Archive | May, 2015

Panopticon megalith

18 May

Panopticon: ‘a building, such as a prison, hospital, library, or the like, so arranged that all parts of the interior are visible from a single point’.

Stone circle: a prehistoric panopticon.

 

This is the story of a stone circle that is trapped – stuck in concrete, cornered at the end of a dead-end. A stone circle that has suffered more than most due to the encroachment of suburbia and urban expansion, and yet despite this, still exists, albeit it in a heavily moderated and modified form. It still matters. This is the story of a stone circle that we should not give up on, even although a decade ago it seemed that everyone had. This is the story of the greystanes of New Scone, the Sandy Road stone circle.

Greystanes cul de sac low res

The stone circle is tucked away, almost out of sight, at the end of a short road, hemmed in on all sides by houses and the familiar trappings of urban furniture – cars, lamp posts, kerbs, hard core, wood chippings, generically boring plants, doors, door steps, windows, window ledges, hanging baskets, low walls, grey bricks, grey paving stones.

Greystanes in Greystanes.

Greystanes low res

The stone circle is inconspicuous, disguised as an abstract piece of landscape gardening, like a group of artfully and craftily arranged boulders, sitting amidst grey-white pebbles and bright pink, purple and yellow heathers. Ankle high vegetation and knee high stones. A process has occurred that has transformed this stone circle into a circle of stones. It has been cul-de-sacked.

Sandy Road low res

I visited this stone circle, known as Sandy Road, in Scone, Perth and Kinross (NMRS number NO12NW 28) a few months ago. I have to be honsest and say that I felt uncomfortable during my visit. The monument seems to be completely surrounded by windows, holes with eyes, viewing platforms through which to watch strangers like me armed with cameras and small photographic scales and notebooks.

Curtains twitched, dogs barked aggressively, letter boxes rattled.

Woof woof. Stranger danger. Megalithic meddler. Weirdo. What is he up to?

I am alone, but not alone, being watched by house dwellers and passers-by with their shopping bags, being sensed and sniffed by dogs. I felt that I had invaded the senses of this place and caused a disturbance.

two of the stones

The stone circle in New Scone was first documented in detail by the redoubtable Fred Coles, who wrote abou this ‘remarkable’ monument in 1909 as part of one of his wider reviews of standing stones in the county. (Gavin MacGregor has blogged about some nice work Coles did a few decades earlier in SW Scotland in relation to cup-and-ring marks.) When Coles visited the Scone area, the circle still lay outwith the boundaries of western side of the town, beside Sandy Road, and a fir tree plantation. He recorded nine stones, seven of which were in situ, in a slightly elliptical setting 22 or so feet across. As well as drawing a lovely sketch of the stones, Coles also included in his report a photograph taken by a local man, Mr William Small. (An intriguing footnote records: ‘Mr Small is interesting himself in the skilful use of his camera in connection with the megalithic remains to be found in the districts adjacent to Perth.’)

Fred Coles' sketch of the Sandy Road stone circle pre-urbanisation

Fred Coles’ sketch of the Sandy Road stone circle pre-urbanisation

William Small photo from PSAS

Coles’ insightful comments on the stone circle came when the monument was untroubled by anything other than the activities of forestry workers. This was viewed a few decades later as being the cause of the loss of an supposed second small stone setting adjacent to Sandy Road. However, no firm evidence has been found to confirm there were two stone circles, with scattered boulders on the surface likely causing mid-identification – confusingly some of these boulders are part of the current display of the monument.

The monument before excavation (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

The monument before excavation (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

By 1961, the immobile stone circle finally clashed with creeping urbanisation, with the point of fusion being a trowel and then machines of the building trade. The expansion of New Scone on its western side, growing along Sandy Road, resulted in the circle coming under serious threat. This resulted in a series of traumatic events in the life of the monument. Firstly, the site was excavated by Margaret Stewart in 1961. She discovered a cinerary urn in a pit in the centre of the circle which contained a few cremated human bones; this was subsequently radiocarbon dated but with unsatisfactory results. In 1963 the OS recorded that the stone circle sat ‘in the middle of a council housing estate in the course of construction’. And then, by 1965, an OS fieldworker noted, ‘These stones have been temporarily removed. There are seven stones, which have been numbered and are to be cemented in position.’ And so the circle went into storage, only to be returned to the cold grey grip of concrete later that year, moving in at the same time as the new residents.

What then? The circle was by now just another garden feature, a folly in a cul-de-sac which had at least been named after the monument: Greystanes. And a  noticeboard was erected at the end of the road, to explain to residents (and visitors) what this megalithic curio was.

The noticeboard in 2006, photo (c) Cosmic

The noticeboard in 2006, photo (c) Cosmic

Yet there was clearly some kind of decline, and a lack of management of the monument. The noticeboard was removed at some point (I am not sure when, but it is certainly gone now). The stone circle itself became overgrown with vegetation, at first trees, and then shrubs and weeds.

