Liquid prehistory

‘A stone’s a stone, Dr John’

‘Never dismiss what’s beneath your feet, Jack’


London is one of the biggest cities in the world, a truly urban place. Yet on a recent trip there I found several worked pieces of prehistoric flint, right in the middle of the city, within sight of the financial district with glassy skyscrapers arranged in arrogant shapes and angles on the immediate skyline to the north. Maybe London is the only city in the world where this could happen. After all this is the city mythologised by psychogeographers, graphic novelists and documentarians as having deep time, so deep that many of the streets and alleyways seem to be wormholes through which Romans can be glimpsed, or some medieval street vendor’s sales pitch heard. The street plan – in places – is a roadmap to the past, while place names capture ancient trades, events and stories. In a previous post, I explored the essences of the past apparently left by just one individual in the city – Jack the Ripper – but I could just as well have discussed Dr Dee or Charles Dickens or the Elephant Man in the same clichéd terms.

London skyline

But prehistory? This is going much much deeper than most psychogeographers dare to go. Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the city barely mentions prehistory, and yet we know, from excavations in advance of the Olympics, and Heathrow Terminal 5, and the ongoing (very deep) Crossrail tunnelling that prehistory is down there, all around, waiting to be found.

What better place to search for tangible traces of prehistoric activity than on the banks of the majestic Thames, a mighty mythical river that of course runs through the city like a wound and an artery (© just about everyone who has written about this river). And such an opportunity arose when I was treated to a guided walking tour in London that involved some facilitated ‘beachcombing’ on the south bank, overlooked by the Tate Modern (and lots of curious tourists). This activity has recently become something of a trendy thing to do, with ‘mudlarking’ a relatively commonplace activity, and the exposed banks of the Thames dotted with figures bend double clutching carrier bags and trowels. There are clubs and loners, official museums and unofficial collections of curios, treasure hunters and history gatherers.

The objective? To find stuff. Preferably old stuff but online there are multiple motivations and interests represented, and for everyone who faints at the sight of a Roman coin, there is someone else who will tremble at the touch of a Victorian wine glass stem, or a 16th century clay pipe bowl. Prehistoric stuff is actually a minority concern, as it is less commonly found – and it is very difficult to separate the lithic wheat from the chaff when the beach pebbles one encounters are almost all waterworn flint cobbles and pebbles. And of course it is worth noting that there are a range of rules and regulations governing such activity, and there is an element of danger if you don’t grasp the rules of the river.


Our walking tour, with inter-tidal archaeologist Fiona, began at the Mansion House tube station. We wound down to the Thames, trying to visualise Roman London, and the various and fatter iterations of the river. But of course the real goal for everyone present was to get down onto the ‘beach’, and this was soon achieved near the Millennium Bridge. Before going down the slimy steps beneath the city, the whole group rubbered up with gloves to avoid picking up Weil’s Disease from rats’ piss strewn objects. But this wasn’t what we wanted to pick up – it was old stuff!

The tour website tantalised:

‘wear sensible shoes and bring a little bag for your swag – for the goodies you’re going to find: mediaeval roof tiles, Elizabethan clay pipes, something Roman perhaps, or even Mesolithic! Yes, a few of our Beachcombers are now the proud owners of something a Mesolithic Londoner produced 8,000 years ago! (Give or take a few days.)’

To get down to the foreshore we had to edge down big grey steps covered in brown slime and what I suppose should be called ‘riverweed’. There, the group split up and we all wandered rather unsystematically back and forth, underfoot various textures apparent of a generally beach-like nature.


Flint pebbles were everywhere, and soon it became apparent so too were grotty animal bones from a glue factory and lumps of 19th century iron (nails and so on). We picked up and scrutinised the strangest and mundanest of objects, and a few were slipped into little bags for later inspection. Almost immediately I spotted a small light brown flint with a clear bulb of percussion on it, and a blog post was (thankfully) now going to be possible. There was a good deal of excitement and confusion amongst our group, nothing like a previous systematic survey that had taken place in a similar location but for very different reasons.


