Coffins mathematically arranged

The elucidation of Scottish prehistory has been seriously handicapped by an almost invariable wrecking of prehistoric structures and objects as they come to light (Ludovic McLellan Mann, Palace of History, 1911).

It has become a truism to say that prehistoric material culture has a biography that archaeologists and others continue to add chapters to even today once we have found them. And by the standards of your average assemblage, a series of Bronze Age pots found in a 19th century sand quarry just outside Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire, has an extraordinary and complex final chapter, and I suspect that the tale is not yet finished. These pots have become entangled with a whole series of people, places and events in the 161 years since their discovery. The modern story of these pots includes a stately home, an industrial heritage museum, a Carnegie library and the Scottish Exhibition of 1911, with a surprising connection to the Sighthill stone circle thrown in for good measure; and these were pots that came to the attention of one of the first lecturers in prehistory at the University of Glasgow as well as, of course, Ludovic McLellan Mann.

This remarkable journey is only part of the story, because 4000 years before these pots were plucked from a bizarre cemetery by quarrymen, they were laid in the ground with great ceremony, grave gifts and even containers for the dead. This cemetery may have lain hidden for ever if not for the Industrial Age’s desire for resources but once found, this assemblage would quickly fragment and disappear. This post was inspired by finding some of these pots in a very surprising location.


On a recent visit to the Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life, Coatbridge, I encountered probably the most explicitly urban prehistorical museum display I have ever seen. A grey-based museum display case, with four Bronze Age Food Vessels on pedestals (as well as a couple of random bronze axes) was a surprising discovery in a museum that celebrates North Lanarkshire’s amazing industrial heritage. The Food Vessels were filled with scraps of bones.  But even more surprising was a big picture above the display that showed the location of where these pottery vessels were found. Because this is what the findspot looked like in 2008. It says so on the photo: ‘The bronze age burial urns and Food Vessels on display were discovered here’, written beneath the picture of a detached house and garden in Stewart Avenue in Bargeddie.


This is a strange display but it suggests an amazing and timeless connection between some of the ancient inhabitants of North Lanarkshire, and twentieth century middle class house dwellers in a suburb of Glasgow. No explanation is given of why this photo adorns the display, and little information accompanies the Food Vessels either. A simple notice reads:

Food Vessels. Excavated in 1852 from the Bronze Age burial site near Drumpellier. 11 stone coffins were found, each containing fragments of human bone and a ceramic pot containing a brown dust residue. Approximately 4000 years old.

This begs more questions than it answers. How did the four Food Vessels get here? Was the bone (which did not look cremated) in the pots genuine? What on earth was that brown dust? And what does all of this have to do with a modern house and street? Perhaps it as simple as this: the pots were literally found in the location beneath this house, and so are now displayed metaphorically beneath it.

food vessels from Morrison GAS article
Food Vessels drawn for Alex Morrison’s 1971 review

To make sense of this discovery we have to go back to the (modern) beginning, to the moment of discovery. Thankfully we have a fairly full description recorded by Andrew Miller in his book The rise and progress of Coatbridge and surrounding neighbourhood (1864), published just twelve years after the discovery was made. Miller recounts a typical discovery of the time (and I have previously blogged on similar discoveries at Ferniegair and Townhead): during sand quarrying in Spring 1852, under the orders of a Colonel Buchanan, some men ‘came upon a stone coffin. After a few days they came upon another, and another, until they numbered eleven’. This series of shocking revelations must have held up the quarrying to some extent, but not before some kind of attempt was made to record the arrangement of the burials and their contents, although by whom is not clear.

stylised plan of the cemetery

The discovery – multiple stone cists, pots, human bones – was not in itself unusual. But the arrangement of the burials sounds to me just plain weird (highlighted by my sketch above). Miller describes the remarkable and developing story:

‘Nine of the coffins were lying in a circle, the feet towards the centre, and about five yards apart. They were so exactly lying in this order, that the men, after coming on the first two, could calculate when they would reach the next, and so on.’

The cists were laid inside a deep circular depression, perhaps a subterranean burial place that was once covered by a mound. Miller notes that within this circular trench, nine of the bodies had been laid to rest in ‘coffins mathematically arranged’ (although the size of these cists is never stated). Two further ‘satellite’ burials were also found nearby, as well as some urns containing cremated bone, suggesting multiple phases of burial activity associated with different forms of mortuary rites. The cists mostly all contained one pot at the ‘head end’ of the burial, some scattered human bones, and ‘a little brown dust’ in some urns (maybe human remnants or some kind of organic residue related to what the pots contained when they were laid in the graves).

Within the centre of this very strange circular arrangement were found ‘two barrowloads of charred bones’. Human bone identified at the time was thought to be from adult males only, reflecting the demographic of the men who found the burials in the quarry.

Drumpellier House photo

What happened to these pots next, a fine assemblage of Food Vessels and much larger cinerary urns? The quarrymen, according to Miller, took some of the pots to nearby Drumpellier House – it seems likely that these were some of the ‘urns’ identified by Miller (rather than the smaller Food Vessels now at Summerlee). What happened to these urns is unknown. JM Davidson wrote, in a short piece about another Bronze Age cist found nearby in 1961, that he had contacted the (un-named) widow of Lt Col Arthur Buchanan a few decades previously asking about these urns. ‘She informed me that while at Drumpellier she had often tried to locate these vessels but without success.’ Drumpellier House was owned by the Buchanan family, with the estate and house funded from a tobacco merchant fortune acquired in the 18th century.

