Archive | May, 2014

The sustainable megalith

29 May

Sustainable* development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’

*To sustain: the ability of three upright standing stones to support without collapse a nine tonne capstone carefully lowered upon it by machine

On a trip recent trip to Cornwall, with the Neolithic Studies Group, we visited Carwynnen Quoit aka Giants Quoit. I was equipped with an inadequate scale for the recording task at hand.

Capstone and scale

This monument, which ‘collapsed’ for at least the second time in the 1960s, is the focus of a remarkable and unique project, a community endeavour to rebuild the monument, develop the site and its surrounding landscape as an educational and leisure amenity, and create a sustainable monument for future generations to enjoy. The project, run by the Sustainable Trust, is another great example of how (re)building prehistoric-style monuments today, in the modern landscape, can impact of social well-being. Far from being anachronistic and hopelessly lost in today’s busy complex world, megaliths seem to me to be as relevant as ever, bang up-to-date, even forward looking.

1905 postcard of the monument

1905 postcard of the monument

The website for the project has huge amounts of information about the (pre)history of this monument, and I don’t want to repeat all of that here. Suffice to say that this once magnificent Neolithic dolmen has had some ups and downs over the past two centuries. It fell down twice, once in 1842, the second time in 1966. After the first collapse it was re-erected by estate workmen with quite rudimentary tools. The second collapse it is claimed happened because of an earthquake, although no-one is quite sure what happened. Between the two collapses, the monument hosted the Cornish Gostedd on September 5th 1948.

Pile of rubble 1975 with Brian Blessed (?) dowsing it

Pile of rubble 1975

Reduced to little more than a pile of big rubble, the monument became even more obscure than it had been previously. The field that it sits in – Frying Pan Field – was in regular cultivation and the monument took on the appearance of field clearance. However, all of this changed in 2009 when the Sustainable Trust purchased the land around the monument with the help of a HLF grant and other supporters.

Their aim? ‘To restore the monument and make it more accessible and develop sensitive long-term management of the monument and its landscape setting’.

This has entailed a series of events and projects over the past few years, including workshops, excavations, laser scanning, talks, pop-up exhibitions, engagement with schools and a stall about the project has turned up at loads of Cornwall events. The focus has not just been the monument, but also the ecology of the surrounding landscape. Poetry and music have been composed and performed at the monument. Hundreds of people have been involved in this project in a whole range of different ways, and crucially I think the focus has not just been on what happened in the distant past, but also the relevance and role of the dolmen for people today and into the future. Even TVs Julian Richards has got his hands dirty helping out (proving that he is far more than a grizzled Richard Branson look-a-like).

event poster

Perhaps the major focus, though, has been the ambitious project to reconstruct the dolmen. This has taken a staged approach, which will conclude with the lifting and placing of the capstone on the support stones on the summer solstice this year. The modern day megalith builders make no bones about the inauthentic way this will be done – using a big machine – but as with the Crieff timber circle, this isn’t about mimicking prehistoric processes, it is about creating an impact, an effect, and leaving a legacy that isn’t just dozens of team members with sore backs and rope burns.

Already, the three supporting standing stones have been re-erected, a combination of machine work and worker hours. The uprights have supporting stones at their base, but it is hoped once the stones bed in (and have a capstone pressing down upon them) then these can be removed. These erection events were very much public spectacles, memorable events.

Andy Norfolk addresses the group. Please admire Roger Mercer's wonderful hat (far right)

Andy Norfolk addresses the group. Please admire Roger Mercer’s wonderful hat (the weird beret)

leaflets low res

Our visit to the monument, then, took place just a month or so before the much anticipated capstone placement manoeuvre, and the excitement and trepidation of our guides including Andy Norfolk of the Trust was quite literally palpable. We viewed an interesting wishing-well noticeboard, which on one side had posters etc pinned on advertising events past and future. Visible at the far end of the field was the bizarre sight of three closely clustered standing stones sitting within a fenced off area, and beside that two massive recumbent stones, one of them the capstone. As we walked down through the field, we passed some benches in a circular arrangement, a story-telling area. The capstone was adorned with miniature dolmen made from small stones, much more suitable for my tiny scale. And between the capstone and monument lay a small black rather damp looking sock.

The sock

The sock

And then there was the caged beast itself, the dolmen in waiting, the stones themselves trembling with anticipation of their requirement to once again sustain the huge capstone.