American artist Mark Dion ‘fieldwalked’ this same stretch of shore in 1999 for his Tate Thames Dig piece with a group of volunteers. This was a systematic search, part performance, part archaeological reconnaissance. In other words he created the illusion of doing archaeology while actually really doing archaeology. ‘Dion’s team collected large quantities of items, including clay pipes, vividly decorated shards of delftware, oyster shells and plastic toys. The finds were then meticulously cleaned and classified in ‘archaeologists’ tents’ on the Tate Gallery’s lawn at Millbank’. The material collected was ultimately displayed in old-fashioned cabinets mimicking outmoded forms of museum display, and in ‘treasure chests’.

Mark Dion
Mark Dion

Mark-Dion-Archaeology-book cover

Dion’s work replicates a scientific rigorous process (surface collection, cleaning, documenting) in order to expose the problems and underlying assumptions in such processes, and so for instance the final display of the objects avoided strict typological / taxonomical subdivisions. Indeed Dion defies such cosy classifications by displaying objects in stark juxtapostion, or arranging them according to colour, in this and other projects he has undertaken. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew has argued that these ‘innocent paradoxical displays invite examination; they pose questions. They lead us to ask again just what it is we do when we are doing archeology or zoology or botany’.

But what is more interesting to me is that all of this stuff was just lying there, waiting for collection, and this isn’t the preserve of professional (although you do need a permit to ‘dig’ on the Thames foreshore). Artists, amateurs, scavengers, bored children, all with little plastic boxes or bags loaded with jumbles of objects, dodging the tides, in the middle of one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world.

Objects collected ready for scrutiny
Objects collected ready for scrutiny

On the bank of the Thames, on an October Sunday morning, there was little else other than juxtapositions. Eagerly collected objects of all sorts were laid out for explanation, and these cut across a whole range of material categories (bone, clay, stone, iron, plastic, glass and so on) and had vast chronological range literally thousands of years long. The act of searching and discovery was enough for all of us, and everyone benefited from the tangible connection to the past reflected in, for instance, a 17th century clay pipe bowl. An audience of tourists watched from above, as we slowly drifted away from the foreshore, the tide lapping at our feet. By late afternoon the Thames has risen some 6m here, and our little stretch of muddy, pebble-strewn beach was submerged in murky brown water, and beneath the surface the same taphonomic processes that drew us to this location in the first place were happening all over again. Liquid prehistory.

By the end of our hour or so of pottering about we had a nice little assemblage, dominated by the stems of clay pipes, but with some promising other fragments of glass, bone, metal and stone. Collected together, these were packed in a bag and later that day passed (almost without notice) through security at London City airport.


Back at the lab (as they say) I analysed a few of these objects. One of the most interesting things was a fragment of a Pepsi Cola bottle, which with some rudimentary online investigation turned out to be the 1940s-1960s logo for this soft drink, with this particular bottle perhaps dating to the 1940s.

pepsi label image

But the lithics held my attention most persistently. I asked our resident lithics specialist Dene Wright to have a look over these and he confirmed my interpretation of the light brown flint I found near the foot of the slippery steps – this was a broken blade, albeit undiagnostic.


Notes from my chat with Dene
Notes from my chat with Dene

Perhaps of more surprise was Dene’s identification of working traces on a big piece of flint I had taken for teaching purposes. This lumpy stone had, apparently, been struck at one end (in the mists of prehistory) and then a blade has been knapped from one side, although things had gone wrong and it was abandoned. And a nice shiny sharp black flint I picked up was in fact a core (having has at least one scraper knocked from it).


Amazing. Pieces of prehistory from the Thames, in the middle of London. Tangible connections with unknown craft specialists who lived thousands of years ago. These were no more or less interesting to me than the clay pipes, hundreds of years old, or the cola bottle fragment, decades old, but these stones were compelling tactile objects. In this game, a stone is never just a stone.

