Archive | February, 2017

55 / 45

21 Feb

You might think that prehistoric monuments and things that happened thousands of years ago have nothing to do with contemporary political debates about identify, nationalism and borders. You may well also agree, as I do, with Niall Sharples who wrote over two decades ago that “the archaeological record of earlier periods should not normally contribute to the discussion of a nation’s identity”.

But not everyone thinks like this.

Prehistoric monuments can become the plaything, for innocent or sinister reasons, of those who wish to make claims about national boundaries, ethnic or national identities – or to influence your vote. Such appropriation of the prehistoric past is always troubling in my opinion, although it could be argued that there is a sliding scale of badness at play here. At the (far right) end of the scale we have a recent iteration of the mission statement of the British National Party (from the 2000s, now removed from their website) which stated: “We enthuse with pride at the marvels of architecture and engineering that have been completed on these islands since the construction of the great megaliths 7,000 years ago”. Papers in the book pictured below warn against such corruption of prehistory for political ends: we should always be vigilant for such occurrences and expose them.

book-cover

It is with interest then that appeals to the ancient past have become embedded in the discourse of Scottish independence, a process which concluded in 2014 with a vote of 55% to 45% to retain the status quo, but which inspired widespread political debate and continues to resonate strongly today.

I became aware of how this can manifest itself even in that most banal of places, the TV archaeology documentary. There is no doubt that nationalistic passions were released by the BBC TV programme Britain’s Ancient Capital: secrets of Orkney, broadcast on the BBC in January 2017.

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Social media responses to this show included ‘the BBC is scandalously pushing…Neil Oliver’s tendentious, ludicrous and anachronistic British unionist line’. The well-known political persuasion of lead presenter Neil Oliver (clue: it’s NO, not YES) has been taken by some viewers as a driver behind the ‘Britain – not Scotland’ narrative evident in the programme, Oliver being accused of ‘shrill British patriotism’ and of being a ‘British patriot’ (which may or may not be an insult depending on your perspective). Although I was publically critical of the content of this show, I happen not to buy this politicized critique of the show, with my reservations about this programme rooted more in its repetition of the tired old tropes of Neolithic studies in Britain.

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It came as something of a surprise to me to find out last year that a cairn had been constructed in 2014 right on the border between England and Scotland, a cairn that was an explicit rallying call for British unionism, a monument for those who did not want Scotland to become independent from the UK in the aforementioned referendum that took place in September of that year.

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This is a ‘Scottish’ cairn: it is called The Auld Acquaintance Cairn, a Rabbie Burns name, located on the Scottish side of the Border, a reconstruction of a Bronze Age Clava Cairn. But it had a ‘UK’ team of builders and cheerleaders, invited to come from all corners to help in its construction, emerging into the world through shared labour, motivations and symbols, to create a whole that was stronger than its parts, Better Together.

It is a NO monument, not a YES monument.

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NO or ON? (source: The Times (paywall))

It was built by the 55 for the other 45.

But. Despite being infused with unity and togetherness, constructed with good intentions as well as sweat and tears, I fear that its existence has, and continues to have, the potential to be divisive, festooned as it is with symbols and words that could be interpreted by some as divisive, even offensive.

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Built in the months leading up the referendum in a frenzy of fear that YES might win, it could be argued that this is a cairn that has served its purpose. But, since the conclusion of that debate, the cairn has become something of a monument to victory, a celebration of something not being lost, a vindication but perhaps also a warning from the past, literally a folly.

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The Auld Acquaintance Cairn was the brainchild of the polymathic Conservative MP Rory Stewart. The project to construct the cairn over summer 2014 was in part crowd-funded through an organisation called Hands Across the Border, whose website offers an archival (pre)history of the cairn. It is in a location that is cupped by a the gentle meander of the River Sark, the border between Scotland and England, but sits in the shadow of a placeless shopping mall.

The cairn was constructed in the period June to August 2014, and is a spectacular monument, consisting of some 130,000 stones.

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Laying the foundation stones of the cairn, summer 2014 (source: North News & Pictures)

Volunteers and visitors were encouraged to bring to the location stones from wherever they were from, thus ensuring the cairn was constructed of stones from across the UK, and beyond (with for instance a fragment of the Berlin Wall included). It is claimed over 10,000 people added a stone or helped with building the monument, with dry stone dykers doing the fiddly bits. Visitors were also encouraged to paint messages onto the stones, giving the cairn a colourful appearance which still survives several years later.

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The cairn during construction. The flagpoles in the background are now gone (souice: available in various cropped versions online, happy to update if this is your photo).

