Archive | November, 2017


18 Nov

Window detail 2 low res

Urban prehistory can take a number of forms and scales, although there is a tendency to imagine that the biggest, most complete and coherent examples to be the most efficacious to serve contemporary society.

There are glamorous examples of urban prehistory abounding, and I have blogged on plenty of these over the past five years. (Yes, I wrote glamorous.) Extant standing stones, megaliths, earthworks and brochs in urban locations are often recognizable for their prehistory-ness by locals, visitors and archaeologists, although rarely are these utilized as effectively as they could be.

But not all urban prehistory is like this. In fact, most of it is not. There are lots of bits and pieces, unresolved fragments of smashed and denuded prehistoric all-manner-of-what-have-you, the archaeological equivalent of plankton hoovered up by the gaping maw of the sperm whale that is urbanisation. These bottom feeders are far from the light of archaeological interest, and when they do come to the fore, it is usually briefly, at the trowel’s edge.

These are the pits, the hollows, the scoops, the ditches, the postholes, the stakeholes, the tree throws, the potsherds, the lithics, the carbonised material, the ditches, the axe fragments, the broken querns, the amorphous features, the strangely shaped stones: the fundamental stuff found in advance of development that – for the time being – is the material outcome of the legal principle that the ‘polluter pays’.

Development – urbanisation – generates urban prehistory in this way. Ancient stuff is found only because someone (not a heritage professional) has chosen to build, or knock, something down in a certain location, a place where archaeologists would either not normally chose to look or could not raise funds to investigate even if they wanted to.

But what do we do with all of the material and information found in these instances? Much ends up in the world of grey literature, unpublished and in difficult to access reports often laden with technical detail, placed in repositories that most people know nothing about. There are notable exceptions, where reports of this nature can be accessed, such as GUARD Archaeology’s Archaeology Reports Online (ARO) although these reports are still technical and obscure in nature. Increasingly there is a community element to such excavations, where people and schools can visit the site, local media are consulted and exhibitions / consultations held and talks are given to local heritage groups. But little of this has a legacy or is sustainable for a variety of understandable reasons related to money, time and accepted practices.

How can we ensure that prehistoric discoveries made in urban places have a lasting impact on the community? What mechanisms can be adopt to ensure that those who pay for archaeology pre-development (often the taxpayer) get value for money and not just some dusty boxes of stuff, dots on maps and obscure reports? There are interesting examples of how this might be done, such as a Neolithic settlement being remembered in street names and the architecture of a children’s playpark at Cowie, Stirling although I am unsure as to the efficacy and sustainability of such enterprising approaches.

Another way this might be done is through art, and I recently stumbled across an example of this that I want to tell you about here.


Vale Health Centre (source: Urban Realm)

In 2012, archaeological evaluation was undertaken in advance of the construction of a new health centre as part of the Vale of Leven Hospital in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire. The work was undertaken by CFA Archaeology Ltd. In an initial evaluation of the site, trial trenches identified seven pits (some possibility postholes) and two sherds of prehistoric pottery.

Photo of pits from WoSAS

Features found during evaluation (c) WoSAS

This was deemed enough for a larger scale excavation, which took place soon after. This resulted in a wide range of discoveries as reported in the 2012 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland. Here, experienced archaeologist Ian Suddaby reported:

An area excavation was carried out in October and November 2011. A total of ninety features were recorded, comprising of pits, post-holes and a circular ring-groove. The pits were largely small and sterile but three significant features were excavated, each containing large quantities of Grooved Ware. Five egg-shaped pits contained burnt mound material. The post-holes formed no recognisable patterns. The ring-groove had a diameter of 10.5m. Neither an entrance, nor internal post-holes were recorded. A palaeochannel was recorded running across the site and the upper levels of this feature contained a buried ploughsoil containing numerous sherds of prehistoric ceramic, quartz and part of a cannal-coal artefact. The ploughsoil overlay a natural sandy fill which was heavily scored by ard-marks. A second phase of excavation in May 2012 exposed and excavated further pits and the remainder of the palaeochannel. It also revealed a ‘U’shaped ditch overlain by quantities of stones. No finds were recovered.’

Enigmatic stone setting from WoSAS

Circular stone setting found at the site (c) WoSAS

This is pretty much standard fare in many respects. A development is planned due to social need and paid for by the taxpayer. The site is chosen and then an archaeological (as well as other environmental) evaluation takes place. Stuff is found, excavated, recorded, a report is written (usually tough to access for the public and often written in an obscure discipline-centric style) and the finds are processed and sent to a (usually local) museum and end up in a box somewhere in a basement.

