‘The half-light, with its glimmer, had always had for him a curious historic reality, as though the world in this quiet hour turned itself into a stage whereon all that had once been could once more be, but invisibly now and therefore magically. The word ‘magic’ was as professionally real to him as the word ‘atom’ to a physicist. He knew his learned theories. But, unlike the physicist, he had to translate his concepts in terms of human behaviour’.
the asymmetrical arrangement of hollow spaces
“…it would drain him through death to the negation of stone; and even then, he would not be the stone, he would be the darkness”.
the architecture of containment
approach with caution
wear protective clothing
invited participants only
inside and outside
“The upended stone was about three feet high, a small ‘standing stone’ or orthostat…These upended stones or orthostats would go right round the cairn forming its containing wall or peristalith. There were theorists who said that the great stone circles themselves were but a later development of this peristalith which kept back the cairn – or kept in the dead’.
systematic investigation of a death chamber
a steady hand
‘Then, as always in such fluid fancy, a knot formed about the one solitary fact, namely that the cairn was a great tomb; and instantly, as if his mind were indeed a radioactive substance emitting thoughts of an inconceivable swiftness, he completed the destruction of the world by atomic bombs, saw the cairn of Westminster Abbey and a future race of archaeologists opening it up’.
ideological demands for absolute decommission
preservation by record
“The evidence would disclose
that this had been
a chambered tomb of the Pre-Atomic age”.
A Tripartite tale: some notes
The long quotations contained within this post were written by Neil Gunn(1891-1973), the Scottish author who grew up in the small village of Dunbeath, about 40 km south-south-east of Dounreay, Caithness. He wrote a series of evocative novels about the transformed and transforming Highlands in the middle of the twentieth century. All the extended quotations in this post come from his 1948 book The Silver Bough. This book tells the story of an arrogant academic archaeologist based in central Scotland who spends a summer on the northwest coast of Scotland in the fictional town of Kinlochoscar excavating a prehistoric megalithic tomb encased in a stone circle. (This is the best book I have read about an excavation other than Peter Ackroyd’s similarly themed First Light.) Nuclear matters are a recurring theme: Gunn was by all accounts disturbed by the dropping of atom bombs on Japan in 1945, while his archaeologist protagonist was active at a time when that profession was on the cusp of being transformed by science, and in particular the radioactive science of radiocarbon dating. In many sense, it is a novel about individual, disciplinary and social ‘loss of innocence’ to coin archaeologist David Clarke’s memorable phrase.
A Neolithic chambered cairn, Cnoc na h-Uiseig, is situated right next to the former nuclear power plant of Dounreay, near Thurso, Caithness, on the north coast of mainland Scotland. This monument is largely ruinous, and was investigated by Arthur JH Edwards in 1928. Excavation of this ‘horned cairn’ showed it to contain various internal chambers, and recovered from the interior were sherds of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery, a perforated bone object, a sandstone axe and the remains of at least five individuals. The site has been much damaged by its location near twentieth century infrastructure, notably a nearby (now defunct) airfield, and in 1964 OS field workers noted that, ‘This chambered cairn, a grassy mound, has been mutilated large-scale construction work and is now slightly rectangular in shape, measuring 22.0m E-W and 17.5m transversely, by about 2.5m high’. It has for many decades been contained within a square fenced enclosure. This tomb was located well within the blast zone and almost impossible to visit for that reason. There are a number of other prehistoric and later heritage sites within a notional exclusion zone.
Dounreay nuclear power plantwas established from 1955 onwards, and had three nuclear reactors. For decades the plant lived in uneasy equilibrium both with the population of the county of Caithness, but also the ruinous Neolithic megalith on its fringes. The plant was famous at times for unorthodox practices involving the disposal of some nuclear material, while there were often tales of radioactive particles on the nearby beaches. This was not an environment conducive to megalith visitation. Closure and decommissioning of the site began in 2005, and is expected to take over two centuries to entirely return the site to its former state. Since its closure, the nuclear plant has undergone a gradual decommissioning process, brought to my attention recently with the inclusion of a glossy brochure about this in the pack for a conference I was attending in the county. Here, we see the act of un-polluting the land, reversing the radioactive decades, as a triumph of technology carried out by robots and scientists wearing protective outfits straight out of science fiction. The decommissioning process has brought with it a longish tail of employment, and some funds to support community projects including those related to heritage and archaeology, although as yet this has not included re-excavation of the chambered cairn.
