Archive | February, 2014

Robomegalith

26 Feb

‘The most terrifying responsibility in stone is that it’s eternal’

Monuments are hybrids, conglomerated things, fusions of materials, in improbable and interesting juxtapositions. They were hybrids in prehistory, when first built, combinations of stone and timber, earth and the void of the ditch, the fluids and excretions of the builders, the bones and blood of the land. So too do our modern interventions hybridise these ancient monuments – if we don’t destroy them first. Injections of concrete. Metallic prosthetics. Synthetic resins and polymer fillings. Patching up and soldiering on.

robomegalith

On the island of Bute, three standing stones attest to various modern material additions – concrete, iron, copper-plated steel. Futuristic materials of progress, post-Stone-Age.

This weird stone setting consists of three of the strangest mismatched monoliths I have ever seen. Stone A (as I have decided to call it) is a crazy fungal form, narrow at the base, with a bulbous mushroom cloud atop, like a giant stone spoon on the brink of bending, supported on the eastern side by a metal bar. Stone B is a fractured red sandstone explosion of stone, falling into a columnar form more commonly associated with the igneous, not the sedimentary. Stone C juts from a suspiciously symmetrical mound, and upon closer inspection this stone is covered in graffiti, carved into the stone, and is a hybrid of conglomerates and sandstones that form stones A and B respectively. Three of a kind. Dysfunctional triplets. A bit strange.

blackpark stone circle

The stone setting at Blackpark Plantation, in the south of the island, sits within a glade of trees. The aforementioned three stones defy any attempt to impose a geometrical order on them  as a group – neither a circle, nor a row, although given there are three stones they do inevitably form a triangular setting. No indication of any fallen stones is apparent in the immediate vicinity and limited previous investigations have found no evidence of such although an 18th century antiquarian account suggests four other stones once stood here.

James Skene sketch of Blackpark_DP084695

Photo of stones from 1893 SC1173030As with many megaliths, very little is known about this monument, and its form – remarkable as it seems – has changed little since the 19th century as the above images attest to. Excavation seems to have been very limited, with Dorothy Marshall having undertaken some limited work here when the monument was repaired in the mid-1970s. Stone C (noticeably with no mound around its base in the earlier images) apparently ‘broke at ground level after a gale in 1974’, and was re-erected in a mound of concrete in 1976.

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The graffiti that covers this stone consists largely of initials and little symbols – touristic twaddle, pathetic claims of ownership, ‘I was here’ declarations, largely pointless. Here, visitors in the last century or so have made their mark on this stone by subtracting material from it, scraped away with futile endeavour, marks that are themselves now weathering, disappearing, succumbing to lichen and the gales. A cross has also been carved onto the stone, another futile gesture. The concrete mound itself is invisible, grassed over, leaving a standing stone that makes little sense.

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Stone B has more interesting and enduring new materials, modern additions, not subtractions. Cracks and fissures in the rock show evidence of having coins pushed into them, with some force (one appears to have been hammered in). The coins look to be largely 2p coins, with one 20p apparent. In some cases, the coins have become so corroded that they themselves look ancient, more corrosion product than metal, barely coins at all anymore, illegal tender. It amounts to less than 50p.

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Here we have the standing stone as slot machine, coins thrust into its very fabric, perhaps pagan acts of hope or supplication, or more likely done with a sense of predictable weariness and cliché, just as one casually tosses coins of low denomination into fountains in shopping malls for ‘luck’. Yet these metal insertions are as nothing to the iron rod that props up the preposterously shaped stone A.

Robomegalith and archaeologist Paul Duffy

Robomegalith and archaeologist Paul Duffy

For stone A is robomegalith, part metal frame, part standing stone. Without this supporting strut, this stone would fall over, and probably break into two, rather uneven, parts, perhaps a fatal condition. But this megalith was fixed, cured, with the simple preventative measure of the addition of the metal support, affixed to the conglomerate matrix of the megalith by some kind of violent connection. It has become a cyborg standing stone, a synthesis of two different non-organic materials, connected together by the organic growth of rust and lichen. The stone and the iron rod exist in a state of mutual need; without one, the other would fall over and lose its purpose. Together, they have created a new type of standing stone, a standing stone of the future, which will survive into the future (unless it falls over the other way).

The point of fusion

The point of fusion

The Blackpark Plantation standing stones are wonderful hybrids – they combine different lithologies, geological formations and materials. They represent the fusion of horizon between past and present. Their very hybridisation is a source of awful and awe-ful fascination for most visitors.