So far I am pretty sure that Alexandria Health Care Centre (as this archaeological site is snappily called) has ticked all of those boxes. This is unfair to an extent as I have no idea what plans the excavators have to publish the results of their work but it’s fair to say that this won’t be in the Daily Record. The finds have been allocated to Clydebank Museum; but from a visit there in June 2017 they did not seem to have much archaeological material on display.

But something amazing did happen because of these excavations. The discovery of Grooved Ware pottery in pits inspired a therapeutic artwork that now forms part of the fully functioning Vale Centre for Health and Care.

An aspiration of this new Health Centre was for public art to be commissioned for inside the building with the aim being to exploit the therapeutic qualities of such works. The Health Board stated that,

Unique artworks made by four of Scotland’s leading artists commissioned to reflect the local natural environment are permanently installed in the building and grounds of an inspirational new health and care centre for the Vale of Leven West Dunbartonshire…By focusing on the surrounding locality each artist tells a different story about people and place through a range of media including textiles, painting, photography and wood.

The artists were Jephson Robb, Dalziel and Scullion, Deirdie Nelson and Donald Urquhart.

D&S photo low res

Dalziel and Scullion

The latter artist used as inspiration for one of his works the prehistoric pottery found during the excavations that occurred before the Health Centre was constructed. This piece takes the form of a window in the gym and is:

… influenced by the pot shards [sic] found on the site during the excavation process for the new building. Dating back to the Bronze Age [sic] their beautiful geometric markings informed the design for the manifestation for the gym window, offering privacy for staff and patients in the gym yet allowing views out whilst letting plenty of light in.

A rather different account of the artwork and its archaeological origins was reported in the local newspaper in 2013. Margaret Campbell, commissioning manager for the centre, told how a stone circle of Roman date (???) was found during an archaeological check prior to work starting. She said:

It was discovered at the site of the physio area. The archaeological people have taken a couple of the stones and the rest have been buried again. It is standard practice. There was quite an amount of movement through the area in the past and the archaeological visitors were not totally surprised that we found something. Frosting glass will be put on all the windows in the physiotherapy room and we will incorporate the shape of the stone circle into the frosting.

This account is interesting as it directly connects the location of the artwork with the archaeological site whose discovery inspired it. This spatial connection is reinforced for the manager of the centre by the return to the ground of much of the archaeological materials at the site. It also suggests that the plan was to use the archaeology as inspiration for the artworks but at first it was not clear what element of the site would be reflected in the glass. As it happens, both accounts of this piece of Neolithic art erroneously claim wrong dates for this archaeological material.

I visited the Health Centre to see this artwork for myself. At the reception, I was met with puzzlement. Yes, there is artwork in the building, and yes, there is a gym, but my description of inscribed windows got me nowhere. John was called upon, and he was equally unclear what I meant, but he kindly took me through to the physio gym. There, it was immediately obvious to me that the windows on both sides of this small room were etched with classic Grooved Ware motifs.

Gym interior low res

Window detail low res

Exterior view 3 low res

John was delighted to hear about the pattern of the window and the fact that it was based on 5000 year old pottery that had been found in this exact location. I got the sense that he would be telling everyone about this who would be using the physio room in the future, but it seemed a shame that it took me, on a random visit, to make sense of this all for him and his colleagues.

Outside, the windows were equally clearly Neolithic in style and offered wonderfully complex reflected views of the old Argyll Motor Works building across the road.

Exterior view 1 low resExterior view 2 low res

It strikes me that this is a really nice example of a new building having value added to it because of the prehistoric archaeology that was excavated in advance of its construction. This initiative was not, I don’t think, driven by archaeologists, but the fruits of their labour was inspiring enough. Perhaps as a sector we could be more pro-active about this kind of thing at times, but that won’t always be possible or desirable.

However, it also seems to me that there has been a missed opportunity to pass this information on to the users of the Health Centre and this room in particular. Maybe this kind of thing is needed, as John suggested. I am going to contact the artist about this, and I will work up more accurate and tidier cardboard versions of these labels and send them to the Health Centre in the hope they will be displayed – I’ll update this post if they are.

