Archive | December, 2012

Dagon Day

22 Dec

‘I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures’.

The recent launch of the issue 3 of the Love Archaeology magazine prompted me to take a fieldtrip to Darvel in East Ayrshire. The magazine contains an article on HP Lovecraft and archaeology, and this made me think of one of the strangest urban megaliths in Scotland, the Dagon Stone. My main motivations were to explore the complicated modern biography of this standing stone, as well as think about its strange name, and so I developed a simple field project. In one morning, I would visit Darvel and the various sites associated with this much travelled megalith, then read HP Lovecraft’s short story called Dagon, and finish the project off with a viewing of the film version of Dagon. For me, this was an exciting programme – of all of the urban megaliths I have encountered, this one seems to have suffered the most indignities: constantly moved, appendage added, drawn on with chalk, and allocated a silly name. This is urban prehistory worth exploring.

Dagon Stone low resBefore we look at the standing stone itself, it is worth asking who, or what, was Dagon? Typically regarded as a Near Eastern god with prehistoric origins, Dagon is sometimes depicted as a half-man, half-fish creature. The 20th century image of Dagon was, to an extent, defined by Lovecraft, with fishy men and fishy gods featuring heavily in his writings, notably the short story Dagon (of more below) and the longer story, The Shadow over Innsmouth (from 1931). Lovecraft utilised ‘the ancient Philistine legend of Dagon the Fish-god’ although this entity is also mentioned in various forms in the Old Testament in connection with more mundane things like agriculture and paganism.

Dagon in Mesopotamia

Bearing this in mind, I have always found it surprising that there are two references to Dagon in the National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS). One relates to a steam trawler called Dagon, which sank off the Aberdeenshire coast en route to the Faroe Islands on 8th September 1934 in heavy fog (NMRS number NK14SW 8001) with no lives lost. (In some records it is thought that this ship was actually called Dragon, a point of confusion I will return to later.) And the other is the bizarre standing stone of unknown provenance which today stands in the centre of the Ayrshire town of Darvel (NS53NE 12), known locally as the Dagon Stone.

This is quite a remarkable monolith, and indeed its appearance is so strange that I have passed it many times in the past by car and assumed it was some kind of statue or sculpture. The main body of the megalith is quite normal (for a megalith): it is a thin block of ‘olivine’, some 1.6m in height above the ground surface, narrowing towards the top. It has a rather blocky appearance. In its current location it has been set into a circular arrangement of setts or cobbles and a lot of concrete. But what sets this stone apart from others is the addition of a ‘large stone ball’ to the top of the megalith; the two are connected by a corroded iron rod which is embedded quite deeply into the top of the standing stone. It is possible that a succession of stone balls have been stuck on top of the stone as hints of other rods are visible. Apparently the addition of this stone ‘head’ was undertaken by a local blacksmith in 1821. I could not find any sign of the date stamp that Woodburn noted (in A history of Darvel) was present on the iron rod in 1967.

dagon stone

The maverick Scottish archaeologist Ludovic MacLellan Mann felt the stone had a series of cup-marks on them (prehistoric rock carvings). The above photo shows the Dagon Stone in one of its previous locations, taken for the Glasgow Herald newspaper by George Applebey in 1922. This shows chalk lines and circles added to the stone, presumably by Mann himself, who had a bit of a reputation as a chalksman. Yet these ‘markings’ have been rejected as natural for quite some time now, and I saw nothing convincing in terms of rock-art when I closely examined the stone. The identification of rock-art would have gone some way to explain the mysterious provenance of this standing stone. Was it initially erected in prehistory in this area and at some point had a stone head added to it? Or is the megalith simply a modern – fanciful – creation?

darvel sketch map

One of the most remarkable things about the Dagon Stone is that it has moved about a lot. Indeed, based on OS mapping records and a few local snippets of information, Woodburn noted the Dagon Stone has stood in at least four locations in the town since the 19th century. I visited each of these places while I was in Darvel and got a sense of the geography of the Dagon Stone in the town; this is mapped out above. The motivation for each stone upheaval is unknown, but the stone endured, and has been a fixture within Darvel for at least 200 years, albeit crossing the main road several times and appearing in two different parks. The Dagon Stone appears to have initially been recorded on the main street that runs east-west through the town, at the junction with Ranoldcoup Road (location 1) where it is shown on 19th century maps. I am not sure how likely it is that this was the original position for this stone if it was prehistoric in origin, but a connection with a main route way would not be unusual.

Dagon Stone location 1 road junction low res

Location 1

The main road was widened in 1894, and so the stone was moved to the ‘grounds of Brown’s Institute’. The Brown Institute was a one of a number of such Working Men’s Institutes established by Miss Martha Brown of Lanfine in Ayrshire villages in the 1870s; a sad looking building at 7 Mair’s Road (pictured below) is one building that survives from this Institute, while a still occupied adjacent building acted as a Reading Room. These were built in 1872/1873, and the standing stone must have been located somewhere in adjoining Morton Park at the back of these buildings (location 2) although the exact location is unknown.

