The location of each minilith is interesting. They are situated at entry points on the fringes of the core of the commercial centre, where the casual visitor faces decisions: where next to find Airdrie Library or Flowerhill Church? This fulfils one of the key objectives of the Council, for the signage to ‘assist with navigation’. (Although I am not convinced minilith 3, located beside a busy roundabout, is located very helpfully.) The map below shows the location of each minilith, and I have taken the liberty of carrying out a crude ‘sacred geography’ exercise with these. Although it seems almost certain that this is a coincidence and not a design decision, the Airdrie miniliths are located at the points of a large isosceles triangle with two equal sides. Triangles are a popular motif of what we could term research into ‘megalith geometry’ where lines and patterns of association are searched for using maps showing the location of archaeological sites such as standing stones. Of course, we should always be cautious of such map-driven exercises, as demonstrated by Matt Parker’s analysis of the location of (now sadly defunct) Woolworths stores in central England.

The Airdrie minilith triangle

In fact, the location of these miniliths is far more likely to have had a similar motivation to the erection of standing stones in prehistory. When explaining the ‘science behind interpretive planning’ Fitzpatrick Woolmer suggest a whole range of factors go into designing signage and other urban improvements, including ‘physical, cultural and human resources’, the people who will use the locality, but also emotional factors and the past of the location. These resonate, for me, with what standing stones may well have been all about in prehistory. They were erected to bear information, to mark territorial boundaries, they were situated at route ways and where people would be moving in the landscape, and they helped in way finding. They assisted with navigation, both literally and socially. In other words, standing stones – like urban miniliths, monoliths and totems – were impressive structures made of state-of-the-art materials and techniques that encoded vital social information. And I will now never have an excuse to get lost in Airdrie again.

The last stone standing

20 Nov

How many standing stones are there in Glasgow? There are lots of stones that are standing of course, but when archaeologists talk about standing stones (and stone circles) we are talking about proper prehistoric standing stones. Standing stones in back gardens don’t count, and neither do stone circles in roundabouts (even although they are, to the innocent bystander, er, standing stones and stone circles). Anyway, if we use the narrow archaeological view of standing stones, then there are none in Glasgow. None? How can this be possible? Glasgow is geographically a big place. And a quick search in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS) shows that there 1162 standing stones recorded across Scotland. This covers all manner of stones that stand alone or in pairs (but not circles or more elaborate settings), but even allowing for a few whimsical antiquarian entries, and some rogue non-prehistoric megaliths, it seems unlikely that people who lived in what is now the greater Glasgow area in the Neolithic and Bronze Age didn’t erect a few standing stones. So we have to suppose that the urban machine has chewed them up and spat them out. Or even the rural, post-improvement farming machine. The second last standing stone in Glasgow stood in a field on the north side of the Clyde, in the area that is now Scotstounhill (across the river from the Braehead shopping centre, location of an Iron Age settlement that is now Ikea). In 1873, a J. Napier remembered that, ‘a large stone standing in a field on his farm … was broken and removed a good many years ago’ (NMRS number NS56NW 13). Even before this became an urban area, this standing stone disappeared in the name of progress (or in the name of needing building material for a new barn).

And then there was one. Because until 1972, there was one more standing stone, the last stone standing in Glasgow. This stone stood a few metres from a roadside just to the south of Pollok Park, just to the north of Kennishead in the south side of Glasgow (NS56SW 13). This megalith is marked as ‘stone’ on various versions of OS 25 inch maps for Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire published in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1972, the standing stone – let’s call it the Boydstone standing stone as it does not seem to have had a formal name – finally succumbed to urban improvement; it was removed in advance of the widening of the adjacent road. The stone socket was excavated and it was concluded by archaeologist Helen Adamson (Assistant Keeper of Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries) that this was possibly a prehistoric standing stone, perhaps later used as a boundary marker for Boiston estate (this is a boundary location, between estates, between Counties, on a road junction). Adamson’s report for Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 1972 (the organ of record in Scottish archaeology) reads as follows:

I suppose we can make allowances for progress and some of the compromises we have to make. The real stone was to be re-erected, albeit in the wrong place, and the proposed location in nearby Darnley would have meant the stone probably got a lot more public attention than it had had in its original lonely roadside location. But…sadly, it was never to be. A report from 1975 on the excavation by Adamson, deposited in the NMRS, notes: ‘it was accidentally destroyed in storage’. What!? How on earth could a sandstone block that was over 3m long and weighing in the order of 4 or 5 tonnes be accidentally destroyed? Perhaps the simple truth is that it was ‘lost’ in a quarry or landfill. Or maybe it did indeed crash from a creaking fork-lift truck and smash into miniliths. Most tantalising of all is my fancy that the megalith was propped up in the corner of a warehouse, hidden by all of those orange corporation buses that used to drive about Glasgow, and was forgotten, awaiting rediscovery. Such is the fate of urban megaliths.

It remained the task of the urban prehistorian to visit the location where this stone once stood 40 years ago almost to the day. Would any essence of the stone, or the pastness of this location remain? I approached the location from the north, aware of the constant hum of traffic from the nearby M77. The stone had stood at the bend of Boydstone Road, at a point where several routeways converged, and these tracks were still apparent, although one was inaccessible due to a silver metal fence with a padlocked gate. The location of the stone was disappointing, a roadside patch of scrubby vegetation, a crappy fence and lots of litter. A golf course lay just behind the spot, and tower blocks offered a suitably urban backdrop. This was a classic urban edgeland, not so much brown belt as grey belt, troubled by traffic noise and shadowed by an inexplicable pile of industrial debris and a huge – and nearly empty – car park for industrial units that are now gone. Yet echoes remained. Across the road, at the end of one of the tracks running off towards the west, stood a setting of three ‘megaliths’, blocks of varying shapes made of concrete and metal. These stood in a row and were almost comical, as if the Three Stooges had been petrified. These curious geometrical objects reminded me of the amazing (and appropriately named) Paul Nash painting Equivalent for the megaliths (1935), which appropriately adorns the cover of Julian Thomas’s 1991 book Rethinking the Neolithic (Cambridge University Press).

And this returns me to my opening point. These are not proper prehistoric structures: but they are our equivalent of megaliths, abstract, physical, mysterious, perhaps even slightly menacing. This is all we have, this is our consolation when – in Glasgow – in the name of progress all standing stones have now been removed. The last two stones standing were treated with little dignity, and no care, and we must now assume they are gone forever. And what we are left with are places that were once special, but are now typical.

urban prehistory for beginners

15 Nov
The urban prehistorian is a blog dedicated to recording my experiences and engagements with prehistoric sites, monuments and places that lie within, or beneath our villages, towns and cities. The ancient past is all around us, but most of all, it is underneath us. This is because the ancient past is ruined, decayed, run-down, knackered, or sometimes a nice but perplexing landscape feature in a park. And the echoes of the prehistoric past are around us as well: mimicked by fake stone circles in roundabouts, recorded in obscure place names, and in some cases preserved for the public gaze with their own urban furniture – signs, noticeboards, parking spaces and no dog shitting please signs. But why should this matter? Of course we all know that the landscape we inhabit today is an accumulation of hundreds and thousands of tiny little acts, layer upon layer of activity, generations of people doing stuff all over the place. And some of these specific places eventually became our urban places, and slowly these urban spaces expanded, sucking in the landscape and spitting out the past. But we do know this, so why should this matter? As an archaeologist, it is my job to pick up the pieces (literally in some cases) of the past. To make sense of the standing stone that now seems a bit weird because it has a house next to it. To bring back to life the ceremonial enclosure that lies beneath a road, a roundabout and a bus depot. To find out what happened to the megalith that was marked on maps once but it now, well, gone. We all want to know stuff about the past, don’t we? Yet when we look around us the past is all in the present, and it is clear that it has seen better days. But tough shit, that is all we have, the broken stones and flattened banks, the invisible cemeteries and the ghosts of the past. And to be honest, it is pretty easy to jump in a car, drive out to the country, and look at stone circles and henges all pretty and preserved. I like a challenge. So the urban prehistorian blog will document my attempts to extract the pastness from the present, tell the stories of some of our more unfortunate monuments, and maybe even explore some of the mysteries of the past. Good luck with that!