Archive | May, 2013

What would we do if the sun died?

27 May

Today (if you happen to be in New York and it is 28th May or 16th July 2013 when you read this) it will be possible to experience the ultimate urban prehistory phenomenon, Manhattanhenge, when the metropolis becomes a megalithic monument and skyscrapers and streets mediate an encounter with the setting sun, a kind of pagan solar power.

Manhattanhenge is the name for an event that occurs twice a year on lopsided solstices – when the sun sets in alignment with the east-west element of the grid street plan of Manhattan. On such occasions, if one stands in eastern Manhattan, and look west across clear thoroughfares such as 14th, 23rd, 42nd or 57th Street the skyscrapers frame a view of the full or partial sun setting at the end of these streets. This effect has become increasingly popular as a spectator event in recent years, with crowds drawn to prominent viewing positions. (For this year’s times and viewing positions, see the Hayden Planetorium website).

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I first came across this phenomenon via the TV show CSI New York in an episode from the sixth season entitled, believe it or not, ‘Manhattanhenge’. In this particular episode of the forensic procedural drama, there is a lot of excitement, underpinned by implausible detective work and a lot of running about. The CSI Files takes up the story:

‘Hawkes finds two faded tickets and begins to analyze them. Hawkes is able to put it all together: Eckhart was using the sun tracking equipment to pinpoint Manhattanhenge: the day when the sun rises [sic] in line with the city’s grid. Manhattanhenge is scheduled to take place on December 5th: Hollis Eckhart’s birthday….’

CSI NY scene

compass killer TV news screengrab

For the purposes of this storyline, we need not worry ourselves who Hawkes might be, or Eckhart, but clearly Manhattanhenge is a vital element in the episode. The bad guy could have saved himself some time, however, by checking out the date and time of the next Manhattanhenge event online, rather than using fancy ‘sun tracking equipment’. (And what does that mean – eyes?)

The story quickly reaches an exciting conclusion:

‘Eckhart runs when he sees Mac, and the CSI gives chase, eventually cornering him in a Manhattan intersection as the sun rises. Eckhart, seeing the ghost of his wife, raises his gun to his head, but Mac manages to talk him down and the killer surrenders.’

All very easy in the end for this Mac character, and a ghost seems to have become involved as well. Although the programme did suggest Manhattanhenge happened at sunrise, not sunset, this skyscraper solstice has clearly become part of pop culture, and cultural consciousness. And this can’t be said for the vast majority of urban prehistory.

here comes the sun photo

In 2010, I took part in an Inspace event in Edinburgh entitled Here comes the sun. I was asked to speak about the significance of the sun to people in prehistory, and in particular how archaeologists make sense of this. One of the other panellists was a retired NASA astronaut, who had a series of badges sewn onto his blue jumpsuit reflecting how many days he had spent in space.

Here are some of the more interesting slides from my presentation:

best slides from my presentation

The main thrust of my talk was that the sun had always been important to people, although archaeologists have long been unsure about how this manifested itself. We know that it must have been important, and used in a number of ways such as:

  • Defining the agricultural cycle and seasons
  • Calendar, helping mark certain events in the year
  • Aid to way finding during journeys (by sea and land)
  • Rudimentary guide for telling the time
  • Suntanning

The sun would have been a means of organising the world – both spatially and temporally. But given that we are dealing with people who had no ‘scientific’ understanding of the nature of the sun, nor indeed of the earth, then we can only speculate how they explained its presence and movement, its coming and going over the horizon line. What did they think of the small orange disk that moved across the sky? How did they explain where it went at night, or why its heat declined and returned? And given this level of knowledge, whether the sun would come back or regain its warmth was always an act of faith, and hope. What would they do if the sun died?

commissioners grid 1811 map

The urban grid that is Manhattan allows one modern (pagan) attachment to the sun to continue to be celebrated. But the streetscape of Manhattan was not laid out with any concern for the movement of the sun. The famous grid street system, with numbered avenues, was first developed in the early 19th century, the result of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 (an 1807 version of this is shown above). It originally consisted of 12 north-south avenues, and 155 cross streets, running east to west. The width of most of these avenues and the distances that they were spaced from each another was standardized. This grid, to establish order and healthy conditions to Manhattan, was the outcome of a pragmatic decision related to simplicity and cost-effectiveness.