The stone circle, overgrown and sad looking, in 2006 (c) Cosmic

The stone circle, overgrown and sad looking, in 2006 (c) Cosmic

The monument has of course been substantially tidied up since then, although upon close examination, it still bears the scars of its removal, storage and replacement. Cracks and splits in some of the stones suggest that some were broken during these invasive procedures, and subsequently glued together with some kind of synthetic adhesive.

Cracked stone

Cracked stone

There are also hints at other contemporary urban interactions. On two stones, yellow paint has been daubed onto them, on one in the form of a rough square, the other no more than a casual brush stroke.

yellow paint on stone low res

yellow paint on stone low res 2

This is what happens in urban places, with graffiti evident on other structures in the nearby park, such as this skateboard ramps, bins, trees, signposts and this obscured sign, another lost Scone noticeboard.

obscured noticeboard low res

And recently, the circle has come under minor threat from a very modern source – underground wiring related to, presumably phones, cable TV or broadband. Watching briefs were carried out by archaeologists in 2009 and 2012 because of works associated with ‘repair of communication equipment’ and the ‘repair of malfunctioning communications equipment’. Nothing of archaeological significance was found, and the monument suffered no further damage.

The urn from the stone circle, on display at Perth Museum and Art Gallery (their copyright)

The urn from the stone circle, on display at Perth Museum and Art Gallery (their copyright)

This stone circle, then, has suffered much in the name of progress and suburban utility, our convenience being at its inconvenience. But this is not to say that the circle is an irrelevance. A few years ago archaeologist Mark Hall (of Perth Museum and Art Gallery) brought the urn from the museum back to the stone circle where it was discovered, in a show-and-tell session with the local residents, and there was a lot of interest. This was a fantastic thing to do, and the response shows that there is a real desire from the community to learn more about this monument – and this is likely also reflected in the much tidied and regenerated appearance of the Greystanes as opposed to a decade ago.

Mark Hall at the Sandy Road stone circle (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

Mark Hall at the Sandy Road stone circle (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

So perhaps I got my visit all wrong. It could well be that the Greystanes residents were not spying on me, but intrigued by my presence, maybe even proud that a visitor had come to their street to see their stone circle. Urban stone circles can continue to be useful to us today if we use them, look after them, make them look nice, and occasionally remember that they are indeed ancient places, despite the heather and concrete and all the other trappings of contemporary urban life.

Those who are lucky enough to live with a stone circle at their front door have ringside seats overlooking prehistory.

Sources and acknowledgements: I must firstly thank Mark Hall for letting me know about this site, explaining his activities there, and sending me – and allowing me to reproduce – some of the photos used in this post. The photo of the site before excavation, the image of the urn and the final photo, with Mark sitting on one of the stones, are all copyright Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland and reproduced with permission. The urn is on display at the museum. The images of the overgrown circle, and the noticeboard, came from the Megalithic Portal pages for the site, and were posted there in 2006 by user ‘Cosmic’. Fred Coles’ description of his site, and his illustrations, come from his article ‘Report on stone circles surveyed in Perthshire (Southeast District), with measured plans and drawings’ published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) volume 43 (1909) from page 127 onwards – you can find this article online for free if you google for it. Information on the recent watching briefs and the OS accounts of the circle came from the CANMORE page for the site. Margaret Stewart’s excavation report was published in 1965 in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Perthshire Society of Natural Sciences, volume 11, pages 7-23.

 

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Postcards 3

13 May

You can always rely on the urban prehistorian churning out cheesy postcards once a year.

This year is no different.

Crieff Caravan Cairn

Rothesay its for me

 

Grooved ware in the garden

Livingston New Town Living

Livingston New Town style

Livingston New Town sexy

Penrith Closer than you think

Glasgow Pure Dead Brilliant

Blackpark UFO

Historic Perth

Bronze Age Faifley

Cardiff city of megaliths

Postcards 1

Postcards 2

Miliband’s megalith

6 May

It is made of limestone, and takes the form of a monolithic beige block, over 2m in height. It sits on some kind of trolley arrangement, and so is presumably portable. There is writing on the stone, starting with block capitals:

A BETTER PLAN.

A BETTER FUTURE.

Below this are six statements which are aspirational and vacuous at the same time. And below that a squiggly signature and a logo.

For the Labour Party.

For Ed Miliband.

It is election fever.

miliband and his megalith

I am describing Miliband’s megalith, or is has become known in the press, ‘Miliband’s manifesto monolith’, and more widely still, as #EdStone in social media. It is a remarkable standing stone version of the successful ‘pledge card’ that characterised the rise to power of New Labour and Tony Blair in 1997. It was unveiled by Ed Miliband itself, with a group of over-enthusiastic flag-wavers, on Sunday 3rd May, just five days before the UK general election. Miliband said of this peculiar gesture: ‘These six pledges are now carved in stone, and they are carved in stone because they won’t be abandoned after the general election.’ He was keen to stress the connection between stone, trustworthiness and promises – Miliband told the BBC the day after its unveiling: ‘Our pledges are carved in stone. I think trust is a huge issue in this election – the difference with our pledges is they are not going to expire on 8 May. We’re setting out promises – they don’t expire on May 8. They don’t disappear’. Although I think the megalith has actually disappeared now,  a wee bit embarrassed.