Giants Quoit 1

Fence around dolment

Giants Quoit 2

This is a fantastic project, and one that demonstrates the potential social, ecological and even economic benefits of megalith construction. The ostensibly simple component parts – large boulders essentially – come together to form something magical, a structure that has great appeal to the press and appeals even more to the public imagination. The numbers of volunteer hours, the effort expended to get this far, are evidence of the passion and potential this project is generating. I wish the team well in the final push and look forward to visiting the third iteration of this monument and hope that this can inspire a new wave of megalith building.

Sus Trust

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks first and foremost for our guides at the Quoit, and also for Jenny Moore for taking us along in the first place. Much of the information in this blog has come from the leaflets we were handed on site, and the project website (link in post above). Three of the images above also came from this website – the old postcard, the dowsing image and the event poster. I would encourage you to follow progress via twitter @giantsquoit and see these other links. The definition of sustainable development at the start of the post was written by UN’s 1987 Brundtland Commission.

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Playground prehistory

20 May

Can urban prehistory help contribute to the improvement of our landscape today and to social well being? Is there a demand for the construction of new prehistoric monuments? Is it possible to re-engage people with their landscape and their past by drawing inspiration from stuff that happened thousands of years ago?

I think that the answer to these questions is yes, and in the next few posts, I want to look at a few contemporary prehistoric style monuments that have been built recently, and the potential social, educational and environmental benefits they are bringing.

Strathearn community campus timber circle

For thousands of years, prehistoric monuments have been in decline. They have been falling apart, eroded, damaged and diminished in number. But in the past few years this trend has changed. Megaliths, henges and other monuments are being built now in increasing numbers, with numerous contemporary functions.

My engagement with the Sighthill stone circle is where I started to think about this. Why don’t we still erect stone circles and timber posts? And I am not just thinking here about reconstructions of damaged or destroyed prehistoric monuments (although of course there is a role for this kind of thing), but also of new monuments, built today from scratch. These could well be inspired by one or more ancient monumental forms, but with modern utility.

A fantastic example of this has, within the past few weeks, been built in Crieff, Perth and Kinross. A new timber circle for the town, constructed within the Strathearn Community Campus. At an archaeological level, the circle is a half size version of a timber circle with central four poster  found and excavated at nearby Pittentian during excavations in advance of the Beauly to Denny power line.

Preparing the ground

Preparing the ground

The first post going up

The first post going up

Construction nearing completion

Construction nearing completion

The circle was constructed over a few days using a heavy machine and enthusiastic workers with hard hats on. The wood used is larch. In other words, there is not much that is authentic about this new timber circle. But this does not stop it working. This does not stop is being beautiful. This does not stop it being a structure that inspires and provokes reactions. The weirdly leaning central four-poster is based on excavation evidence, but is sure to get visitors talking, if not hugging the timbers as I did when I visited last week.

circle and path low res

Strathearn community campus timber circle 2

SCC timber circle from school balcony

This new timber circle is part of an ambitious programme of interventions in the Strathearn Community Campus, inspired by the school and campus senior management, with the support of local enthusiasts, Northlight Heritage archaeologists and Scottish and Southern Electric (SSE), builders of the new power line. The programme aims to presence the prehistory of the local area in the campus, to educate and inform, inspire and amaze, to put into practice the potential social and education benefits of urban prehistory.

As we left the campus last week, standing beside the timber circle was a teacher and a group of school kids. This was a drama class and they were discussing using the circle as a ‘stage’ for part of a forthcoming play. And the first visualisations of this new monument were produced by technical teacher Michael O’Kane very much within a classroom environment. Almost as soon as it was erected, this monument has a use, a function, a role in the community, an educational purpose.

I hope that the children in the school will feel able to use this timber circle, to touch the posts, spend time within the circle, view the monument as an amenity for their benefit.

The vision

The vision

Temporary exhibition in school entrance area

Temporary exhibition in school entrance area

By being useful, and inspiring children I think urban prehistory, new stone circles and megaliths can have a purpose in our contemporary digital society even although standing stones and timber posts are essentially analogue technology.  I look forward to collaborating with the Crieff timber circle team a lot more in the coming months and years.

Sources and ackowledgements: the timber circle has very much been driven by the enthusiasm of head teacher Christine Ross, and her supportive team. The pre-construction image comes from her blog, while the digital vision was prepared by Michael O’Kane. The circle was funded by SSE and suppored by the campus management team, and particular thanks must go to the shamanic genius that is Ally Becket of Northlight Heritage. The two construction photos came from Ian Hamilton and Colin Mayall, the second of which was sourced from Colin’s excellent local history blog. Thanks to everyone involved for allowing me to be involved!

