Archive | March, 2018

The vitrification experiment

24 Mar

Do you remember that old TV show?

Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World

The Divine Comedy

Mysterious World

Sometimes an archaeologist does something so crazy, so visionary and so flamboyant that one can only stand back and admire the show. Trying to understanding what the heck happened in prehistory sometimes requires extreme acts (and I know this from personal experience). This post tells the story of an urban prehistoric experiment that took place almost 40 years ago in a local authority waste disposal tip (aka a dump) that combined innovation, ingenuity, furniture and weirdness in equal measure.

The East Tullos Yorkshire Television vitrified wall experiment was recently brought to my attention by Richard ‘Scarfolk‘ Littler in a twitter thread that he posted that celebrated eccentric characters and stories covered by the legendary and seminal 1980 televisual experience Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. One of the images that he posted took my breath away. It showed a familiar archaeologist but with an unfamiliar facial hair arrangement, a wild-eyed expression and in the middle of doing something inexplicable.

The tweet

Professor Ian Ralston OBE DLitt FRSE FSA FSA (Scot) MIFA and Abercromby Chair of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh appears to have been, at some point in the past, The Pagan Man with a Stick. He also seems to have been on one of my favourite TV shows from when I was a kid, which means that I may have watched Ian in action 15 years before I first met him, and on further reflection perhaps this film subliminally made me the archaeologist I am today. Although using this logic I could just as easily have become a Bigfoot hunter or an Alien abductee.

arthur_c_clarke_mysterious_world_tv titles

Broadcast over one series and 13 episodes in 1980 on ITV (my memory convinced me that there must have been so many more episodes) the programme featured, between the adverts (no doubt starring Leonard Rossiter and Lorraine Chase), some of the world’s most mysterious mysteries, from cryptozoology to pseudo-archaeology to the supernatural. This heady mixture of nonsense was presented in deadpan seriousness and a cast of eccentrics, academics and self-proclaimed experts brought the whole thing to life. Stories were separated by brief pieces of camera by Clarke himself leaning against a tree somewhere hot (Sri Lanka).

I used to have the book as well, the cover of which shows what might be found beneath Stonehenge if they ever build that tunnel.

Book Cover

It is not every day that a young, but respectable Chas ‘n’ Dave lookalike archaeologist gets to star in his own 10-minute slot in a portmanteau mystery TV documentary, and so I wanted to look into this a little further. The urban fringe landfill location was enough for me to tag this under the category of urban prehistory and write a blog post about it which I have duly done.

The story of this unique vitrification experiment was broadcast in Episode 3 of the show on the theme of Ancient Wisdom, from 11 minutes in. (Some of the other stories on the programme do not seem to me to represent wisdom.)

This account of the vitrification experiment was subsequently supplemented by a detailed and fulsome report on the experiment in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland written diligently by Ralston himself and published in 1986

It is from these two sources that I piece together those momentous spring days in 1980.

Paper title

Quote 1

The experiment entailed the construction of a full-scale 8m long section of wall replicating a hillfort rampart, with the aim to reproduce the effect of vitrification. In effect, this process entails the melting of rocks within the core of such walls (perhaps with internal ‘timber-lacing’ to fuel fires), the end result of which is a glassy stone that is fused and melted together. This is a relatively common trait of later prehistoric fortified sites in Scotland, notably in Angus, and Argyll and Bute. Arguments have long ranged about whether this was caused by accident or design. As archaeologist Andy Heald put it fairly recently, ‘Some think vitrification was a status symbol, some think a settlement would be set alight and inadvertently vitrified in the process by attackers and some think it’s a structural thing to do with strengthening the walls of the fort.’

This heated (pun intended) dispute was the attraction for Arthur C Clarke’s crack team of mystery-chasers: “it was this contrast in views that constituted ‘the mystery'”… as Ralston puts it in his report. This doesn’t seem to me to be a mystery on a par with the Bermuda Triangle or the Nazca Lines, but I guess they had hours of schedules to fill.