Picture showing the trolley stone sits on

This is all run of the mill election nonsense of course, but what got my interest was Miliband’s comment that he was prepared to turn Downing Street into an urban prehistory landmark. He suggested that if he were to win the election, he would erect the standing stone in the garden of 10 Downing Street, so he could be held to account or something. Westminster Council has already reported that they would not necessarily allow planning permission for Ed’s erection in the garden of a central London property. Even if planning permission were granted, it seems likely London’s newest standing stone would fall foul of propaganda regulations. The Daily Telegraph reported on the day after Miliband’s announcement that any monolith erection ‘would be likely to fall foul of the Ministerial Code, which bans the use of government buildings for the “dissemination of material which is essentially party political”, sources said.’ As ever, megaliths and politics are difficult to disentangle.

Miliband has laughed this suggestion off since (‘I’m not a landscape gardener’), and most observers have had a good laugh about the whole situation, with mockery commonplace on social media although little of this content (except the image reproduced below) has so far focused on the prehistoric nature of Miliband’s gesture. (Having said that Boris Johnstone tweeted ‘Future archaeologists will gaze with bafflement at this waste of good stone’ and this is perhaps an interpretation of Stonehenge which has not yet been considered).

General Boles twitter image

Image posted on twitter by General Boles

It is difficult to find out much information about the standing stone itself. It is said to be made of limestone and is a harsh block rather than an organic megalith although the base seems slightly rippled and the top cut at a slight angle. It is 8 feet and 6 inches tall (which is 2.59m) and looks to me to be about half of that across (maybe 1.2m). The depth is also tricky to guess, as the stone seems to only have been photographed from the front – to allow it to be a stable megalith it must be at least 15 to 20cm deep. By this estimation, and based on my back-of-an-envelope calculations, the whole standing stone could weigh in the order of 1.597 tonnes. Hence the stone sitting on a rather rusty and crappy looking metal frame which, I assume is a trailer, upon which the stone can be driven about. (Having said all of that, from the pictures I have seen, the stone could actually be an elaborate cardboard cut out for all I know, or may only be a thin slab.) It is not clear where the stone will be stored until re-erected, and may now be residing in a garage or lock-up somewhere.

My superficial analysis of Miliband's megalith

My superficial analysis of Miliband’s megalith

This is all reminiscent of the rather more poetic attempt by Alex Salmond, then Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP, to leave a legacy in the form of a colourful standing stone which was erected in Edinburgh last year. It was unveiled on 18th November 2014, on Salmond’s final day as First Minister, and again ‘sets in stone’ a pledge, in this case paraphrasing Robert Burns:

‘The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students’

Salmond and his stone D Telegraph

This stone sits in the grounds of Heriot-Watt University. It is a rather extravagant monument to Salmond himself, containing a pledge he can no longer deliver, and has elements of the hubris of the Miliband megalith. These are less monuments to political promises, more monuments to the men themselves. Salmond’s stone is known as his Legacy Stone, but Miliband’s version will, I am sure, be quickly forgotten even if does become resident at 10 Downing Street.

Set in stone cartoon The Times

Morten Morland’s cartoon, which appeared in The Times on 4th May 2015

So why do politicians’ feel the need, on occasion, to carve their pledges and policies into stone, and erect them as megaliths? The idea is that these are promises, permanent and impossible to erase, ‘set in stone’. But there is also an unmistakable whiff of prehistoric, shamanic grandstanding in these gestures; politicians do appear to like to be associated with ancient places of permanence, wisdom and solidity. Stonehenge has seen its share of celebrity politician visits over the past year. When Obama visited, he said Stonehenge was ‘cool’. David Cameron remembered trips there as a youth when it was possible to ‘clamber all over the stones’. I have no idea what Nick Clegg said.

Obama at Stonehenge

David Cameron at Stonehenge

Nick Clegg at Stonehenge

Are we fooled by these megalithic metaphors of power and permanence? Do we accept that when a pledge is carved into rock by machine or chisel that it has more resonance and reliability that a promise spoken, a paper manifesto, a ministerial tweet? Would this infamous pre-referendum promise, printed in newspaper form just before the independence referendum in Scotland in September 2014, have really been any more trustworthy or powerful had it been carved on a tablet of stone?

The vow DR front cover

On the eve of the election, voter apathy is high, and patronising gestures like the ‘Daily Record Vow’ and Miliband’s megalith simply reinforce the credibility gap politicians are trying to breach. There is a sort of ‘pledge arms race’ going on here, where promises need to become more extravagant and tangible to be real, and so propaganda tools from the past are used to make this happen – treaties, tablets of stone, modern magna cartas. I fully expect the next election to be marked by promises written in blood on documents made of the leathered skin of ancient prime ministers, or for full scale trilithons to be erected with pledges hanging from them on banners and draped in flags.

The rocks will melt with the sun before politicians start to say things we really can believe in sadly, and the harder they try, the harder the surface they write on, the more like bollocks it looks.

Sources: this post contains a range of images which I have sourced online, most of which – the Stonehenge celeb pics, those of Miliband’s megalith, and Salmond’s stone for instance – are widely available online from various media outlets and newspaper websites.