Thus was the assemblage fragmented and distributed, probably between landowners and wealthy men who were able to, should they wish, admire the crude pots while enjoying an after dinner cigar and brandy, and in the end break or lose them at their leisure.

Yet at least some of the pots from the Drumpellier discovery found their way into the public domain, through exhibitions and local education establishments as we shall see.

Alex Morrison at work
Alex Morrison at work

The only modern archaeological account of the excavation and the pottery was written by the late Alex Morrison of Glasgow University, and published in the Glasgow Archaeological Journal in 1971. Four Food Vessels from Drumpellier were described in a good deal of detail by Alex (the four on display at Summerlee and illustrated above), who at that time was one of the leading expert in Bronze Age burials in Scotland, and this publication was typical of his tireless rounding up of miscellaneous discoveries, both recent and very old. Thus his Drumpellier account (reproducing much of Miller’s description of events) was published alongside accounts of Food Vessel burials from Ayrshire and Dunbartonshire. Morrison put the Vessels into a (then) contemporary context, assessing parallels for the cemetery and pots, and also documented some more details of the journey this part of the pottery assemblage had been on.

palace of history 1911

It seems that one or more of the pots from the sand quarry ended up in the care of a now forgotten society, the Coatbridge Naturalists Association. This organisation allowed one of the Food Vessels to be displayed at the Scottish Exhibition of 1911. This remarkable exhibition ran between 2nd May and 4th November and was based largely in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park and surrounds. The vessel was displayed in the Palace of History, a grandiose and temporary structure in the park.

Palace of History floor plan
Palace of History floor plan

The Prehistoric Gallery was curated by Ludovic McLellan Mann. The gallery was packed full of things, some from Mann’s own private collection, others loaned from museums, galleries and private collections. This was, according to Graham Ritchie, the outcome of two years of work by Mann, and this shows in the amazing variety of stuff packed into a relatively small space. The walls were adorned with 16 large wall charts, documenting the prehistory of Scotland back into the depths of geological time. As well as hundreds of objects, there were displays that were basically the ‘restoration of sites with their own soil and relics’, as well as reconstructions and scale models. The central feature of the gallery was the ‘life-sized statue of a typical man of the late Stone Age’ sculpted by Alexander Proudfoot.

The prehistoric gallery. Note the statue of Stone Age man in the centre of it all
The prehistoric gallery. Note the statue of Stone Age man in the centre of it all

The Drumpellier Food Vessel sat in Case 38 on the South Wall of the gallery. The caption beneath it read:

FOOD VESSEL, from Drumpellier, Coatbridge, 5¼ in. diam. x 4¾ in. high. LENT BY COATBRIDGE NATURALISTS ASSOCIATION

This glass case was dominated by Bronze Age pottery, containing five Beakers, eleven Food Vessels and six urns, as well as two ‘bucket-shaped vessels’ and twelve ‘craggans’ or ‘pottery churns’. A text by Mann on prehistoric pottery chronology accompanied this display.

Airdrie Library today (literally)
Airdrie Library today (literally)

Quite what happened next is unknown, but at some point after this, four Food Vessels from Drumpellier turned up in Airdrie Burgh Museum, which was, I think, actually a room in Airdrie Public Library. (Airdrie is a town adjacent to Coatbridge.) This library was opened in 1925, as the older Carnegie funded library was getting too small. (I have no idea if the pots were also kept in the old library.) The chronology of these pots and their association with this library are unclear. In 1961, JM Davidson noted that one Food Vessel was located in Airdrie Burgh Museum. Alex Morrison, writing a decade later, notes the presence of four Food Vessels from Drumpellier on display in Airdrie Library. The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) confirmed this later in the 1970s when they published a small note on the site (NMRS number NS76SW 3) in their Lanarkshire Inventory (1978). Quite why these pots ended up in a library in Airdrie is unclear, as is when they ended up in Summerlee (for it is the same four vessels), but at least unlike the urns that were spirited away, one or all four of these have been on public display for over a century.

Airdrie Observatory in use
Airdrie Observatory in use

Airdrie Public Library has another, more noteworthy claim to fame. It hosts the Airdrie Public Observatory, open to the public, and managed by the Airdrie Astronomical Association.

aaa logo for blog

This amazing resource has a very fancy telescope installed in the rooftop observatory and the AAA hold weekly meetings and host talks and lectures throughout the year. Before AAA took over management of the observatory, it was run by ASTRA (the rather ungrammatically named Association in Scotland To Research into Astronautics). Both organisations have rather fine logos.

the ASTRA logo

This organization saved the observatory from closure in 1978, and one of the leading forces in saving the observatory was one Duncan Lunan, the brains behind the Sighthill stone circle. Lunan has described ASTRA as ‘Scotland’s national spaceflight society’ which makes it sound more amazing than perhaps it is / was. And Lunan was ‘curator of Airdrie Public Observatory off and on for 18½ years between 1980 and 2008’. There are of course similarities between this endeavour and the stone circle: both were part of projects with the aim to make astronomy more accessible to the public, although the observatory probably does this more effectively than the stone circle.