Artwork label

But then does such transparency matter? (I realise windows are transparent even if the art is not.) None of the artworks in the Health Centre had any information attached to them as far as I could tell, and that does not seem to diminish their therapeutic value. John told me that he felt the art was a nice addition to the building and that users like it. Perhaps more broadly it is enough that the archaeology inspired the art which has no doubt been spotted by hundreds of users since the place opened in November 2013.

Subliminally, at least, every day, users of the gym and rehab facilities will be basking in light filtered through geometric patterns derived from thousands of years-old creativity, casting Grooved Ware shadows on their healing bodies.

Cornelius Holtorf has argued for years (as I have) that loss, and destruction, might not mean the end of the value of a historic resource to society – ‘…the values of a heritage object may not be lost even if it is no longer physically existent’ (2015, 409). In this case the entanglement of a modern healthcare facility and some Neolithic pits has resulted in positive outcomes.  Deep-time beneath this place has been foregrounded in a creative way that is explicitly about helping people to heal. Here, money spent on the archaeology and the art – both it could be argued frivolities in this Austerity Age – represents money well spent, and hint at the power of excavation to be a creative and powerful social act.


Sources and acknowledgements: the quotation about the Donald Urquhart window comes from the same source as the ‘Unique artworks’ quote (source in text). The two WoSAS images came from brief reports on this work – evaluation and excavation. The image of the Health Centre came from a nice piece about the building’s innovative architecture, from Urban RealmI would like to thank the staff of the Health Centre who were very helpful and gave up some time to take me through to the thankfully empty gym. I was accompanied on this trip by Glasgow University archaeology student, Mar Roige Oliver, who is doing a ‘urban prehistory’ placement with me. The source of the Holtorf quotation is: Holtorf, C 2015 Averting loss aversion in cultural heritage, International Journal of Heritage Studies 21.4, 405-21. 




Am I contemporary archaeologist?

7 Nov

A remarkable art installation is prominently visible in the Terminal 2 Departure Lounge of Amsterdam Schiphol airport. Schiphol Clock, part of artist Maarten Baal’s Real Time series, is a huge clock face suspended over a seating area; the backdrop consists of meandering jumbo jets framed by a wall of windows. The clock is indeed a clock, a highly functional item in a place where time is fundamentally important. But it is also a semi-transparent screen, showing on a loop and twice per day a 12-hour ‘real time’ performance consisting of a man in blue overalls within the mechanism of the clock manually painting and removing the minute every minute. The hour hand received the same treatment about four times an hour. This hypnotic performance, with around 1500 acts of clock-hand application or removal, plays with our concepts of time in a capitalist space, and forces us to engage in a highly unusual and hyper-aware manner with time moving on.


All of the artworks in the Real Time series show people absolutely trapped inside / inhabiting clocks in the contemporary, simultaneously making time but also slaves to it.

This installation was a timely conclusion to my experience of attending the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference on 3-5th November 2017 in Amsterdam. Reflections on the contemporary – and our trapped-ness or otherwise in the now – were very much to the fore in my mind over three days of stimulating lectures and conversations. Because one of the main reasons I attended this conference (and I don’t go to many conferences these days) was because I wanted to find out what temporality of archaeologist I am. My urban prehistory project has led to a shift in identity, in my academic persona, but I am not sure where I am in this transformation or how many of my peers are actually aware of this shift happening.


Therefore, the question I set myself from the start of the conference was: Am I a contemporary archaeologist? Or am I still, as one delegate jokingly said to me, ‘a Neolithic man’?

Any answer to this question should begin by defining contemporary archaeology (CA). This is relatively new area of practice within archaeology, and to some extent could still be viewed as striving for acceptance from across the broader discipline. (For what it is worth I think this is a battle that has already been won.) CA is highly inter-disciplinary and thus projects and collaborations often sit at the edge of archaeology in space and time, an exciting place to be.

CHAT themselves define CA simply as ‘the archaeology of the contemporary world’. For The Journal of Contemporary Archaeology (sadly not open access), contemporary archaeology is said to be about:

archaeology’s specific contribution to understanding the present and recent past. It is concerned both with archaeologies of the contemporary world, defined temporally as belonging to the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as well as with reflections on the socio-political implications of doing archaeology in the contemporary world’.

