Lost world

This blog post has been written to coincide with a paper I gave at the first ever Scottish Students Archaeology Society Conference held in the University of Glasgow on the weekend of 27th and 28th January 2018. My paper was entitled Houses upon houses: the impact of urbanisation on our understanding of Neolithic settlement in Scotland and at some point in the future will be available to view on youtube. I’ll update this post with a link when that happens.

conference logo jpgThe rather lovely conference logo

As part of preparing my lecture I revisited an urban prehistory site that I blogged about in May 2016, a Neolithic settlement site that was found in advance of a housing development in Cowie, near Stirling. The blog post, Houses upon houses, was a reflection on how archaeology could as a discipline do better to utilize the results of developer-funded excavations, in terms of how we synthesize such data, but also how results are disseminated and what community benefits might accrue from exciting (and even mundane) discoveries. In the case of this housing estate, some of the roads had been given prehistoric sounding names to reflect the remarkable Late Neolithic site that GUARD excavated in 1995. This was an easy win in a sense although does not necessarily tell those who move(d) into this area exactly what was found because their houses had to be built there.

Flint Crescent low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

A more imaginative and substantive development happened at Cowie that also drew directly on the prehistoric archaeology but in a potentially more powerful way than the street names – the creation of a children’s playground that was inspired by aspects of what GUARD found, although when I first visited this place I didn’t actually go to the playground because I didn’t find out about it until after the event.

In my first post about Cowie, I assigned the design of this playpark to Judi Legg and Mike Hyatt, and quoted on the design process:

Local children paid a visit to a pre-history park, Archaeolink, and many of the ideas they got from this visit as well as information about the pre-historic Cowie site itself have been built into the design of the park, which includes shelters, cooking and seating areas, and a raised beach, as well as mounds, tunnels, slides and a climbing wall. The children’s involvement in the design development has meant that the design concept which underpins the site layout contains elements which the children understand and which feel familiar to them. 

The co-production and imagination that went into this was impressive to say the least. The images I found online of the playpark, such as those below, showed aspects of the excavation results did indeed directly effect the design. For instance, a circular arrangement of mounds with structures inside mirrors the Late Neolithic double-skinned roundhouses found by Atkinson and team. That the material form of this – mounds and not organic structures – was not entirely accurate did not dilute the effect I don’t think.

Playground photo 1

Neolithic house planThe house that inspired the circular playground feature

The playpark itself was established a few years after the houses were built after a tragic accident there involving a child. The local community formed a group which campaigned for a safe playpark and the site – which overlies where some of the archaeology was found – was designed with the help of the children themselves, a nice example of co-production. The park cost £110,000 to build and was funded by Section 75 housing developers’ contributions, BBC Children in Need, the Stirling Landfill Tax Trust and Cowie Play Areas Group local fundraising events. Maintenance is provided by the local authority.

Playground photo 3

I wanted to close a loop, so the day before I gave my lecture I paid a quick visit to the playground which was both frosty and empty as I walked around in the beautiful and dazzling sunlight. Although I found that the form of the playground was creative and exciting, I was also disappointed to see that the site had suffered a decline over the past decade or so and some of the nice features built into the playpark were simply gone or were unrecognizable due to missing elements.

Panorama low res

The park itself is called Lost World, which I love, and this name was cast into the sturdy metal and wooden gate into the park, which can be reached by following a narrow pathway between two houses on Flint Crescent.

Lost world low res

Once inside the park, it is clear that this is a place that aspires for an organic look using timber and earthwork features that are unusually arranged to draw on excavation results. Boulders were also strewn around. It had a very naturalistic feel even although it channels an anthropomorphic place. The centre of the park is dominated by a curving long mound with tunnels running through it and slides adorning its sides, while there are normal and weird trees dotted around. A looping path meanders around the park and there is always something to look at. Boring it is not.

General view low res

A nice little Neolithic-style house was evident and in one piece, and although it looked more like a Wessex Late Neolithic house than an Eastern Lowland Scotland one, I suspect excitable children could not care less about that! Or maybe it is a little raised granary? It looks like the playground has interpretive challenges for visitors of all ages.

Neolithic house low res

As I walked around, it was clear that elements of the park were missing or had declined somewhat since the glory days of their first erection. In particular, the long mound, which I had to haul myself atop using a rope, had a huge gouge taken out of the middle to the extent that is had its own sandy stratigraphy.

