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.