In essence, then, CA is about bringing archaeological thinking and methods to bear on the recent past, which could be one second ago or 100 years ago. Objects of study for CA projects might not always be what you associate with what archaeologists do, or could even be viewed as the preserve of other disciplines (art history, material culture studies, heritage management, history, sociology and so on). And there are blurred lines with Historical Archaeology, Conflict and Battlefield Archaeology and Industrial Archaeology, as well as the heritage sector as a whole, which shows some of the fields within which CA might be applied. By way of illustration, at the conference I saw papers on war memorials, temporary shrines to David Bowie, indicators of Aboriginal sites in urban Sydney, the story of a seal-submarine-hunting-training base from wartime Sweden and the archaeology of buried books.

CHAT assemblage

Where do I fit into this? Am I a contemporary archaeologist? In one sense I am, because my focus of attention is the ways that prehistoric sites and material culture appear and are used within the contemporary world. My concern is not with the prehistoric incarnations of these monuments (the preserve of a ‘prehistorian’) but rather their contemporary incarnation, context and meaning. On the other hand, this is a problematic assertion. As archaeologists, all of our engagements with the past, however ancient or recent, happen in the present. A key motivation for me to take a ‘contemporary turn’ in my research five years ago was to better understand the context within which we engage with the remains of prehistoric activities. It is through this lens that we view all of prehistory. The same applies to the archaeological record associated with any period of human history. So, in that sense, I am not a contemporary archaeologist. I am a prehistorian trying to make sense of the contemporariness of prehistoric archaeology.

yes no

So I am not comfortably a contemporary archaeologist or prehistorian, neither one nor the other. My engagements are in the contemporary, but there is nothing remarkable in this observation and could be said of all archaeologists. On the other hand, there is no doubt that my interests are not really about better understanding prehistory by critically reflecting on how we do our business as prehistorians. Rather, I am doing this because I want to shed light on the place of prehistory and prehistoric sites in our contemporary world and how archaeologists and non-archaeologists engage with such places and information. It is not contemporary archaeology as such, but rather archaeology in the contemporary.

wool typology

So my own position remains unclear. And my chain or argument begs a secondary and far more contested question: are contemporary archaeologists actually contemporary archaeologists? Or are they archaeologists who struggle with the contemporary context of their body of material which just happens to be, in their case, contemporary? In other words: is their anything distinctive about the practice of CA other than how old the stuff is?

I suspect that because of the very specific ways that contemporary archaeologists claim to work (across disciplines, critically, politically) an argument could be made that this is indeed a distinctive practice. But on the other hand, the study of prehistory is all of those things too and as I have already argued, all archaeological evidence is of the present, no matter its origins and age. Perhaps the strongest argument for CA to be a thing is that too few voices are advocating for the validity of places and things such as graffiti, playparks, ruined factories, memorials, festivals, urban landscapes and public art as being objects worthy of – and capable of benefiting from – archaeological attention. CA also has a claim to be explicitly people-centred, given the ethnographic nature of some research, a commonality with urban prehistory. My sense from the many presentations that I saw at #CHAT2017 is that CA is also characterized by extreme variability and an ethos of not being precious about disciplinary boundaries, which other archaeologists could learn from.

At the end of the day contemporary archaeology has had the impact I believe of raising awareness that the ways that we think as archaeologists and the methods we adopt can be turned to the study of anything, past or present, as indicated by the common use of archaeology as a metaphor in other disciplines for rigorous and deep interrogation of things, society, ideas and processes.

The beast

Sometimes I feel trapped like the man in the airport clock, doomed to replicate and repeat actions I have made throughout my career as a prehistorian. At other times I am liberated, making time, subverting the rules, varying my practice so that no two minute hands ever look quite the same. Prehistory in real time has the beneficial quality of juxtaposition and oxymoron, a jarring quality that is shared by much CA research – but that does not make be a contemporary archaeologist.

What I choose to call myself matters not, and what others choose to call me doesn’t really matter either. But I have a duty now, five years after taking on the incarnation of the urban prehistorian, to begin to explain more clearly my ethos and what it is to be something of a contemporary prehistorian. That is my intention in the coming weeks and months.

For the time being, though, I remain, curiously undefinable and without a tribe to call my own.

Acknowledgements: this blog post benefited hugely from a lot of conversations with Helen Green over the time we were in Amsterdam, which helped me clarify my own thinking as expressed in this post. I would also like to thank those who I CHATted (ho ho) with during the conference, and for the challenging and energizing range of speakers who presented over the three days. 

The Schiphol Clock image was sourced from a Dutch online arts magazine, Dezeen