The segment of the programme starts with a sweeping view of the laughably pronounced Iron Age hilltop enclosure Tap O’Noth. Ralston arrives on top, bestriding the landscape and then sitting on the ramparts pointing out vitrification while not even appearing to be out of breath. The light levels are low and there is mild peril for sensitive viewers – will he make it back down to his parked car before darkness falls?

Ralston on Tap o Noth

The voiceover person (who is not Arthur C Clarke but sounds suitably serious about the whole business) expresses the mystery of vitrification: was this something that just happened to occur when a fort wall caught fire, or was it the result of, “some technique now lost to strengthen the walls by welding the rocks together”? Gosh, I wonder.

The TV show voiceover further noted that “Ian Ralston, in an ambitious attempt to crack the mystery decided to build his own Iron Age fort”. This was to be done using materials and finance provided by a Mr Nick Lord of Yorkshire Television and where better to carry out this large-scale experiment than in the salubrious surroundings of a smelly dump near Aberdeen. The image on the screen melted from the misty hills of Aberdeenshire to the site of the vitrification experiment. The show was careful to show Aberdeen as if it had just been hit by a nuclear attack.

Aberdeen

The rampart section, based on various real forts, was realised, as with so many experimental archaeology projects of this scale and vision, through a series of compromises, imaginative bodges and visits to DIY shops. Ralston takes up the story:

Quote 2

Granite was chosen for the rampart exterior and gabbro for the interior, with wooden beams inserted inside to form the lacing (the internal structure of the wall). The construction project took place over four wet and windy days at the end of March 1980, with a combination of labour by the team of seven and a small fleet of support vehicles doing the work. Ralston was heavily involved in the heavy stuff, having made it down from that mountain top after all, his vigour undiminished.

Construction

Wall nearing completionThe conflagration itself was facilitated by the application of ‘dripping’ (animal fat) to the ends of beams protruding from the rampart while other artificial accelerants were on hand just in case, and a large pyre also had to be constructed up against one side of the wall to get the fire going due to ongoing inclement weather. With a cavalier attitude, Ralston got stuck into the building project with a fag hanging out of his mouth, right next to the stores of paraffin and beef dripping.

Ralston smoking

The fire was started around noon on the 1st of April, with a stiff breeze causing some anxiety. The conflagration as Ralston called it was monitored carefully and managed proactively, with regular truck-loads of wood having to be brought on site to feed the fires and pyres to keep it all burning and raise the temperature within the wall.

Wood supplies seem to have been running low because at one point a delivery of knackered old furniture (or what Ralston called “a miscellaneous cargo of domestic refuse, delivered by the Aberdeen Cleansing Department”), was poured onto the pyre.

A load of old furniture

Despite trying to control air flow into the core of the wall using a tarpaulin, by early evening and five hours into the burn, the internal wall temperature was only 13 degrees. “At about this time the writer clambered onto the top of the wall”. In other words, the shit just got real.

Ralston on the rampart

Ralston on the rampart TV version

This dramatic intervention by Ralston, flying in the face of a risk assessment that had almost certainly not been written anyway (this was 1980 after all), signaled an intensification of pyre building and fire management, which through the course of the evening began to pay dividends as the core temperature of the wall rose steadily.

Sunset

By strategically starting big fires at certain points around the wall in relation to wind direction, the experiment began to meet expectations and the team allowed themselves a dinner break from 9pm to the back of 11pm. By now the wall was collapsing in places and the fire was massive. Then they all went to bed / the pub.

The next morning the team arrived back in the dump to find a smouldering, hot smoky crumbling wall, with fires still burning inside. The wall was monitored and slowly dismantled by hand and machine from 8.30am, with team members raking through the guts of the unstable structure for evidence of vitrification and a small quantity of glassy stones was recovered.