The end of the Dounreay decommissioning project is anticipated to be in AD 2300. By that time, the chambered tomb will be over 6,000 years old.
It is becoming post-atomic.
Sources: Edwards’ excavation report can be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 63 (1928-29), the paper being called, ‘Excavations at Reay Links and at a horned cairn at Lower Dounreay, Caithness’. There is a very nice introduction to Gunn’s The Silver Bough by Dairmid Gunn, in the 2003 Whittles Publishing edition which shed some light on the motivations behind the book. The timescales for the complete decommissioning process for Dounreay came from this article in the The Engineer Magazine.
Material culture and other items related to Dounreay can be viewed in an exhibition in Caithness Horizons, Thurso.
Photo and image credits: All of the black and white images related to the chambered cairn are reproduced from the Edwards’ excavation report. The photo of the excavator at work (actually on a nearby site, not the chambered cairn) comes from a poster produced by Headland Archaeology entitled, Lower Dounreay: an archaeological landscape. The photo of Neil Gunn comes from the website about him linked to in the text.
The rest of the images, from top to bottom:
Half-built reactor (B&W) Charles Hewitt / Picture Post / Getty, via The Times
Isn’t is about time we started to mark the locations of prehistoric sites and discoveries in ways that are visible, informative and accessible to local communities and visitors?
It is factually correct to state that the presence of prehistory in your village, town, suburb and city is not a secret. There are online platforms that can tell you this, such as Canmore in Scotland and Coflein in Wales. However, the information contained in these national (and equivalent regional) databases is encoded in archaeological terminology, while site entries often lack detail, depth and / or images to make the information more accessible to a curious member of the public. They are also portals that currently do not work well on smart phones and depend on decent wifi or 4G, not as available in suburbia as you might think.
One way that would be effective at easing the burden on people finding out this stuff for themselves would be an urban prehistory plaque scheme, my preferred colour being brown, not blue [although I have not tested this colour yet]. This simple device, mirroring schemes in other parts of the UK focusing on famous dead people, is familiar and easy to interact with. In my proposal, urban prehistory locales would be marked with a circular disk a foot in diameter containing just enough information to let curious passers-by know the headline information required. This would be high-level and simple but would contain enough information to (a) demand further investigation and (b) blow minds (at least for some). Digital add-ons may become necessary, but the analogue disks would be a good starting place as my recent guerrilla activity on this front suggests…..
The concept of plaques is a familiar one, but it is not a modern invention. The first scheme was proposed in London in 1866 believe it or not, and is the oldest of its kind in the whole wide world. (If you don’t believe in alien life, its the oldest such scheme in the Universe.) Run by the (Royal) Society of Arts, then London County Council, then Greater London Council, and since 1986, English Heritage, these blue info-circles are London-only although many other local authorities and organisations have since adopted similar schemes. The plaques usually mark a building with a connection to a famous person who has been dead for at least 20 years: ‘the intrinsic aim of English Heritage blue plaques is to celebrate the relationship between people and place’. (There is an excellent online resource, Open Plaques, which curates images, locations and stories of plaques from all over the place, well worth checking out.)
There is something immediate and accessible about plaques. They are spatially situated in the correct location someone famous lived and / or died (and less often, where events of note took place or an earlier building once stood). They are reassuringly analogue and do not depend on wifi or a mobile signal although this does not preclude follow-up research later. In some cases, they can surprise and even delight, as when I completely accidentally stumbled upon this Wheeler blue plaque when I was heading for a Cochno Stone meeting in London a couple of years ago.
But can we do more with plaques than just celebrate the rich, famous, mostly men? Could plaques be used to tell stories of what happened in a place, rather than simply who resided where and when? And can we push this back deep into prehistory?