The poet Lynn Woollacott has written a poem about this monument, entitled Standing Stones. It includes the stanza:

The standing stones whisper to me
that seasons fall decade after decade,
they weather the storms, yet grains fall softly,
one per year, until one day they fall wholly

 Sources and acknowledgements: the quotation that this post starts with comes from Derek Raymond’s book He died with his eyes open (Serpents Tail, 2007). Lynn Woollacott’s poem appears on her blog (link above) and was originally published in Reach Poetry Magazine 126. The limited archaeological information included in this post comes from the National Monuments Record of Scotland (this is NMRS site number NS05NE 8). The ‘gales’ quotation comes from one of Dorothy Marshall’s two entries on this monument in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (1975 and 1976), and see also George Geddes and Alex Hale’s excellent short book The archaeological landscape of Bute (RCAHMS, 2010). The two 19th century images are: a sketch of the stones by James Skene from 1832, and a photographic view of the monument from 1893; both are available to view via CANMORE (the NMRS) and have been reproduced in various other places. The general view of the site which I amended originally came from the megalithic.co.uk website, posted by Saille. Over the course of the past 18 months, I have visited this monument three times, variously with Paul Duffy, Nyree Finlay, Jeremy Huggett and over 65 Glasgow University students. Thanks finally to Helen Green, who suggested I use the word cyborg – I wish I had thought of that!

The circle of boulders and the flat red school

6 Feb

No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock

We rounded the corner, past grey eminences of tower blocks, and emerged onto a curving road with cars parked on both sides. Soon we reached a rust-brown staggered metal fence, beyond which a low mound was evident, with low boulders situated on top of it. This was to be the focus of our investigation on this cold clear afternoon. Physical access to the stones was blocked by the aforementioned fence, and so we journeyed further to the north, looking for an easier way into this strip of waste ground.

Looking back towards the boulder-mound, we noted that jutting above the roof horizon was a red tower. We were later to discover through enquiries that this was the water tower of an old hospital that once housed patients with infectious diseases.

possil stone circle and wester common flats

Soon enough, the gates were scaled, and we dropped down into the grounds of what was once a place of learning, a primary school, now nothing more than an irregularly shaped, flat patch of red rubble, littered with broken plastic pipes, glass bottles and brick fragments. A vandalised sign hanging from the fence warned against tipping, but clearly tipping had occurred. A single tree sat amidst the debris of this flattened school, pipes jutting out from amidst its roots, indicating where the fluids of the school came and went.

The flat red school

The flat red school

To the north of the school, in what we presumed to have been the playground, was located the mound already mentioned. A pathway of tarmac, and then worn grass, led us to the mound, and we walked towards it with a sense of intrigue. In front of us was a setting of low and squat standing stones.

possil stone circle and ellesmere street

This monument (for we could not think of a better word for it) consisted of a roughly circular setting of large, coarse boulders, being in total in the order of 5 or 6m in diameter. The circle was open on the west-south-west side and during our visit this roughly aligned towards the watery sun. We managed to count in the order of 12 stones forming the irregular boundary of this setting. Two stones of a similar character just to the south-west may have been outliers, or perhaps had been removed from the circuit of the monument, or become dislodged and rolled down the slope.

possil stone circle

Within the centre of the stone setting was a very large block of a different lithology to the rounded boulders that formed the perimeter of the megalith. This large monolith was about 1.3m in length, and was of an angular shape, that led us to believe that this stone had previously been part of a large building or wall. The stone had a line of holes on one face, and was dressed on several sides. We identified a second, similar but smaller, angular block on the western side of the monument. We have no way of telling if this central stone was once erect, but it had the bearing of a standing stone that had once stood.

possil stone circle central stone

possil stone circle two lithologies

Our careful investigation of the monument and surrounding area provided no clues as to the age or function of this monument. A short distance to the northwest we discovered a playground slide, set into the ground in concrete, running down a slope into an unappealing gully. Although rusty and pockmarked, the shine on the silvery surface of the slide suggested it had been in recent use.

the slide

We speculated on the use of this stone circle, this circle of stones. Was it constructed after the school had been abandoned or demolished, some kind of memorial perhaps? Did the dressed blocks come from the school? Or was the circle in use as some kind of playground playtime plaything? It seemed a suitable location for the telling of stories, or the eating of lunch or snacks. Perhaps this was simply the coarse foundation for a more elaborate piece of playground furniture although we could not establish how this could have been so.

The investigation drawing to a conclusion

The investigation drawing to a conclusion

Our investigation concluded, we wandered away from the circle, climbed back over the gate, and walked further northwards past some pleasant allotments. As we pondered the opaque meaning of this urban prehistorical experience, we passed a building being renovated; upon its wall was a colourful mural, depicting giant bananas and an anthropomorphic egg and spoon.

And where are they now?
The little children of Stonehenge
And what would they say to us?
If we were here… tonight

 

Endnote: some facts

The events described in this post occurred in Hamiltonhill, located between Possil and the Forth and Clyde canal in Glasgow

Ruchill Hospital water tower was built in the final decade of the 19th century, and is now a listed building and also on the buildings at risk register

Westercommon Primary School was closed just a couple of years ago, and burnt down in a fire that occurred on 26th February 2013

The desolation of the school

The desolation of the school

Sources: I was told about this urban prehistory enigma by Peter Connolly, who stumbled upon the circle while out walking – my thanks to him for the tip-off. I was accompanied on this field visit by Helen Green. The lyrics at the end and the start of this post come from (obviously) Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge. Information about the school closure and fire, as well as the fire image, came from the BBC. For more information on the landscape and heritage around the old school site, see the Friends of Possilpark Greenspace webpage.