Various ‘celebrities’ spent time helping build the cairn or visiting the monument: Scotland’s only Tory MP David Mundell was there when the foundation was laid, grizzled explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes made an appearance on 28th July, and actor Joanna Lumley put in a shift three days later. “Historians Simon Schama, David Starkey, Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, the ‎philosopher AC Grayling, Field Marshal Sir Charles Guthrie, and the writer Alain de Botton have all contributed stones to the cairn” (Cumbria Crack) as has the famous mountaineer Doug Scott CBE (Cairn Builder Extraordinaire?).

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Fiennes (source: Hands Across the Border)

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Lumley (source: Sunbeam Music)

The cairn was a focus for events such as barbeques, teddy bear picnics, public shows of emotion, and a music festival called Brit Rocks! A poem – Cornerstone – was written for the cairn by Charlotte Higgins and carved onto two flat square slabs which were placed within the interior chamber. And apparently, some No voters and those who supported their campaign but who could not vote (i.e. anyone not living in Scotland) camped on the cairn overnight as the results of the referendum came in.

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Source: Hands Across the Border

A large map was erected on site where visitors could mark where they and their rocks had come from, although the map appears to have had no room for 80% of Orkney, all of Shetland or much of western Ireland. Europe’s not there, natch.

the-map

Source: Trip Advisor (link below)

As the cairn was being constructed, a short film was made about the project by The Economist. In the film, Rory Stewart described the monument as ‘a model of our country’ and the only physical manifestation of Better Together evident in the UK at that time. More emotively, he suggested that Scotland and the Rump UK were rather like a couple whose marriage was on the rocks and that one partner only needed to say ‘I love you’ to reconcile the partnership. (Was he really saying that the UK was basically just like a very unhappy marriage that neither partner should leave?) The Project Manager Angus Aitken went further, calling the cairn a ‘geological love letter to the Union’, that far into the future would stand as reminder of a time when the people of the UK came together through the medium of dry-stone walling.

Then – the referendum happened and the NO / Better Together campaign won. The border upon which the cairn sits remained softer than an egg that had been in boiling water for 60 seconds, and all inhabitants of Scotland were encouraged to pull together and move forward.

Hand Across the Border state on their website: “Now is the time for everyone to reconcile their differences and create a stronger better Britain.”

Whether this is better facilitated by the retention, or destruction, of the Auld Acquaintance cairn, depends if you are one of the 55 or the 45. Like megaliths, divisive political debates can have a long afterlife.

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Source: Cumberland News / (c) STUART WALKER

On a visit to the cairn in 2015, a year after it had been completed, Ian Jack recounted in The Guardian how the cairn was less noble in appearance than in aim. The banality of personal messages painted onto little stones was a little too much for him. He noted, “A monument intended to celebrate beautiful generalisations – political unity, friendship between peoples – has been altered (an old-fashioned aesthete would say damaged) by the intrusion of the specific and the everyday.” The solitude of the cairn was also noted (ie no one else visited while he was there), but so too was the noisy traffic flying past on the nearby M74 (the article calls it the M6, what this border zone of the motorway is known as in England). This sense of loss and disappointment is shared by a few (but by no means most) visitors to the cairn who have recorded their impressions on Trip Advisor (‘#4 of 5 things to do in Gretna’). One visitor called the monument ‘a mis-managed pile of stones’ which is actually quite a good definition of cairn.

The cairn was also vandalised that year, with Stewart saying at the time, “I respect that nationalists will continue to put forward their own arguments, but I fail to see what these vandals hoped to achieve by targeting the cairn at Gretna, other than to manifest their bitterness and resentment for the way in which the Scottish people ultimately chose to vote last year.” (Cumbria Crack). This vandalism appears to have included the daubing of ‘offensive slogans’ on the cairn, the breaking of one of the poem stones in the cairn interior, and removing the noticeboard next to the site and throwing it into the River Sark. This noticeboard floated down river, and was found on a beach a few months later by a dog walking former local MP, who returned this back on site for a photo shoot.

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Source: News and Star / (c) JENNY WOOLGAR

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Source: Daily Record (link below)

Was this a ‘nationalist stunt’? Graffiti on the cairn stones, reported on by The Daily Record, would suggest some political motivation for at least this aspect of the vandalism, with phrases added to the monument such as “Nicola Sturgeon is coming to get ye!” and “Don’t blame me a voted Yes”. In a poll, 54% of Record readers found the graffiti offensive, 46% did not (number of participants unknown) which mirrors almost exactly the result of the referendum.

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When I visited recently with Jan, I was surprised how tidy and well-maintained the cairn is, almost three years after construction started. I was also surprised that there were no signs to tell visitors where to park or how to walk to the cairn, the only indication we were in the right place being a pair of plain noticeboards beside a gate in the car park of the Old Toll Bar Café, the first or last chance for refreshments in Scotland depending on your direction of travel across the Scotland – England border located 100m to the south on the red sandstone bridge over the River Sark. The noticeboards explain briefly the history and ethos of the cairn and advertise some internet links of varying currency, and also include sketches that were prepared when the cairn was being planned.