Mike Pitts made a strong case (in the July-August 2012 British Archaeology magazine) for a plaque scheme that does not simply focus on famous recent people such as archaeologists and antiquaries, but also the dead found on excavations. (‘Let’s celebrate the anonymous people who made Britain’ is the sentiment, although I’m not so convinced by this jingoistic tone.) Nonetheless, this is a well-argued polemic and was accompanied by the mocking up of ‘Ochre plaques’ as he called them, in each case located where a ‘famous’ prehistoric dead person had been found…
These are very effective, and got some good feedback at the time and also when Mike recently re-posted them on twitter in response to my own musings on the subject. The focus here on the famous dead fits in with the broader aspirations of plaque schemes although in truth even the ancient dead whom we give nicknames are still unknown, while in some other cases multiple burials and events might also be plaque-marked.
A good example of how this might work is this surprisingly detailed plaque that is situated in a car park in Christchurch, Dorset.
This is part of a local HLF-funded ‘unofficial blue plaque’ scheme, the Millennium Trail, of which are there are many across England and indeed beyond. This series of plaques is accompanied by a map and leaflet available locally.
In the spirit of experimentation I recently carried out a couple of field visits to urban prehistory sites – plaque attacks! – having prepared in advance a rather low tech and mocked up plaque for the occasion. I confess I used dark blue for these early experiments, to provoke a reaction by subverting the familiar format, but will, like a judo person, aim to step up to brown in the future.
My two case-studies are in a sense classic urban prehistory sites – Bronze Age burials that were found during urban expansion in the form of road building, and were subsequently destroyed (although in very different circumstances). Importantly, in neither case is the location of this discovery marked in any way, almost nothing is known about the sites, and in at least one instance the nearest resident was completely unaware of the story. These are unremarkable urban streets with a hidden, remarkable secret, that if known might change the way that (some) people view the place that they live, but hopefully not in an Amityville Horror type of way.
Succoth Place, Edinburgh
In May 1901, during the construction of a new road to the west of the city centre, Succoth Place, running off Garscube Terrace, workmen came across a stone cist that contained a fine prehistoric urn. This was taken into the care of the architect D Menzies and then collected a few days later by archaeologist Fred Coles who subsequently helped investigate the site and wrote up a brief excavation report. The urn was recovered from the cist by the foreman after the cap stones had been broken to make way for the pavement kerb. Further damage to the cist itself revealed, remarkably, that this was a rare double-compartment cist, with two burial cells separated by a single upright central slab. Coles assisted with clearing out the second chamber, within which was a second urn. Both are what we would term Food Vessels and belong to the early Bronze Age.
Nothing else was found in either cist compartment, other than ‘minute fragments of bone, which, on the gentlest handling, crumbled away’. An undignified and dusty end.
Both Food Vessels were later accessioned to the National Museum, and that was the end of the whole business, with presumably the remnants of the cist being wrecked to allow road-building to continue, the whole site having been excavated in a rather crude fashion which was the norm for that time.
In early May 2018, almost exactly 117 years after this discovery, I visited Succoth Place with Glasgow PhD student Denise Telford in the rain armed with my cardboard urban prehistory plaque.
As ever with such trips, careful planning was required, and the friend of the urban prehistorian, the ragged annotated folded A-Z, was employed to get us there safely and efficiently.
The leafy suburbs of this part of Edinburgh, near the Water of Leith, looked rather dreich in the downpour, and we sheltered under overhanging vegetation from time to time as we wound our way up to the top of a hill (via Garscube Terrace) crowned with massive lavish sandstone mansions and a private school. The friendly lollipop man helped us across Henderland Road, just in case we should be crushed by a massive 4×4.
We reached the Garscube and Succoth soon enough. Despite the distinguished and peaceful surrounds, subversion was evident: the street sign has a runic addition in tiny letters, creating the memorably Shakespearean phrase Succoth My Nob Pl(ease).
Coles recorded that the cist was found 60 feet from the junction and so we headed there, with the location where the Bronze Age dead had once lain being mercifully free of the indignity of parked cars.
