- an accumulation of scree at the base of a cliff or steep slope
- an ankle bone
- a fortification
The pressure of my thumb caused just enough 0.7mm graphite to ooze from my pencil. Sitting on a train, breathless, fumbling in my bag for the book. Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. This crumpled paperback that had become the roadmap for my increasingly eccentric visits to places in heavily urbanised or industrialised places with obscure prehistoric predecessors. This was no longer enough, I came to realise after writing 116 posts for my blog. I needed new kicks, fresh experiences, the hard stuff.
I opened Sellars’ book up at random pages and saw continual relevance to my own condition, just as the unreliable narrator of this fever-dream of a novel had also done. I began to scribble in the margins, automatic writing. The sections of the book that I applied marginalia to appeared to be random but were perhaps not. Bunker Logic. Scar Tissue. Emergence.
This book was the archaeological fieldwork guide that I had always wanted. More profound than Barker’s Techniques of Archaeological Investigation. More informative than Drewett’s Field Archaeology. More grounded in reality that Hodder’s The Archaeological Process. More emotionally charged than the MoLAS archaeological site manual (3rd edition).
I came to realise that as a rulebook for surveying the deep time in our world one need do no more than read the complete fictional works of JG Ballard, Applied Ballardianism and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology.
Through this psychogeographik grimoire, I had found my hard stuff. The hard stuff of life.
Middens are indicative of accumulation and disposal, rise and decline. They are the ultimate material expression of consumption.
Middens mark the rise, fall, and will indicate the return of, prehistory.
Middens are contingent on abandonment, emergent in every place that humans exist, from a deserted military island to the urban core.
Middens passively grow, while awaiting collapse.
Middens are our cultural scar tissue, which we cannot help but touch.
Cairns of calcium and carbon.
In the Mesolithic of Oronsay, hunters and fishers would bury human finger bones in their shell middens.
In the Neolithic of Orkney, farmers would use midden material to insulate their houses.
But middens are not just of the past. Everywhere around us are middens-in-waiting, potential-middens, partial-middens, middens-in-hiding, proto-middens.
Living is an act of middening.
A Gruesome Inventory
The kitchen-midden was discovered on the far side of the small estuarine island of Inchkeith in 1870 at the base of a slope. This artificial organic talus consisted of cooking-debitage, eating-scree, of unknown date and origin. The midden was monumental in its scale, up to 3m high, thick with greasy charcoal.
Baskets of bones were removed from this midden for analysis back in Edinburgh. The scientist tasked with the analysis of these bits and pieces produced a gruesome inventory, scraped from the pages of an anatomical manual, notes from an animal autopsy.
Basi-occipital and basi-sphenoid fragments of grey seal skulls. Mastoid process and temporal fossa of sheep. Head of the ulna of a sheep. Fourth cervical vertebrae of a pig. Head of left tibia of an ox. Cannon bone of hind foot of bos. Toe bone of bos. Parts of jaw, and several teeth, of horse. Jaw bones of the rabbit. An assemblage of alien species.
Many shells were found too, listed in the analysis like an incantation. Tapes pullastra. Purpura lapillus. Pecten varius. Ostrea Edulis. Pecten maximus.
It was concluded after this analysis and repeat visits to the island that, ‘there is no evidence as to the period when these rejecta were first cast forth’.
Cast Forth in the Forth.
Hunter Street. There is no such thing as a coincidence so I told myself as I cut up from the Barrowlands Ballroom and headed towards the urban prehistory. I turned onto Hunter Street, folding a map and stuffing it into my back pocket. Across a railway line, over an abandoned tunnel. Ahead of me now were the rusty skeletal remains of warehouses, the Victorian city excarnated, exposed as if on a osteoarchaeologist’s slab.
The sign of the Hunter was affixed to a street light that had beside it a rusty totem pole, its evil twin, pock-marked with corrupted spirals and corroded cupmarks.
Two drunks in navy shell suits kept appearing during my walk, as if they were being projected for my benefit on a loop by some unknown projectionist. One of them spoke to me tenderly, momentarily breaking the fourth wall, confusing me for his partner in grime, before realising his mistake and flickering out.
I was looking for hunters in the city, middenscapes in the shadow of the industrialised Tennants’ Brewery, makers of liquid gassy capitalism. From my perspective as I entered Barrack Street it seemed that the aluminium pipes that emerged from the brewery were connected directly to the Necropolis, Glasgow’s city centre cemetery, and for a moment I speculated that this must have been for the exchange of fluids. Through the beer haze I could also see the outline of Glasgow Cathedral, one of Ludovic Mann’s ancient Glaswegian pagan places, his Temple of the Moon. There is no such thing as a coincidence.