But while the observatory can still be found at the Library, the Food Vessels are gone. I have been unable to find out when the Food Vessels found their way from Airdrie back to Coatbridge – and Summerlee – which is much closer to where they were found back in 1852. Summerlee was closed for a while, but reopened in 2008 with a very fancy revamp, and this might be when the pottery found its way into the museum (along with some other local archaeological discoveries) as I have no memory of these objects being on display when I last visited in the late 1990s. Archaeology is given pride of place now at Summerlee, with (overgrown) excavations at the iron works visible from a viewing platform, and of course it is not surprising that the Bronze Age cemetery came to light because of industrial activity.


The final element of this journey is for me to write myself into the biography of these pots, which I am doing by writing this post. After my visit to Summerlee, I knew that I would have to visit the location shown in their display, Stewart Avenue in Bargeddie. Indeed, I could not resist, and within a few days, I was parked on this short cul-de-sac, reading Alex Morrison’s GAJ article propped up against the steering wheel.


The location where the circular cist cemetery and the Food Vessels were found is entirely mundane and ‘normal’, suburbia, bungaloid. Very quickly, once I had left the car and was wandering about with my camera, I was aware of twitching curtains and being under observation. (This is actually a common phenomenon when doing urban prehistory fieldwork.) After establishing the lie of the land, I returned to my car, and soon a guy was walking up towards me from the house to my left. He clearly wanted to speak to me, as he lurked beside my door in a slightly awkward manner, perhaps sent from the house to confront me; I delayed opening the door for a bit too long for both of our comfort, and then engaged with him.

He asked me: were you taking photos? Yes I said. Why? he asked. Then came my bizarre explanation: I am an archaeologist. A Bronze Age cemetery was found here in the 19th century. I am writing a blog about prehistoric sites in urban locations. This elicited a surprising response. Ahhhhhhhhhh. I remember someone telling us about that once. It was in our garden! I re-assured him nothing was left now, no bodies under the patio. He told me that years ago someone had given him a ‘folder’ of information about the cemetery. He told me that his reaction to being given the news of the cemetery, and the folder, was: so what? And shrugging his shoulders, he was on his way, leaving me alone with my GAJ and my camera and my bizarre explanation.

All we have left - the pots
All we have left – the pots

One thing I had not expected was apathy, disinterest, a lack of concern for something that seems to me pretty amazing, or at least a little bit significant. That this is a place that was once a cemetery, then once a quarry on estate lands, and has been gradually immersed in urbanisation ever since the burials were discovered seems to matter, but maybe not to many people. And so the mystery of this weird cemetery and what happened to most of the pots continues; despite increasing urbanisation in this area in the last twenty years, archaeological evaluations in advance of house building have revealed nothing else to add to the story.

All we have left now are the pots, four Food Vessels, some human remains that may or may not be genuine (were these bones also in display in the library?) and the brown dust. Everything else is gone. In the early Bronze Age, many pots were brought to this cemetery to be placed with the dead; once they were dug up again, the pots were dispersed once again into the wider landscape, probably never to be reunited again.

Sources: various sources were very helpful in making sense in the story of this cemetery and its pots. Alex Morrison’s 1971 article was invaluable (Cist burials and food vessels – some recent discoveries and rediscoveries in western Scotland, Glasgow Arch Journal 2, pg 8 onwards). This was the source of the FV drawings. I also got titbits from JM Davidson’s short note in Discovery and Excavation Scotland 1961, 38-39, and RCAHMS South Lanarkshire inventory (1978, page 72). Information on the Glasgow Exhibition came from Graham Ritchie’s biographical paper about Ludovic Mann published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 132 (2002), pages 43-64, and Mann’s contribution to the amazing two volume ‘catalogue’ Palace of History (1911). The latter was the source of the plan of the galleries, and the photo of the prehistoric gallery, both scans of photocopies, hence the poor quality. The postcard of the Palace of History is one of many such images available online. The ASTRA logo came from a google search; I could not find a current web page for this organisation; Duncan Lunan information from Duncan’s website (link in post) and the photo of the Airdrie observatory is a Wikipedia Commons image. The AAA logo came from their website (link in post). The photo of Drumpellier House was taken in 1870 by Thomas Annan and may have been used as a postcard; various versions are available online. I was accompanied on my visit to Summerlee by Jan, Meli and the esteemed Dr Steve Mills. 

I hope Alex Morrison would have enjoyed this post, he was a great help and support to me early in my career, and he is very much missed; the photo in this post shows him at his funky best digging at Houston South Mound.


Heathen stones

So the Sighthill stone circle is on the move, evicted from its current parkland location with spectacular views over Glasgow, to who knows where? Despite Glasgow being unsuccessful in securing the 2018 Youth Olympics, Glasgow City Council is making good on its promise to rebuild Sighthill regardless of the result of this bidding process, and at some point in the near future, the stones will be plucked from the earth (actually, forcibly removed from their concrete foundations), and plunged into an uncertain future. Despite over 5000 signatures being added to a petition to save the circle and the monument even having its own benefit gig in Glasgow over the summer, by the end of 2013, this stone circle may well no longer exist in its current form.