Of course prospecting on the banks of the Thames, in a place more often than not inaccessible and beneath the milky brown water, offered a fragmented connection with the past only. This was a very partial picture of objects without date and without context, literally lost in space and time, which is why these things could be removed in the first place.

But isn’t all prehistory rootless and routeless, with no road map, no mythical street plan, no occult place names, no eccentric architect that we know of, no paths to traverse or orbit? 10000 years beneath our feet or in our hands, it makes no difference to me. Just prick the surface and it bleeds out.

Sources and acknowledgements – firstly, I must thank Jan in the strongest possible terms for treating me to a surprise trip to London and organising the beachcombing tour. The tour itself was provided by London Walks and I would wholeheartedly recommend it and Fiona, who was a great and informative guide. If you are planning on going down to the Thames sometime to do some mudlarking, you should consult the following rules / regs for your own safety and also what to do if you actually find something that might be very old or important or both. Thanks very much to Dene Wright for looking at our little lithic assemblage and his patient explanation of French lithic terminology. The image of Mark Dion on the Thames ‘beach’ can be found in various places online, I sourced this one from this blog. For much more information on Tate Thames Dig, see the Tate Modern webpage on the exhibition (source of the quote about the project) and their learning resource, and Dion’s book ‘Archaeology’ (published by Black Dog). The Pepsi logo is available surprisingly widely online. The quote at the start of the blog comes from Phil Rickman’s novel ‘The Heresy of Dr Dee’, the Dr John being Dr Dee himself….while the Renfrew quote comes from this book ‘Figuring it out’ (Thames & Hudson 2006).


Perspective plant

A summer of trees. Metal trees, upside down trees and trees on fire. Art and performance with prehistoric allusions deliberate and incidental. Culture and nature entangled. And worlds inverted. In two parts.

Part 1: Florence / Firenze in July 2014


We are visiting the Belvedere Fort, overlooking the Boboli Gardens, in Florence. We encounter an unexpected outdoor art gallery, composed of trees. But upon closer inspection, not wooden trees. Bronze trees which ring when kicked. Trees with rocks in them, like grey eyeless owls.

tree with rocks low res

A dissected tree, cut into segments, supported on branch legs, a golden tube along which it is possible to peer from one end to the other, framing faces and cityscapes.

dissected tree low res

The installations are part of Italian artist Guiseppe Penone’s Prospettiva vegetale (Perspective plant) which ran through summer 2014. The metal trees are manifestations of a ‘deep relationship between man and nature, body and vegetation’ and they represent ambiguity and overlaps between nature and culture, concerns of the artist throughout his career.

Giuseppe Penone
Giuseppe Penone

One particular sculpture had a special impact on me – Le Foglie delle radici / The leaves of the root (2011). This remarkable piece consists of an inverted bronze tree, with roots towards the sky. Nestling in the root pad was some earth and growing from that earth a small shrub, fed by an irrigation system which runs up inside the trees like an invisible vein.

inverted tree low res

‘The placement of the bronze tree trunk is unnatural, with branches that work from the point of support on the ground and the roots facing upwards, but is counterbalanced by the rise of the slender shrub, of which tension toward the light is aided by the mass sculptural on which it rests’ [noticeboard on site]

shrub up top low res

This piece is remarkable, and what is perhaps most special is the plant springing from the top which seems somehow impossible. Yet it reflects the enduring nature of plants; even when trees have toppled, new life can spring from them as anyone who has inspected a root pad can attest to.

And of course there are unmistakable echoes of ‘Seahenge’, the timber circle surrounding an inverted tree trunk that was found on a beach in Norfolk in 1998. This incredible monument, dating to the late Neolithic, only survived because of the waterlogged conditions within which it was submerged for thousands of years. Neolithic timbers almost never survive, and so it is likely inverted trees were a feature of other timber monuments from this period but have not survived.

In an intriguing inversion of the living shrub topping Penone’s upside down tree, it is possible the roots of the Seahenge tree originally supported a corpse.