Dagon Stone location 2 back of Browns Institute

Morton Park, location 2. The cluster of buildings beyond the park is the Brown’s Institute.

7 Mairs Road Browns Institute Darvel low res

Decades later the stone was on the move again. In 1938 it was taken to a small park at the junction between the main street and Burn Road (location 3) beside the building that is now the Darvel Telephone Museum. There is no indication now of where the Dagon Stone stood on this thin stretch of grass, although I assume it was near the main street and in full view of passers-by. (The Morton Park location was the only time we know of that the Dagon Stone was removed from the side of the main road.) The Burn Road ‘park’ is now dominated by a much more modern memorial, a ‘cairn’ dedicated to the Special Air Force Regiment (SAS) who were stationed in Darvel in 1944; this was erected in 2001.

Dagon Stone location 3 Burn Road low res

Location 3

And then finally, the stone was moved to its current prominent position in Hastings Square in 1961 or 1962, where it has remained for half a century, set into concrete. The stone sits amidst a series of other memorials, including an obelisk-like War Memorial, and at the opposite end of the square stands a pillar with a bust on top in honour of Sir Alexander Fleming, the penicillin guy as I like to call him, who was born in the town.  This offers a peculiar mirror image of the Dagon Stone. Both consist of an upright with a head stuck on top, and with a circular feature at the base (a flower-bed in the case of the Fleming statue). The main War Memorial sites equidistant between them. The creation of this little symmetrical monumental garden is, I would imagine, one of the reasons why the Dagon Stone was moved to here from across the other side of the road.

Dagon Stone wider setting low res

Location 4

And this is where, in a sense, my journey should probably have ended. I had spent some time wandering about Darvel in the rain, exploring the previous locations for the Dagon Stone, and then spent more time looking up close and touching the stone itself, which had little dribbles of rain running down its side. I even bought Hugh Maxwell’s book Old Darvel in a local bookshop, demonstrating that urban prehistory can contribute to the local economy. But I had set myself a task some time before Dagon Day, and so I decided to keep to schedule in order to seek inspiration from the creative arts. I drove to a car park with a fine view of nearby Loudon Hill, and proceeded to read aloud HP Lovecraft’s short story Dagon. Nothing much happened.

dagon book cover

Dagon was one of the first HP Lovecraft story to be published, in a magazine called The Vagrant, No. 11 (November 1919), 23–29. It does read like one of his weaker efforts, with a feeble storyline involving a sailor / narrator who had escaped ‘the ocean forces of the Hun’ and set off by boat alone into an unexplored area of the Pacific. The narrator runs his ship aground on a strange unmapped landform that he assumes has risen up from the ocean floor and notices all sorts of weird shit, including unusual geometrically arranged rocks (standard HPL landscape features), strange dead things and the mysterious standing stone described in the quote that opened this blog. Before fleeing, the sailor saw some kind of ‘loathsome’ creature with big hands, and then somehow he found his way back to dry land.

The narrative framing device for the story is that he is committing this tale to pen and paper before he kills himself. He has become a shambolic morphine addict haunted by the visions of the indescribable creature he saw in the ocean with its hands all over the standing stone. The story ends with the narrator still furiously writing that ‘some immense slipper body’ was at his door; thankfully the story does not end with him writing aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrghhhhhhhhhh but it comes pretty close. Did reading this story help with my understanding of the Dagon stone? In fact, aside from the title, Dagon is only mentioned once, prompted by the narrator’s attempts to research what he had seen on the rocky eminence. But what is interesting is that this story is a thinly veiled anti-war tale, set unusually for HPL in the ‘real world’: the sailor noted that if the underwater creatures were to rise to the surface they would only find ‘the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind’. The Dagon Stone sits in the centre of Darvel where I counted at least three memorials to those who fought and died in 20th century wars.

Dagon DVD cover

I headed back home and settled down to watch the film version of Dagon on DVD, which I had recently been loaned. Directed by Stuart Gordon, and released in 2001, this was an attempt by Gordon to re-capture the glorious excesses and Lovecraftian creepiness of his brilliant 1985 film Re-animator. Sadly, he was not successful. Strangest of all, this part-Spanish movie is actually really a film version of HPL’s masterpiece, The Shadow over Innsmouth; the only element that is retained from ‘Dagon the story’ is the arrival by boat, and even then it is four people in a yacht. (In Shadow Over… the protagonist arrives in Innsmouth by public bus, perhaps a first in horror fiction.) I won’t trouble you with the plot, which involves a lot of running about from the fish-man equivalent of zombies, all of whom are caught up in the cult of Dagon, which has provided the Spanish village of Imboca (nicely rendered in the film) huge amounts of fish and gold from the sea. This cult has dis-benefits however, in the form of some unpleasant fish mutations, cross-breeding and a regrettable need for human sacrifices to appease Dagon itself.


