The idea of prehistory, and what prehistoric traces might look like, usually revolves around megaliths and monuments. Yet much more typical remnants of prehistoric activity are far less glamorous – pits, hollows, scoops, scorched earth and scatters of broken stuff. These kinds of negative traces make up the vast bulk of urban prehistory, but they are invisible within our villages and towns. The discovery of such scatters of features is almost always the outcome of chance: during quarrying, in advance of road and housing developments, uncovered as part of golf course improvements. Ironically, the act of discovery goes hand in hand with the act of destruction, because when found, such features can only have one fate – to be excavated and thus destroyed, even if excavation is a form of controlled destruction. Dismantled, photographed and bagged, the urban prehistory is taken away for further analysis. These locations become important, and are then forgotten, almost at the same time, and survive only in a virtual form in different places – a dot on a map, a statistic in a research paper, a stack of paperwork in a box file in an archive somewhere, and ultimately a box of broken old things in a store cupboard.
I am intrigued by the nature of such ephemeral traces of prehistoric activities, often of a domestic or pseudo-ceremonial nature, which are serendipitously revealed in the most mundane of circumstances, in stark contrast to the set-piece excavations that the public are more familiar with. This is the grubby underbelly of urban prehistory, the dirty secrets, the smears of pastness that archaeologists have to clean up once someone else has found them. The nature of these places is such that they are quickly forgotten, and certainly not memorialised, because time and money wait for no-one, and a Neolithic rubbish pit is no reason to waste either.
A few weeks ago I took a brief stroll from St Mary’s Chapel in Rothesay on the Island of Bute to a nearby industrial estate. By doing this, I was forsaking the chance to spend some quality time in a lovely little medieval chapel, which was recently re-roofed and reconstructed by Historic Scotland, and contains some fine – and weird – gravestones. But the more natural habitat of the urban prehistorian is on the fringes of towns, the edge lands and forgotten spaces, the kinds of places where once upon a time someone stumbled upon some prehistory while going about their everyday job. In this case I wanted to visit Townhead, the location of a putative Neolithic settlement site that was found during quarrying in the 1910s. The discovery of Neolithic pits in this modern quarry pit did not receive the attention it deserved at the time – especially from archaeologists – and yet now we can see it as part of increasing evidence for everyday life in the British Neolithic. However, on a sunny day in February, all I could see were warehouses, weeds, rubbish and a caravan (and I will come back to the caravan later as part of a strained metaphor).
Neolithic Townhead today is an underwhelming experience, and perhaps not surprisingly, this archaeological site has not made it onto the Bute tourist trail. There is no mention of this site in my trusty old ‘The Visitors Map of Bute: Historical’ which dates back to 1984 and was produced by the Bute Natural History Society. This very green pamphlet style map includes some information on prehistoric Bute, in the form of strangely shaped symbols on a map and a short narrative entitled ‘The History of Bute’ reproduced below. Here, a brave attempt has been made to summarise the complete history of Bute from 6000BC to the Victorians in about 200 words, and so I suppose the subtleties of the few pits, potsherds and burnt nuts found at Townhead were unlikely to feature in the single sentence afforded to the Neolithic. (A much more successful compression of a long period of time on Bute is archaeologist Paul Duffy’s impressive ‘8000 years in 8 minutes’ walk and talk at Scalpsie Bay which I have had the pleasure of witnessing twice now.)
The discovery of the Townhead site is, like so many accidental finds like this, an unremarkable story (and for more background information, this is NMRS site number NS06SE 13). Evidence for prehistoric settlement was found during quarrying of a gravel pit on the western fringe of Rothesay between 1914 and 1919. A Mr Lyle, who leased the quarry pit, found a polished stone axe in 1914 after years of working this quarry. John Marshall, an important figure in the development of archaeology on Bute, later reported (in 1930) that after this event, a ‘sharp lookout was then kept by Mr Lyle and his brother and his man, Dugald McLachlan, for further objects of interest, and in the course of the next year or two, while the gravel was being removed, many relics were found, the most striking of which were a saddle quern and numerous fragments of pottery’.
These discoveries were reported to Ludovic Maclellan Mann (a figure who will continue to feature in this blog, and already has done so), who visited the site and considered this strong evidence for a ‘Neolithic village’. Mann gained some publicity for the site, with an article focused on the discoveries published in the Glasgow Herald on 1st August 1919 (as well as in the local paper, The Buteman). Work ended at the gravel pit in that year, although Marshall carried out his own excavations at the location in 1929 with the assistance of Lyle (and this episode of work has been likened to an early example of a ‘watching brief’ by Alex Hale and George Geddes which is a nice observation). Marshall and Lyle found more of the same kind of thing, as well as identifying pits, a ‘hearth’ and a saddle quern and rubbing stone. By 1964, when the Ordnance Survey visited this location, the quarry had been filled in and grassed over, and some buildings had been constructed on the site.