In this post, I want to focus not so much on the sense of loss and dismay felt by many people about this development (circle creator Duncan Lunan recently said he was ‘gutted’), but about the potential future of this monument, constructed just 35 years ago.

sighthill benefit gig poster

In his book The stones and the stars, Lunan sets out in great detail the logistical and financial problems met in trying to build a modern-day stone circle. But behind all of the weirdness, and the helicopter, and the quarry in Kilsyth and the myriad council schemes and departments that contributed to its construction (most notably the Glasgow Parks Department Astronomy Project) lay a simple plan: to construct a stone circle that was astronomically aligned for the location it was established within, to act as a tool to help explain the movements of the sun, moon and stars to the people of Glasgow. This was not a monument that was built to teach the people about the Neolithic, but it was an explicit attempt to prove that stone circles could have been used astronomically in prehistory. This was not experimental archaeology, but rather speculative astronomy.

This bold aspiration reminded me of something: an entirely modern stone circle built primarily as an astronomical tool, a teaching aid for the general public, planned by a small group of individuals with a passion for astronomy. But this stone circle is in New Zealand – Stonehenge Aotearoa.

stonehenge aotearoa

This strange monument is based very closely on the ‘original’ Stonehenge complete with trilithons and assorted additional monoliths. It was constructed by the Pheonix Astronomical Society with a grant of £19,000 from the Royal Society of New Zealand and opened in 2005 at Carterton, a few hours drive north of Wellington. The monument was constructed by the Society to capture public imagination and engage them in astronomy (not archaeology or European prehistory). The Society argue ‘many people are put of astronomy because they think it will be too difficult to understand. Stone circles, on the other hand, fascinate and entice a wide range of people’ (Stonehenge Aotearoa The complete guide). The slightly weird implication of this sentiment is that stone circles are easier to understand than astronomy, which I am not sure is the case….

The circle was painstakingly constructed using thousands of hours of observations and the labour of 150 volunteers. The monument looks like it is built from concrete, and consists of 24 uprights, with a continuous lintel connecting them; the whole monument is 30m in diameter, and 4m high. Various other standing stones have also been erected within and outwith the circle, such as a central tall obelisk. Each element of the monument draws attention to, and marks, alignments with the sun, moon and stars, and some help explain Moari and Polynesian stories.

stonehenge aotearoa obelisk
The obelisk in the centre of Stonehenge Aotearoa

There are of course striking parallels with Sighthill. Both monuments draw on the rich and colourful history of archaeoastronomy, from the Stonehenge mythos of Gerard Hawkins to the explicit memorialising of four Scots archaeoastronomers at Sighthill. The monuments were constructed by astronomical ‘organisations’, in part drawing on grants, donations, string-pulling, volunteer assistance and very skilled and passionate team members. And both have a concern with encouraging interest in astronomy and widening access to a larger proportion of the public than would normally experience such things. Both are an amalgam of actual prehistoric monuments, either in the proportions or arrangements of stones. Both are teaching aids with visual tricks built in. A statement on the website for Stonehenge Aotearoa stresses that it ‘is not a replica.  It is a complete and working structure designed and built for its precise location in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand’. Duncan Lunan could probably support an equivalent statement for his stone circle and Sighthill.

But there are major differences. Stonehenge Aotearoa attracts big visitor numbers, and is well advertised and signposted. Stonehenge Aotearoa has an online shop. You can hire Stonehenge Aotearoa for weddings, birthday parties and other occasions. It is even being expanded, with additional standing stones planned. In other words, Stonehenge Aotearoa is going nowhere. Unlike Sighthill’ stone circle which will soon be on the move.


The aspiration to move the stone circle is of course better than the stone circle being destroyed entirely, but given the original function of the Sighthill monument, moving it will have a fundamental impact on the meaning and nature of the monument. This will be the case even if the stones are set back into the ground in exactly the same arrangement as they have just now, right down to millimetre precision. This is because the Sighthill stone circle can only work as originally intended in one place in the whole world: the place where it currently stands. The circle is a unique combination of stones, horizon, sun, moon and some stars, and altering any one of those factors will change the way the circle can be used and what it might mean. Changes have been made already: Lunan notes in his book that the demolition of some large buildings since the circle was constructed have increased the efficacy of appreciating some alignments built into the circle.

But moving the circle would create an altogether different monument: it would be a stone circle but not the same stone circle.

This begs the question: what is more significant to the meaning of a stone circle – the materials it is made from (the standing stones), the arrangement of those materials in relation to one another, or the place upon which it sits? This is more often than not an academic and abstract question, as stone circles do not often move, but when they do, problems are created and can persist. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon in Scotland is Balbirnie stone circle (NO20SE 4) in the New Town of Glenrothes in Fife, which was moved and then rebuilt as an exact replica of itself in the early 1970s. It now has a questionable status.