There is very little horror either, other than an unpleasant scene in a ‘butchers’ which I assume was a homage to the 1960 horror classic Eyes without a face, complete with very unpleasant sound effects. There are lots of rituals in the film (as well as a crazy scene involving a flimsy hotel door, a bolt-type lock and a penknife with a screwdriver), and quite a lot of Cthulhu chanting by people with tentacles (some of whom are thoughtfully pushed about in wheelchairs) but I couldn’t see any standing stones. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the ‘Making of’ extra on the DVD.

Dagon Stone head low res

Half man, half fish. An idol to be worshipped. I will now avoid the temptation to drift onto musings about the weird limestone fish-man-gods found within houses of the Danubian Mesolithic village of Lepinski Vir in Serbia. But what does interest me is how such a strange name came to be associated with a standing stone in Ayrshire. Can it really be that the stone is named after the fishman of Babylon? Certainly, the monolith has been implicated in rituals or ceremonies carried out locally; Ordnance Survey fieldworkers recorded in the 1960s that ‘there is a strong folklore tradition that before its [the Dagon Stone] 19th century history newly-wed couples had to walk around the stone for good luck’. This fertility rite (for this is surely what it was) offers some connection to ancient Dagon I suppose. And the addition of the stone head to the stone gives it a somewhat pseudo-anthropomorphic appearance. Scrutinizing photos in Old Darvel shows, in certain pictures, a recurring hazy black and white figure in the middle distance that looks like it might be the Dagon Stone – although I don’t think the Stone actually does appear in any of the photos I have seen. The stone has, like Dagon, something of the human about it.

Dagon Stone in Morton Park maybe

Yet perhaps we can find a more mundane explanation, which takes us back to the aforementioned shipwrecked Aberdeenshire Dagon (a Lovecraftian event if ever there was one!) which, in some records, was actually called Dragon. Could it be that the Dagon stone was actually the Dragon Stone? This sounds plausible, and during my visit to Darvel this connection became overwhelming, when I glanced over the road, where just 50m from the Dagon Stone was situated a Chinese carryout that suggested that the simple truth – Dagon was simply a mistaken spelling – had been hidden in plain view for anyone who cared to see…..

Dragon Chinese carryout low res

The Dagon Stone is a true enigma, its origins, meaning, place and even name a source of confusion, now fading even from folk memory. Limited attempts by archaeologists to make sense of this stone have come to naught, and it has, like so many urban megaliths, been made ‘modern’ through concrete and decontextualisation. At the same time, though, the comical addition of the stone head has transformed this stone into something very different from the other urban megaliths I have visited. The naming of this stone – whether Dagon or Dragon – has added a colourful chapter to the biography of a standing stone that people may have been ‘worshipping’ or processing around  for thousands of years, perhaps as recently as the 19th century. The ancient evil personified in Lovecraft’s fish-man-god Dagon has never rubbed off onto this stone, despite the name, but it reminds us that in the prehistoric past, megaliths would have had names, and personalities, and perhaps when no-one was looking, they moved, and then became petrified once again in another place. Dagon Day did not really help me make sense of this standing stone, but it has given me a better appreciation of how people interact with megaliths, even in the modern world.

Sources: The quote that opens this blog comes from HP Lovecraft’s story Dagon.  Some information about the Dagon Stone came from MacLeod’s 1950 Book of Old Darvel (which in itself sounds Lovecraftian)  while details on the movement of the stone are drawn from John Woodburn’s A history of Darvel (1967), with additional information from the NMRS. I also made extensive use of Maxwell’s Old Darvel photo book and this was the source of the old Morton Park picture. The Dagon image at the start of the blog is available widely online; the black and white Dagon photo is from the Herald, 1922. For more on Mann and the Cochno Stone, see Ritchie, JNG 2002 Lucovic McLellan Mann (1869-1955): ‘the eminent archaeologist’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 43-64 (google and you shall find). There is a massive amount of information on HP Lovecraft online; I usually dip into the Lovecraft Archive for factual information. You can watch all of Dagon the movie on youtube and read all of the short story Dagon in various places online. The Dagon book cover reproduced above is widely available online, and is from a classic series of Panther HPL book covers, the illustrated example from 1973. Images of the DVD cover and stills from Dagon the movie are surprisingly commonly available online. And finally, thanks to Bam for loaning me the Dagon DVD – but please, please take it back.