 

Pop-up prehistory

10 May

Stone circles were erected with a huge amount of care and hard work in prehistory, but nowadays it seems they simply pop-up.

Two stone circles have popped-up around Glasgow University in the past few years, one made of foam and established for one day to celebrate the archaeology department at the University, the other an altogether more mysterious and improvised structure that has magically appeared just behind the University library at some point in the past few weeks.

I wonder if these kinds of events and activities have something to tell archaeologists about new ways of engaging with the wider public?

In 2011, as part of a wider campaign to publicise the work and distinctiveness of the archaeology department at Glasgow University, a Love Archaeology event was held in Professor Square to celebrate the 50th anniversary of archaeology at the University. This included a mock excavation, archaeology home baking stall, pop-up Hunterian Museum zone, interactive geophysical survey, flint knapping display and a tree was adorned with images from the history and present of the department.

50th anniversary foamhenge

And a pop-up stone circle was constructed, a ‘foam’ version of Temple Wood stone circle, Argyll, that had been loaned from Kilmartin House Museum. The circle was laid out with a cist in the centre, which was a mocked up version  of the dagger burial excavated by GU archaeologists at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross, in 2009.

An approximate reconstruction of the Forteviot cist contents

An approximate reconstruction of the Forteviot cist contents

Ceremonies were carried out at the circle every hour or so, with shamanic craziness the theme.

shamanic craziness

At the end of the day, the big foamy monoliths were lifted and loaded back into the van from which they were initially off-loaded, packed away, leaving nothing other than memories and photographs, and a lingering sense of embarrassment on the part of the shaman.

A few weeks ago, when I was walking through the campus, I noticed a bizarre and ramshackle stone circle that has appeared from nowhere. This monument is located in a quiet and rather untidy corner of the campus, beside a path that leads from the library down to the QM Union. The University has tended to use this space to park vehicles and dump rubble and building materials, and it is some of this rubble that appears to have been utilised by someone creative / drunk / with too much time on their hands.

GU stone circle overview

GU stone circle and context

This is a surprisingly complex little structure. The central focus is a five-poster of sorts, less than 1m square and consisting of the tallest stonework, and surrounding this is a circle with diameter of between 2.5m and 3m defined by another five squat stones. Surrounding this is a further circle of stones, but this time much smaller rocks, which on the northern side tails off into a pile of rubble from whence the exterior stones seem to have been sourced. A narrow ‘avenue’ runs from the south side of the circle, connecting the monument to the pathway. The monument is constructed from two different types of stone work. The five-poster and interior circle are made of red sandstone masonry, presumably sourced from an old building somewhere on campus that must have been demolished. The exterior circle and avenue are marked by what look like rough dark grey cobbles, and a big pile of these lie close to the circle

GU stone circle

Who built this monument, and why? I have no idea. The following words scratched on the tallest central stone do not help: ‘Thanks for the [spot? sport?]’. The stones balance on the grassy surface and will probably fall over (or be pushed over) before long; it does not seem to be a structure designed for permanence.

GU stone circle graffiti

Both of these monuments have been built in the pop-up spirit. They are temporary installations which appeared almost as if from nowhere and without a fanfare. They got people talking. They have added value to the places where they popped-up.

The Love Archaeology foamy circle and its central cist served an educational role, delivering a very tangible and hands-on experience of a prehistoric monument to a large volume of members of the public. The shamanic performance was intended to create memories.

The complex masonry stone circle has been built in what is very much a marginal space in the campus, and this fragile looking monument has added some value and positivity to this place.

The concept of a pop-up [whatever] is very much a modern concept, concerned with impact, novelty, surprise, cost-effectiveness and creating demand and interest. It is a concept that archaeologists have not yet made enough of, and yet we work with stuff that lends itself readily to the pop-up format – museum collections and artefacts, monuments, ancient crafts and activities. There is no reason why we could not run, for instance, pop-up excavations in urban places. Watch this space!

Sources: the three photos of the Love Archaeology event are from their facebook page.

You can now follow the Urban Prehistorian on twitter: thanks to the character limit on twitter accounts, I go by the snappy name @urbanprehisto and see also #urbanprehistory (you can tell I am new to this kind of thing!)

 

The urnhouse

3 May

Our tale begins in September

Nineteen hundred and ninety six

When a gardener improving his border

Imagined he’d struck some bricks.