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The noticeboard text is explicitly political. It is noted that the cairn “is a testimony to the United Kingdom”, situated right on the current border, but in a place that was once neither Scotland nor England, but rather ‘Middleland’. As far as I can tell, this is a tenuous-to-mythical historical convenience, promoted in the writing of Rory Stewart for instance on his website. Here, he argues that there is ‘nothing natural’ about a border between England and Scotland, and that the fact there is a border at all simply relates back to the Romans drawing straight lines on maps for their own convenience. (It’s amazing how some of the most potent legacies of colonialism can be traced back to the gratuitous use of such an innocent piece of stationery, the ruler.) Stewart argues that Gretna and the cairn sit in what used to be a Middleland, an ill-defined ‘upland’ zone between Edinburgh and Sheffield with heartlands in Northumberia, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.

This frontier zone is the focus of Stewart’s most recent book The Marches (Jonathan Cape, 2016), where he recounts walking along parts of Hadrian’s Wall with his late father as well as a solo long distance walk across Cumbria. I have not read this book, only reviews, but it seems to fit well with a man who is passionate about the Borders and the borders and borders that should not be borders, restless to understand how the past, and landscapes, can help people define themselves. The Middleland theme is played out in this book too: it is an upland rural landscape (although it is far from all being upland and rural) “… a land naturally unified by geography and culture for 2,000 years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers”. It all sounds a bit W G Hoskins to me.

the-marches

Before Scotland and England, and amidst the periodic enforcement of a border here by ruler-wielding praetorians, Stewart in his website musings suggests that this area belongs to a misty-eyed time when there was “no single English ethnicity, or Scottish language”, and people on either side of what we now see as a border “married each other…wore the same clothes, ate the same food, lived the same life…and sung the same ballads about their exploits”. And yet why chose these specific traits to suggest cultural similarity? Why select certain centuries in the past and then set them up as a norm? This Borders romanticism would be less of an issue had it not been an explicit driver for the loud cairn construction campaign, drawing on the ancient past to legitimize modern political decision-making. In fact, it could be argued that Stewart misunderstands the nature of identity, mistaking shared actions, material culture and pragmatic accommodations for shared hearts and minds. Stewart’s arguments echo long-running discussions about the Dalriadan Scots in Ulster and Argyll, where archaeological and historical evidence has been used to argue for, and against, modern political boundaries. Such claims and connections can be dangerous, contested and illogical – on both sides of the argument.

More troubling still, the cairn builders seem to suggest that the political unity that a Yes vote in the referendum threatened has its origins in prehistory. The noticeboard goes on to say: “A cairn is a traditional northern English and Scottish marker in the landscape”, going back as far as the Neolithic. (Stewart repeats this in the short film linked to above.) This is nonsensical and a dangerous argument to make: are we now to define modern identities due to shared Neolithic monument traditions? Again, this reminds me of arguments related to Ireland. Matthew Stout (1996) has written about archaeologist Emyr Esten Evans’ ‘Ulster exceptionalism’, an attempt to demonstrate that megalithic tombs in Northern Island were different from those elsewhere on that island, with obvious political motivations. And cairns are not just found in Scotland and northern England – they are found across Britain and Ireland, and if anything you could argue there is an east-west divide. Furthermore, cairns come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and dates – it could be argued they are a very human thing to do.

Most ludicrously of all, the design template for the Auld Acquaintance cairn is a Clava Cairn, a monument style that is found almost exclusively in Inverness-shire. Very regionalised traditions in prehistory were commonplace and do not lend themselves well to narratives of British or UK wide continuity. And so all we need to do is select which monument types fit our argument depending on what boundaries we want to break down, or defend.

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The design for the Auld Acquaintance cairn. Source: on site noticeboard

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A Clava cairn. Source: Visit Scotland. (c) Paul Tomkins.

Back to our visit. We went through the gate and walked the short distance to the neat and tidy cairn, which has lost the fringe of slates and stones that were evident when it was first constructed. A noticeboard was located here too, although the aforementioned map which had stood on the site in 2014 showing where the component stones had come from, had been removed. I was immediately impressed with the scale and quality of the construction: this would have taken a lot of work, supporting claims from those involved in building that this was a project that meant something personal to them.

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The cairn material consisted of many different types of rock and stone, with some of the stones brightly painted, with unsurprisingly a preponderance of red, white and blue. Personal messages with names, thanks and so on were commonplace, as were union flags.

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One of the stones was painted red and referred to a place neither Scotland nor England: Ulster. Taken together with the Butcher’s Apron graffiti shown above, this demonstrates that political gestures, no matter how well meaning, will be appropriated for all sorts of different (or tangentially related) agendas, old scores being settled, old wars being refought. If you make claims to deep time, expect others to do so as well.

