Last week, I attended the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) conference in Plzen, Czech Republic. During the conference, I gave a paper on the subject of urban prehistory, the academic debut of my peculiar version of archaeology. My intention was to explore the potential benefits of urban prehistory, within the context of a session that explored how archaeologists can help shape the future rather than just dwell on the past. The paper will be published in the not too distant future, hopefully in a freely accessible publication, and I will let you know when this happens.
As it happens, the symbol of the 2013 EAA conference was the Jikalka shield, an amazing and ornate Bronze Age disc that was discovered in 1896 during house construction. It probably dates to the centuries after 1300BC. I know little more about the circumstances of discovery, but once again it indicates that wonderful things can be found even in the most unpromising of circumstances, and the location where the shield was found is now near a bus station.
For the remainder of this post, I have reproduced an extended version of the introductory section of the paper I gave, as well as some urban prehistoric images from the picturesque city of Plzen.
Making urban megaliths work: urban prehistory
It is often said that the past is all around us, beneath our feet.
But when we think about monuments like megaliths, we usually visualize them removed from us, in the countryside, rural, organic, green on brown, brown on green.
This is the right place for standing stones to be found, the appropriate place for monuments of death and burial. Pretty settings. Places of remembrance. Quiet fields.
Because what is the alternative? Standing stones in the city? Cairns amidst conurbations? Henges and high rises? Chris Tilley once suggested that megaliths in an urban environment don’t work, his example being dolmen within a Volvo dealership in Sweden. Graham Ritchie called a stone circle in a housing estate in Fife ‘a quaint garden feature’. John Bintliff has suggested that the ‘remote English countryside’ has a fascination for middle class archaeologists interested in ‘recapturing the experience of being a Neolithic or Bronze Age person’.
There is a sense of loss when archaeologists write or talk about prehistoric sites within an urban landscape, a sense that something is missing, that the pastness has been knocked out of the site, that it ceases to be prehistoric in any meaningful sense of the word, that it has become urban furniture. And the process of urbanisation is ‘bad’: it has swept away most prehistoric traces of the past, leaving big empty spaces on our distribution maps.
Because of this, archaeologists spend a lot of time trying to look beyond or through the present, back to the past, almost as if the present doesn’t matter and can be wished away.
Standing stones by the roadside. We walk on past, or drive on past. There is nothing to see here.
The present hardly matters. The location where a cremation deposit was found during a housing development, a cluster of Neolithic pits revealed when a road intersection was upgraded, cists in quarries, random ditches, rubbish standing stones, flattened mounds. Found by chance, investigated by archaeologists, and removed as quickly as possible. In most cases, forgotten, unmarked, hidden underfoot.
It is often said that the past is all around us, beneath our feet.
What is urban prehistory and what are its benefits?
For the past 10 months, I have been writing a blog called the urban prehistorian. This is my first attempt to articulate a vision for urban prehistory, which I see, in the spirit of this session, as a creative means to help improve urban spaces, empower local communities and inform landscape and townscape change. The blog contains stories about urban megaliths, and accounts of my own fieldwork, highlighting the potential of the past beneath our feet. Like communities, prehistoric places appear to be incredibly resilient and I want to document this.
How do I define urban prehistory? At its most fundamental level, it is taking an interest in the traces, tangible and intangible, visible and invisible, of prehistoric monuments and activities within urban contexts, or places that have been developed. It is having an awareness of the various echoes of ancient activities that continue to manifest themselves in various ways within urban communities.
In this paper, I want to focus on the aspirational qualities of urban prehistory. There is no sense of loss in urban prehistory, just one of opportunity, although at times loss has to be acknowledged.
This is because I believe urban prehistory can act as an important reminder to archaeologists that in order to come to the best possible interpretation of what happened in prehistory, we need to understand the conditions within which we find the traces of prehistoric activities. The circumstances in which we engage with the archaeological record should be of interest to us. Urban prehistory should empower archaeologists to acknowledge the reality that engagements with the archaeological record occur in the present, mediated to us via the modern landscape and context, and this can neither be forgotten nor ignored.
But here I want to focus on the wider potential of urban prehistory beyond the narrower concerns of archaeological practice. Because urban prehistory is not about generating archaeological data. Most prehistoric sites in urban locations have either been fully excavated already, or have been removed or destroyed, or fundamentally altered. Rather, it is about other types of outcomes.
Urban prehistory should be about raising awareness, encouraging creativity, and engaging people with the places they live. Because the existence of traces of prehistory in urban places affords a wonderful opportunity for us to engage with lots of people, and in particular lots of people who may not be able, or have the desire, to travel out into the country to visit a stone circle.
Urban prehistory can be a tool to help inform people about their own street, village, town, suburb or city. It can give a sense of time-depth to a place that can amaze, and inspire creativity. It can allow connections to be made with people who lived and did stuff in the same place thousands of years ago, despite relentless change. This kind of information, all too often difficult to make sense of or just inaccessible to most people, can encourage communities to feel that where they live is special, and has been for millennia, often in places which are judged by wider society to not be special, to be mundane or worse.
In other words, prehistoric archaeology in urban contexts and developed places offers a means to engage with the public in places which are often perceived as having no heritage or value by prehistoric archaeologists and wider society – housing estates, intersections, industrial spaces, peri-urban edgelands, leisure amenities. And this can, I hope, help to shape visions about the future of urban landscapes.
Sources and acknowledgements: This paper was part of a session organised by a series of colleagues from the UK, Sweden, Greece and Austria entitled Creating Landscape Visions: managing the past while imaging the future. I would like to thank in particular Chris, Alan, Aphrodite and Gavin for influencing the content and offering support. Special thanks to Helen Green for reading an earlier version of the paper and giving me insightful and supportive feedback which helped improve the final version. The EAA logo was sourced from the EAA conference website, while the information on the Jikalka shield came from the conference programme. Finally, thanks to all those who attended the session and were nice to me after I gave the paper!