Vitrified material

This material was carefully stored in conditions that retained the high scientific integrity of the samples.

Schweppes vitrified stones

Despite Ralston’s assessment that the fire would have continued to burn for another 24 hours, he also noted that, “the structure appeared markedly unstable and Yorkshire TV, with filming schedules completed, was not prepared to accept the insurance risk represented by the wall any longer. Accordingly, at 1600 hrs, some 28 hours after the experiment had started, the wall was bulldozed flat”.

Bulldozer

This allowed further observation by the archaeologists, but after all of this hard work, was the mystery of vitrification finally solved? The voiceover on the TV show was not so sure, suggesting that the meagre evidence for melting rock (3kg of glassy stone) only posed more questions than it solved. If this was the case, it would surely take half of the trees in Scotland just to vitrify one fort the size of Tap O’Noth, the voice claimed ludicrously and misunderstanding the whole nature of extrapolation.

Ralston’s account of the experiment was more balanced, noting the errors made during the process that had became clear as the fire took hold, and some of the inauthenticities that were essentially unknown variants on what might have happened in the ancient past. He was able to show that under the right circumstances vitrification could happen in such a timber laced rampart, but he could not say for sure what cultural activity (warfare, ritual closure of a site, accidental fire) caused this to happen in the Iron Age.

This ambitious and eccentric project, made possibly by TV largesse (which only really went so far as the many compromises that had to be made demonstrate), shows the potential of educational and informative experimental archaeology in even the most unpromising of locations. This was not the first vitrification experiment nor was it the last, but it was perhaps the most urban.

Even more urban than an equally ambitious and bonkers vitrification experiment that was carried out in the industrial setting of Plean Colliery, between Stirling and Falkirk, by V Gordon Childe in 1937. (The National Geographic recently called this an ‘audacious experiment’.) The Plean vitrification experiment was carried out with Wallace Thorneycroft and a response to questions raised by vitrified material found at a number of forts in Scotland, including one recently excavated by Childe himself at Rahoy, Argyll and Bute. In this case, Childe and Thorneycroft asked / told staff at the colliery to construct a ‘murus gallicus 12 feet long  by 6 feet wide by 6 feet high’ based on detailed sketch plans.

The Plean wall spec

The structure was constructed from materials to hand on the mine, such as fireclay bricks and wooden beams. This gave the wall the appearance of being nothing more than another industrial structure in a mining landscape, and it lacked the rugged organic look of Ralston’s wall. Also, and perhaps this is where motivational inauthenticities creep in, this wall was designed purely to burn and for no other reason.

Plean colliery experiment 1937

The conflagration of this wall would have had an urban audience, with houses overlooking the site, and one presumes the poor sods who built the thing would have been allowed to stand and watch. 4 tons of kindling and logs were used to create a pyre to cause the wall to burn and effect vitrification in its core.

Plean fire and vitrication

Childe reported that, ‘the fire was kindled at 11am on March 11 in a snowstorm’, and the wall began to collapse internally within an hour, reaching peak core temperatures in five hours. 20 hours after the fire was started, glassy bubbled rock was picked out of the smouldering debris. As with the Yorkshire Television experiment, the means to vitrify rock had been explored successfully, but the cause and motivation remained unclear.

As an aside, a curious Edinburgh University Abercromby Chair runs through this thread. Ralston currently holds that role as did Childe, both of whom carried out peri-urban vitrification experiments. And Stuart Piggott, another Abercromby Chair, was on a different episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Stuart Piggott

I feel a Venn coming on. In the future, PhDs will be written about this.

