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