A suggestion to begin with
Urban green spaces are great locations for urban prehistory to hide itself away, existing in the cracks in the city that still exist, offering entry points to wormholes that go way back in time. And yet for some reason these precious prehistoric portals are often unheralded, and frequently ignored. And not just by visitors to the park. But also by park authorities, those who market and map parks, make signs, host park websites, produce publicity material and whose task it is to engage the public in park life.
Urban prehistoric sites may sometimes be partial, and often difficult, but they are seldom unrewarding.
In this post I would like to recount a recent visit to see one such site, a rock-art panel in Rouken Glen park, East Renfrewshire. I naively imagined before my walk that this amazing resource would be something that was viewed as a visitor attraction and point of interest within the park. I foolishly believed that when I parked my car and walked into the part itself signs would point me the way, thus supplementing the rather poor maps I had been able to source online. Yet what happened surprised me, and what appeared initially to be a simple task turned into a more of an educated guesswork wander which took me off the beaten path until I found a beaten path with the rock-art hidden and almost forgotten, 5m from a railway line.
Thankfully, as the entirely fictional news clipping above suggests, the gaze of archaeologists and park managers – and hopefully visitors to the park – may well be turning towards this rather sad and lonely piece of railway rock-art. The light of lasers has been shone on the rock and it has to be hoped that it will illuminate it so that it becomes as bright as it once was, several thousand years ago. But in the meantime, I have this suggestion:
Then a walk to find cup-marks on the 25th October 2015
I arrived at the car park on a damp Sunday morning and proceeded to walk straight to the small pavilion which I knew hosted an exhibition about the park itself. Beside this building an extensive and well-used playground throbbed with sound and nice screams, and children climbed on megalithic blocks and ran around within timber roundels.
Inside the pavilion was a light and airy exhibition with a focus on the heritage and geology of the park. I found little here on the rock-art however. One panel was entitled Mystic marks on the stone. Beneath a grey picture with some shadowy holes was a bit of text that said: ‘There are two rocks in the park with Neolithic … or later Bronze Age carvings”. Two?? That was a surprise. The label then concluded unhelpfully, ‘No one is sure what they mean’. Great. At least try!
There was no indication of where either of these rock-art panels might be, and they were not marked on any of the fistful of maps and leaflets I picked up as I left. I was on my own.
There were also no signs outside saying helpful things like ‘Rock-art this way’. And so I randomly headed along one of the paths that cut southwards across the wide open green expanse of park.
Then, almost immediately, and right in front of me, was a standing stone, on a low grassy mound just to the west of the path I was on. It was clear this was a stone with an affectation, namely an asymmetrical profile with a needle sharp protrusion on top. In front of this monument was a little board that told me that this stone was erected in 2006 to mark the centenary of the park. A tiny council logo sat beneath these rather grey words. The slate grey monolith emerged from a scuffed grassless patch and an green-orange-leaved tree overhung it. Sun rays painfully wriggled through the leaves to illuminate the backside of the stone.
I negotiated a few paths of various widths and surfaces, as well as dog walkers and joggers who were being timed by a trainer in a tracksuit and decided to head down towards the river with an aim of crossing a bridge further south which would take me to the rough ground where I knew the rock-art must be located. I walked along this silent path, with sandstone outcrops jutting out below me. Alone with my thoughts.
And my chalk.
After a while, the wooden barriers and fence posts began to take on rock-art motifs, transforming in front of my credulous eyeballs.
I realised there would be no signs. So I followed the official park map with my own annotations. Emerging at a crossroads I crossed a bridge. From one of the bridge barriers was a wet toy donkey hung on a rainbow noose, a symbol from a crazed alternative tarot card. Lost, like me.
Beyond the bridge was a huge rock outcrop. I scanned the surface. I crawled all over it. There was no ancient rock-art here. But there were fag packets, broken glass, cigarette butts. And the faintest traces of weathered writing, indistinct letters and words, in pen and chalk. A rock that was not marked in prehistory. But marked now, breaking an ancient taboo.
Beside the rock I found two train tickets, separated from one another by several metres. Both tickets bought by or for a child, from different places, to different destinations. Both outbound, but neither to here.