The intervention of John Marshall was important as, crucially, it allowed this site to be brought to publication with a degree of expertise, over and above Mann’s newspaper reportage. Marshall published a report on the history of the site (the source of much of the information above) in the Transactions of the Buteshire Natural History Society volume 10. His report summarising the biography of the find spot is helpful, with useful plans and nice detail on the processes of discovery. Marshall was able to speculate on parallels for the pottery discovered at Townhead, although at that time he was not to know that the sherds found in Rothesay would become part of the wider corpus of Grooved Ware, a pot style found over much of Britain in the late Neolithic.
The possibility that this was some kind of Neolithic settlement site is an intriguing one in the context of the time, because there were few parallels for Townhead in Britain in the 1920s. At this time, such settlement evidence was regarded as indicative of ‘pit dwelling’ although later interpretations tended towards similar spreads of features and materials being evidence for campsites, or settlements where no evidence for buildings survived. (Postholes and slots found at Townhead were at the time of their discovery thought to be remnants of buildings, although this seems unlikely.) The site was mentioned in Stuart Piggott’s classic 1954 book The Neolithic cultures of the British Isles, although this was largely because of the fine Grooved Ware assemblage which had affinities with Orcadian Neolithic settlements.
Radiocarbon dates for the site were produced in the 1960s, and these placed the site firmly in the Neolithic period. Nowadays, we would regard this scatter of pits, hollows, fire spots and material culture as indicative of low-level occupation, perhaps by a semi-mobile Neolithic population, with the deposits left behind a combination of rubbish and structured deposits. Townhead can be seen as typical in many respects, and dozens of similar sites have been found across Britain in the decades since developers were made to fund excavations of sites they disturbed. But for decades after its discovery, Townhead was regarded as an isolated example from a very small dataset, as had been the case when the map showing the distribution of Neolithic pits (shown above) was produced in 1964. This map typified the Anglo-centric perspective of some in Neolithic studies at this time, with Scottish evidence largely ignored – this map not only doesn’t include Townhead, but it doesn’t even include Bute!
Of course, nothing remains today that would give anyone the faintest idea that Townhead was once a Neolithic settlement. At some point until perhaps fairly recently most of this location was inhabited by some kind of building, which now exists only at ground level. The ghostly outlines of corridors, rooms and the survival of a tiled floor surface (an occupation layer as we would call it in archaeology) are a suitable epitaph for the ghostly remnants of Neolithic activity that the quarrying uncovered and displaced. Further warehouses in the location are almost certainly in places that were occupied in the Neolithic for a range of everyday activities.
This area is also marked by a small dumping ground complete with big rusty barrels and burnt stuff, some random piles of gravel and tarmac, and a couple of containers (another echo of the past: deposition was very popular in the Neolithic). The old quarry pit site also has a road running over it, as well as a few still extant warehouses. One of these houses Flexible Technology Ltd, a company that has been ‘manufacturing flex and flex-rigid PCB’s for over 30 years’. (I do not understand most of that sentence.) Beside their austere warehouse is a Sprite Caravan, which may or may not be in use. I guess this is a suitable form of accommodation to find here, given that from what we know about Neolithic settlement, it was probably semi-mobile in nature, and cramped.
In many ways, Townhead is a typical 20th century Neolithic site. Discovered by chance (disturbed by economic activity), excavated and recorded, then largely forgotten. This is a tiny snapshot into the lives of a few people who lived 5500 years ago, a snapshot so small as not to register in the consciousness of anyone anymore. But Townhead is also an important reminder that invisible traces of the past are potentially all around us, in places that have not yet been disturbed or developed. And the discovery of these pits and broken pieces of pottery is, I think, testament to the diligence and alertness of Mr Lyle and others who worked in the quarry who could so easily have missed these traces, or ignored them. Thanks to this diligence and honesty, we can now all view fragments of past Neolithic lives in a display in Bute Museum, in a gallery with artefacts, documents and photos that capture the lives of people who have lived in Bute in the millennia since the first farmers.
We should enjoy such pits while we can, because one day we will stop finding them.
Sources: For information on all things archaeological and historical on Bute, you can do no better than consult the 2010 RCAHMS book ‘The archaeological landscape of Bute’ by George Geddes and Alex Hales. This can be downloaded online via the RCAHMS Bute webpage. The first image was taken recently in Bute Museum, and I highly recommend a visit to this museum, or at least to their facebook site. The saddle quern image can be found in various places online, and is an image from the Buteshire Natural History Society archaeology photograph album, and dates to 1918. I sourced the Neolithic pit map from the 1964 Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, and the Grooved Ware drawings came from a paper in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland from 1976-77 by Dorothy Marshall and Isabel Taylor on the subject of excavations at Glenvoidean chambered cairn on Bute (free to download online). For more information on some wonderful work that has being going on related to the landscape and heritage of Bute, go to the Discover Bute website. Thanks to Nyree for pointing out the location of Tonwhead as we drove past, which first inspired this blog, and to Paul for his infectious enthusiasm for Bute’s landsape, people and archaeology.