Balbirnie stone circle in its original location
Balbirnie stone circle in its original location

Part of a wider complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in a suburb of the ever-expanding Glenrothes in the decades after its establishment (close to Balfarg henge, perhaps the classic urban prehistoric monument in Britain), Balbirnie stone circle came under threat in 1969 with the proposed expansion of the A92. This road was to run through the location of the stone circle. Meetings on- and off-site were held between the Department of the Environment and Glenrothes Development Corporation (GDC). Archaeologist Graham Ritchie, who carried out the subsequent excavation of the stone circle in 1970-71, has recounted how the two sides disagreed. The government agency wanted to build the road and retrieve as much information from the circle as possible before its dismantlement; the GDC wanted the circle to be retained.

balbirnie and crane colour from rcahms

In the end, it was decided that the circle should be fully excavated, and then moved to a nearby location (less than 100m from where it has originally stood), where it would be recreated, stone by stone, in exactly the same arrangement as before. This reconstruction went as far as to recreate a small stone cist within the circle found during Ritchie’s excavations, although one side of the cist with rock-art was replaced by a replica. The monument therefore was upgraded as well as rebuilt. Ritchie believed that the GDC wanted to utilise the tangibility of the standing stones in creating a ‘Glenrothes Stonehenge’, adding time-depth to a newly created community.

balbirnie in 2011 low res
Balbirnie stone circle today in a quiet woodland glade

The stone circle now sits in a quiet little glade, downhill from a relatively new housing estate, away from the bustle of the A92. Beside it are a path and a picnic bench, while a very dirty and beat-up noticeboard informs visitors what this monument once was. But what is it now? And what is it not? Having visited this monument many times, I am convinced that it is a nice circle of stones, but that is it not an ancient monument. Whatever it once was (ceremonial enclosure, burial place) it is no longer. It is not Glenrothes Stonehenge. It is a nice place to walk past, to spend some time in the sun, to reflect on the mysteries of the past. It is a stone circle. But is it out of space, and out of time, and this could be the fate of Sighthill if the mistake is made of simply moving the circle and rebuilding it exactly as it stands just now.

If the circle is to succeed wherever it ends up, it needs to be re-invented, not just rebuilt.

Fake cist with golf ball at Balbirnie
Fake cist with golf ball at Balbirnie

I recently revisited Sighthill with Glasgow University PhD student Helen Green. As with my previous visits, it was raining and miserable, the horizon largely beyond the cloud line. The tower blocks in Sighthill were somewhat denuded since my last visit, although demolition seems to currently be a slow process. Blue strings of plastic that had not been there on my last visit were wrapped around two of the standing stones .

the route low res

The circle is surprisingly accessible from the city centre, about 10 minute walk from Queen Street station, passing through a hinterland of warehouses, car sales garages and student flats in the shadow of the M8, the city centre motorway. Just before getting to the motorway crossing, we reached a short road that must have been shut down by the M8 (North Wallace Street). It stopped abruptly at a fence, and from that point, other rusty fences in unusual arrangements and paint-spattered tarmac act as a guide for the walker up towards the bridge, where one moves from city centre to suburb by crossing the chaotic liminality of the motorway below.

1978 footbridge photo

The bridge over the M8, from more or less the same place as the previous photo. The stone circle is behind the trees
The bridge over the M8 today, looking in the same direction as the 1978 photo. The stone circle is behind the trees, which were not there in the 1970s

On the other side, no signs point the way to the Sighthill stone circle. (Nor does it appear on the big information maps on monoliths that we passed en route.) Instead, one is faced with a jumble of pathways and an overgrown slope ahead. This raised area was built up to make this park in the 1970s and then grassed over and planted with shrubs and trees.

Signs in Sighthill Park
Signs in Sighthill Park

To get to the circle from this point, one has to navigate around the side and up onto this built up plateau, and then depart from the formal pathways to cross to the circle, via paths worn into the ground, reminiscent of Richard Long’s wonderful image A path made by walking. These paths are evidence of habitual movement to and from the stone circle, and will all be destroyed in the redevelopment of this location; none are recorded on maps. These are grassy paths, and to reach the monument, we had to get our feet wet.

A Line Made by Walking
Richard Long’s A path made by walking

There is nothing especially easy about this journey once on the north side of the motorway, no concessions to accessibility or convenience. The circle is officially and categorically ignored.

Sighthill stone circle in October 2013, with adjacent 'clootie tree'
Sighthill stone circle in October 2013, with adjacent ‘clootie tree’

The recent round of publicity about the stone circle stems for the aforementioned decision to remove the circle from this location as the radical transformation of Sighthill-on-M8 intensifies. Duncan Lunan has been blogging about the fate of the circle, doing media interviews and – I assume – been in talks with the council about ‘what next’. The stone circle has even featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, with (it has to be said) some assistance from me. And the Sighthill re-development is discussed in more depth in an article in the current edition of Urban Realm magazine, with the stone circle adorning the wonderful cover. The pun used in this magazine – Monumental Vision – applies to the vision of the architects and others working on the new Sighthill, but I think it also should remind us that the Sighthill stone circle needs a monumental vision as well.

urban realm autumn 2013 front cover

Modern stone circles are ambiguous places rich in irony. The Aotearoa Stonehenge started life as a device to bring astronomy to the masses, but is now used for pagan ceremonies and as a novelty tourist attraction. The Balbirnie stone circle need not have moved, because in the end the A92 was built to the west of where this monument originally stood. And the Sighthill stone circle is a monument that was built to promote sight on a fake hill.

