Mobile urban prehistory, the kind you can find in your garden, then display on your mantelpiece, has not featured much in my blog to date. Most urban prehistory has already been found and taken away, or is too big and awkward (i.e. a standing stone) to act as an ornament in anything but the most splendid of houses. When innocent parties do stumble upon objects which may be of great antiquity they usually take them to a local museum for identification, and then they become lost in the mists of time / store rooms / filed in the bin. But one examples stands out, where this didn’t happen. Over a few posts, I want to recount one of the most remarkable and controversial examples of urban prehistory that I can think of – the story of the Hexham Heads. Even if you have heard this one before, it is a great story.
These frankly weird objects were found in a normal garden in northern England by two boys belonging to an unremarkable family. Consisting of a pair of fist-sized stone heads with creepy little faces, what seemed like a chance and even amusing discovery soon spiralled out of control. Events quickly escalated until museums, archaeologists, geologists, the media and various pseudoscientists all wanted a piece of the action. The Heads were scrutinised and sampled; they were boxed up and taken to the other end of the country; they gathered an aura of the supernatural and even notoriety. But slowly interest waned, and then eventually in circumstances shrouded in mystery, they were lost. And it would be remiss of me not to note that somewhere along the way a ‘were-creature’ appears to have started to haunt some of those brave enough to keep possession of the Heads.
The Hexham Heads represent urban prehistory that might not even be urban prehistory (they may have been made in the 1950s BC or AD), and yet their discovery and subsequent contestation mirrors very well how archaeologists deal with any bit of material culture found during a formal excavation. The methodical and measured contributions by most (but not all) scientists involved ensure this to be the case. But what makes this an especially weird story is that it also draws on other tropes of archaeology – the cursed objects, dealing within things we cannot comprehend, sinister stones, arcane rites.
And, at the risk of cursing myself (if such a thing is possible) I have visited the place where the Heads were found, the tale of which conclude the story of the Hexham Heads in a later post.
The date and circumstances of discovery does not really matter, which is just as well as published accounts vary on little details such as when and how the Heads were found. It might have been 1971 or 1972 when two young boys found the Hexham Heads in their back garden at 3 Rede Avenue, in the town of Hexham. The boys may have been weeding, or clearing vegetation, or even digging down into the earth. Whatever. In quick succession, they discovered a Head each, a nice symmetry. The objects appeared to be made of stone, a pair of faintly grotesque little things. Both objects were roughly spherical in form, both with some kind of protrusion from the neck that suggests they were once joined to something else, maybe a little body or a pedestal.
Those who have held the Heads quite literally in the palms of their hands have given varied and colourful descriptions of the objects. Accounts differ as to the size of the Heads depending on which source of information you read – from ‘tennis ball’ down to ‘small tangerine’. Facial descriptions of these little carved stone balls have tended to centre of the apparently gendered characteristics of the two objects and some assumptions that have been drawn from their facial expressions. Paul Screeton has written in his detailed if meandering 2010 book Quest for the Hexham Heads that one was known as ‘the boy’, with ‘hair modelled in stripes, running from front to back’. The other is treated less favourably in Hexham Heads literature, dubbed (depending on the source) as the girl, old woman or ‘hag’, whose characteristics include ‘wildly-bulging eyes’ and, according to Don Robins, ‘a strong beaked nose’. It is unclear if the attribution of these negative characteristics associated with the ‘female’ head were formed before, or after, the supernatural events that are reported to have happened soon after these objects were discovered.
Events took mysterious and bizarre turns during the time that the objects were kept at the home of the finders and that of their neighbours in the same semi-detached house. The Heads were thought to rotate during the night to ‘look’ in certain directions come morning time. Stuff happened that in other circumstances would be attributed to a poltergeist. And one night, an event occurred which could be described as eldritch occurred. The neighbour, a Mrs Dodds, awoke to be faced with an unusual house guest: a half-sheep, half-human creature in her bedroom, which turned and ‘padded’ downstairs and out of the front door when she saw it. This would not be the first hybrid being conjured up by the heads, as we shall see further into the story.
But however much I would love to imagine a sheep having undergone therianthropy loping around Hexham in the early 1970s, another explanation seems more reasonable. In an article about the Heads from Fortean Times 294 (November 2012) Stuart Ferrol noted a tale he heard locally of a prank that very same night that involved a drunk with a stolen sheep carcass on his back (taken from a nearby abattoir) staggering up Rede Avenue.
Regardless of what happened that night, events surrounding the Heads became known locally and in the press, and the Heads from that point onwards developed an aura of mystery and danger –they were often described in 1970s TV and newspaper media accounts as ‘evil’.
The Heads were soon on the move, cleared out of the house and handed into Hexham Abbey for professional interpretation (not to be exorcised I assume). At times they were also in the care of the Museum of Antiquities at Newcastle University, and ended up in Southampton for a while as well. During the next couple of years, in other words, they were poked and prodded and sampled by a range of experts, but no real consensus was reached as to what material they were made from, or even whether they were genuine ancient relics or not.
A major reason for this doubt was another character being added to the drama, local man Des Craigie who used to live at 3 Rede Avenue. He dropped the ‘bombshell’ (as Screeton describes it) during an interview in the Evening Chronicle that he made the Heads. He claimed:
‘I made them – about 16 years ago. I made the heads from bits of stone and mortar simply to amuse my daughter when she was a little girl. I actually made three but one appears to have got lost. They were out in the garden for years. I definitely made them. I have been laughing my head off about these heads and I cannot understand why all this attention is being paid to them’.
He then made a couple more to show he could do it, from ‘local stone, sand and water’ although they were even more rubbish looking than the originals.
Bombshell indeed! This was all the more shocking as archaeologists and academics had not identified the possibility that the Heads were in fact little more than rather disturbing cement toys made in the late 1950s. Such are the perils of urban prehistory – sometimes the prehistory is more urban than it is prehistory.
Craigie’s public statement of ownership for the Hexham Heads came as a particular problem for one archaeologist / historian, Anne Ross, who had made a big show of the stones being almost certainly Celtic / Iron Age in origin. The stage was set for argument and discussion about the materiality and meaning of the heads, whether they really were cursed and if the were-creature was (according to some tales) actually following the Heads around…
To be continued.
Sources: The story of the Hexham Heads has been recounted in most detail by Paul Screeton in his book Quest for the Hexham Heads (Fortean Words 2010) and in Don Robins’s 1988 book The secret language of stone; both books were consulted in the preparation of this post. Stuart Ferrol’s Fortean Times articles (294/295) were also helpful. The newsclipping was sourced from Screeton’s book, while the top picture of the Heads – and the hands holding the ‘fake’ heads – are available widely online.
This blog was edited on 31st January to add the sketch of the werewolf, sourced from a chapter on the Hexham Heads in the book ‘The unexplained file. Incredible phenomena’ (1984). This was kindly supplied to me from the eclectic and occult library of Drew Mulholland.