The location of this monument, on the edge of the land, has a liminal and transformational quality that can also be ascribed to Penone’s Le Foglie delle radici. There is something magical and compelling about the upside-down tree and the inversion of the shrub growing up from the roots. This is the world inverted, nature and culture reversed. The earth touches the sky, and the land touches the sea. Perspective plants.

general view low res


Part 2: Brodick, Arran in September2014

BtC2014Poster (2)

Another inversion of trees, on the edge of the land and the sea, this time on the island of Arran. This time, the trees are stripped bare of their foliage appendages, defenestrated sitka spruce trunks transformed into the basic building blocks of a timber circle. Twisting, invasive, vibrant rhododendron branches and trunks chopped up into kindling, at our disposal to fuel fires.

We returned to the scene of the timber circle we built in 2013, on a plateau in a field with views overlooking Brodick Castle, the Firth of Clyde and the Cal Mac ferry trundling back and forth. Last year, we tried to burn the circle and for the most part failed. But this time around we stacked timber into piles, preparing pyres to be burnt, and this time all that would be left would be ashes and dark stains on the earth.

The vision - box pyre
The vision – box pyre

By burning the circle we took trees and transformed them into fuel and then fire, via a series of experimental activities. Plans were hatched and a spectacle staged. Spectators had a deeply visceral experience that impacted on all of the senses (we hope). I did my best to lose myself in the shaman, the ritual ringleader transported to the top of Goat Fell, deeply serious but chaotic, improvising wildly. Culture was imposed on nature, and nature imposed on culture. Again.

As with Penone’s art, and Seahenge, what we did was on the fuzzy zone between nature and culture, and we constructed various reconfigurations of the natural world for our own purposes, bending it to our will, exploiting natural properties, to convey our own messages. But how much were we really in control of what was happening?


In the grounds of Brodick Castle, current artist-in-residence Karen Rann has been shaping nature too, manipulating the leaves of the ubiquitous rhododendron into different shapes and arrangements. The inspiration is a species of tree native to Arran, Sorbus Arranensis, which has a distinctive pattern of leaf growth. Her project, Nature of Change, has involved trimming big leaves into smaller leaves, stacking and re-arranging leaves, and creating holes in leaves which visitors are encouraged to take photos through and upload online.

karen rann low res

And an early engagement with the trees in this beautiful forest park was the adoption of her own tree, Rhododendron k arranensis. The artist becomes the tree, nature and culture all over again. And in this case, no fires were necessary to make an impact.


Concluding thoughts

This post was inspired by a few experiences I have had this summer that involve trees and the many forms that they can take. This is important to me as an archaeologist, because I study how prehistoric people engaged with trees – whether through clearing them to create space to farm, or re-shaping trunks and branches to build monuments and houses. And the experiences I have today, in the here and now, inevitably impact on how I interpret what I find in the archaeological record. How could this not happen?

As archaeologists, we make sense of the ancient past not just with our brains but with our bodies and senses. The past exists for us in the present, and therefore our experiences today, the physicality of now, is the filter through which the past manifests itself today. We can’t do anything to change this, nor would I want to.

Sources and acknowledgements: firstly, the Belvedere Fort. I visited with Jan and we had a great time exploring and thinking about this unexpected installation. The information on the exhibition came from a leaflet we picked up on site, and noticeboards. The photo of Penone is available widely online, and more info can be found at the Gagosian website. The Seahenge image was sourced from an excellent online guide to the monument, produced by Norfolk Museums. Burning the circle as an event involved a large team of helpers and funders. I would especially like to thank my colleague Gavin MacGregor, whose idea inspired the pyres. The National Trust for Scotland Rangers at Brodick made it all possible, and special thanks to the amazing Corinna Goeckeritz. The poster was designed by Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage, who also were fundamental to this event happening. I took the photos of the Karen Rann artworks, and for better images, see her blog and webpage (links above).