What will happen next to these stones, erected to allow people to appreciate not the gods, but the sun and moon and stars? What now for this crude device, this once forgotten monument that has now been remembered just in time? When will Sighthill development cause dismantlement?

What next for these heathen stones?

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Helen for helping shape my thoughts about the future of Sighthill. The discussion of Stonehenge Aotearoa comes from a paper I gave at the EAA Conference in Plzen last month (Something henge: an archaeology of Stonehenge replicas) which was jointly written with Glasgow University PhD student Rebecca Younger. I made use of Duncan Lunan’s book The stones and the stars, and his website (link in blog post) for much of the background information on Sighthill; I have also used the bridge photo from his book, and am grateful for his permission to use his images. The Balbirnie photos are both from the National Monuments Record of Scotland, and the anecdotal information about the story of this stone circle in part came from the writings of the late Graham Ritchie, or in conversations I had with him many years ago. The Urban Realm cover was sourced from the webpage for this magazine (link in text of the blog) and this website has also been a useful source of information about the development of Sighthill. Much of the Stonehenge Aotearoa background comes from the excellent booklet Stonehenge Aotearoa The Complete Guide, by Richard Hall, Kay Leather, Geoff Dobson and Robert Adam (Awa Press). A line made by walking is widely available online, and the benefit gig poster is also widely available, and was designed by David Shrigley.

Some ancient hero

‘Now is the time to recognize the power of the place and interpret that for the future’ (Tom Manley)

Can urban prehistory make a difference to the lives of people? Is there a positive use that can be made of the trashed traces of prehistory that can still be found in our urban landscapes? Can the ancient past help us look to the future?

These are questions that I found myself reflecting on very seriously after a visit I made to Govan in August. I was invited there by Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage to undertake a little bit of urban prehistory work with participants in a community project, and as part of my trip I was interviewed for a film they were making. Some great questions were asked, ones that made me review the whole urban prehistorian project. I want to write about my Govan experience, and subsequent events, in this post (at some length I have to warn you!)

some thing is missing image

The film that was being made at that time is now available online, and is called Two more than most. It was made and produced by a small team of volunteers who are part of a project called Some Thing Is Missing (henceforth STIM).  This project started in summer 2013 to investigate the historical, anecdotal and archaeological history of Govan, and in particular Water Row on the south bank of the River Clyde. This is a place with rich historical significance that is currently a car park and under threat of a still worse fate from Glasgow City Council. The project, with the support of Fablevision as well as Northlight, has as an explicit aim to explore the significance of a huge mound that once stood in this location, the Doomster Hill. This mound is generally thought to have been an early medieval motte or ‘thing’, hence the title of their project. Water Row is also a place that played a role in the shipbuilding heritage of Govan.

This is not just a backward-looking process, however, and the team have also been asking the people of Govan what their vision for Water Row is: and for the most part, this vision is not for this pivotal part of Govan to be turned into a pay-and-display or park-and-ride car park.

this land is rich image
Tom Manley’s evocative image shows a pre-tarmac version of Water Row

STIM is one of a range of exciting community and art projects that have taken place in Govan over the past few years, many of which have drawn on Govan’s historic past for inspiration. Hence the title of the film, taken from Glasgow University archaeologist Prof. Steve Driscoll’s statement that ‘Govan has had two eras of greatness – that is two more than most places’. This refers to medieval Govan, and ship-building Govan, both of which had flourished and declined (or were declining) by the time Govan was swallowed up by the city of Glasgow in 1912.

STIM wanted poster

The premise of the film, I think, is that our heritage, our shared past, is fundamentally important in helping people look the future of the places that they live, because our past is a source of pride, identity and inspiration, transcending time. And this need not be the recent past of oral tradition and stories (captured so well in the film), or the near past of maps, historical documents and drawings, but the ancient past. Because in fact it seems very likely that the Doomster Hill started life not 1200 years ago, but perhaps more than 4000 years ago, a massive Neolithic or Bronze Age burial mound. If this were to be the case, then Govan had a third era of greatness, as a centre of power and pilgrimage in prehistory.

The idea that Govan the place was significant deep into the mists of time adds another exciting dimension to the story of this remarkable town within a city – but before exploring the potential of this revelation, we need to go back to the beginning, the beginning of Govan.

Govan 1878
Robert Paul’s drawing of Govan in 1878. Doomster Hill is visible to the left edge of the image.

The Doomster Hill (such a wonderful name) was a huge stepped mound with a flat top, which historical tradition suggests was a meeting place or court for high status early medieval types (perhaps kings). Very few images and descriptions exist of this mound, lending it enigmatic status. And the mound still existed well into the 19th century, until surrounding Govan, an increasingly industrialised and developed landscape, swallowed it up. This mighty monument was landscaped into a reservoir, and then finally succumbed to the intervention of a dye works and shipyard in the 1850s. Frustratingly, the mound disappeared not long before the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map for Govan was produced, which would at least have marked the location of the mound accurately, if not ensured its survival. And it was flattened a few decades before Ancient Monument legislation was passed that would surely have preserved it for posterity. Now, not only do no accurate images of the Doomster Hill survive, but we don’t even know exactly where is stood.

