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.

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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.

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3 Responses to “The urnhouse”

  1. Ali Isaac May 3, 2014 at 5:56 am #

    A wonderful post! Thank you so much. There is something rather sad about these forlorn and neglected standing stones in the middle of run down urban areas, but the fact that they havent been torn down during the march of progess says something at least.

    • balfarg May 10, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

      Thanks Ali, and in fact I would argue that progress would be erecting more standing stones!

      • Ali Isaac May 10, 2014 at 11:14 pm #

        Yes that would be something to see!!!

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