Recently I was invited to visit an excavation that GUARD Archaeology Ltd had been undertaking for several months since September 2016 at a site with the wonderful name of David Moyes Road in Carnoustie, Angus. The site is located on the northern edge of the town, right next to the High School and across the road from a very white and very recently constructed housing development, shiny with suburban possibilities.
It was another reminder, should one be needed, that amazing (as well as mundane of course) prehistoric stuff is sometimes only ever going to be found by archaeologists because of urban expansion and development. A lack of cropmarks in this location, previously arable land, means that it is unlikely research excavations would ever have taken place here except those of the most speculative nature which frankly no-one can afford to do anymore.
So instead we await the serendipitous discovery of wonderful things not because of any archaeological research framework or a cunning plan cooked up by heritage professionals, but because of factors such as social need, economic consideration and the planning process.
I was shown around the site by the site director, Alan Hunter Blair, and he gave me a really good insight into the discovery process of the site, what had been done on site and some provisional interpretations. With characteristic bad timing, not only did I arrive on site on the last day of the excavation, but I also came at tea break, cardinal sins for the excavation visitor but almost always the way it happens. Politely, none of this was mentioned as Blair and I wandered around the site, pointing at a hole here, pondering a hollow there, pausing over oddly arranged or unusually large stones and generally basking in a wonderful crisp late winter day beneath a broad blue sky in the midst of some truly spectacular archaeology.
This is a remarkable site, for which there has already been a good deal of positive media coverage both locally and nationally including STV News.
The Sun headline (above) is especially impressive – discovery in a Scottish BUILDING SITE!!! Why this should be a surprise is not clear, given that nowadays building sites are precisely where many major archaeological discoveries are made.
In fact, the site was identified in advance of the construction of two football pitches (not a housing or school development as I had supposed) with my supposition being that drainage and other ancillary elements of these playing fields required the complete excavation of the site, which as it happens will prove to be beneficial not just to archaeologists, but to the local community and politicians as well – and not merely in terms of knowledge creation, useful as this can be.
GUARD have characterised the highest profile discovery during these excavations as a ’rare and internationally significant hoard of metalwork that is a major addition to Scottish Late Bronze Age archaeology’. This includes a spearhead with gold ornamentation, a spectacular and rare discovery, and organics associated with some of the weaponry. (GUARD have posted online a nice video of some work on the hoard being done, as we like to say, ‘back in the lab’.) This hoard was found in a pit within a settlement consisting of several Bronze Age roundhouses.
As a Neolithic nerd, what has got me more excited about this site however (apart from the fact that is could well end up in the archaeological literature as ‘the David Moyes Road site’) is the discovery of a potential early Neolithic timber hall of massive scale. This building, defined by a combination of postholes and slot trenches could be as much as 35m in length, a third longer than any other Neolithic building ever found in Britain. A second ‘Balbridie’ size timber hall was located immediately to the south of the giant timber hall, a timber structure measuring a modest (but still bloody huge) c.20m by c.7m. The phasing of both buildings and dates will need to await post-excavation work for confirmation, but from my own experience of excavating a Neolithic timber hall at Claish, near Callander, 2001 with Gordon Barclay and Gavin MacGregor, the David Moyes site felt early Neolithic which if often how these things work for me (at least until the C14 dates come in and ruin it all!)..
The unexpected discovery of this amazing site during the construction of a public leisure facility shows how urban expansion and social need can drive forward our understanding of prehistory. Which is great, but what I am more interested in here is how this archaeological discovery resonates with the local community and how it might benefit people other than completist academics like myself. The burden of paying for these excavations, probably costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, and delaying the development, is born by the local authority and therefore it seems to me that there has to be more benefit to the people of Angus than just knowledge generation and some expensive baubles for the National Museum of Scotland.
Thankfully, the heritage sector is now actively exploring the social, as well as archaeological, benefits of such a discovery. For instance, David Moyes Road is located right next to the local high school and so site tours and visits were an important element of GUARD’s educational outreach programme during the excavation. They have noted:
‘In tandem with the excavation, GUARD Archaeology have brought community benefits and added value to the work by providing tours and presentations for local schools, including Carnoustie High School and Monifieth High School. Work experience for two students (from Carnoustie High School and Brechin High School) was also provided. Each of the students were trained in core skills in archaeology and were provided with a bespoke training plan and an archaeology skills passport for potential future careers in archaeology’.
More broadly, politicians are keen to celebrate the discovery rather than moan about how much it is all costing which is good news. The Angus Council communities convenor, Donald Morrison, saw the discoveries as a source of local pride, stating, ‘It is clear that Carnoustie was as much a hive of activity in Neolithic and Bronze Age times as it is now’. Alliteratively named councillor Bill Bowles opportunistically used the discovery as an indication of the long term attractiveness of living in Carnoustie, musing ‘how many generations of people have been living and working this land because of the prime agricultural land?’ The local MSP, Graeme Dey, and others have expressed the hope that the local area will benefit from the discovery and excavations in the form of information being made locally in the form of something like an exhibition and that may well be in the cards in the future.
More broadly, the local media coverage emphasising the site as possibly being one of the earliest indicators of farming in Scotland plays well with a County whose ‘Welcome’ road sign includes the slogan, Scotland’s Birthplace, a phrase associated with the Pictish heritage of this region, but now being pushed back millennium by GUARD’s excavations. Cynically one could therefore argue that the Council are getting value for money after all, using the excavation results and positive publicity to market and even re-invent Angus.
This is the paradox of archaeology today: it is a game played to very different rules from when I started in the business over 20 years ago. Many of our most exciting new discoveries are being driven by the agendas of developers and policy-makers, responding to social needs such as, this the David Moyes Rd case, health and wellbeing. Excavations are taking place in a climate where accountability, transparency and ‘value for money’ are always factors, and the results of excavations are measured as much in ‘numbers of individuals impacted on’ or social media likes and re-tweets, as the quantity / quality of material recovered and the academic impact.
Nowadays, everyone has a stake to hold, and an angle to work.
As a result of this. the dissemination of excavation and post-excavation results immediately via social media, local press and business websites has become a complex mixture of self-justification, feel-good headlines, agenda setting – but the key thing is that usually there is some damn fine archaeology right in the middle of it all.
There is nothing wrong with any of this, we are simply on a different merry-go-round now. Indeed I would strongly argue that this kind of public accountability is good news for archaeology and archaeologists, as it more closely connects our discoveries to communities who might benefit from them. Inevitably the system will be gamed, and our stuff will be exploited for hard and soft gains by others. That’s the price we pay for being relevant, and these new engagements and ways of doing things are encouraging creativity and impact that would have not been possible in the 1980s and 1990s.
One final thought. The David Moyes Road episode has one other lesson to teach us. Archaeology often benefits society more through its controlled destruction via excavation techniques than it does fossilised under ground for future generations. The dance of discovery, destruction and dissemination allows people to learn amazing things about the places they live or go to school or play football.
Let development continue, let landscapes evolve, lets keep finding stuff and lets never stop sharing and celebrating it.
If the price we pay is that some of our major sites have stupid names, then so be it.
Sources and acknowledgements: I firstly would like to thank Warren Baillie of GUARD for inviting me to visit the excavations at David Moyes Road and Adam Hunter Blair for giving me a great tour of the site and missing his tea break. The GUARD quotes in the post all come from their project website (link above) and the politician quotes come from the local press article shown above.