Profile of Doomster Hill to scale, based on historic records and a few drawings (from Ingrid Shearer's Doomster infographic)
Profile of Doomster Hill to scale, based on historic records and a few drawings (from Ingrid Shearer’s Doomster infographic)

Sometimes, mounds used as mottes in the medieval period were actually prehistoric mounds that were re-shaped, and re-purposed. And it seems likely that this was the case in Govan. The best evidence for this comes from a discovery that was made during the last turbulent years of the mound when it was first converted into a reservoir for a nearby dye works. In an account by Rev. Leishman in the New Statistical Account of 1845, he stated: ‘When the reservoir was deepened a few years ago [1830s], three or four rudely formed planks of black oak were dug out of it. Some small fragments of bones were likewise discovered, and a bed of what seemed to be decayed bulrushes.’

He concluded: ‘Nothing forbids us to suppose that [the Doomster Hill] may cover the ashes of some ancient hero, who now sleeps there unknown to fame’.

It seems unlikely that a burial at this depth in the mound – at least 4m depth, probably laid on the ground surface, is anything other than an indication that this was a prehistoric burial mound in an earlier incarnation, perhaps something like the North Mains burial mound in Perth and Kinross which was excavated by Gordon Barclay in 1979. Although a bit smaller than Doomster, this early Bronze Age mound was surrounded by a ditch, with a central burial area and the mound itself contained timber elements. If there were ‘secondary burials’ (as was also the case at North Mains), which is likely, these would have been cremations, and almost certainly would not have been spotted as the Doomster mound was denuded. None of this precludes the use of the mound as a medieval thing, and if this mound had ancient origins, this would have made it all the more powerful a place for kings to associate themselves with.

Artist's impression of Silbury Hill
Artist’s impression of Silbury Hill

Another parallel is the massive artificial knoll, Silbury Hill, in Wiltshire, a huge Neolithic mound built with a stepped profile and flat platform on top for ritual performances to be carried out in view of surrounding spectators. John Barrett has suggested this huge mound always broke the skyline, allowing those on top of the mound to be clearly visible even from distance, and Doomster may also have operated in this way. Silbury does not seem to have been a burial mound, but is a fine example of Neolithic landscape manipulation and monumental craziness.

Of course, as yet there is no direct proof that Doomster was a prehistoric burial mound that was re-used millennia later, but it is an intriguing – and strong – possibility and one that raises questions about the immense period of time that Govan has been special.

The location of Doomster Hill is, as mentioned, only known approximately, located somewhere on the interface between the Water Row car park, and the roads and houses defined by Napier Road, Napier Terrace and Napier Place. The exact location does not matter. What does matter is that the ghostly presence of the mound still lurks in this place, incredibly resilient, and in the last few years efforts have intensified to presence the mound at the heart of Govan once again. In part, this has been due to the efforts of archaeologists like Steve Driscoll and Chris Dalglish, trying to piece together the medieval landscape here, connecting church to mound to river, gathering information to inform future development strategies.

govan burgh survey book

Others have made more tangible interventions in reshaping Water Row, resurrecting the mound. Artist Matt Baker has put in place a series of artworks called Assembly to mark three possible locations of this massive mound; these consist of arcs of cobbles set into grass around the Napier flats, hinting at the huge circumference of the mound. Metal plaques indicate what these arcs represent: the possible site of the ‘giant Doomster Hill’. What I love about these installations (part of a walking route) is that they capture two eras of Govan’s greatness: the huge mound, and also the industrial heritage. The cobbles were recycled from shipyard roads. Industrial debris adorns the cobbles, such as rusty looking steel-toothed wheels. But interestingly the prehistoric potential of Doomster Hill is not represented by Baker, although of course this artwork could easily function as a marker for the ancient past as well as more recent history.


Plaque on Assembly artwork

I visited Govan in August, not just to be interviewed for the film, but also to spend some time with the STIM team thinking about how to raise awareness of prehistoric Govan and the potentially Neolithic or Bronze Age origins of the Doomster Hill. We decided the best way to do this, at least in the first place, would be in the medium of chalk. I wanted to give the team a real sense of the scale of this massive mound, when juxtaposed with cars, pavements and roads. So together with Ingrid and Glasgow University PhD student Helen Green we started with some preliminary map work and a chat about what form the mound may have taken in prehistory.

Prelim mapwork

We then headed out into the Water Row car park armed with a range of materials: maps and plans to help orientate ourselves, multiple colours of chalk, a very long measuring tape, and for reasons that almost now seem lost in time, a rather limp purple helium balloon shaped like a star. Using the maps, and a church as the starting point, we firstly marked the wandering route of a small stream that was marked on some old maps in this location, to the west of where Doomster once stood, and running down (now beneath the car park surface) towards the Clyde. This involved some wandering about, pointing, pacing, using the measuring tape and expert chalk daubing, and we more or less made it to the waterfront in the right sort of place. Gaps were left in the chalk stream where cars were parked.