Venn

The wonder of the vitrification experiments is that they failed to answer the ‘why’ question even if they were able to shed some light on the ‘how’ and ‘WTF’. Experiments and excavations continue to this day, with for instance an ongoing community and educational project involving the Forestry Commission at Dun Deardail, Argyll and Bute.  Here, the unanswered question, the mystery of vitrification and the melting of rock, offers fertile ground to involve and empower lots of people.

destruction-dun-deardail-cropped-low-resedited

Dun Deardail ablaze (c) Forestry Commission

When reflecting on the 1980 TV show, Ian Ralston told me that that the tweeted still photograph brought back memories although he did not define whether his recollections were negative, positive or bamboozled. He told me,

this is the Arthur C Clarke ‘The Mysterious World of…’ Yorkshire TV escapade … of the vitrified wall on Aberdeen City rubbish dump c. April Fool’s Day 1980 and that’s the unprepossessing surroundings of the tip in the background. I’m holding the torch I was given in due course to ignite the wall”.

He then went back to sorting out Brian Hope-Taylor’s historic Doon Hill excavations in East Lothian from the 1960s (and that would make an amazing blog post…but that’s for another day).

Holding the torch is a nice metaphor for what Ian Ralston was doing here, as well as a literal description. Of course, the great Professor and Edinburgh successor to Childe and Piggott is not quite ready to hand that torch over yet, but when he does, it is important that archaeologists continue to burn bright with enthusiasm, be hirsute with dignity and dream crazy dreams of impossible projects on the urban edgelands.

The end

Sources and acknowledgements: the tweet that started all of this was one a series of brilliant screen grabs and out-of-context comments from the TV show Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious world from Richard Littler. His tweet and screen grabs of Ralston and Piggott have been used in this blog post. Please follow him and buy his books.

The academic publication about East Tullos vitrification experiment was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 116 (1986), pages 17-40 and this is open access via the journal’s ADS page. This was the source for several quotations and the black and white images in the post. The account of the Plean vitrification experiment came from the same journal, in this case volume 72 (1937-38), pages 44-55. This was the source of the several black and white images about this experiment. 

The colour images are stills from the TV show itself, while the images related to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious world are available widely online. The image of Dun Deardail ablaze came from the Forestry Commission website about that project, link in text above.

For an interesting critique of these kinds of experiments, and accounts of the work at Plean and East Tullos, with images I have not included, see this blog.

 

 

 

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What happens when the polluter can’t pay? The sad case of Station Brae

2 Mar

This blog post has been written with Lauren Welsh, who thanks to the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow, was a paid intern on an urban prehistory placement in June 2017. I asked Lauren to come up with an idea for a blog post, and she suggested we visit and investigate an amazing urban prehistory site in her home town of Dreghorn, North Ayrshire….Station Brae.

Never heard of it? Read on to find out why.

NB In this post, my contributions are in italics.

Lauren meeting Steve Timoney UHI

Lauren discussing Balfarg henge with Dr Steven Timoney, UHI, during the placement

During the summer last year, I was lucky enough to undertake a placement as the Urban Prehistorian’s Intern. This was a fantastic opportunity and I learned so much about what happens behind the scenes when planning community archaeological events and outreach to keep the public informed.

Whilst on this placement I undertook some of my own research into Community/Public Archaeology and I must admit it left me a bit bewildered about how this branch of archaeology is treated.

Where I live, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by lots of archaeology from many different periods. My biggest interest lies however, within prehistory and so focused my research on this. Before I began my research, I was aware that there was a prehistoric monument found in the village next to mine, it is known as the Drybridge Cursus.

Drybridge cursus canmore_image_SC00842714

Drybridge cursus from the air in 1977 (c) HES canmore_image_SC008427

Wet Drybridge extract

Pictures of a walk KB did along the Drybridge cursus in the late 1990s (source: Brophy 2000)

However, when I started investigating in more detail I found that this was not the only substantial and interesting find from prehistory in this area.