Dunfermline’s invisible dead

19 Dec

I went on a fieldtrip on Saturday with Sam to Fife. Ostensibly the journey was to visit the location of a Bronze Age cemetery that had been found by chance during house construction work in the 1970s in Dunfermline, but this expanded to a visit to a second location, a standing stone situated just a few hundred metres to the west. These two locations – the standing stone and the cemetery – were treated very differently during the post-war urban expansion of Dunfermline. One was excavated thoroughly, and then forgotten. The other was monkeyed about with, left on display and had a pathway named in its honour. Yet it was the invisible prehistory that had more impact on me on my visit to Pitcorthie.

standing stone walk sign low res

In the 1950s the site of the standing stone and cemetery was still ‘all fields’ as they say with farms Easter and Wester Pitcorthie eventually giving their name to the suburb that would emerge here. The standing stone appears on some old OS mapping, such as the six inch 1st edition Fifeshire sheet 35 (published in 1856) marked simply as ‘stone’. The cemetery was unknown until its accidental discovery during Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA) works in 1972. A lot of the post-war housing in southern Dunfermline was constructed by the SSHA. This was a government-founded agency that was established in 1937 and was involved in the construction and maintenance of ‘social housing’. One of the most notable projects the organisation was involved in was Glasgow Eastern Areas Renewal (GEAR) in the 1970s. This pseudo-quango was wound up in 1989 at the time my father worked for them, and they became Scottish Homes.

standing stone and grafitti low res

Urban development inevitably impacted on the prehistoric archaeology of this area (sadly no longer called Fifeshire). The terrace of land to the north of the Forth has a sequence of Bronze Age monuments scattered along it, including a series of isolated standing stones and the famous Lundin Links stone setting (NMRS number NO40SW 1) with its weird monoliths. The latter monument sits within a golf course, one of several prehistoric monuments that have become obstacles (and targets?) for golfers in Scotland. And located on what was once outside Dunfermline was a single, lumpy standing stone, known as Easter Pitcorthie (NT18NW 4). When visited by RCAHMS in 1925, the stone still sat in a field and was described as being just under 2m tall and made of sandstone; stones clustered around the base, although their relationship to the standing stone was unknown. The stone still looked rather like this in 1959, but at some time in the 1960s, as urbanisation spread to this location, the stone was transformed by the construction of an irregular square of cobbles, or setts, around its base. The ‘landscaping’ of this stone was, I assume, not accompanied by an invasive excavation as no record of such an act exists. The stone became the centrepiece of a small square sloping piece of grassland, with houses on all sides, and assorted trees in the vicinity. The pathway that ran past the megalith was called Standing Stone Walk. It appears that this was to be ‘a feature of interest to the local population’ (Close-Brooks et al 1972).

sam and standing stone low res

The stone today is surrounded by concrete, literally and metaphorically. It sits forlornly adjacent to some back gardens, covered in slimy green moss and even the red graffiti daubed on its western side has faded to unintelligibility. Broken glass and weeds had replaced the stones that once sat at the base of the stone, while the paved setting looks like it is now a few bricks short of a patio. A child ran past and told us he was able to climb on top of the stone, but we did not ask him to demonstrate. Urban prehistory can take on many forms, but most commonly it is banal, and even the most powerful and obvious juxtapostions (or indeed contrived juxtapositions) cannot revive the pastness of these places.

standing stone and friends low res

Just 350m to the west, house-building continued, and an altogether more troubling and problematic (and expensive) prehistoric site was located in 31st March 1972. A machine driven by Mr M Miller dislodged the capstone of a cist; the driver jumped down and started to clear out the contents of the cist with a shovel, stopping only when he found a human skull. By the 1st of April, five burials had been found and fully excavated, while a sixth was located and investigated ten days after that. Little time was lost on the build, with the cemetery location just beyond the back gardens of several houses on what was to become Mathieson Place. (This site is commonly known as Aberdour Road, NMRS number NT18NW 13).

plan of the cremation cemetery

Three cist burials were found in all, plus two cremations and one cremated burial associated with a Food Vessel pot sat within a stone setting. The survival of materials within these burials was varied, but suggests some interesting and unusual burials. A young female lay crouched in one cist, the leg bones of three different young pig bones laid around her knees (burial 1), while the crouched burial of an adolescent was accompanied by a lump of iron ore, possibly a component of a fire-making kit (burial 3). One cremation (burial 5) consisted of the remains of two people, buried together, with a single bone pin, which may once have held together a bag that contained the bone and ash. In one cist (burial 2), all that survived of the body was chemical traces, indicated by sampling for phosphorus.

the remains of the person in cist 2

All of this was recovered despite the ‘large-scale destruction by earth-moving machinery’ recorded by the excavator: in finding these sites, cist slabs were smashed, and some pottery was broken by the bulldozer.

location of grave 6 low res

The location of burial 6 which we marked with a wooden fence post fragment

The location of this cemetery today is easily accessible via a pathway at the eastern end of Mathieson Place. Sitting on a ridge, overlooking a park and surrounded by houses, the cemetery is now a piece of grassland and is not marked in any way. A few hollows in the grass hint at locations where burials were located. Debris from activities being undertaken in the park were noted: a glass Irn Bru bottle lying in the vicinity of burial 5, beer cans and bottles in an scrubby area just to the SE.  Yet there is no sense that this was once an ancient burial ground, a sacred place in the Bronze Age where at least seven people were laid to rest. The remains have now been removed, but plans by SSHA to mark the spot by returning the cist slabs obviously came to nothing. The location of cremation burial 6 lies just 5m from someone’s back garden, yet who actually knows about any of this?