The water of water row


Using the stream as a guide, we moved to the eastern extent of the car park, and despite inconveniences like cars driving over our tapes, and using an arbitrary centre point, we marked out a huge circle with a diameter of about 50m, reflecting the diameter of Doomster including the ditch. It was quickly apparent the mound must have covered a huge amount of space (the diameter is the equivalent of half of a football pitch).



I stood at the centre with a stick balanced on my head, to indicate the 5m height of the central platform on the mound. (This is what we had intended the balloon to indicate, but it was too limp to reach 5m and instead floated around below waist height.) This may seem like a silly exercise, but made the simple point that this would have been a massive mound.


Ingrid drew a Bronze Age beaker-style burial in the central location, a poignant reminder that at the centre of this massive artificial hill was a burial, presumably of someone very important (some ancient heroine in this case). It may well be that satellite and secondary burials were interred in the mound, but subsequently lost by interventions such as the reshaping of the mound into a thing, and industrial expansion.


After a couple of hours of doing this, we chatted about how the hidden prehistory of Govan could best be permanently marked in Water Row, aside from the great start made with Matt Baker’s Assembly. What is now a car park (and probably some houses) lies above (perhaps even sealing in surviving remnants of the ditch) what was once a massive mound, and not just a 1200 year old mound, but a 4000 year old mound. This age difference matters. The STIM team seemed to be very excited by the potential deep time depth beneath their feet. This is a dimension of Govan’s past that is little known and we all agreed that more could be made of this information.

How this might affect the future of the disputed Water Row car park is unclear, but simply suggesting that we find the mound via excavation and then archive the data and stick up a noticeboard is not enough in my opinion. The photographer Tom Manley has written an evocative article about the past and future of the Doomster Hill in Urban Realm, and he rightly says that, ‘any realistic alternative to a car park must do more than purely preserve what lies beneath the surface’. I agree. Urban prehistory is not about collecting yet more archaeological data for the sake of it. It isn’t about freezing places in time or stopping change.

But it could impact on how change might happen, and the Doomster Hill seems to me a wonderful opportunity to see how far the ancient past could help shape the future for local communities. For instance, the imaginative and inclusive Gallus Games in Glasgow, coinciding with the 2014 Commonwealth Games, will be based in an temporary eco-stadium which explicitly draws on the physical form of the Doomster Hill and has been inspired ‘by the history of Water Row in Govan’ – and is to be built in Water Row. And various other proposals and ideas have at their heart the people of Govan and the unique past of this place. It is heartening to see so much creative effort inspired in developing visions for the future of Govan with Water Row and the Doomster Hill at the centre, and I hope in this process the past doesn’t stop with the medieval kings of Strathclyde.

gallus games eco stadium
The Gallus Games Doomster-inspired eco-stadium, complete with mound elements

Govan is an amazing and vibrant town, but also a place with a lot of problems and challenges. Despite the friendly demeanour of the locals (see the film!) and the amazing archaeology (within Govan Old Parish church is to be found one of the finest collection of early medieval gravestones in Britain) Govan is one of the more deprived areas of Glasgow, still suffering from the fallout of the decline of an Empire and the fall of heavy industry.

Does it matter than this was once a place where kings moved? Can the knowledge that this land is archaeologically rich help improve the lives of people in Govan? Is there any way that understanding the time-depth beneath the tarmac and houses can solve social problems? Does all this pastness help in any way with poverty, drug abuse, low life expectancy or multi-generational unemployment? It seems almost glib to ask such questions. But as archaeologists, what use are our interpretations of the past, our arcane knowledge of ancient texts and even more ancient burial mounds, if we cannot use this information to help someone, somewhere, some thing. In Govan the past cannot harm the present, but exploited with care and passion, it can and should be able to continue to play a part in the regeneration of Govan.

Acknowledgements and sources: this post would not have been possible without the input of lots of people. Helen Green accompanied me on my Govan visit and as usual was a great source of ideas and information, and she is great with chalk and balloons! Ingrid Shearer invited me to be involved, and has done a wonderful job working with various projects and artists in Govan; she also provided me with a lot of Doomster background information. The Some Thing is Missing Team are Rosie Walker, Sarah Marie Garcais and David Kerr and they did a fine job on the day, and the film is fantastic; I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. We used the offices of Fablevision for some pre-urban-prehistory map work and also for the interview afterwards. Thanks also to Tom Manley who helped with some of the chalkwork; his Doomster Hill Urban Realm article was very inspiring and provided the quote that starts the blog. My main source of archaeological information was Dalglish and Driscoll’s Govan Burgh Survey, an engaging and accessible read, and a great bargain at less than a tenner! The photos in this blog are my own, but I have also used some images derived from various different initiatives in Govan. The ‘Missing’ poster comes from the STIM blog (link in text above) while the STIM card image comes from their Facebook page. The ‘This land is rich’ image was designed by Tom Manley  and used with his permission, the Gallus Games stadium image comes from their website (link above once again), and the image of Govan is by Robert Paul and dates to 1758. Ingrid Shearer kindly allowed me to reproduce part of her Doomster infographic. The Silbury Hill image came from a Geographical Magazine article on that monument, from July 2008.