This is a transitory place, near a railway line but curiously not a station. One-way only, a place for the young, for concessions with restrictions of carriage.
And from my hog-backed rock viewing position I could see a circular enclosure, defined by small trees and differential lawn mowing regimes, a space fine trimmed. In its centre was a megalithic capstone, and beside that, a red lipstick contained within a purple bullet-like capsule, make-up for the dead.
I sensed I was getting closer. The planets were aligning. But to get to my goal I had to leave the path and so I did this at a suitable location and plunged into the trees and the mud and the long grass and the weeds. Soon I was thoroughly lost and apparently no closer to my destination.
I climbed up a slope and emerged, blinking, onto a golf course, with golfers lurking nearby holding their golf sticks and golf balls and golf bags. Back down into the woods I hid from them, afraid that a twig snapped underfoot would bring down their wrath upon me. Then I though ‘sod it’ and climbed back to the fringe of the golf course and used it as a shortcut to get to the edge of the railway line.
Then the vegetation got really thick. I forced my way through branches and weeds, with roots clinging onto my ankles and brambles tripping me up.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, I lurched through the chest-high plants, my arms raised in surrendered, a face full of confusion for a world I no longer understood due to a recent re-arrangement of my limbs.
Then suddenly I found a nice clear path that ran beside the railway line and I realised there was probably an easier way to get here than the route I had just taken. But I had come through a rite of passage (I consoled myself), I had got here the hard way (so I told myself), I had gone off the map but had found the rock-art.
A single, solitary cup-mark. Lonely. Quietness punctuated by trains speeding by a few metres from where I stood.
The cup-mark has a wonderful organic quality and alone in the woods I found it difficult to determine the soft edges of the pecked hollow motif on the pliable and plastic rock. The cup circle held some water and a curled brown leaf when I had arrived but as I stayed and stared, it took on a new character, organic and vital, life-giving and potent, fecund.
And so after staying here for quite some time, under the influence of the vibrating tracks behind me, I set off, along the path.
Ambiguity abounded. Trees, spirals, cuts, knots, twigs, tree rings, rock-art rings, stone and wood, blurred together in this place and on this path.
There was a tree that beneath the bark was blood red. I shivered as I passed it but made my mark.
Back out of the woods, the confusion seemed to pass, and soon I was just another person out for a Sunday stroll, with my path back to the car more certain as I got my bearings. En route I passed more stone monuments, this time in the form of lime kilns, some of which had candles and shrines in alcoves. These monuments to industry had been split open, half-sectioned, to expose the megalithic workings within, creative voids, spaces for air and material transformation, now places of candles, coins and flowers.
Then – my walk was over. The rock-art had been found. My boots were muddy and my hair was ruffled.
But it was done.
Followed by A More Formal Record of my own making
Notes on an exhibition
During 2015 Archaeology Scotland carried out a series of events in the Park to engage local people and park visitors to its archaeological heritage. These included walking tours, talks, survey and mapping workshops, laser scanning, a Heritage Festival and small-scale excavations. This was part of the DigIt! year of events and appears to have been a success. The project had a high visibility within the park with notices and posters up all over the place advertising the programme of events.
In early December a small exhibition based on the work done was launched with a lecture by Phil Richardson. I visited the exhibition about a week after it launched.
This is a really good example of how archaeological methods and techniques can be used to involve and energise the public (although in the photos I saw a lot of well-known amateur archaeologists and some of my students). Crucially, for me, this is not about saying something new about the past – although this can be an outcome – but rather it helps people today, to come together, work on something, see tangible outcomes and have a positive experience. It is also about the improvement of the green space for all users, whether this is displays like the exhibition, or better information about the park itself, and augmented visitor experiences.
Sadly, so far, this has not resulted in the new cup-and-ring-lings being any more visible in the park, and perhaps this exhibition, and the results of the work that underpinned it, will be as ephemeral and short-lived as my chalk markings. I hope not. I hope the cup-marks can become signposted and foregrounded in some way so dog walkers no longer rush past, children don’t need to create their own – and flâneurs will never again struggle to find them.
The rock-art, to benefit Glaswegians and other visitors today, can’t stay hidden anymore, off the map.