In other words, Manhattanhenge is an unintended consequence.

This is troubling. What if the solar and lunar alignments that are commonly attributed to stone circles, stone rows, henges, cursus monuments and standing stones are unintended consequences, coincidences that were only noticed after the event, mostly by middle-aged men with theodolites and IBM computers?

alexander thom

gerald hawkings at stonehenge

Thom (top) and Hawkins

The unintended consequences argument that applies to the Manhattan grid is not one that would be accepted by ‘archaeoastronomers’ (as Alexander Thom and others are sometimes known). Instead, they believe that people in prehistory had a pseudo-scientific interest in heavenly bodies. The result of this belief was the development of the argument that prehistoric people were able – through experience and decades of observation – to record and predict the movement of the sun, moon and some key constellations. In some cases, it has been suggested that they could even predict eclipses.

megaliths and masterminds

According to this 20th century scientific mind-set, the response prehistoric people had to the sun was to study it, and to build monuments to the golden globe in the sky. People in the Neolithic and Bronze Age did not understand the true nature of the sun, but they recognised the cyclical nature of its movement, its predictability. And so ‘priests’, ‘shaman’, the ruling intellectual elite, were able to reflect the glory of the sun, controlling the sun by making it come back in predictable ways, and this elite organised ever more extravagant building projects to make sure everyone else in society knew how important they were.

The means by which these astronomer-priests were able to exert control was through secret, arcane knowledge, encapsulated in stage-managing experiences, predicting the future and facilitating the return of the sun and moon day after day, season after season, year after year, generation after generation. Careful observation of the sky, and the erection of timber posts and standing stones, allowed these experiences to be opened up – and demonstrated – to whole communities.

hawkins page

Pages from Hawkins’ book Stonehenge Decoded

Archaeoastronomers study and characterise such astronomical wizardry through the use of calculations, equations, geometry, trigonometry, diagrams, arithmetic, algebra, statistics, astronomy and mathematics.

mathematical equations

The absolutely obsessive levels of recording of the movement of bodies in the sky required to build stone observatories in the Bronze Age is only matched by the absolutely obsessive levels of recording of these stone observatories by archaeoastronomers.

Gerald Hawkins used an IBM computer to prove Stonehenge was a stone computer. Alexander Thom called the stone rows of Caithness in northern Scotland ‘machines’ and ‘devices’ because to his mind the intellect of Bronze Age people was best expressed in 20th century terms: through science and engineering. Thom’s views are expressed brilliantly in this BBC Chronicle episode from 1970 about his theories, called Cracking the Stone Age Code.

the grid viewed from the Empire State Building

But: what if the solar and lunar alignments that are commonly attributed to stone circles, stone rows and standing stones are unintended consequences that we read into them? Are we in danger of reflecting back onto the ancient past our own interests, concerns, standards and knowledge? What if the astronomical events and phenomena that are so carefully searched for at megalithic monuments across the world are actually simply unintended consequences of complex stone structures that were built for any number of other reasons, and just happened to be beneath a variable, dynamic and complex sky? What would we do if we were unable to explain something in our own terms? What would we do if the sun died?

Restaurant Days_Digital_website_July_REV

It is human nature, I think, to seek order in chaos, to see patterns in everything, and to seek to make sense of the mysterious and unknown. (All reasons of course why megalithic monuments may have been built in the first place.) And by chance, there is currently an exhibition of works entitled ‘Human Nature’ by the artist Ugo Rondinone at the Rockefeller Centre Plaza in New York (until 7th June). (This event is sponsored by feeble coffee.)

ugohenge image from timeout website

The focus of the exhibition is nine giant stone figures. The Public Art Fund website for the project explains:

‘Using rough-hewn slabs of bluestone from a quarry in Northern Pennsylvania, the artist has imbued each figure with a distinctive personality. Like a forest of giants, their immovable legs form gateways through which visitors may pass, sensing the tactile surfaces of these primal forms.’