 

But on digging around a tree root

Which meandered across his plot

The tip of his heavy steel crowbar

Broke into an earthenware pot

 

Sometimes gardeners find the strangest things. In September 1996, in the garden of Robin and Fay Harvey in Benderloch, near Oban, in Argyll, a remarkable discovery was made – an intact and huge cinerary urn, inverted in a pit, containing cremated human bones. In this most urban of locations, between white houses and next to a fence, rooting amongst the roots, Mr Harvey discovered a family burial plot that was thousands of years old. And even today, they live in the same urnhouse, as I was to find when I visited recently. I wanted to find out the impact that making such a discovery could have on someone, to have one’s garden suddenly designated both an archaeological site and a cemetery.

My interest in this gardening incident was prompted by a colleague giving me an ancient looking copy of Historic Argyll (volume 2, 1997, original price £1.95). This is a booklet produced annually by the Lorn Archaeological & Historical Society, a compendium of local history and archaeology articles and snippets written by members and invited contributors.

historic argyll cover

In the central pages was a spread which included a photograph of a small team who had excavated in the back garden of a house in Benderloch, and this included two of my contemporaries, Gavin MacGregor and Andy Jones, looking considerably younger then than they do now. Above this was a photo of an urn filled with cremated bones, and opposite, a long poem by Robin Harvey (extracts of which are found in this post). The urn was found in the Harvey’s garden, and both Robin and Fay also appeared in the photo. On the previous page, it notes, ‘the illustration overleaf and Robin’s poem capture the excitement of the moment of discovery’ and there is a real sense of this being a significant event for all involved. After some initial exploration, experts were called in, and an excavation was carried out by GUARD, funded by Historic Scotland. (This site has NMRS number NM93NW 38).

images from historic argyll

 

Thursday dawned fine as it happened

Paul Robins of WOSAS arrived

Along with a host of neighbours and friends

All buzzing like bees ‘round a hive

 

‘We’ll have to get in the contractors’

Said Paul, “We can’t move it today

Historic Scotland will have to be told

Who knows? They might even pay!’

 

The GUARD team opened a trench measuring 1m by 2.5m in the vicinity of the hole dug by Mr Harvey with his spade and crowbar. The excavation revealed a single cremation urn, upside down (as was standard in the Bronze Age) with cremains inside; the pot had been placed on a flat slab within a pit. In order to facilitate the analysis of the discovery under lab conditions, the whole thing was lifted in one go: ‘the urn was … bandaged and supported with a polyurethane frame in order to lift it in one piece, together with the slab’ (MacGregor 1998). CSI Benderloch.

Gavin's photo taken during the excavation

Gavin’s photo taken during the excavation

All sorts of fancy and innovative analyses were then undertaken on the cremains, some of which were unusual in the mid-1990s but commonplace now. This was a mixed deposit, of a young adult female and a child aged between 16 months and 4 years. The woman suffered from iron deficiency, and the child may at one time have received a crush injury to one foot. DNA analysis was attempted, with no positive results. It is tempting to speculate that these two individuals were related to one another, and it seems clear they were cremated, and their remains gathered together, with great care.

Kilmartin Museum's reconstructed pot

Kilmartin Museum’s reconstructed pot

The vessel within which they were buried is spectacular. The photo above, of the pot reconstructed (and now on display in the Kilmartin House Museum in Argyll) has been uploaded to the BBC’s History of the World in objects webpage. It is a cordoned urn, a relatively common vessel type associated with pit cremation burials in the middle 2nd millennium BC. Before it was used to curate the human remains, the pot was used for cooking, perhaps more than once, having once held boiling fatty liquid.

Gavin who wishes to remain anonymous.

Gavin who wishes to remain anonymous.

I was intrigued by the story of this touching snapshot into Bronze Age life found in a garden in Argyll. I asked Gavin MacGregor for his memories, and these were positive, albeit he had some reservations about his 1996 haircut.

But I also wanted to visit the location myself, and I took advantage of a recent trip to Argyll to visit friends to take a chance and visit the house in question, 18 years after the burial was found. On a warm and sunny April morning, I followed the map in the excavation report, walked along a road and then up a path, and knocked on the door.

???????????????????????????????

Thankfully, the man who answered was none other than Robin Harvey, and he and Fay kindly spent some time reminiscing about the urn discovery, and indulged my bizarre request to photograph the spot where the burial was found.