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Another contained a message for our post-Brexit times: THE PEOPLE SPOKE FOREVER, the idea that a decision has been made, and everyone should now get together and make it work. A decision that cannot be overturned or even argued with. Maybe it is a warning. As with everything about this megalith, it depends on who you are: the 55 or the 45.

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Another stone was decorated with a more primeval symbol – a prehistoric cup-and-ring mark. Using the logic of this cairn we perhaps need to abandon more national boundaries, as these symbols can be found across many EU countries.

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There was evidence that some messages were becoming less focused on the ethos of the stone, with an Orcadian flag (which itself was defaced by vandals in 2015), and stones with messages written by tourists visiting the monument on holiday. There is a growing sense of the routine about this monument, and as time passes it will be more and more difficult for Hands Across the Border to retain the meaning of this cairn despite their aspiration for this to be a permanent reminder of the NO vote.

The interior of the monument was entered by a narrow corridor lined by smart red sandstone blocks, topped with stacked slates, and with gravel crunching underfoot.

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At the end of the passage was the circular central chamber with high walls, 2m tall, enclosing and restricting views of the outside borderzone. Inside, a yellow stone slab was propped up against the back wall, containing one half of Charlotte Higgins’ poem; the other stone, broken in 2015, was only partially restored. The relative peace and solitude of the interior of the cairn, surrounded by beautiful stone work, and words which spoke of wars and memorialisation, was the most impressive and sombre element of an otherwise garish monument. Powerful or exploitative? It all depends. 55 or 45?

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We wandered back out, and away from the cairn. There was a low hum caused by a tanker spewing wood chips into a metal container beside the cairn. The surrounding field was scrubby and untidy, a ghostly and abandoned camp site with electrical power fittings for caravans jutting from the ground like gravestones. These were arranged around a derelict and boarded up toilet block. Ahead, we saw a massive blue sign on the northbound side of the M74. It was a giant metal flag, the saltire, adorned with the words ‘Welcome to Scotland’ with some tiny YES stickers stuck to it. Lying twenty or so yards from this sign was a discarded and broken placard, the one quarter or one eighth remnant of a very different roadside message that once said NO THANKS. Right on the border, on the banks of the Sark, YES and NO not so far apart after all, both little more than a blur in the eyes of motorway-hypnotised drivers speeding past, even in the slow lane.

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By strange coincidence, on the day of our visit, the front cover of The National newspaper was concerned with borders too. This is a Scottish paper that describes itself as ‘The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland’. The headline read: ‘TRUMP WON’T CROSS HADRIAN’S WALL: State visit will not include Scotland’. Behind this lay a weird montage of Hadrian’s Wall with the disembodied heads of Donald Trump (no hair) and Nicola Sturgeon (with sun rays shining beatifically from her chin like a golden beard, glowing in anti-Trump hirsuteness).

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Scottish nationalists can play this game too in other words – here we have the misuse of the ancient past to make a political point about modern borders. Here, we have the common mistake of likening Hadrian’s Wall to the Scotland – England border, the straight line across Britain’s middlelands that Stewart was talking about. Here we have in one gloriously daft image the old myth that Scotland somehow repelled the Romans while England did not, and that this division is ancient and meaningful when it comes to defining modern identity. It is not and it does not, but that will not stop prehistory and our ancient past being used again and again in this ongoing debate. It was no surprise to me when I found out while researching this post that Rory Stewart was also planning a referendum-focused human chain of tens of thousands of people along Hadrian’s Wall in 2014, showing that this boundary is endlessly exploitable to people of all political beliefs.

It is almost too easy to use prehistory as a lesson from which we should learn – and yet, all we are doing is projecting our own concerns and concepts onto the mute archaeological record back to a time when these words and ideas would have made no sense. Often for the best of intentions. I have sympathy with this tweet from only a few days ago (at the time of writing) and yet there are so many assumptions at play here that just I don’t know where to start.

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In the Channel 4 TV sketch show from the 1990s, Absolutely, there was caricatured Scottish nationalist character played by Jack Docherty called McGlashan. He was a failed writer who continually pitched ideas for anti-English and pro-Scottish plays to his long suffering posh (English? Scottish?) agent. One of the plays he comes up with is called Nip Nap Shite (‘well, you’ve certainly got an eye for a title’). In this play, the SNP (then a party a million miles from government) stand a candidate called McGlashan in a general election against then Tory MP John Major. “He’s so brilliant and Scottish, right, he wins with a 50,000 majority”. In another and much shorter sketch, McGlashan cycles up to a very non-descript Scotland-England border crossing. He looks around, crosses into England, shouts some abuse and then quickly cycles back into Scotland again. The border is quiet, the road empty.