Gap in the mound low res 1

Gap in the mound low res 2

Upon looking back at old photos, this gap was created by the removal of a large wooden structure that used to be here.

wildside designs photo
The park when first constructed: the wooden structure in the middle of the mound has gone leaving the gap that can be seen in my own 2018 photos (Wild Scot)

The circular earthwork setting, based on the Neolithic roundhouse plan, also appeared to have several somethings missing in the middle.

Then and now

Upon closer inspection, remnants of the structures that had once stood here (inspired by ideas of sitting around the fireplace in the middle of a house I would imagine) could still be seen on the ground, the archaeology of an archaeological playground.

The former timber setting
Remnants 2
The former log seats 

The arrangement of boulders, a hearth of sorts, is barely recognizable anymore and this is where the problem with such well-meaning endeavours sometimes arises. There is the awkward question of sustainability. I have seen this so many times before. Noticeboards get dirty and difficult to read or simply become out-of-date. Signs are removed, fall down or become obsolete. Metal constructions rust. Wood falls apart or burns. Earthworks slump or have cars driven over them. No-one has the money to fix the problems. It is unclear who should do this work. The original players in making things happen have moved on.

In other words, attempts to celebrate, preserve and educate the public about archaeological sites often themselves fall victim to the processes of entropy that the archaeological materials underwent in the past that caused the situation in the first place.

None of this is necessarily the fault of an individual or organisation but something has gone wrong and sometimes it is not clear how the problem can be fixed.

General view 2 low res

As far as I can see Cowie’s Neolithic village, their own Lost World, is in danger of becoming lost again. This is not through anything other than a basic lack of sustainability and funding which are absolutely commonplace problems not just in the heritage sector but also in the age of austerity in which we live.

Tunnel low res

Yet this is still a wonderful park and there are more ideas and imagination stuffed into this small corner on the edge of a housing estate than is normal. Perhaps the local authority can be persuaded to tidy this up properly, or maybe the community can once again lift themselves to work in a common cause inspired by social need and prehistory. Suggestions made to me both on twitter and at the conference itself suggest to me that there could be a really nice project here, both in documenting this unique playground but also rebuilding, refreshing and – something that was missing I think first time around – really explaining to park users what this is all about. I will see what I can do to help make some of this happen.

It really is a place where it is possible to feel you can reach out and touch the past. Or at least climb up, slide down and crawl through the past.

Reach out low res

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the organisation team for the conference for asking me to speak and allowing me to take an urban prehistory angle! 

The excavation report for this site is available open access online. It is John Atkinson 2002 Excavation of a Neolithic occupation site at Chapelfield, Cowie, Stirling, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 139-192. The original photos of the playground with the wooden structure in the mound came from the Wild Scot website, as did the extended quotation and the information about the costs, funding and designers. The other old playpark photos came from Stirling Council Play Services and the Free Play Network. Thanks to those who suggested ideas at the conference and on twitter, I will actively be pursuing these.  





The old, Old Town of Edinburgh

Is it possible to rewrite the history books with a prehistoric discovery? How old is Old?

Recently, I spent a pleasant few hours following self-guided walking tours from the excellent Edinburgh’s Hidden Walks book (by Stephen Millar, Metro Publications 2017), walks which took us from the bottom of the Royal Mile and Holyrood Palace right up to the Grassmarket via a couple of local hostelries and three cemeteries. This is an area steeped in history of course, reflected in interesting anecdotes about famous people, amusing historical incidents and terrible hygiene.

Book cover

What struck me in particular while walking was the number of instances when historical locations and buildings were marked on the ground in some way, even when the buildings were long-since gone and the places completely transformed from when they were in use back in the day.

At the bottom of the Royal Mile, a circle of beige bricks set into the road between a taxi rank and the Scottish Parliament gift shop mark the location of the Girth Cross for instance. This was the edge of the sanctuary zone of Holyrood Abbey and a place for announcements and executions. Apparently it was removed by 1767, and as this was AD, not BC, its not old enough for this blog really.

Girth Cross location

Further west into Canongate, also on the road although this time towards the southern side of the Royal Mile is another circle of cobbles set into the tarmac, this one with the shape of a ‘Maltese Cross’ in the middle and with black and red colouration. This marks the location of where St John’s Cross once stood, a boundary marker between Edinburgh and Canongate.

