As consumers of the past, we have certain requirements for our prehistory. It should be in a bit ruinous but not so knackered that we can’t make sense of it. It needs to be awesome, or dramatic, or have ‘been on a journey’, to hold our attention. And it must be in a rural location, with a green and brown setting, and a big sky overhead. It must be authentic and leave little or nothing to the imagination.
Or so wisdom would have it.
But what happens when visitors encounter prehistoric sites in an explicitly urban setting?
The results can be surprising, as I have been documenting on this blog for the past four and a half years. I have found that communities can be inspired, proud and surprised by even the most denuded of prehistoric sites in their urban midst. Merely the ghostly traces, the essence, need be present to potentially add quality to a place, a value that comes with deep time.
Maybe this holds true for residents, but what about visitors and tourists? This was brought home to me on a recent visit to Shetland, where the rural and coastal idyll that was Jarlshof was shattered the constant chainsaw buzz of a helicopter overhead, and the vacuum cleaner sucking and blowing of aircraft taking off, the multiperiod HES visitor attraction being located right on the edge of Sumburgh airport and within axe-throwing distance of one of the runways.
As I wandered around the perimeter of this Viking settlement I felt like the boy Jim, protagonist in JG Ballard’s book The Empire of the Sun, staring out from his prison camp near Shanghai admiringly to the neighbouring airfield, fantasising over the Japanese aircraft, idolising the pilots and kamikaze, all of which offered a vibrant mechanised counterpoint to the organic, dying camp.
Such stark juxtapositions are the very essence of urban prehistory: gazing into the past, observing rituals, secretarying entropy.
Do we fail to understand the significance and story of Jarlshof because of its inauthentic setting? I would argue not, but perhaps the big seascape and even bigger skies airport-proof the archaeology. There is much less room for manoeuvre for urban prehistory – nowhere to hide, few distractions from the reality of the what is out there.
This is very much the case for another HES visitor attraction in Shetland, Clickimin Broch in the main town on the mainland, Lerwick. And I really do mean in the town, located on an island on a small loch in the suburbs, surrounded by the trappings of urbanisation.
The broch was excavated by JRC Hamilton in the 1950s and thus made ready for display to the public as a Ministry of Works guardianship site. Hamilton’s work at this very complex site discovered that the broch had been preceded by earlier settlement sites of late Bronze Age and earlier Iron Age date, and after the main broch phase, the structure was – as a Jarlshof – replaced by a wheelhouse. One of the key outcomes of this programme of work was that the site was made easily accessible to the public although I would argue that in doing this the site has become a little too medieval looking (and I mean this as a bad thing). This work also resulted in the publication of a guidebook by Hamilton for both Clickimin and the taller but far more rural Mousa broch, which has undergone several editions (the guidebook, not the broch).
Clickimin was recently nominated in the Dig It! 2017 Hidden Gems competition as the representative for Shetland (the Cochno Stone was the West Dunbartonshire entry) although it is hardly hidden where it stands, wrapped within a transparent urban cocoon. However, the carefully cropped photo of the broch used in that campaign manages to edit out the surrounds.
This remarkable setting contrasts starkly with the often remote, or at least peaceful locations, that most brochs across Scotland are situated within today and yet it has advantages over examples such as Mousa, being easily accessible because of its urban location. And even Clickimin was rural once, as captured in this drawing by W St G Burke from 1875. (Although it could be argued that such big broch complexes were literally urban prehistory 2000 years ago.)
I was curious what visitors to this broch made of its urban setting. Anyone who prepared in advance by reading the June 2017 edition of The Rough Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland would have been set up for a disappointing experience:
‘With the modern housing in the middle distance, it’s pretty hard to imagine the original setting’
And yet, this ruined setting does not really seem to be what visitors focus on. I looked at all 177 reviews of the broch on TripAdvisor (as of 17th August 2017) and it is striking that hardly any of the visitors to Clickimin view the urban setting as a problem. Very few reviewers even feel the need to mention the urban stuff, and where they do, it almost overwhelmingly is not a problem, and almost always in the context of a 4 or 5 star review. For instance, Razumovskaya: ‘This is an unusual broch in many ways, set as it is at the edge of its loch among the council houses and across the road from Tesco’ (5 star review). Bathgooner, in another 5 star review, states, ‘despite the developments the neighbourhood retains an aura of its mysterious past’. For others, the location is weird and surreal but not a problem. Amanda K, 4 star review, wrote, ‘It’s in an odd place as near supermarket and houses’, while Cameron S, also 4 star review, wrote ‘Implausibly located in the outskirts of Lerwick, this site is surprisingly atmospheric’. Or what about, ‘This is real history next to a main road and a housing estate. But do not let that put you off as it is well worth a visit’ (argosy2gb, 5 star review).