The cist location today

The cist location today

In the garden, Robin pointed out the location where he made the discovery, under a bush between a fence and path. For some reason I expected the exact place to be marked in some way, but it soon became clear that no marker was required for the spot to be remembered. The story of the discovery was told as if it happened yesterday, and the Harveys were clearly still excited by what they found and the ensuing excavations.

I asked Robin if it troubled him having a Bronze Age burial ground in his garden, but he said no, he thought it was fantastic. Fay told me that she had been interviewed on Radio Scotland about the time she had been able to meet the ancestors in her garden.

The Harvey's replica pot

The Harvey’s replica pot

Back in the (as they call it) urnhouse, Robin produced from a box an amazing reconstruction of the pot that they had made after the original was removed for analysis and museum incarceration. Made by potter Susan Nuttgens, it offers a tangible sense of how spectacular these huge pots can be and it looked very heavy. Robin pointed out various features, and he noted that the hole caused by his crowbarring had been filled in on the reconstruction.

I left the house inspired by the enthusiasm of Robin and Fay for a discovery they made 18 years ago, and I reflected on the life-changing event that finding a Bronze Age burial in your back garden could be. Perhaps this experience could be rolled out to the wider population for the general wellbeing of all.

pink shop postcard

After a quick stop in the local grocers (apparently the ‘world famous pink shop’) to get some potatoes etc, I then headed to the northern end of the village to visit a standing stone in the local school playground, the kind of activity which almost seems normal to me now. Sadly the shop had no parsnips, a source of genuine disappointment.

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To be honest, this was one of the most underwhelming standing stones I have encountered. Little more than 1.5m tall, and flat and thin in shape, tapering towards a sort of pointy top, almost nothing is known about this stone (NMRS number NM93NW 3). It appears to be in its original location, beside an abandoned railway cutting, and in the midst of a grassy area of the playground of Lochnell Primary School. The stone has a rather dynamic appearance, as if about to uproot itself and run away, like a naughty school child. It sits surrounded by school structures and paraphernalia – school buildings and red railings, bins and bus shelter, fencing and pathways, tarmac and a council van.

I wonder what the children at the school make of it?

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My fieldtrip ended with a visit to one final standing stone, or rather a weird pair of standing stones, across the road from the primary school at Barcaldine, a few miles to the north of Benderloch. Here, one stone in situ has another of similar size and appearance leaning against it like a drunk twin. The latter stone is apparently not in situ, but again almost nothing else can be said about this pair of uprights (NMRS number NM94SE 3).

Barcaldine standing stones

Barcaldine standing stones

This monument sites in a rather crappy field of rushes and scrubbiness, damp underfoot and not really that inviting. As well as being near the school, the standing stone has as a backdrop a grim grey concrete building with a blue banner draped on it which says LOW PRICE MOORINGS AVAILABLE. Nice.

polaroid

I took this trip during the Easter weekend, when I also spent some time partaking in the usual seasonal frivolities, involving eggs and symbolism and children having fun. It is probably a lot stranger to spend time in the company of a person dressed as a giant white rabbit than it is to stand and gaze at a place where two young people were laid to rest in prehistory.

The past has a constant weak presence in the present, whether in the form of rituals and religions that loosely memorialise things that happened 2000 years ago, or funny looking standing stones that were erected 5000 years ago and now stand beside schools, or the cremation and internment of a parent and child 3500 years ago.

Our landscape, our activities, our memories, shaped by the past – from the past – endure today and still have the power to move, inspire, instil pride, entertain and provide an excuse to eat lots of chocolate. But sadly not, it  seems, parsnips.

Sources and acknowledgements:  I would firstly like to thank Robin and Fay Harvey for spending some time with me, and inviting me into their garden and house; their enthusiasm and fresh memories were wonderful. My thanks also to Gavin MacGregor who shared some memories with me, and it is his excavation photo that is included in the post above (copyright held by Historic Scotland, image number SC 1127050). The copy of Historic Argyll was handed to me by Steve Driscoll. All other images are my own, except the picture of the pot itself, sourced from the BBC website, uploaded there initially by Kilmartin Museum (where you can see the pot if you care to visit). Oh yes, and the postcard of the Pink Shop, creased from my pocket, was produced by Steve Eccles. The extracts from the poem were included with the kind permission of their author, Robin Harvey. For the full story of the excavation and post-excavation, see the report – Gavin MacGregor 1998 The excavation of a cordoned urn at Benderloch, Argyl, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 128, 143-59. Gavin writes the Heritagelandscapecreativity blog.