There was nothing here to mark this burial place, and I am fairly sure that the inhabitants of the big houses here know nothing of this either. There was nothing left to do but mark the place with the plaque, which had been carried here in an old-school 5p Morrison’s carrier bag for protection from the incessant rain. In error, Denise snapped 118 photos of me holding the plaque of which the best one is reproduced below.
There was little sense that this was anything other than a posh suburb and certainly there was no room for the remembrance of the dead – the dead whose bodily remains crumbled to dust in order for sandstone mansions to be reachable by horse and cart in as much comfort as was possible at the time. Let’s not be emotive and say that this part of the city was built on the (tiny) bones of the dead, but it was, and perhaps this needs to be remembered, out of respect for the deceased, who did not even have the dignity of a ghostly presence or their own plaque. Until now.
As John Mahoney’s character in the movie Barton Fink so memorably implored drunkenly: ‘Honey, where’s my honey?’.
Morar Road, Crossford, nr Dunfermline
Let’s travel to Fife, just across the River Forth from Succoth and all that, to the location of another Bronze Age urban cist that was knackered in order to facilitate urban expansion. In this case, the cist was destroyed before an archaeologist was even able to look at it – and this happened in 1973!!
During construction of roads for a new housing estate called Keavil on the south side of the town of Crossford on 13th November 1973, a stone coffin or cist was found. The workers on this construction project thought that the collection of flat slabs was ‘some sort of old land drain’ and destroyed the structure to make way for the road the next day. A Mr A Hall was able to recover one thing from this burial, a fine complete Food Vessel pot, which suggests that the destruction of the cist was perhaps not as cavalier as reported, and perhaps the workers could have stopped when this was found rather than when it was all too late. So much for rescue archaeology.
A sober note was made of this unfortunate event in that year’s Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, while a drawing of the vessel and a brief accompanying narrative was published as an addendum to the excavation report of a cist cemetery found at Aberdour Road, Dunfermline (a site I blogged about back in 2012).
The contractors on this build, Geo Wimpey and Co, ‘kindly’ handed the Food Vessel over to the local museum and got on with making roads and money.
Armed with this sorry story, preparations for my second plaque attack were formed a week after the Succoth escapade. Using my time-honoured cheapo approach I created a similar plaque to the previous effort but this time with amended and simplified my logo. I had to contend with a greasy stain on the cardboard transferred from a kitchen surface the work was carried out on.
I visited this location with Glasgow PhD student Andrew Watson, on the way back from another urban prehistory-related fieldtrip to Fife. Andrew map-read me into the estate via a series of colourful streets (none of them Cist Street which might have been the least Wimpey could have done): Hunt Place, Katrine Drive, Western Avenue and then Morar Road and Affric Way, together representing a confusing mixture of street types for no discernible reason. And then we were there, in a quiet suburban road lined with blue bins and puddles.
The kind of place where twenty is plenty.
Andrew and I quickly set up a sophisticated photo shoot, marking the location that the cist was found and destroyed, 1m below the current road level, in a memorable fashion.
As we struggled to get to grips with the placelessness of this place that had once been a sacred burial spot that must have had an abundance of place, the owner of the house outside which we were messing about came out to see what us ‘boys’ were up to. We explained out business and he was amazed that such a thing had been found outside his house, as it was being built, and he assured us he would tell every visitor this exciting revelation (although he also said he hardly got any visitors so this may not be a strong method of dissemination). He declined the chance to have the plaque (an original and unique piece of art one might argue) hung on the front of his house however.
Knowledge exchanged, he walked back inside, and by god I think he had a spring in his step.
This sobering encounter with an old man ended our photo session, and I must say I don’t think Andrew was taking this as seriously as he could have been.
The cardboard plaques that I have made and taken to places that hold rich prehistoric secrets is a device that has started conversations and created complex experiences for all involved. These places of death and burial remain unmarked although digitally their story has now been told again, perhaps for the first time in decades or more, and this is how such plaques could act as easy gateway drugs into the hard stuff of prehistory.
Truth be told, we cannot just expect people to find out about the prehistoric events that may or may not have taken place when their houses or schools or roads were being built or improved. We – archaeologists, heritage professionals – need to be evangelical about this, pro-active prehistory-pushers, talking to people and braving the rain to find ways that tell the lost stories of ancient bones and bits of pottery. Circular information panels may or may not be the best way to do this, but we have nothing to lose by trying to follow the advise of Mike Pitts.