Here we have Scots comedians laughing at ourselves, our complex identity in relation to England and the UK, our fascination with borders and seeing how far we can push them, for a laugh. The same issues of identity that Rory Stewart has been wrestling with – them and us / them or us? The 55 or the 45? Or just the 100?

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The Auld Acquaintance cairn. Built on a border that is not a border. Made in a style neither local nor logical. A monument to British unionism drawing on a mythical ancient past to inform modern political identity. A place that is about uniting that can’t help but divide. Borders and boundaries that still confuse to this day – soft / hard, busy / quiet, first / last, 55 / 45. It all depends.

But one thing I am sure about – should auld acquaintance be forgot that megaliths and Roman walls should never be used to legitimize political arguments, to support the construction of walls, to make claims of identity, or to tell us how to vote.

Sources and acknowledgements: I have throughout this blog made use of information about the Auld Acquaintance cairn from the websites for Hands Across the Border and Rory Stewart (links in the text) – these have both been accessible and useful sources, and have helped document a most remarkable project.

Images used from these sources have been credited as such. I have attempted to give a source for more or less all images used above: no source means the photo is mine. The Marshes book cover is widely available online, as is the Orkney BBC TV show screengrab.

The book pictured at the top of the post was published by Cruithne Press in Glasgow in 1996 and is well worth a read. The Niall Sharples quote and Matthew Stout example both derive from papers in this book.

I did not provide a link to the BNP website. If one wishes to find the current cached source of the quotation from their old manifesto, google the phrase. I’m not doing it for you.

This post benefited from the insights of Steve Driscoll and Dene Wright, and Jan who accompanied me on the visit to the cairn.  

The language of size

5 Feb

‘Monuments orchestrate human experience. Their size is so important because it is one of the ways in which this is achieved…this particular property of monuments, what WH Auden called ‘the language of size’, also means that particular information can only be obtained in a prescribed sequence’ (Richard Bradley Altering the Earth (1993), 47).

 

Yesterday all the past. The language of size

Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion

Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;

Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

WH Auden, ‘Spain 1937’

 

I used to walk along cursus monuments and call it work. This was my PhD research, an investigation into the Neolithic past. In fact, on reflection what I was doing was encountering contemporary rural landscapes in a subversive manner, following ancient routeways that have been lost amidst the organisation of the land today and which do not appear on any maps. I thought at the time that I was revealing insights into lost Neolithic lifeways and getting inside the minds of shaman, novices and ritual travellers. What I was in fact doing was exploring alternative ways to move around the landscape, following ancient routes, cutting across the geometry of railway lines, roads, fences and field boundaries, ignoring the straight lines of the twentieth century and instead following, slavishly, straight lines that were dug into the land over 5000 years ago.

I was creating my own cartographies, a mad man walking across empty fields taking notes and photos.

There can be no middle ground, no compromise, because there is nothing in the landscape today that respects Neolithic cursus monuments. The act of walking along a cursus therefore was one that showed no respect to the way we construct our landscapes today, a provocation, but when I was walking along cursus monuments and calling it work I did not see it that way.

The thrilling cover of my PhD.

The thrilling cover of my PhD.

Recently I walked along a cursus again, the first time I had undertaken one of these selfish walks since the 1990s, although I have visited a few cursus sites in between. ‘Cursus monument’ is a category of enclosure that dates to the first millennium of the British Neolithic (c3800-3300BC). These are rectangular enclosures, defined initially by lines of timber posts, and subsequently earthworks, with internal ditches and external banks. Like many archaeological categories, the label cursus hides a good deal of variation, with monuments ranging in length from 60m to 10km, and in width from 20m to 180m. Clearly, this material and morphological variability casts doubt on these all being part of a coherent phenomenon, and it is likely these sites (over 100 are known in Britain and Ireland with a few Euro-cursus outliers) were probably expressions of religious norms and local need. The earliest sites appear to have been constructed by the first generations of farmers in eastern and southern Scotland. The sites long been considered by archaeologists as serving a processional and ceremonial role within Neolithic society, although whether they were pathways for the living or the dead is unclear.

The definitive book on cursus monuments, written by Roy 'Dr Cursus' Loveday as I call him.

The definitive book on cursus monuments, written by Roy ‘Dr Cursus’ Loveday as I call him.

The longest cursus monument in Scotland is, like almost all of these sites, known only as a cropmark. In other words, the monument has long disappeared from the visible spectrum of the landscape due to the processes of natural decay, erosion and hard core modern ploughing. 98% of cursus monuments are only known to us because they appear as cropmarks on air photos, the buried postholes and ditches transmitting themselves to us through differential crop growth rates visible from the air and light aircraft. Through this flaky and unpredictable medium, we can track the routes of cursus monuments across modern rural landscapes (cropmarks can only really reveal themselves in arable cereal crops and usually under drought conditions, no use looking for them in the turnips and rasps).