In 2003/04, archaeological investigations were taking place in my little home village of Dreghorn, in advance of a new housing development at Station Brae. This work took place just before 53 houses were built by Wimpey Homes next to Dreghorn cemetery. The excavations were reported on in Discovery and Excavation Scotland. It was suggested that the excavations had found a ‘probable timber hall’ which is ‘comparable to those at sites such as Balbridie, Crathes, the Claish, and smaller examples at Balfarg and Raigmore’. Like the structures that are mentioned, the Station Brae structure is thought to date to the Neolithic Period. The site is also described as the prehistoric remains at this site as being in a ‘density and scale seldom seen in Scotland’.

Excavation photo

Station Brae excavation site viewed from the east. This image is from an unpublished draft report on the first stages of the excavation that came into our possession.

This site is clearly a rare find but the only information in the public domain about this important site is the DES article.  This goes on to mention that there were a number of archaeological finds that accompanied this impressive timber hall structure. From lithics and Grooved Ware to Carinated Bowls and kilns, this site has a lot of interesting prehistoric archaeology which is often lacking from prehistoric sites. Evidence for later prehistoric activity, and an early medieval settlement were also found here.

Station Brae location map

The urban location of the Station Brae site

Given that this appears to be a site that should be of national importance due to the number of prehistoric artefacts and that is considered to be a timber hall structure, it is extremely confusing that a very small amount of people have heard of it (myself included even prior to my research into the excavation).

I had known about the Station Brae site for many years, as I have been documenting evidence for Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland (in reviews published in 2006 and 2016) and have even written a paper on Scotland’s Neolithic timber halls (published in 2007). However, in all these reviews, Station Brae has proved an elusive site, and attempts in the past to get further information on the excavations – even a coherent plan of the timber hall or possible Grooved Ware associated oval structures – have got me nowhere.

Yet the site is now in the literature. In a paper published in 2006, I celebrated the discovery of Station Brae ‘putative timber hall’ via developer-funded archaeology although made a curious mistake when adding it to a distribution map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland – I forgot to add it as a dot to a map previously published by Gordon Barclay, and a penciled in x still survives on the map as evidence of this in the published version. Oops.

Map from Brophy 2006

X marks the spot. A map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland. Station Brae is immediately to the west of Biggar Common on the coast (source: Brophy 2006)

In a review of timber halls written around the same time, the site was again mentioned although here it was simply viewed as a possible parallel for other Neolithic timber halls, except the Grooved Ware connection was puzzling (this pottery style would be too late for such a big roofed building). However, I was working from the original DES report only and the site did not make it onto a terrible map I produced of Scotland’s Neolithic halls. This doubt fed into a much more recent review of Neolithic settlement evidence in Scotland, where I had grown a little fed up with the situation. I described Station Brae as a ‘tantalising, but as yet unpublished, discovery’ (2016, 216). Despite my high hopes for this site, it has not yet made it into wider synthesis of Neolithic settlement sites, simply because nothing is really known about it.

PSAS 2007 map

Station Brae did not make it on to my terrible 2007 map

Given this last paper was written over a decade after the excavations, and I again failed to find out anything about the site, this troubled me. The same old DES source was all that underpinned it, and that was starting to feel a bit tired.

This is clearly a frustrating situation – but one that I am not entirely unware of, having run up against similar road blocks for various reasons, from time-limited confidentiality clauses inserted into excavation contracts by developers, to sites being published in obscure online locations in reports that require a lot of guesswork to locate via google, to publication being delayed for all manner of reasons. But this seemed a more intractable problem. And that has proved to be the case, although Lauren brought it home to me that it is not just Neolithic archaeologists that are frustrated about Station Brae….

What bothered me the most about this discovery is that it is less than 500 yards away from my house and yet I knew nothing about it (which is interesting as I have always had a keen interest in archaeology).

So, what happened? Why has there not been more done at this site to help the locals (and wider public) understand the importance of this site as well as what it helps us to understand about other prehistoric sites similar to this one?

It is certainly strange. The site itself sits in a larger prehistoric landscape. As previously mentioned, there is an impressive cursus monument located at Drybridge and is only about 1 mile away from the Station Brae site. Also, in Drybridge there is a single standing stone, although there has been no known work conducted to say whether the stone is prehistoric or not.

