The middle of the road megalith

14 Jan

A post concerning the fragmentation of a prehistoric monument by a road junction and subsequent, unrelated protests, which in turn leads to an association with an altogether more modern monolith elsewhere.

Driving out of Auchterarder, something didn’t add up.

Three stones, not four.

A three-post four-poster.

A triangular square.

Three roads, not four.

A triangular stone setting.

A triangular traffic island.

A triangleabout.

Geometrically feasible – but unusual.

The coincidence of a megalithic monument at a place that subsequently became a road junction – not a coincidence.

The desolation of a megalith in the name of progress – typical.

Something didn’t add up.

Easthill standing stones

Last week, on a visit to Perthshire on entirely unrelated prehistoric business, I made a detour to the ‘lang toun’ (translation: the long town), Auchterarder, to visit one of the more obscure exits from the town on its northwestern fringe. (Wikipedia claims that in the ‘Middle Ages’, this town was known ‘in Europe’ as ‘the town of 100 drawbridges’ which sounds an unlikely claim in so many different ways.) Here, where Easthill Road meets Tullibardine Road, one can drive through what was a stone setting that made sense and had some internal coherence once upon a time.

auchterarder standing stone

Now it makes little sense, with one rather ugly megalith stranded in a weird triangular traffic island, and two other megaliths built into a substantial field boundary across the road to the east. Houses overlook the stone setting, and cars and lorries rumble past from time to time.

auchterarder standing stones

The site is known as Easthill, with NMRS number NN91SW 7. As with so many of these sites, almost nothing is known of this monument. It does appear on the 1st edition map from the 19th century, by then already bisected by this little junction, although the southern side of the triangular traffic island did not then exist, given the lack of traffic that would have been on the road at the time and the lack of requirement for turning space.

In 1893, A F Hutchison wrote very briefly about this monument in his book The Stirling Antiquary volume 1, and his account suggests that the stone that now stands in the traffic island was not actually upright at that time. He noted:

A fine group of stones, two only of which are now standing, on the summit of what has been a well-defined mound, which has been cut through by the road [my emphasis].

Hutchison noted other stones lying in the vicinity which he thought might have belonged to a larger stone setting, the only two stones still erect being the large blocks set into the field bank at the road side. The third stone which now stands in the traffic island was described by Hutchison as being recumbent at the time of his visit: he noted a ‘groove’ running right around it, which is still visible on this megalith. Indeed, it does not even seem to have been standing when Ordnance Survey archaeologists visited the site in 1967; at that time it was noted that two fallen standing stones lay prostrate in the middle of the junction, almost entirely covered by vegetation.

The grooved stone

The grooved stone

The middle-of-the-road megalith is indeed a peculiar standing stone, set at a jaunty angle with the impression of being about to fall over at all times.

Bad repair job

Bad repair job

Whoever re-erected it did a very poor job, although it is possible that it has been struck by vehicles, given its rather vulnerable location. The stone, as noted, has some kind of groove around its middle, as if having once worn a belt that was far too tight. Perhaps this is an original feature, but this would be highly unusual; certainly it would have been convenient for tying horses to. Hutchison argues that this groove was a reason why the stones were not destroyed completely:

The small mercy to be thankful for is that they have not been broken up altogether and used for road metal. This has probably been due to the circumstances that one of these stones has a curious encircling groove running round it, which perhaps impressed even the vandal roadmakers with the idea that it might be worthy of preservation.

It has also been suggested by some visitors that a handprint has been carved into one of the roadside standing stones, although this was difficult to verify due to the dense vegetation around both of these monoliths; the image below suggests to me that again this is not an original feature of the standing stone being far too fresh looking.

Hand print rock art? Photo by Martin McCarthy

Hand print rock art? Photo by Martin McCarthy

This is a monument that has been monkeyed about with quite substantially in the last few centuries, and ended up in a rather dangerous and dispiriting location. In prehistory it may have been, to use the jargon, a four-poster, that is, a square setting defined by four standing stones, one at each corner. These generally date to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, and were probably a variant on the stone setting, perhaps with hints of house architecture (timber equivalents are usually thought to be the internal framework for a round house.) Both Hutchison and the OS fieldworkers note four stones in this location, although it is impossible to tell if the stone within the traffic island originally stood where it now does, or where the fourth stone was located; this may well not even have been a square setting. The mound has been largely ploughed to oblivion, but some strategic fieldwork here could probably shed some light on the original form of this monument if anyone out there is at a loose end.

standing stone and policeman

Matt Saywell's G8 protest photos

Matt Saywell’s G8 protest photos

While googling around for information and stories about this monument, I came across some great images of the standing stones during the G8 summit that was held in the nearby fancy hotel and golf complex of Gleneagles. This gathering of ‘eight men meeting in the hotel’ (as George Galloway characterised it) took place in July 2005 and was met with substantial protest and resistance around the fringes of the event, largely peaceful, focused along the edges of a lengthy perimeter fence set up by police.