burial site viewed from the SE low res

It is profoundly sad, I think, that the burial of this small group of people is not marked in any way; it is a shame that the SSHA aspiration in the early 1970s came to nothing. It was easy to leave the standing stone where it stood nearby and incorporate it into the fabric of modern Dunfermline using building materials that were to hand, whereas when skulls start to pop out of the ground, something has to be done to facilitate development. This is the fate of many accidentally found prehistoric cemeteries, unmarked and forgotten except in exceptional circumstances. An appendix in the Aberdour Road report briefly records a third prehistoric engagement during the urbanisation of Dunfermline, in the nearby village of Crossford. Workmen on the construction of a new road uncovered on 13th November 1973 what they thought was a drain, but was in fact a Bronze Age short cist burial (NT08NE 36). A Mr A Hall recovered a Food Vessel pot from the drain-grave but within a week this burial had been buried once again, this time under the foundations of the new road. The location of this burial is on the junction of Morar Road and Affric Way if you care to visit.

standing stoneD walk croppped and low res

Standing StoneD Walk: the sign subverted

Do we need to show our respect to the ancient dead? Have we done this by carefully removing the dead and their grave goods in controlled excavations rather than simply bulldozing them away? Are our excavation reports, our records and our dots on maps suitable epitaphs? Have we memorialised these people archaeologically? Do these places cease to be meaningful once the physical remnants of mortuary rites have been removed? I am not sure what the answers to any of these questions are, but I am uneasy about us concluding excavation projects and forgetting these places. In Dunfermline, I encountered two forgotten prehistoric monuments: one hidden from view, the other hidden for everyone to see. But who cares?

Sources: Many thanks to Sam who accompanied me on the fieldtrip to Dunfermline and took some of the photos used here, and to Donald for inviting us to the town in the first place. Most of the information on the history of the Easter Pitcorthie standing stone was derived from the National Monuments Record of Scotland. The excavation report for the Aderdour Road cemetery, and the Crossford Food Vessel burial, is: Close-Brooks, J, Norgate, M & Ritchie, JNG 1972 A Bronze Age cemetery at Aderdour Road, Dunfermline, Fife. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 104, 121-36. This journal, PSAS, can be accessed free online via the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland website. The plan of the cemetery was derived from various illustrations in this report, as was the phosphorus data.

The only way is essence

12 Dec

Is it possible to make sense of archaeological traces when nothing remains? Can we extract meaning about the past from the places where the past played itself out? Or, do we have to acknowledge that when it is gone, it is gone? To examine these problematic issues, I want to draw on some rather diverse sources: an urban landscape associated with an infamous Victorian serial killer, a weird parapsychological theory on the fringes of geology, a science fiction TV show, and the application of science in contemporary archaeology.


The recently re-issued book, The London of Jack the Ripper Then and Now, by Robert Clack and Philip Hutchinson (DB Publishing, 2010) presents a detailed analysis of the so-called Whitechapel Murders in their spatial context. The book includes a series of photos of murder scenes then and now, juxtaposing the poorhouses, institutes, slums and public houses of the 1880s with the fast food outlets, car parks and modern housing of today. I wanted to explore this urban landscape in a little more detail, to spend some time in places where notable events once took place but have since been radically transformed. This is a common experience for the archaeologist, although usually relating to rather different kinds of past events.

the ten bells

These murders took place in or on the fringes of Whitechapel in London between 1888 and 1891; some, but by no means all, of these murders have been attributed to Jack the Ripper. The quantity, frequency and unsolved nature of these 20 or so murders speaks volumes for the attitude towards, and lifestyle of, many unfortunate women, many of them prostitutes, living in extreme poverty at that time. These murders, the foggy streets of London and the grime of the East End feed a flourishing tourist activity – Jack the Ripper walks and tours. Whether self-guided, or with a formal group, these tours evoke the spirit of the age, and depend on the power of visiting the very locations where horrible crimes took place well over a century ago. This seems to me an inverse form of topophobia, a landscape of dread and bad memories that has become persistently attractive. Massive urban re-generation and the Blitz have rendered this a very different Whitechapel from the 1880s, yet visitors (some of them ‘Ripperologists’) appear to be seeking out the essences of those crimes, surveying the murderous geography.