 

 

The next village along this route is Dundonald, where today a beautiful castle stands on top of a hill. There have been excavations carried out at the castle which date the archaeological remains back to the early Bronze Age (hopefully the subject of a future urban prehistorian blog post! -KB). There have also been excavations in Kilmarnock recently as well, where (ironically) a Neolithic ‘timber hall’ site was found in 2017 by GUARD Archaeology during development work.

Dundonald Castle from the air

Dundonald Castle (photo: Richard Hughes)

A final important site to mention in this geographical area is Shewalton Moss. This is ‘bog land’ that runs to the Northwest of Dundonald and is known locally to have produced a number of prehistoric artefacts including urns, pottery, flint scrapers and polishers, hammer stones and arrowheads, indicating substantial prehistoric activity in the area (although it is proving difficult to find records of these finds).

In an article in The Herald newspaper on 19th April 2004, the significance of Station Brae was stated in a very public forum. This was at worst based on a press release, at best on an interview with the director of the company who carried out the excavations, and I have highlighted in bold some particularly juicy comments.  

‘The site suggests a 5000-year-old village similar in scale to the group of stone houses at Skara Brae, Orkney.’

Tom Addyman, excavation director of Addyman Associates, who carried out the ongoing dig at the housing development, said….”We found 750-odd pieces of Grooved Ware, which is one of the largest collections in the south-west of Scotland. The area is now known as a type site for the Neolithic period, which means that all other sites will be compared to this one.”

Neolithic pit

Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said: “Finding evidence at this date for settlement, in the form of building foundations and for pottery making, is extremely rare, and promises to help us understand the lives of the people who built the great ritual monuments like henges and early stone circles”.’

There are some spectacular claims here, although the comparison of all other known Neolithic sites in Scotland with Station Brae has thus far proved impossible. Mike Pitts’ aspiration for this site remains unrealised.

A drip-feed of information was put out via the media offering further tantalising details. Site director Tom Wilson was quoted by iAyrshire as saying:

“This is only one of five [timber halls] to be discovered in Scotland and we think it dates back to around 3500BC. It would be a farming community with around eight huts taking pride of place in the site. We have also found pits with pottery and a giant fence that must have circled the village. Although other Neolithic villages have been found in Scotland, this is the only one I believe has been permanently lived in. We can see where the huts and kiln would have been. The residents moved further up the hill in the winter as the land was prone to flooding. We’re really like detectives and so far we have found some important artifacts including grooved-ware pottery and a kiln that we think is the oldest found in Scotland.”

I am salivating just reading the description of what was found here. Sorry, I’ll just go and wipe my mouth.

Back again.

One thing that Lauren said that really struck home was that people in Dreghorn knew that an ancient settlement had been found in the town, but that was all they knew about it. It was like the site had taken on a mythical quality of its own, which would be all well and good but underlying this is a community who have been let down. Because archaeologists came, excavated, spoke to the papers, and then went away again. And that was it.

Lauren did some research as part of the placement that suggests that Dreghorn has embraced the discovery to an extent. It has become something of a branding for this place that it is the ‘Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’. Not snappy but pretty cool. References to this (erroneous) claim can be found online in various places, for instance in the wikipedia page for the town. I guess this impression was given by Tom Addyman himself who told the now defunct Today newspaper on 27th February 2004 that:

“People have always lived here, and have wanted to live here. Can’t think of any other site that has that depth and layering of occupation.”

The Neolithic discoveries in the village have, since the excavations, taken on the status of a a thing, although based on only wafer thin tit-bits of information.