Let’s celebrate the ancient dead as well as the modern rich and famous. Let’s tell stories of deep time, generate wonder and surprise, and change the way that people see the places that they live.
I wonder – where will the next plaque attack be?
Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Denise and Andrew for accompanying me on these fool’s errands that I do from time to time, and for the stimulating conversation both provided; there ideas have filtered into this post. Thanks also to Mike Pitts for allowing me to use images, and drawing on his own ideas; please join the Council for British Archaeology if you want to receive regular copies of British Archaeology magazine. Thanks also to the many positive comments I got about the UP plaques on twitter.
The report on the Succoth Place discovery can be found in a paper by Fred Coles, ‘Notice on the discovery of cists containing urns at Succoth Place, near Garscube Terrace, Edinburgh’. This was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 36 (1901-02). The Food Vessel and cist image in the post above were both sourced from that paper.
For information (limited) on the Morar Road cist site, see pages 130-1 of Close-Brooks, Norgate and Ritchie (1974) ‘A Bronze Age cemetery at Aberdour Road, Dunfermline, Fife’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 104. This was also the source of the pot drawing for this site. This journal is open access.
The Christchurch blue plaque was first posted on twitter by Annie-Leigh Campbell, while the map / booklet image related to the Millennium Trail in this town came from a website called Dorset Visual Guide. The quote about the purpose of the London blue plaques near the start of the post comes from the official EH site about them, linked to in the same paragraph.
Is art an appropriate word to describe the abstract symbols that were carved onto rock outcrops in the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Britain? I was asked this question a few times recently during a series of talks I did about the Cochno Stone and it is a question that causes us to pause and reflect on the way that contemporary discourse shapes our perceptions of the ancient past. Our vocabulary is simply insufficient to characterize activities that happened in prehistory, and inevitably we end up writing narratives about the past that are pale reflections of, or weird variants on, our own present. You do not need to be a student of archaeological theory to understand that this is both problematic and inevitable.
Art is a word that polarizes in general, and especially so in the context of prehistory (for an interesting discussion on this issue, read this). Some archaeologists see the word art in this context as useful in helping us to understand some of the complexities of pictorial and abstract carvings on rock from prehistory. Others accept that while inadequate and loaded, we are stuck with the rock-art label: it is a widely understood term that is simply a classificatory label. No classification can ever be really neutral, however, and so while rock-art cannot now be easily abandoned as a descriptor, we should use it cautiously and critically. For me, art is something that provokes creativity, stimulates critical thinking, offers a fresh perspective on the world around us, and is deeply political. For others, art is about creativity and aesthetics. Can we say the same for rock-art? Can we apply the same criteria for reading art gallery art in our readings of prehistoric rock-art? Perhaps.
We could view Neolithic rock-art such as is found across Britain as prehistoric equivalents of medieval oil paintings of kings and contemporary landscape art installations. All have the aspiration and possibility to mean many things to many people that is only partially in the control of the artist. None of these means of expression is neutral or without political, social and emotional depth, even although their context, medium, audience and reception vary hugely. On the other hand, the repetitive and ubiquitous nature of cup-and-ring marks could be viewed as restrictions on creativity, symbols of conformity and social identity carved into rocks in an almost obsessive fashion that speak more of propaganda than free-will. But looking even closer, it is in the detail that we might should we care to look find the hand of the individual, subversive riffing on the cup-and-ring mark formula, rock(art) n roll. Perhaps we might take another approach, viewing cupmarks as a prehistoric abstract movement, all weird shapes, juxtapositions and coded meaning that is meaningless. Yet we could also read rock-art as an interactive and tactile form. The landscape was no art gallery and there were no fences, glass or guards (as there are now at places like Achnabreck in Argyll (fences not guards)). The haptic qualities of rock-art speak more of sculpture than painting: sculpture that one could touch however, rather than stand back and admire as one would do with an oil painting or something hung on wall. Or……
I could go on. What I am trying to say here is that there are many ways to make sense of cup-and-ring mark rock-art, and by thinking about it as ‘art’ we open up routes to interpret such symbols in ways that make sense to us.
