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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.