And of course this is significant, because these stone figures mimic the trilithons of Stonehenge, and ‘bluestones’ were a component of the original Stonehenge (although the trilithons were made from more locally sourced sarsen). This artwork has encouraged many to suggest that this is an urban vision of Stonehenge (one blogger wrote: ‘When the sun is high, they cast almost mystical shadows across their 6,700-square-foot poured concrete base’, and of course, most of the big stones at Stonehenge are held in place by concrete). Others have suggested they are more reminiscent of the Inuksuit sculptures of the Inuit, simple piles of stones arranged in rough human forms in the Arctic. These bizarre statues have in the past been used for helping with navigation and hunting, rather like the sun was used by prehistoric people.

inuksuit postcard

The nine bluestone figurines have become entangled in a series of anthropomorphic analogies, and the same could also be said of Stonehenge trilithons with their vaguely leg-and-torso form. Perhaps, though, this is just another layer of unintended consequence, and this is what happens when we are invited to make sense of megaliths, sculpture and even cityscapes. In distinctively different ways, Stonehenge and New York continue to inspire wonder, awe and inspiration. The creative and emotional responses they promote cannot be boiled down to equations and formula, and so crowds will continue to gather in Manhattan and Salisbury Plain to watch the sun and architecture interact in magical ways, whether unintended consequence or not.

Sources: Much of the basic information about Manhattanhenge comes from the Hayden Planetorium website (link above), the source also of the mocked up sunset photo. The CSI episode information came from the CSI files webpage, and the two screengrabs from the Manhattanhenge episode also come from this source. The Manhattan street plan from 1807 is an open source image from Wikipedia; the Thom picture is available in various places online, the Hawkins image was sourced from a blog about Stonehenge and the weird book cover is available widely. The source for the Human Nature photo from the NY Timeout website. The Inuksuit postcard came from Judith Burch’s webpage. Jan took the photo of Manhattan from above, Adrian told me about ‘ugohenge’, and Jimmy suggested I blog on this topic – thanks to all of them. The title of this blog is adapted from song by The Flock.

From the air on the ground

21 May

I stepped from my car in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh one morning last week, and I was met by a very strange sight: the Iron Age hillfort Maiden Castle as viewed from the air.

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It soon became clear that I had not stumbled upon some strange hallucinogenic breakfast cereal (own brand ‘shreddies’ actually) or fallen through an aerial archaeology wormhole, but rather that there was some kind of street exhibition of aerial photographs stretching along the central paved area of this historic corner of Edinburgh.

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The exhibition is entitled Britain from the air, and has been appearing across the UK since 2010, ending its stint in Edinburgh on the 20th May (four days after I discovered it!). This ‘free outdoor gallery’ was put together by the Royal Geographic Society and offers an opportunity for the general public to engage with large format aerial views of Britain’s landscape, historic monuments, cityscapes, industry and occasionally prehistoric sites like the aforementioned Maiden Castle. According to the exhibition’s website:

An opportunity to celebrate, explore and be inspired by our small island, the Britain from the Air street gallery encourages visitors to learn more about and enjoy Britain’s most breathtaking and thought provoking environments. From coastal erosion and abandoned villages to transport networks and the growth of our cities, Britain from the Air, combines the beauty and abstract contours of these landscapes with their stories; inviting the viewer to explore their local, regional and national environment from a completely different perspective.

This is indeed a different perspective, the landscape of Britain viewed from the air on the ground.

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The exhibits themselves consist of wooden tripod-like structures, with three large air photos affixed to each structure, and the whole thing supported by a big silver metallic thingy underneath. Each photograph is accompanied by a short piece of text giving some information about the image, as well as some brief ‘did you know’ type factoids.