mary kelly murder scene

A few days ago I visited Whitechapel, with a knowledgeable friend guiding, and spent some time absorbing the vibrant atmosphere of contemporary Whitechapel and Spitalfields, while at the same time recognising ‘infamous’ Ripper-related place names such as Hanbury Street, Fournier Street and the Ten Bells public house (shown in the first photo). Despite the gentrification, these narrow streets and the pub still managed, for me, to evoke something of the atmosphere of how this place used to be, although it is difficult to tell whether this was my projection, or was being projected onto me (a theme I will return to). We looked at one murder location, that of Mary Jane Kelly, supposedly the final ‘Canonical Five’ Jack murder (although doubt has recently been cast on this by some scholars.) In 1888, this location was a hovel called Miller’s Court, where Kelly met a gruesome end. But now it is a multi-story car park, on Duval Street (shown above). The location of the murder, essentially crowded slum dwellings, was demolished in the 20th century and eventually replaced by a new street and car park. This is not much different to the fate of many prehistoric sites and monuments swept away by urbanisation: cemeteries beneath housing estates, roads which were once ritual monuments, bridges built on top of Mesolithic houses. These are places that have changed in role and function through time, the same places and yet different places. But what remains?


In the foreword to The London of Jack the Ripper Then and Now Stewart P Evans writes about ‘Victorian terraced dwellings, whose mute walls had seen Jack the Ripper at work’. Here, we have the evocation of the stones of the walls themselves being witnesses to the crimes, perhaps the only witnesses, and that they hold these secrets even today, beyond our reach. This is redolent of an idea called the Stone Tape Theory, an idea made popular in 1972 by the BBC TV sci-fi show The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale. (Kneale had previously created Quatermass, where in one storyline a more tangible horror lurked beneath London’s streets.) This theory is based on the premise that materials such as stone are able to record traumatic or highly emotional events that took place in their vicinity in the form of energy; in some cases this energy is released creating phenomena such as ghosts. In other words, ‘ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie’. The TV show follows a group of researchers developing a new recording technique in a Victorian mansion, where they come across a ghost that is somehow projected from the stone walls of a reputedly haunted room. But the ‘recording’ need not be visual. Don Robins, part-geologist, was especially keen on the notion that sounds could be captured by crystals, which I suppose could include the screams of a murder victim, or the chanting of shaman in a stone circle. This idea was promoted in his 1988 book The Secret Language of Stone, another strand of the wider concept of ‘residual haunting’. This loose connection of sources and ideas have been influential in parapsychological research (with current explanations focused on things like magnetic energy) and capture the sense that physical, material places can retain essences, or residues, of the past. Such theories developed because hauntings tend to have a spatial association, although the same could be said about most human activities. The murders of Jack the Ripper were grounded in the locations that they occurred, ‘place memories’ that transcend place-change.

There is, of course, no scientific of rational basis for believing this theory. If this were true, then all of the efforts of archaeologists would be concentrated on trying to rewind standing stones, or plug megaliths into DVD players. Yet archaeologists do treat stone (and other materials) as if they have recorded, or encoded, information about the past. The measurement and characterisation of atoms and molecules through petrological analysis allows us to source standing stones and Neolithic polished stone axes. The analysis of quartz and feldspar crystals allows us to determine when buried rock was last exposed to the sunlight. Such scientific techniques extract pre-recorded information from places and objects that tell us something of their history, and the activities involving them in the prehistoric past. What’s more, our chemical processes examine traumatic events: the death of an organism, the extraction of stone from the living rock, the burial of things. Yet as archaeologists we are trained not to think like this: the scientific data we collect from materials (in the past, surgically removed for thin sections) may have inherent properties that we can record, but we still need to make sense of that data.

pumpkin chalk graffiti

Walking around Whitechapel today is a bit like walking through a landscape where prehistoric monuments once stood. Prior knowledge, documentary and map research and survey work by others allow us to build up a mental map of how this space was once used. Dots have been placed on this map at locations where important sites once existed. These places have fundamentally changed, yet they retain memory and significance of what went before. These impact on modern land-use and activities in this urban location, from the tourist industry, to inspiring street art, graffiti and literature. The pastness of Whitechapel has a direct correlation with the identity of this place today as well, for good and ill. Yet it is unlikely the residues of the Ripper are really encoded or trapped in Whitechapel bricks. Rather, we generate these essences through our engagements and experiences; we keep them alive through our interest and our gaze. Without us, the past would cease to exist.

Sources: Thanks to Alan for guiding our walk around Whitechapel, and to Aphrodite, Chris and Gavin for accompanying us. I looked at various online sources for information on stone tape theories, and found a very useful summary in a paper by Pamela Rae Heath called A new theory on place memory, found in the Australian Journal of Parapsychology 5.1 (2005), 40–58. The Stone Tape screengrab is widely available online.