G8 protest image

The stone setting was in fact on the route of the ‘G8 Alternatives’ march and some of the protesters tarried there for a while, one megaphone-bearing guy using the stone as a prop to lean on, the groove proving useful as a footrest.

G8 alternative march routeway, with location of the megaliths circled

G8 alternative march routeway, with location of the megaliths circled

I don’t think that the stone setting was in any way a focal point for the
protestors, nor is it remembered as having any particular significance amidst the events of those few days in summer nine years ago. But for another protest on another road, a standing stone was actually erected to memorialise the event – at Twyford Down in Hampshire.

twyford_monument_names

The chalk monolith at Twyford Down was set up by road protestors after the famous anti-road demonstrations that took place here in the early 1990s. The story of this standing stone, and current debates about its future, are brilliantly documented in John Schofield’s book Aftermath (Springer, 2011). Protests focused on the construction of the Winchester Bypass M3 extension through a huge cutting on Twyford Down, right next to an Iron Age hillfort. Road protestors camped in the location, and daubed slogans on a footbridge constructed across the new motorway; they also occupied heavy machinery and construction areas, and generally got in the way of things, although in the end this did not stop the road being constructed.

protest against M3 extension

Rather like a prehistoric monolith, this off-white standing stone represents people, events and the land. The stone memorialises these events from the protestors’ point of view. It is made from the same material that most of this chalkland consists of. But it is not prehistoric, because it has writing on it. This is a list of people who the protestors felt were responsible for the construction of the M3, the creation of the cutting, and the permanent alteration of the landscape as they saw it. The engraving starts This land was ravaged by and was followed by a list of names, including, inevitably, M Thatcher as well as PM at the time, J Major.

Schofield offers a balanced discussion of the current status of this standing stone, which is vulnerable because of its youth. For some, it is a valuable and legitimate monument that informs and reminds people about an important cultural event, namely the anti-road protests (and there were many of these in the 1990s). For others, it has little status as anything other than a very modern piece of nonsense. It has not been included in the Scheduled Monument Area here. Yet, as Schofield has argued, the monolith is ‘inevitably and unquestionably part of this landscape’, as much an archaeological entity as the hillfort and the motorway cutting itself.

Does it matter when standing stones were erected - or who did it?

Does it matter when standing stones were erected – or who did it?

This post started with an account of my visit to an obscure set of standing stones in Perthshire, but has finished on a reflection about the status and nature of standing stones (again!). I suppose in essence the problem with how to make sense of Easthill, and decisions about the future of the Twyford monolith, revolve around the same thing. At what stage – how long ago – must a standing stone have been erected for it to have protected status, to be regarded as ‘authentic’, to be taken seriously, to be interpretable? Does this have to be in the ancient, distant past, when frankly everything that was ever known about the monument  has been forgotten? Or could it actually be in the recent past, when the standing stone actually still has a place within the memories of living people? In fact, this is complicated, because many of the standing stones we regard as authentically ancient, from Stonehenge to Orkney, or many of the Dartmoor stone rows, were – like the middle-of-the-road megalith at Aucherarder – re-erected in the last century or so.

If only Neolithic and Bronze Age people had carved stories, names, dates, onto their standing stones, how much easier it would be to make sense of them.

The past in my mirror...

The past in my mirror…

Sources: There is a nice blog post on this monument by the Northern Antiquarian which I recommend you have a look at, much more detailed than mine! I sourced a few images online for this blog, from various locations. The image of the handprint comes from Martin McCarthy’s nice little webpage for the Easthill stone setting, where he questions the sanity of the road designers. The G8 photos were uploaded to The Modern Antiquarian website by Matt Saywell; the Twyford monolith image was posted by Jim Champion on the Megalithic Portal. Images of protest near Gleneagles are availably widely online, while the Twyford protest pic with the monolith came from a recent Guardian photo special on the protests. The wee map was sourced from the BBC webpages about the G8 summit, linked to in the post itself.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “The middle of the road megalith”

  1. Andy Burnham February 10, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

    By a strange coincidence I was updating our Twyford Down page earlier today as someone reports the memorial stone has been knocked down.
    http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=14681
    We have quite a few urban prehistoric sites listed and would like to know of more. Your blog is a fascinating read… Cheers

    • balfarg February 26, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

      Hi Andy, sorry for not replying sooner. It looks like the Twyford stone has taken quite a bashing. It just goes to show that we should be protective of as much of our heritage as possible, regardless of age – what harm was this megalith doing to anyone (apart from those named on it…)? Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: