Some ancient hero

8 Oct

‘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.

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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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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8 Responses to “Some ancient hero”

  1. fifepsychogeography October 8, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

    Great post and film.Look forward to more of your reflections.

    • balfarg December 8, 2013 at 11:43 am #

      Hi, thanks very much. The film is fantastic and is getting a public premiere on Thursday 12th December in a pub in Govan!

      • fifepsychogeography December 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

        Great, good luck with it. Hopefully will get a chance to set it later.

  2. Tim October 22, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    Really enjoyed this post, Kenny. Great to see the photos too. Some of the chalk-marks were still visible when we had our walkabout after the September workshop. When Rosie described how you stood with a pole on your head I got a very clear impression of the height of the hill. Brilliant idea!

    • balfarg December 8, 2013 at 11:45 am #

      Hi Tim, thanks for the kind comments. It was a remarkable coincidence that the length of the post, combined with my height, was exactly the same as the supposed height of the mound according to 19th century accounts!

  3. Matt Baker November 26, 2013 at 10:23 pm #

    great stuff Kenny – hope we get to meet up some fine day soon!

    • balfarg December 8, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Hi Matt, yes lets do that, you have done some really amazing work in Govan and maybe you can become inspired by urban prehistory!

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  1. Doomster Hill: how old? | Heart of the Kingdom - October 24, 2013

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