One thing that art is good at is inspiring more art, and in this spirit, over two posts, I want to consider artistic responses to the Cochno Stone rock-art site. In this post, I will look at art that has been applied to the surface of the stone itself, and then in the second I’ll consider art inspired by the rock-art (I’ll add a link here once this has been posted) in the form of public art, sketches, measured drawing and comics. Together I hope these posts will offer an artistic and visual history of this amazing monument but of course there is no chance I’ll settle the old ‘is rock-art art argument’…..
Part 1: Art on the surface of the stone
Let’s leave aside the prehistoric carvings on the surface of the Cochno Stone.
Whether these are art or not depends on you and ink has been spilled on these elsewhere.
These symbols were carved into the rock probably between 3000BC and 2000BC for purposes unknown, but using a huge amount of skill and expertise. These creative acts, probably spread over a period of many decades of centuries, marked this place out as somewhere special, and ever since then people have been unable to resist the temptation to add their own elements to this huge communal rock canvas, with startling different motivations and outcomes.
The images below show prehistoric symbols and twentieth century (AD) additions, almost blending seamlessly together, a palimpsest in sandstone.
The earliest artistic responses that we have to the cup-and-ring marks on the Cochno Stone were recorded by the antiquarians who first drew the complete extent of the rocky outcrop, John Donald and William Donnelly. In the 1890s they recorded two unusual symbols:
‘two new features which had not hitherto been observed, viz, a cross within an oval border, and a sculpturing resembling two pairs of footprints, which …. show only four toes each’.
Are these genuine if unusual prehistoric symbol, or were these weird feet (or hands) added at some point in the millennia since the cup-and-ring marks were carved? We may never know. The cross is not a Christian cross, and so we cannot assume this belongs to the historic period. Perhaps these are prehistoric. Such subversions of the typical rock-art forms may have been especially powerful in prehistory, perhaps as impactful and shocking as other radical new art styles and pieces that have punctuated history, the Bronze Age equivalent of Tracy Emin’s unmade bed.
Antiquarians appear to have responded to the Cochno Stone symbols in a more boring way, adding their name as was their wont. During the 2016 excavations we recorded two examples of historic graffiti that appeared to be written in bookplate text: W KERR and W CARMICHAEL, which probably date to the nineteenth century and would have been regarded as unworthy of recording by their peers.
This reminds me of extensive ‘graffiti’ left on the orthostats and lintels of Unstan Neolithic chambered tomb on Orkney, also in the nineteenth century. A different set of standards were being applied here – double standards – where it was OK to scrawl your name into an ancient megalith as long as you were well-off and educated, like Orcadian James Cursiter. (You can explore the interior of this tomb for yourself with this brilliant sketchfab model by Hugo Anderson-Whymark – all of the graffiti has been scanned for posterity.)
This photo, which I took in 2015, is complex, containing the antiquarian graffiti of the aforementioned Cursiter from 1891 but also ‘FH’ from 2000. Which, if either, have the value of creativity? Is this historic graffiti or vandalism? Is it art? (And don’t get me started on the Viking graffiti in Maes Howe…). As Hugo notes in his model, however we view this, it is now illegal to deface this monument as it is a scheduled ancient monument, so FH better keep their head down.
Similar conundrums are posed by the next major intervention on the surface of the Cochno Stone. Into the twentieth century, the symbols on the Cochno Stone inspired more intensive artistic engagements, not least the work of Ludovic McLellan Mann, whose painting of the Cochno Stone in 1937 was one of the truly transformative events in the history of this monument. Aside from offering a colour-coded translation and abstract analysis of the meaning and properties of the design, Mann’s efforts could and should be viewed as a creative act.
This oil paint job was creative in other ways, with for instance two circles added to the surface of the stone, such as the red and white symbol in the image above, another layer of depth and obscure meaning as if Cochno needed any more depth and obscurity. One of Mann’s long straight yellow lines crosses the circle, almost as if he was revising his theories as he went along. Making sense of Mann’s brushstrokes is as much an act of interpretation as is needed for any artwork where we know little of the intentions of the artist.