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From the I-Spy archaeology book. Because kids can are always spying cropmarks.

This is how the East Linton cursus, East Lothian, was discovered, although the true scale of the monument was not initially clear due to the monument being partly built over. The western half of the cursus (NT57NE 67) was initially recorded from air photos taken in 1981, although the presence of the cursus ditches was not identified until the early 1990s by RCAHMS and Historic Scotland staff including Rebbeca Jones and Ian Armit. The latter described the cropmarks at Drylawhill as….

“….two parallel ditches running approximately E to W some 60m apart. The ditches vary in width from 2m to 3m and follow a somewhat erratic course, giving the impression of having been constructed in discrete lengths rather than as a single unitary construction. This variability of width and segmented construction are characteristic of cursus monuments. The ditches can be traced for a length of almost 300m, and undoubtedly extend into the field to the E, although no cropmarks are visible there to enable their full extent to be assessed” (Discovery and Excavation in Scotland journal, 1993).

This spoke of an enormous enclosure, of unknown length, although entirely invisible and unknown in the modern landscape. Armit’s suggestion that the monument might continue to the east was prescient, although he might also have noted we have no idea where the western extent of this giant monument was located, and his width estimation was short, it being more like 80 to 90m across.

The Drylawhill end of the cursus, taken from the SE. (c) HES canmore_image_SC00925219

The Drylawhill end of the cursus, taken from the SE. It runs top-left to bottom-right. Note the cemetery in the foreground. (c) HES canmore_image_SC00925219

I was cataloguing aerial photos in the same vicinity, on the north side of the village of East Linton, in 1999 when I worked for RCAHMS. I noticed a set of cropmarks in the field to the east that had first been recorded in 1976 and then again in 1995, and had been classified as an ‘enclosure’ which is about as vague a cropmark interpretation that is it possible to give. This site was called Preston Mains (NT57NE 29). This looked to me as if it was on the same orientation and had the same form and width as the Drylawhill site, and some nifty ruler work on a 1:10,000 map sheet suggested that these were indeed two parts of the same enormous monument. In this case, the Preston Mains end of the cursus also had a rounded terminal, at least giving the cursus one known end. This revelation (and one of the few occasions where I was left punching the air in my role as a civil servant) meant that the Drylawhill-Preston Mains monument was, in fact, the East Linton cursus, measuring at least 1.25km in length and up to 90m in width.

The Preston Mains end of the cursus, taken from the S. (c) HES canmore_image_DP00163891

The Preston Mains end of the cursus, taken from the N. The parallel ditches of the cursus run more or less left to right, above and parallel to the road. (c) HES canmore_image_DP00163891

transcription-from-my-phd

 

A walk along a cursus in the past in the present

I visited and walked along the Drylawhill end of the cursus (before I knew about the other half) with fellow PhD student Andrew Baines on the 30th June 1996. Fragments related to this walk exist in my field notes and PhD. I undertook a Tilley-esque landscape phemomenology approach, although the only thing I can remember about it now was knocking on a door to ask permission to walk across the field, and being made a cup of coffee by a nice lady in a white fluffy dressing gown. (That can’t be right surely…..)

Field notes

Field notes

fieldwork-notes-1996

I was making my own cartographies.

Bam and I walked both east, and west, along the cursus section, at that time the only recognised fragment of this huge monument that had been mapped. My notes are perfunctory and almost illegible; the photos stuck into my PhD with cheap glue, and then badly scanned at a later date by a librarian. At least I now have a pdf of my thesis – it previously only existed on eight floppy disks and as boxes of slides, the crumbs of a research project.

1990s-walk-photo

The notes are not informative. Eastbound walk: ‘ Start on low plateau and walk down slope….’ and cue some imaginative speculation about what could be seen from various parts of the cursus depending on where is actually extended too. Desperate stuff really.  The conclusion of this experience was that a hollow that the Drylawhill end of the cursus crosses may have been a meaningful element of any procession along this routeway when the monument was in its prime, but it is a detached and partial account, with no beginning and no end. The ‘bones of the land’ (as Chris Tilley would say) may have been more or less the same as those experienced in the early Neolithic, but little else about this experience was authentic or even, to be frank, of any use. This is because I was too fixated with trying to imagine away my surroundings, ignore the church to my right, the woodland plantation ahead, the houses to my left and right, none of which are mentioned in my notes. At the time these modern intrusions intensely annoyed me as they buggered up my views of the broader landscape. Little wonder that the final account was banal and added about 100 words of my 100,000 word PhD; this is one cursus walk that ended up on the cutting room floor.