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I saw a number of these in the Grassmarket, but also encountered one across from the National Museum of Scotland, and later when looking at the exhibition website, I discovered that these giant air photos were scattered around central Edinburgh, connected by a loose trail as outlined on this map:

Britain-from-the-Air-Map

Online, the whole thing is enthusiastically promoted by Michael Palin, who has the Pythonesque title ‘The Immediate Past President of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’. So far the exhibition has been based in the streets of Bath, Chatham and Oxford. The Edinburgh version comes replete with new Scottish images for the Scottish audience. I know not where it goes next.

What interests me about this exhibition, apart from my general enthusiasm for air photos and the aerial view, is that it does indeed offer a different perspective. The photos are rather like giant photo frames, TV screens with static images set to pause, around which people are expected to gather and gaze. Some of the images are surreal – fish farms, giant quarries, crop circles – yet are so photo realistic that it looks like the frame does indeed offer a window onto an alternative reality, a portal to another place and another time.

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The choice of Maiden Castle for a subject is an interesting one. In a sense this is an iconic image of late prehistoric England, a massive fortification where evidence has been found that in its final phase of use resistance to the Roman invasion was encountered. (The Iron Age defenders were essentially fighting off the end of prehistory.) This massive fort employed huge ramparts, and also a weird maze-like entranceway that supposedly allowed deadly slingshots to be hurled at attackers. And we know from deadly wounds received by the defenders that the Romans were firing arrows and ballista bolts into and on top of the fort to presumably devastating effect. In this sense at least this prehistoric monument is an implicitly political choice to include, and stands aside other monuments of power and conquest included in the exhibition, from castles to Hadrian’s Wall to monuments of industry and Empire. Yet as with most aerial photos of contested landscapes and buildings – like the millions of images taken from the air of the Western Front for instance – the true horrors that happened in these places lies just beyond the gaze of the human eye beneath the surface of the photo.

maiden castle wounds

Prehistoric monuments are barely represented in this exhibition, and it is disappointing that cropmarks appear not to have not been featured, given that this phenomenon is perhaps the most significant outcome of decades of archaeological aerial reconnaissance in Britain. Of course Stonehenge is shown (in the exhibition it is entitled ‘A prehistoric puzzle’), and the Uffington White Horse.

Bizarrely, another allusion to prehistory was to be found on the ground a few metres away from one of the tripods – a standing stone that was erected in 1977.

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Less than 1m in height, this squat megalith is set into the paved central area near the pubs and cafes of the Grassmarket and on the day I saw it was festooned with bird shit. A rectangular metal plaque fixed to the stone suggests that it was erected 26 years ago to celebrate ‘the 500th anniversary of a reorganisation of Edinburgh markets authorised by King James III on 3rd October 1477’. The erectors were the business community: the Grassmarket Area Traders Association. Quite why the incredibly exciting historical event (it wasn’t even the reorganisation!) was marked with a little standing stone is not clear, but once again it emphasises as I have written in other blog posts that megaliths continue to hold a fascination when we are memorialising people or events from the past, and this is as likely to happen in the middle of a city beside a crepe van and car parking zones as anywhere else.

Urban furniture in the Grassmarket

Urban furniture in the Grassmarket

I want to finish by returning to the topic of aerial photography. Millions of views from the air, both vertical and oblique, have been captured more or less right from the start of powered flight (and indeed before, from hot air balloons) and the majority of these are an untapped resource which depict our landscapes and how they have changed through time. Recently, thousands of aerial photos have been made available online via the Britain from Above website.

Britain-from-above-Logo

A collaboration between English Heritage, and the Welsh and Scottish Royal Commissions on Ancient and Historical Monuments (and funded by the HLF), this webpage depicts images from the Aerofilms Collection that were captured over the period 1919 to 1953. As well as offering a unique and intriguing view onto Britain from many decades ago, the website also includes a selection of images that are of unidentified locations – and the public have been asked to help work out the subject of these photos which is a great idea.

broken glass air photo

What I find particularly intriguing about this whole venture is the inclusion of remarkable images derived from damaged prints and negatives, like the one I have included above. These dull, shattered and partial images reflect an analogue technology which seems hopelessly outdated in our modern digital world. Yet this website has proved very popular, and coupled with the ‘from the air’ street gallery, aerial views of the world around us seem to strike a chord with the public. And perhaps this is why the analogue megalith continues to fascinate as well, a throw-back to a different time – viewed from afar, black and white, an unfamiliar perspective.