The rhino on the bus stop

5 Dec

The villages of Holywood and Lincluden, ‘suburbs’ of Dumfries, have between them two very different monuments. One is what we would regard archaeologically speaking as a monument, the 12 Apostles, a proper old-school stone circle made of chunky boulders of local rocks erected in an elliptical setting. The other is a cast of a rhino on top of a fake bus-stop. How can we begin to make sense of any of this?

the 12 apostles

In the 1980s, or early 1990s, depending on who you believe, artist Robbie Coleman, after consultation with local school children, created a fibreglass rhinoceros to be placed on top of an otherwise unremarkable bus shelter in Lincluden on the northern outskirts of Dumfries. When I was a student, participating in excavations at nearby Holywood, we passed this weird site / sight most days. The power of the piece and its memorability for me derived from the curious juxtaposition it represented. The sculpture of a rhino on a plinth, or in a park (such as Christine Hill’s sculpture Black Rhinoceros, in the Hancock Museum, Newcastle), or presented as one of a group of wild animal statues would have been unremarkable. A bus stop with a miniature bus stuck on top, or associated with a statue of a poor commuter huddled beneath an umbrella bent into the wind would have seemed appropriate. It was the combination of these particular elements that stood out in my memory, a hybrid of beast and bus stop.

The rhino in 1995

This structure seemed to have no fixed or definable purpose. It was, all at once, a functional and rather mundane place, but also a fine and visually pleasing work of art. This is not to say that art cannot be associated with functionality, but that we do not readily imagine art in terms such as the route of the old Western Scottish No. 14 or the MacEwans No. 100 bus. The bus stop could be said to be the epitome of modern urban placelessness, a transit point where people mostly congregate to go somewhere else, or be nowhere. The network of connections from this place stretch across large parts of southern and central Scotland, from Dumfries itself to as far away as Edinburgh. Journeys could be defined as starting, or ending at the rhino, and a glimpse of its shiny grey hide from the bus in the early evening may have evoked feelings of ‘home’ and dwelling for local commuters. The bus shelter was also a starting point for a cycle trail, again serving as a place to leave, but not to stay at for too long. The static structure of the bus shelter existed only to facilitate movement.

Picture from Hume bookAs with other public structures such as this, alternative functions were developed by the local community. While the rhino appeared not to suffer from vandalism, the same could not be said about the bus shelter, a focus for graffiti, littering and other anti-social behaviour. The appropriation of such an authority space for alternative and illicit activity seems inevitable (as I have also found on my travels visiting stone circles and henge monuments in central Scotland). Yet the beast remained immune to graffiti. The respect for the rhino may have been due to its cute face, some form of social pride, or simply that it was difficult to reach for the casual vandal. Perhaps the rhino and the bus shelter were regarded differently by the local population rather than as a package (although later events would contradict this).

Furthermore, the perspective of the user may have affected the experience. From outside the bus stop, the rhino would have been clearly visible, but from inside, there would be no indication that this was anything untoward up above other than a normal drab bus shelter roof, the rhino being impossible to see from directly beneath. Therefore, when being used for its mundane purpose, the bus stop ceased to be a work of art for the user; its aesthetic qualities could only be appreciated by detached observation.

How might we engage with this puzzling monument from an archaeological perspective? We could start with an engagement with the materiality of the sculpture itself, and what it might symbolise. There are five types of rhino that are currently living in the world today, each with their own distinct geographical distribution and physical characteristics. The five types are: Indian, White, Black, Javan and Sumatran. Which of these is the Lincluden rhino? Several of these types can be discounted quickly: our rhino has one horn and so cannot be a Black or White rhino, as both have two horns. It also cannot be a Sumatran rhino, as they are bi-horned, and also have a brown, hairy appearance, whereas the Lincluden rhino is grey and hairless. This leaves us with two rhino types: the so-called Lesser One-Horned rhino, the Javan, and the Greater One-horned Indian. Both are largely grey in colour and hairless with ‘armour plates’, so the only way to differentiate here is based on size; at c2.5m in length, the sculpture seems at face value to be a large Javan rhino. However, it seems more likely to be a female Indian Greater One-horned rhino, rhinoceros unicornis, as later events were to prove. It is difficult to tell if the rhino has been given a semi-prehensile upper lip, another characteristic of the Indian rhino. There remains the possibility that the rhino is simply an idealised version of what we think a rhino should look like, a caricature, hewn using artistic licence.

The typical habitat for an Indian rhino is the grasslands and plains of Nepal and India, where the creature grazes on the vegetation and shrubbery; in this respect, the statue would appear to be environmentally out of place. And the rhino is a naturally fast runner, with a top speed of 28 mph, just within the urban speed limit for Lincluden (although not the ubiquitous ‘twenty’s plenty’ zones).