 

A different walk along the same cursus in the present in the past

In January 2017, 20 and a half years after I last walked along this cursus, I returned, now the urban prehistorian, not a youthful bullshitting PhD student trying to make sense of it all. This time I was armed with a better sense of the extent of the cursus monument, but also a clearer understanding of the nature of what I was about to do. This walk would follow the entire route of the cursus despite the modern obstacles in the landscape. The stuff of the modern landscape would be part of the experience, not censored from the final account. This would mean climbing over walls, walking along tarmac, crossing roads, tenaciously staying within the boundaries of the enclosure even in the big blank space in the middle of the cropmark that has largely been destroyed. (My walk was based on the assumption that this was indeed a continuous monument: prove me wrong!)

I walked west to east, heading for the terminal of the cursus, and this time I was not in the shoes of a Neolithic shaman: I was in my own shoes, which are a far more comfortable fit.

Map

map

 

Pictures

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walk-5-to-8

walk-9-to-12

 

Words and illustrative images

The field detained me only briefly. I had been here before. Amidst tender young crops, I stepped carefully, almost tap dancing. choosing my footfall carefully, following or seeking tractor tramlines, this modern stuff already mediating my bodily engagement with the disappeared cursus and keeping me looking down, not ahead. The landscape as friction, fighting back.

I could sense ahead of me an impenetrable wall of trees, and a wall, a wall bounding a cemetery, the cemetery slipping downhill from a church on a mound. The corner of the cemetery wall jutted into the cursus interior, a geometrical assault on the organic earthwork, a point of fusion between past and present, a boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead, a portal between the past and present. At the base of the wall smashed vodka bottles and crushed cans had been deposited at this most powerful and liminal of locations.

the-corner-of-the-wall-low-res

I clambered over the wall and jumped down amongst the tombs and the rotting Christmas wreaths, baubled wraiths.

I built a cairn here, a time machine.

the-cairn-low-res

In the cemetery, grid-like paths sat awkwardly on my conception of what the cursus might have looked like here. These were incompatible realities. The dead had been buried on ancient ground, even on the ditch and bank, ghosts on top of ghosts.

Megalithic tombstones littered the graveyard.

megalithic-gravestone

I looked back along the cursus (never look back).

The sun dazzled me (never turn back).

Forward then, into the shadows, to the other corner of the cemetery, and a small walled off area filled with soil, a barrow made of earth dug to form fresh graves, a ramp for me to clamber up and over the wall.

Beyond, I found fake red flowers and sticky oasis at the foot of the wall, and a discarded wellington boot. Eclectic offerings.

fake-flowers

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The cursus here cuts across a patch of dense woodland, which I pushed through. This was the wildwood of prehistory, but not prehistoric, despite the improvised wooden shacks and dens, lined with tarpaulin and willow benders that clung to a field boundary wall.

shack

I was in the trees for a minute at most, and then crossed a track, and a rough roadway, before passing some bollards and entering the lost section of the cursus, a place where it can no longer communicate to us via the medium of the cropmark.

I passed between the bollards and across the track which is essentially a long driveway to a garden centre, and passed along a lane, hemmed in on all sides by orange hedges punctuated by driveways with shiny cars and men in their boots removing, or stashing, boxes in their gaping rear ends. No-one looked at me as I consulted my map, took my photos, wrote my notes. As I moved from trees to tarmac, a murder of crows piped up from above, an ominous soundtrack accompanying my transition into the suburban cursus. Four or five white houses with oddly shaped gardens lie within this section of the cursus, while some straddle the ditch and bank, probably destroying these during construction.

Written on The Dean was the word slow: I took this entirely seriously and literally.

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This was a middle class zone that had the feel of being a Ballardian gated community without the gates. A sign said this is a Conservation Area although its very existence has not been efficacious to the preservation of prehistoric earthworks.

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Within this section of my walk my movements were entirely constrained and controlled by the urban infrastructure. I did not feel like trying to climb over 8-foot-high hedges or walking through gardens, and felt reluctant to tell householders of the unique situation of their property. And so I moved through the cursus in a curious zig-zag, until I emerged onto a main road – Preston Road – which broke the conspiracy of silence of the estate I had been in. This road runs obliquely across the cursus route.

I noticed on the pavement a curious blue arrow, spray painted, and pointing away from a small drain rod point. By following the arrow I came across a proper big drain on the roadside.

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I squatted and peered down into the drain, almost as if trying to look back in time, and saw myself reflected back in the dirty water below, which somehow had a rippled surface. Deep down under ground, this drain, and the system of pipes that it fed into, had been inserted right into the middle of the cursus, ripping into the monument in a way that felt much more invasive than erecting houses or laying road surfaces. The drain offered a window into the guts of the monument, maybe even beneath the cursus, a barred window back in time. The past was down there and god knows what else.

drain-low-res

Cars roared past, and shaken, I continued my walk, down the driveway of a National Trust for Scotland property, Preston Mill. This visitor attraction is closed to the public over the winter but I walked down the red ash track, once again cutting across the line of the cursus at an unnatural angle. At a convenient point, I climbed over another wall, and began the final stage of my walk.