Sources: Information about Britain from the Air, and Britain from Above, came from the respective websites of both projects, linked to above. The logo and cracked negative image was sourced from the Britain from Above webpage. The Maiden Castle wound images are available widely online, while the Edinburgh Britain from the Air map comes from the Britain from the Air website.

Vespasian Avenue

11 May

Trajan Street

Trajan Avenue

Julian Street

Julian Avenue

Vespasian Street

Vespasian Avenue

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South Shields, in Tyne and Wear, is best known in archaeological circles as the location of Arbeia Roman Fort, a coastal supply base for Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike the dry and grey ruins of the forts on the Wall, or the seemingly endless excavations at the sprawling Vindolanda, South Shields has been the location of innovative, imaginative and colourful reconstructions. All of this in the heart of urban South Shields.

air photo of the fort and its surrounds

Modern excavations of the fort and surrounds began in 1983. This total excavation (as this methodology was once called) revealed a sequence of different phases of fort construction and expansion, and a lot of other Roman stuff. However, South Shields is more notable for its remarkable reconstructions. The south west gatehouse was built in the late 1980s, with two upper floors and an outdoor walkway, and this was followed by the more recent construction of a Commanding Officer’s House and Barracks Block. These remarkable structures give a real flavour of the way that the Roman officer class imported the colour, hygiene and luxury of Mediterranean living (as far as was possible) to this northern edge of the Empire.

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These reconstructions have always been a bit controversial amongst archaeologists, built on the footprint of the original buildings and structures, and of course they involve a fair degree of speculation (and in some respects, might even be wrong). But they also represent exciting and colourful spaces that can fire the imagination of visitors.

However, although I do enjoy the reconstructions at Arbeia, what has always fascinated me about this place is that it sits within an urban place, surrounded on three sides by rows of houses, and on the other by a primary school. I have visited this fort on several occasions and this has always struck me as an interesting juxtaposition. Although the reconstructed elements of the fort make it look like a place out of time, it offers a valuable local resource, increasingly marketed and advertised in the locality by road signs and Roman bits and pieces in the vicinity, as well as being immortalised in the street names of the urban grid around the fort, with roads named after various Roman emperors, the street names I started this blog with.

south shields road sign

But before this blog transforms into an Urban Romanist love in, it is worth pointing out that of course the Romans were not the first people to occupy this piece of real estate. Excavations at South Shields over the past three decades have revealed a series of prehistoric sites and monuments beneath the fort, and within the surrounding environs. In fact, the existence of the fort has facilitated the survival of a spread of prehistoric sites, features and material culture within this urban space. The excavators have noted, ‘the overlying Roman stratigraphy, while removing some of the immediately pre-Roman horizon, had sealed and preserved the earlier iron-age structures and the contours of their contemporary ground surface’. And of course it is likely that no prehistoric traces would have been found here anyway, if the Roman fort had not attracted archaeologists with their trowels. And so at last we have some indication of what the Romans have done for us.

neolithic linear pit

Various bits and pieces of ephemeral prehistoric traces were found: for instance a Mesolithic soil horizon (sexy!) and some Neolithic scoops, pits, postholes, hollows and slots, some of which may have represented structures or post-settings. The presence of burnt daub suggests there may have been one or more building here, maybe a Neolithic house or shelter. These finds were accompanied by an assemblage of prehistoric worked lithics. Some of these were microliths (these are Mesolithic), suggesting thousands of years of low level activity and occupation in earlier prehistory at South Shields. Later prehistoric traces were more substantial, none more so than a roundhouse that was found beneath the corner of one phase of the Roman fort, part of a farmsteading.

excavation plan

This roundhouse would have been a relatively substantial building, almost 9m in diameter with a post and plank built wall, and a high pointy (= technical term) roof. A reconstruction of the roundhouse and some of the features found around it is displayed in the reconstructed Roman gatehouse.