St John Cross location

A plaque explaining what this brick circle denotes is on a wall nearby. In the OS Name Book of 1852 is says that this cross was removed ‘long ago’ but clearly not as long ago as prehistory. The Cross itself now sits in Canongate cemetery apparently, although when I was there I was more interested in finding the grave of Ebenezer Scroggie.

St John Cross plaque canmore_image_DP00160533
Plaque © HES canmore_image_DP00160533

Nearby, yet another indicator of a historic structure is marked on the ground but in a different format – angular arrangements of ‘brass studs’ (although to my optimistic eye they looked like golden bricks outside the World’s End Pub).

Brass tiles

These show the location and arrangement of the Netherbow Port, a gate in the wall around the town of Edinburgh. It was a place for controlling access and movement, and where executed heads were displayed on spikes; the gate itself was demolished in 1764, not that long ago really.

Netherbow Port British Museum
Netherbow Port (British Museum)

So, we are actually quite good at marking historical landmarks in urban landscapes, and tourists and visitors are expected to understand this vocabulary well enough to make sense of arrangements of bricks in the street. This sometimes needs additional prompting with plaques, while apps and walking guides can aid the imagination.

But we are nowhere near as good when it comes to marking the former (or even current but buried) location of prehistoric sites, structures and things. We should be lighting it up with neon signs.

Graham Fagan, A drama in time, Calton Rd, Edinburgh (2016)

That is a shame because prehistory can lurk unheralded and unmarked in the most unexpected of places – such as Edinburgh Old Town.

I came to realise this when turning to the final page of the section of the book on the Grassmarket walk which had kept us amused between pubs for an hour or so. In a throw-away line just before another Burke and Hare anecdote, it was noted that:

Just past the White Hart is the Beehive Inn, also a former coaching inn. In 2008 archaeologists discovered signs of human habitation near to the Beehive that have been dated to between 1500 and 1300 Bc [sic]. Previously it had been thought that part of Edinburgh had remained uninhabited until the 13th or 14th century.

Book extract


A little research brought me to the stunning realisation that during works associated with the laying of a water pipelines and general improvements in the Grassmarket, Headland Archaeology Ltd had found TWO BRONZE AGE PITS deep beneath almost 2m worth of layers of urban crap in 2008. The Scotsman newspaper did not hold back in its excitement about this discovery.

EVIDENCE unearthed in the Grassmarket has revealed humans were there 3000 years earlier than previously thought. The surprise find – which experts say will “rewrite Scotland’s history books” – puts the earliest known civilisation in the area as far back as the Middle Bronze Age, or around 1500 to 1300BC.

Quite why this was all so surprising is not clear to me, given that this seems a perfectly reasonable place, perhaps on an animal drove route, that would have appealed to an itinerant prehistoric pit digger.

Little of detail has been published about this discovery as far as I can tell. The Discovery and Excavation in Scotland entry (2008, page 69) for the prehistoric features found during the excavations (which revealed much more significant later material as one would expect) was brief but probably comprehensive.

Prehistoric deposits – Two pits were exposed c6m apart in the excavation of an open cut pipe trench located along the S edge of the existing road on the N side of the Grassmarket. The pits were both sealed by a layer of colluvium and lay c1.8m below the modern ground surface. Radiocarbon analysis of material from the pits returned calibrated dates of 2200–1950 BC with a 95.4% probability (SUERC-19840) and 1500–1380 BC to 95.4% probability (Beta-242133). These features are considered indicative of sporadic use of this low-lying area in the Middle Bronze Age.

So there is an old town beneath the Old Town, as if we didn’t already know this, Edinburgh Castle itself having its origins as a fortification in the Iron Age.

But one problem remains – there is no plaque, no marker on the ground, to show tourists, visitors and rubber-neckers and the like exactly where this pair of ANCIENT pits were found. Until the day that Edinburgh City Council get their beige bricks out and become creative, you will find me sitting there, outside the Beehive Inn, pointing deep down into the depths of time. Possibly forever. Please bring me a pint.

Me Grassmarket

Sources and acknowledgements: I want to once again acknowledge the excellent walking book by Stephen Millar which in the end inspired this blog post, and I believe he has also produced three books of similar nature and tone for London. Jan accompanied me on the walk and took all the photos in this post (except the out of focus one of the book extract). The other images have been credited in the captions. For more information on Graham Fagan’s neon artwork, go here.