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The final 500m or so of the cursus route was back in fields again, although the crop here was very different – not fresh healthy growth, but carnage – brussel sprout carnage. Two fields lay ahead of me, strewn with the carcasses of sprout plants, literally frozen in places despite the low cutting winter sun. The overall impression was of the aftermath of some apocalyptic Lovecraftian battle, with parts of Elder Ones and other unspeakable beings littering the fields, green tentacles and drooping fronds lightly crunching underfoot. Sprouting sprout stocks jutted from the frosty soil, with orange bubbles of sap spewing from their green musculature. The sprouts that were left behind were scattered around and felt like cold bullets.

sprouts-1

sprouts-2

I traipsed across the field, surrounded by yellowing leaves and infinite tiny cabbages, and the topography dipped ahead, until I reached a point where I could no longer see the far end of the field ahead where the cursus ends. A few steps up a steep slope and over a modern trackway raised by viewing position and once again the cursus route was clear. This kind of bodily and sensory engagement is what landscape phenomenology is all about, experiencing sensory restrictions which are not apparent on maps or air photos, and which may or may not relate to the intentions of the cursus builders. Stage-management of experience, or just one of those topographical variations one would expect to find along such a massive monument? Maybe the brassicas know but dead sprouts don’t tell tales.

blue-line

To my right loomed a sewage plant, just beyond the southern boundary of the cursus. Like the constant sound of cars roaring by, this industrial effluence treatment plant was a modern intrusion that was tough to ignore. It also reminded me again of the drain I had peered down earlier on, and that what lies beneath is invariably unrefined shit.

Finally, after 10 minutes of solid trudging east across these fields of sprouts, I reached the place where the cursus terminates per the cropmark evidence. This was an unremarkable place, overlooked by some farm buildings, and hemmed in by hedges which restricted visibility to the east. Looking back to the southwest, I saw Traprain Law, a major East Lothian landmark and a flat-topped hill that may have had sacred significance in the Neolithic. But I could play these games all day – what could I see, what couldn’t I see, what might or might not the significance of these solipsistic visibilities be?

terminus

Terminal view

Another selfish walk concluded, I wandered back to my car which I had parked near the western end of the cursus in the cemetery car park. I mentally compared what I had just done with my walk of 21 years ago where my scope had been so limited, an experience that started and stopped in a field, never daring to venture beyond the edges of the rural. This confinement ultimately led to boring and unsatisfactory observations about what this place might have been all about in the Neolithic.

google-air-photo-with-cursus-line

An urban cursus walk, with the rough route of the middle 1km of the cursus monument marked on a google earth background.

The walk I had just undertaken, over soil, grass, pathways, tarmac, and clambering over three walls (two more than I would normally ever countenance), following an ancient routeway that cuts across modern urban sensibilities, was an explicitly psychogeographical journey, and allowed an extended mediation on the use of land here in the ancient past and the contemporary present. This might not help us re-think the Neolithic, but it was an experience that allowed me to further reflect on my own practice and the limits of what we can say about the world as archaeologists.

 

Footnotes: repurposing the cursus?

Could the East Linton cursus be about to make a come-back? During 2016, a series of housing developments were proposed to the north and west of East Linton, including a new estate of over 200 homes in the field that the western Drylawhill end of the cursus is located in. This has caused concern in the village with a facebook site set up to combat ‘excessive expansion’ in the area.

A report written by Wallace Land Investment and Management, who own 34 hectares of this land, made a number of recommendations about the Drylawhill development – one of which is to ensure that no building work takes place on the route of the cursus monument. Instead, this should be left as a linear and broad green space. They note:

‘East Linton is part of an archaeological landscape. This includes [the] Scheduled Monument of the Drylawhill Cursus within the site. No development will take place on the Drylawhill Cursus site. The setting of this Scheduled Monument will be taken into account with development set back creating a buffer’.

This is connected to ‘ensuring access to important archaeological remains and provision of a new park’.

development-proposal-map

Wallace Land Indicative Development Framework: urban prehistoric entanglements abound. The linear cursus green space is a striking element of the proposal.

Is it possible that the demands of a society voracious for new housing and urban expansion can also accommodate prehistoric monuments in a positive way? Could we see the establishment here of a park called ‘The Cursus’, the establishment of an archaeological walking trail and expanded information for the local community, new and old, about the ancient time depth beneath their feet? How will the presence of the cursus and other prehistoric sites here be brought to the attention of people living here? The construction of housing here offers amazing challenges and opportunities.

Watch this space. I will be trying to explore how the cursus can be remade for 21st century urban living, and how we translate into modern terminology the remarkable Neolithic language of size.