Villages of Britain image

 

As has already been touched on, the local people (and even some not so local) seem to have heard about Dreghorn and its impressive little title. It seems strange to me that no-one has really ever done any further ‘digging’ to see why it got the title in the first place. It is just something that is accepted. The information about the Station Brae site is out there (what little of it there is) but the information that can be found about this site in the public domain should be enough for the public to start questioning ‘what happened?’ Having spoken to a few locals about this and showing them the information in the public domain, I have found that the unfortunate reality is that they view it as ‘suspicious’. They tend to feel that something strange has happened at this site. The information tells us that this is a nationally important site and yet nothing further has been done to promote this or even investigate this. I must admit, I feel the same as them, although I can also see the dangers of this way of thinking as ‘professionals’ in this field can find it hard to gain and keep trust of the public as it is.

During the placement, Lauren and I visited the location of Station Brae. This is now a grassy bank with a flat top, crowned with older houses and a garage block with an urban goal painted on it. Fine views down to the Annick Water hint at the ideal location this would have been to live 5,000 years ago, just as it is now.

Station Brae

There is no indication whatsoever of what was found in this area before the adjacent newer houses were constructed, either in the lie of the land, or information for passers by and residents. It is impossible to imagine a timber Skara Brae standing here once, this village before the village.

After the visit, some discrete enquiries were made. What happened here? Without divulging too much information, it appears that the excavations were far more extensive and expensive that planned, and that the money simply stopped coming. No-one could afford to fund adequate post-excavation analysis, nevermind writing up the excavations, although enough resource was available for the material culture to be inspected and safely packaged up to go into storage. None of this stuff has been mis-treated, but nor has its full potential been realised.

The site is in limbo. There is no money to cover the substantial costs of analysing a very large assemblage of material (and that is just the Neolithic stuff I know about). Specialists would have to be paid, and someone or an organisation commissioned to write it all up, a major task as I well know being in the middle of writing up an excavation monograph myself.  

Sadly, this is not an isolated case and other sites across Britain have been left in the same kind of situation: excavation done, archive and materials packaged up and put into storage, no more money to write it all up, and perhaps no real motivation or will to go back and sort it all out. There is only thing worse that having to write up an old excavation from a decade or more ago – that is writing up someone else’s old excavation, and in a sector as dynamic as heritage, this is likely what would have to happen. This is comparable to academic archaeologists, who have their own backlogs (as do I) but at least we have the safety net of a contractual situation that vaguely encourages us to spend some time sorting things out, and a career-progression motivation for publication.

Interim report title

This is the only detailed information I could find about the site, an interim report from mid-way through the excavations, obtained via an anonymous source.

I want to make it clear that I am not trying to blame the excavation team or the company that undertook the excavations, which were clearly to a high standard and carried out with rigour and enthusiasm. The team did a great job of getting the media interested in the site and they cannot be held financially liable for further work that has to be done. They also clearly tried to make things happen with this site and recognised its importance.

In this case, the developer also cannot easily be cast as the pantomime villain. In an interim report written by the archaeologists that I managed to obtain when researching this situation, it was clear that in January 2004 there was already a problem. A section in the report entitled ‘Costing’ noted that ‘additional funding sources’ to cover post-ex and publication costs were being sought. It was further noted that these costs were ‘an additional and unforeseen (as well as unwelcome) burden’ upon the developer who had otherwise been helpful and accomodating. In other words, I am guessing that the whole unexpected Neolithic and Medieval settlement bombshell had the potential to destroy budgeting and profit margins in the months and years after the excavations finished and that the original tender for the work, offered in good faith, was simply inadequate to deal with the spectacular discoveries subsequently made. 

But I do want to blame the system.

The polluter pays principal is great when it all works, but what happens when it all goes to shit? Who has the ultimate responsibility of fulfilling the expectations of salivating prehistorians and a local population that have been left disappointed? How do we dance sites out of limbo?

There is an ongoing discussion in the heritage sector about this very problem.

Some say we should forget the older digs, write them off, dispose of the boxes of files, and move on.