Having used oil paints, as recent analysis by Louisa Campbell of the HES-funded Paints and Pigments In the Past project (PPIP) has demonstrated, it seems likely that Mann’s palette was the paint shelf of a 1930s ironmongery.
Even the drawing of the Stone, based on Mann spending a lot of time (perhaps more than is healthy), has an artistic quality that transcends mere recording because it is hardly an objective rendering. This image, the only drawing that Mann published related to the Cochno Stone, in 1939, is a fictional account of the meaning of the symbols, creative writing, one page from a wonderful graphic novel that he didn’t ever get round to finishing.
The grand canvas of Mann’s work contrasts with the more private and modest acts of graffiti that occurred with increasing intensity in the years leading up to the Cochno Stone’s burial in 1965. These actions did not have the facade of academic research that Mann may have hidden behind, although even his actions were frowned upon by the owners of the stone and the ‘establishment’. The memo below was written at best a couple of months after Mann painted the stone; the stone would become a scheduled ancient monument by the end of the year.
The legal protection of the Cochno Stone did not stop people making their mark on the surface, and I suspect that no-one from the Office of Works bothered to tell local people or visitors of the change of status anyway. Thus what Mann started, only the burial of the stone could stop. And frankly, if Mann could paint the stone up a storm, why could others not make their own modest additions?
Research by University of Glasgow postgraduate student Alison Douglas has shown that over 100 modern marks were made on the surface of the stone, mostly dating to between 1940 and 1965, overwhelmingly in the form of names, dates and initials.
Individual expression seems to have taken different forms, including weak attempts to replicate the prehistoric symbols, as this image from the online Cochno Stone viewer suggests.
Other graffiti showed a desire to be inventive – spirals and swirls were added to names to give a touch of class, a set of initials were displayed inside a simple depiction of a house while some names were connected with arrows, suggesting relationships were being depicted here too, stone genealogies.
This art came at a cost. I recently spoke to someone who as a child carved his name onto the surface of the Cochno Stone with his penknife, which was broken in the process. Sacrifices have to be made to make one’s mark on the world. One wonders what personal cost Mann’s obsessions had for him. And ultimately, the creative encounters discussed above culminated in the shutting down of this site, the burial of the stone beneath tons of soil for contravention of the rules in 1965.
Maybe we should charitably view the covering of the Cochno Stone itself as a grand piece of performance art that almost no-one was fortunate enough to witness.
There is no doubt that art and creative interventions on the surface of archaeological sites can be contentious. I don’t want to make light of the potential problems in site management and interpretation that paint, carvings and worse can cause and there are some horrible examples of crude painted messages added to rock-art around the world should you wish to google.
However, in the case of the Cochno Stone, there is a rich history of additions to the surface of the stone that cannot simply be written off as mindless vandalism as some other examples clearly are. Indeed, if we view one of the roles of art to inspire creativity in others, then at this level the Cochno Stone succeeds as an open air installation that was and remains a constant source of inspiration. The examples in this blog post suggest that these interventions – both permanent and temporary – have been going on for some four or five thousand years.
I will explore alternative mediums in part 2 when I consider the history of art inspired by the Cochno Stone that is not on the surface of the monument but located elsewhere – on the sides of buildings, on the trees and pavements, in the pages of journals and newspapers, and in a wonderful little comic book.
Whether you think rock-art is art or not, art sure follows it around.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Alison Douglas for her ongoing analysis and research into the historic graffiti on the Cochno Stone, and for the community of Faifley for their indulgence and support. Thanks also to Grahame Gardner for drawing (ha ha) my attention to the Francis Hitchings’ book Earth Magic.
The Bruce and Donnelly report can be found here (free online):
Bruce, J 1896 Notice of remarkable groups of archaic sculpturings in Dumbartonshire and Stirlingshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 30, 205-9.
The Mann sketch of Cochno comes from his booklet:
Mann, L M 1939 The Druid Temple Explained. London & Glasgow.