In fact, it is remarkable how few visitors express negative feelings about the suburban setting – three out of 177 (1.7%) to be precise. One is relatively measured, accompanying a 3 star review. Tony239 wrote, ‘it’s close to Lerwick, and increasing surrounded by it, which robs it of some of it’s allure’. Alyson M headed her 3 star review with the statement: ‘Spoiled by suburban sprawl’. The other is the only 1 star review for the site to date and is worth quoting in full.
‘The worse thing about this is its location. There is a large Tesco to the South, ugly 80s council housing to the East, huge houses to the West, and the worst part of all, a construction site with massive cranes and other construction equipment to the North! The Broch was from over 2000 years ago and it is encircled by all these ugly modern buildings on all sides. Stonehenge is a much better place to visit. (alvinawh, 1 star review).
Mmmn, not sure about the latter point. More visitors complained about the manicured appearance of the broch and the reconstruction work done there than the urban setting, which in itself says a lot about expectations of authenticity which seem more related to the material than the environs.
Anyway, the overwhelming sense that comes across from reading these scores of reviews is that the suburban setting is an advantage when it comes to visiting this broch. 16% (28 people) mention the proximity of a Tesco supermarket in either neutral or positive terms (convenience, parking). Almost a third mention that the broch is near the centre of Lerwick or within easy walking distance of town, all positive in terms of ease of access. It appears that rather than ruin the broch experience, the urban setting of this monument has made it much more accessible than most brochs such as the more famous Mousa, which is on a wee island with an irregular ferry access. The pathway to Clickimin broch could be a little more wheel-chair friendly, but this is a broch that most people can visit, regardless of mobility.
One of the intriguing things about the prehistoric monument is how the stonework of the broch blurs with the surrounding suburbia. Far from being a huge time-gap between now and then, there is a sense of continuity, a flow that is quite wonderful.
Angles are created between the broch and buildings that look like timelines to me. Grey lines form an impenetrable artificial horizon that capture the essence of Shetland.
The urban and the prehistory bleed into one another and feed off one another, an ancient power source that has not yet run dry.
HES have unintentionally created a huge optical illusion, turning the broch from a panopticon to a viewpoint. From only a few places inside the monument complex can the water of the loch be seen.
The overlaps between towering house and town can nowhere better be seen than in the branding of the small service station located a hundred metres or so from the broch. The Sound Service Station has a peculiar logo, which after some squinting on my behalf, revealed itself to be a stylised side-profile view of the broch and its little island.
And on special occasions the broch has been lit up in different colours at night, Shetland’s contribution to international causes, such as World Aids Day.
This is a monument that still lies at the heart of this community.
It seems to me that the urban setting is not a problem to the vast majority of visitors. Perhaps in the heritage sector we need to re-calibrate our understanding of expectation of the public – maybe they can actually handle historic and archaeological sites that are very knackered, not so awesome or in urban settings. Authenticity comes in many forms, and one reading of that word could be the facilitation of an experience that has resonance and meaning, which can transcend tangible material and landscape qualities.
Who would have thought that a prehistoric site in an urban place could be advantageous? The urban setting of Clickimin, beside a supermarket, petrol station, housing estates, walls, roads, traffic lights, roundabouts, warehouses and a leisure centre does not seem to be a problem. For some, it is a surreal bonus, while others were rather more pragmatic.
‘Seems strange to have an ancient monument in a town – but that’s what it is.’ (GertieSquirt, 4 star review)
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan for accompanying me on the visit, and for taking the wonderful photos of the Broch that accompany this post (in other words, all of those with no credit in the caption).
The image of the guidebook to the site is available widely online, usually in second hand book websites.
For more on the Dig It! 2017 Hidden Gems competition, go here. This was also the source of the jazzy pic of the broch with writing superimposed on it.
The World Aids Day photo of the broch came from the website of the Shetland Times.