Others say that Historic Environment Scotland (or Local Authorities) should step in and provide resources for these zombie excavations to be revived, albeit almost certainly at the tax-payers’ expense.

Another school of thought is that the whole system needs to change. A pool of money could be gathered using some kind of Development Tax, to be allocated as and when needed to ensure all remedial archaeology work related to development projects can be centrally funded and completed. This means that tendering would become less of a lottery, projects with almost no costs could not boost profits artificially, and really expensive excavations like Station Brae would not bankrupt anyone to deal with. Used in some European countries, this system might well be a solution going forward, but won’t help deal with backlogged limbo projects, of which there are, sadly, many.

This situation is all the more painful to me because of the urban location. Here, archaeologists, the developer and the system to one extent or another have let people down – the Neolithic people who lived here once, but also the current inhabitants of Dreghorn have been ill-served, with expectations raised of their town being a place of real significance in the ancient heritage of Scotland. There is now a brand to be lived up to – but how can the proud claim of deep time be evidenced, backed up, celebrated, with the site reduced to so many box files and packing cases?

Timber hall

With all this prehistoric evidence cropping up in such a small geographical space, maybe in the future we will be lucky enough carry out more investigations at the site of Station Brae. It would be great if more information on these sites could become available in the public domain so that people can learn about the history of their village and the significance of the archaeology that could potentially be lying in their own back gardens!

Going forward, hopefully by raising awareness of the site, it might encourage people to look further into what can be done to pull this amazing site into the mainstream. If we can go by what is reported in the draft report we have got hold of, then the finds from this site really could potentially be used to lend further understanding to a period of time we really don’t know that much about. Perhaps a crowdfunding initiative could be set up to find the funds needed to complete the post-ex work and write up required to make sense of what has been found here. If the community could take ownership and be proud of the potentially spectacular site that has been found here, I really think it would help raise an awareness that the public really do have an interest in sites like this, just as much as those who have a keen interest in the field and period. And who knows, maybe then, Dreghorn really would deserve its title,Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’, or at least they would understand why this title stuck in the first place!

 

Sources and acknowledgements: firstly, I would like to thank Lauren for all of her hard work over the course of the placement, and it was a treat for me to get to the Station Brae site as I had read that one paragraph about it for so long! Lauren took me straight there with the knowledge only a local can have, an expertise in this place I could never hope to have. I would also like to thank the wonderful staff at Dundonald Castle for their hospitality during my trip to North Ayrshire, and Richard Hughes for allowing his great photo of the castle to be included in this post.

I sought advice from several seasoned, wise and experienced heritage professionals in the preparation of this post, and although my sources shall remain anonymous, I would like to thank them very much.

I thought long and hard about not naming an archaeologists or other parties involved in the excavation at Station Brae. However, I hope that our post makes it clear that the system is at fault here, and not the diggers or funders. A cursory search would have revealed identities for those who wanted to find out anyway.   

The DES entry that started all of this off is: Addyman, T. 2004 Station Brae, Dreghorn (Dreghorn parish), Neolithic settlement with ritualistic component; medieval village’, Discovery Excav Scot, vol. 5. [open access, google Discovery Excavation Scotland]

In the post, a couple of my old papers were referred to. In case anyone wants to follow these up, they are:

Brophy, K 2000 Wet Drybridge: a cursus in Ayrshire. In J Harding & R Johnston (eds) Northern Pasts: Interpretations of the later prehistory of northern England and southern Scotland, 45–56. BAR: Oxford.

Brophy, K 2006 Rethinking Scotland’s Neolithic: combining circumstance and context. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 136, 7–46 [open access, google article or journal name]

Brophy, K 2007 From big house to cult house: early Neolithic timber halls in Scotland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 73, 75–96.

Brophy, K. 2016. On ancient farms: Neolithic settlement in mainland Scotland, in Brophy, K, Ralston, IBM and Macgregor, G (eds) 2016 The Neolithic of mainland Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, pages 200-235.