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 Much ends up in the world of grey literature, unpublished and in difficult to access reports often laden with technical detail, placed in repositories that most people know nothing about.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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Realm. I 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.