In more recent years, as the original erection of the monument faded into the distant memory of the local community and the rhino became part of the urban furniture of the Lincluden landscape, it came under threat, an endangered species. The upgrade of the A76 Kilmarnock to Dumfries road in 1998 meant that the location of the bus stop became vulnerable. Ironically, the statue of the land animal in the world second in size only to the elephant was to be displaced by a trunk road. After some discussion and lobbying by local school children, it was agreed that the rhino would be relocated a hundred metres or so from its original location, this time perched on top of a mock bus shelter. It was also accompanied by a second rhino, this time a calf. The new non bus shelter was set in a patch of grass by the side of the newly improved A76 where it quickly took on the appearance of another piece of urban furniture, looking rather like an elongated brown tardis.

the rhino reinstalled in 2006

rhino and mother

The movement of the rhino, and the replacement of the bus shelter with an idealised representation of a bus shelter, moved the structure into an altogether different category. No longer a functional focus for travellers and those sheltering from the rain, it was rendered a folly, a piece of pure art. Its appearance re-calls the original, but lacks its authenticity and purpose. The bus stop is half the size of the original, the wrong colour, and has no windows. Its survival in this fossilised form was largely due to community pressure not to lose the rhino and so it is interesting that the bus shelter element of the structure was retained as well; it is as if the rhino had become so bound up with the idea of the bus shelter that without it there was somehow a loss of meaning and authenticity. Furthermore, the addition of a baby rhino seems to be a metaphor for the re-birth of the statue, and perhaps even the community who now could access Dumfries two minutes quicker in the morning. The presence of a young rhino suggests that this is in fact a female, not male rhino. It also hints rather whimsically that without the regular presence of commuters, the adult rhino may have needed some company. In the wild, this relationship would be known as a ‘stable association’. The gestation period of a rhino is 15-16 months, about the same amount of time it takes to upgrade a major A road.

In its current location, in a park and not the roadside, more prominently visible from the main road than previously, the rhino and rhino junior have the potential to be appropriated by different constituencies, from the fleeting glance of drivers passing by, to the bemused gaze of customers of the new MacDonalds across the road, to another focus for urinating dogs. As one passes on the road by car, the plinth is obscured, giving the appearance that the rhino are hovering in mid-air; the rhino on the bus stop has the potential to become mythologized (and may already have been). It could easily have taken on a life of its own within the local community, perhaps with an affectionate nickname (Ronnie the rhino is one example). Stories have become attached to it, some oral, others recorded on the internet. There is a rumour locally that children, and not an artist, made the initial rhino, and there have also been rumours that the adult rhino is in fact not the original one. A similar rhino has been spotted on the roof of a second hand car dealer in Port Glasgow, Clyde View Car Sales, and its origins are unclear but some say it has travelled from Dumfries. Rhinos tend to have a territory of up to 20 km² so a migration of this distance would be unusual, but it does appear to belong to the same species (or at least came from the same cast). One can imagine stories about the rhino told to children in the same way as standing stones developed mythological associations, that it is a petrified real rhino that was caught breaking the Sabbath or dancing with the devil at dawn. Perhaps it is a stuffed and embalmed real rhino, the secret pleasure of a mad taxidermist who watches it from afar with binoculars.

the port glasgow rhino

I have tried to engage with the rhino on the bus stop in the same way as I would a megalith that I encountered in the field. I deliberately did not delve too deeply into the construction or planning of the monument, and consequently found myself trying to make sense of it through reading the arrangement of architecture and the biography of the site from personal experience and some rudimentary research. Some of the traditional things that archaeologists do with megaliths and monuments would have been less helpful. The concept of empirical recording of the site was of little importance: the exact length of the bus stop or the rhino’s weight seemed to me of little significance in helping make sense of the meaning and function of the monument for instance. Rather I concentrated on elements of the structure that would also be of interest if this were, say a stone circle or chambered cairn: location in the landscape, the relationship between bodily engagement and architecture, symbolism and material culture.

measuring the rhino 2006

Like Neolithic monuments, the Lincluden rhino is dynamic and contested, more than the physical sum of its parts. It was planned and built in circumstances that are becoming less well-remembered, it has embodied a number of functions, its appearance and component parts have changed through time, it has served a number of roles, it means different things to different elements of the community, it denotes identity, it has a biography, it has been appropriated and it carries meanings. Like Neolithic monuments such as huge standing stones, it seems an ostentatious folly, weird and alien to our modern eye. Can we draw comparisons between monumental art, landscape art, and prehistoric monuments? Recently in archaeology it has become fashionable to gain inspiration from artists and art, although here I am not drawing inspiration from the art itself but how narratives can be spun around the monumental. Our engagements with Neolithic monuments are like this: contingent on the observer, open to negotiation, ambiguous, and quite probably wrong in many respects. Even geophysical survey and excavation in 1997 failed to make any sense of the 12 Apostles, and we are left with these kinds of engagements, walking up to and around the stones, spinning stories and narratives, imagining what the builders and users were thinking, and then getting a bus.

Sources: much of the basic information on the rhino comes from The Scotland Magazine, issue 6 dated 15 October 2005 and Hume, J 2000 Dumfries and Galloway: an illustrated architectural guide, The Rutland Press, pg 6 (also source of the second image used above). The Port Glasgow rhino image was sent to me by Ray MacKenzie. The report on work at the 12 Apostles stone circle can be found in this book: Thomas, J. 2007 Place and memory: excavations at the Pict’s Knowe, Holywood and Holm Farm, Dumfries and Galloway, 1994–8. Oxford: Oxbow Books.