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The house interior had evidence for a hearth, and storage pit. It would have been large enough to support a family group, and was associated with agricultural activities. The people who lived in this house grew wheat and barley, and ate wild fruit and nuts. At the end of its life, the house burnt down: whether this was a deliberate or accidental act is unknown.

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Location of the Iron Age roundhouse, under the Roman stuff

stratigraphic section

When the Roman arrived here in the second century AD, and militarised this place that had once been a farm, they would have had no sense that a single phase house had once stood in the place that would become a parade ground for Roman troops. Buried beneath layers of Roman activity, including the compact clay and boulder surface of the parade ground, the prehistory was sealed in. In the same way, the presence of Roman walls and ruins acted as a seal to preserve and protect the more fragile archaeology within the fort, protected from the rise of urbanisation that eventually engulfed this location. One Empire was replaced by another Empire, and layer upon layer accrued through time. The nature of stratigraphy is that one thing buries another, eradicating and preserving, a build-up of layers of the past that in the case of South Shields lie underneath, amidst and around an urban landscape.

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At the risk of sounding like my non-existent evil twin, the Urban Romanist, there is an interesting coda to the South Shields story. In 2012 Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums were awarded a £400,000 Heritage Lottery Funded project entitled ‘Hadrian’s Wall and its Legacy in Tyneside’. This project is a community archaeology scheme and:

… will unearth details about the lesser-known sections of Hadrian’s Wall, including large sections which are hidden under modern roads and buildings, and to raise awareness of the Wall in local communities.

hadrian's wall in newcastle 1952

This remarkable photograph shows an excavation in Newcastle City Centre in 1952, with hints of Hadrian’s Wall popping out of the trench. This reminds us, as if this needed to be said, that world class archaeology (prehistoric and otherwise) can and does still exist within and beneath urban landscapes today – even in city centres and housing estates. This HLF Project also suggests that exploring archaeology can be beneficial to local communities, through empowering and informing people, as well as offerings opportunities to learn new skills and volunteer.

Time Team at South Shields

And this principal is at work at South Shields, with an ongoing community archaeology project, part of the WallQuest Project which is funded by the same HLF funds mentioned above. In South Shields since 2012 local people and volunteers have been excavating at the site of the civilian settlement, a sprawl of buildings and services that would have been situated immediately outwith the fort. This ongoing work ‘will open up the excavation programme to participants from the local community, and provide opportunities for participants to work with artefacts and learn how to analyse excavation records’.

Even in the most unpromising of places, places that are urban and covered in houses and tarmac, traces of the distant past still exist, and have a good deal of potential that we should be ready and willing to take advantage of for the benefit of everyone, not just archaeologists.

Sources: Almost all of the information about prehistoric South Shields was derived from this excavation report: Hodgson, N, Stobbs, GC and van der Veen, M 2001 An Iron Age settlement and remains of earlier prehistoric date beneath South Shields Roman Fort, Tyne and Wear, from the Archaeological Journal 158, 62-160. This paper was the source of the quote about the preserving qualities of Roman archaeology, and also I amended / reproduced three drawings from this report. On my last visit, Nick Hodgson, archaeological projects manager for Tyne Wear Archives and Museums was kind enough to point out the location of the Iron Age roundhouse to me. Information on the HLF award, and the 1952 image, came from the Tyne and Wear Museums Arbeia webpage news section. The South Shields road sign image was source from a great website, followthebrownsigns.com, the content of which is encapsulated in the site’s name. The air photo of the fort is available widely online and the final South Shields community excavation photo came from the WallQuest webpage. For more information on the fort, go to the webpages of the Arbeia Society and the fort itself.

Postcards from the edgelands

1 May

Recently I have been thinking about postcards. These low grade cardboard rectangles, measuring typically 105mm by 148mm, with a picture on one side, and space on the other side for a message, address and postage stamp, are an ideal medium to present a bold, tacky and / or representative image, or series of images, of a place, with the added bonus that it can be posted from that place to another place (or just taken home and stuck on the wall / fridge).

Recently, I purchased a fascinating, if rather strange book, entitled Ancient Stones on Old Postcards. This is a collection of black and white / sepia postcards, compiled by Jerry Bird, and first published in 2011 by Green Magic.

ancient stones on old postcards book cover

This book contains many postcards of genuine prehistoric megaliths, and other notable (ancient) stones, such as glacial erratics and big boulders on street sides. Some of these postcards depict long forgotten urban prehistory, and all are arranged thematically and accompanied by interesting narratives. Many of the postcards depicted are Victorian or Edwardian.  The example shown below, from my favourite section of the book entitled ‘Oddities and Follies’, shows a typically strange ancient stone, which may or may not have once been a standing stone, but certainly has some colourful associations, and somehow ended up in an urban context.

page from old postcards book

I love postcards like this, sometimes with staged participants gathered around the object of the card, or perhaps more accurately bemused bystanders watching the photographer intently. Postcards have a certain simplicity and magic to them, and it is a pity that many now have no room for bystanders. The images below are more typical of the type of postcard you can buy at prehistoric monuments today; I especially like the Stonehenge card which reminds me for some reason of a Ford Capri. These depict the touristic essence of places, but perhaps not the reality of the visitor experience.

stonehenge capri postcard

orkney postcard

Often, postcards seem to catch the essence of a thing or place, either by design or accident, and their purpose appears to be to represent the best – or the typical – of the subject. This spirit has recently been used in very interesting ways by the Caravan Gallery, an artistic venture which utilises the power of photography and a psychogeographical perspective through a series of projects. One of these is their exciting Pride of Place project, a participatory exercise within local communities across the UK where people are encouraged to reflect on an exhibition of photos that capture the spirit of their place. The collaborative and communal activities that follow on from this are an attempt to inspire people to think afresh about where they live and promote creativity. The images that start this process are also depicted on a wonderful series of postcards that have been produced by the Caravan Gallery, many of which I have purchased in various shops in central Scotland. These are postcards that, like the ancient stones images, capture a sense of place very well, of course accepting places are not necessarily as glossy as depicted on officially sanctioned postcards.

sunny scotland postcard

A typical Caravan Gallery postcard

My small collection of Caravan Gallery postcards was the inspiration behind the simple postcard-type image I created of the Sighthill stone circle for my last blog.

Sighthill stone circle Glasgow

I liked this effect, and so I have been working on a series of urban prehistory postcards, which are shown below. Like my blog, these postcards are a celebration of the sometimes forgotten, often ignored, occasionally abused, and rarely celebrated traces of the past that intrude into the modern landscape. Some are not from urban locations, but do capture the essence of the modern (concrete) lens through which visitors often view prehistoric monuments. But don’t let that put you off visiting.

Monuments of Scotland

Ancient Edinburgh Huly Hill

Cairnpapple Hill

Prehistoric Glenrothes

The tombs of Neolithic Rousay

Megalith signs of France

Carnac by train

Edited on 27th January 2014 to replace the erroneous Dalry version of this postcard!

Edited on 27th January 2014 to replace the erroneous Dalry version of this postcard!

Sources: The cover of the book Ancient Stones on Old Postcards is widely available online, and The Blowing Stone extract is sourced from that book. The Stonehenge with go-faster stripes postcard was sourced from a blog that looks at postcards and stamps associated with World Heritage Sites, while the Orkney postcard came from a blog about postcards. The bottom image in the Huly Hill postcard came from the Spine of Albion website, and the ‘Balbirnie buckfast’ image was staged and photographed by a former archaeology student at Glasgow University – if I can remember his name, I will update this!