Back on Hunter Street (confusingly re-appearing) I reached my destination. A block of modern flats and some old brick-built industrial units on Duke Street where a shell midden had been found during construction works in 1985. Ancient oyster shells had been found on the spoil from the job, and identified too late as being of archaeological significance. In prehistory, I reminded myself, everyone was swallowing oysters all of the time, as they were, as in Victorian times, not simply the preserve of the rich. The shells were then dumped in a pile, calcium cairns, middens.
The industrial unit was orange and glowed in the late afternoon sun, raking across the facade and revealing ghosts – ghost signs, phantom lettering, a typeset palimpsest of failed and out-dated businesses. The building was dominated by a monstrous sign: JAS. D GALLOWAY. TYRE DISTRIBUTORS.
I wondered around the block onto a different section of Barrack Street (I was becoming spatially disorientated). I passed a pub – the Ladywell, suggesting an ancient spring or holy well once stood here. On the wall of a neighbouring car repair shop, an occult symbol had been crayoned onto a white-washed wall. Was it a spiral, or a malformed cup-and-ring mark, or a reversed number nine – or a shell, a mollusc, a midden-component?
A constellation of coincidences? I reflected on the words written by Marion Shoard and quoted by the fictional headcase Philip in Applied Ballardianism. Urban edgelands allowed us to see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. In essence, socially fundamental constructions, materials and infrastructure often become restricted to urban edges. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
In prehistory, those conflicted spatially dangerous fundamentals were middens.
under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow layers of practice the stratigraphy of a lifetime of generations of meals of daily routine of repetition and habit and routine and the accumulation of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow under the people under the streets pressing against the walls of the basements pressure toe bone of bos parts of jaw and several teeth of horse jaw bones of the rabbit tapes pullastra purpura lapillus countless rejecta under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow calcium carbon cairns
The Island of Dead Birds
Inchkeith today is a very different place from the island where the kitchen midden was recorded in 1870. Militarisation began in 1879 and continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century transforming this small rocky eminence through the construction of concrete bunkers, control buildings and the infrastructure of ammunition supply.
This was a defensive, reactive place, but never saw action.
After this brief flourishing, the island has more or less been abandoned to nature (with most of the personnel withdrawn in 1943) like some kind of social experiment.
Quite by chance, this island of precaution has become an emergent prehistoric landscape with its own monuments, its own concrete vocabulary, its new middens.
The porcelain cairn –
The fallen megalith –
The shit-stained monolith –
The island has its own sacred geometry, ghost paths and leys –
Bunkers abound, underground spaces for the containment of ammunition and men. The walls are burdened with a sinister anatomy of coat hooks and shelf supports.
Animals have become complicit in re-making prehistory, the island covered in bird-build middens, accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds.
Now, in its abandoned state, this concrete island is becoming something … other.
Nests within nests by nests
Scattered cartilages and cartridges
Shells upon shells under shelves and on skulls
Pips amidst pipes and petrification
Calcium cairns. Concrete cairns.
Broken bunkers and bones
Talus Talus Talus
“Abandoned on the sand of the littoral like the skin of a species that has disappeared, the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military history…. (Virilio 2014, 46).
What is urbanisation but an accumulation?
A midden with prehistory as its dirty edgelands, if not in space then certainly in time.
We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.
Living on our own islands with our own futile defences, bunker mentalities, surrounded by lots of shelves.
Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.
And when our megaliths have collapsed, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens and our single-use plastic.
Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds.
We are tomorrow’s urban prehistory.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Gordon Barclay for inviting me to spend a day visiting various fortified islands in the Firth of Forth, amongst them Inchkeith. The few facts about that island that appear in the narrative above come from Gordon’s excellent handouts to accompany the trip and he appears in one photo striding towards an anti-aircraft gun position.
The account of the kitchen-midden found on Inchkeith in the 1870s is (you can find it online by googling the title of the paper): David Grieve 1872 On the discovery of a kitchen midden on Inchkeith, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 9, 452-55. The jumbled list of animal bones in my post is adapted from this paper.
The limited information available for the Barrack Street / Hunter Street shell midden can be found in the canmore entry for the site here, and Sloan recorded in the 1985 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (pg 46):
“Deposits of oyster shell were reported from approximately this location during housing development in 1982. Although reported too late for active investigation a sample of shell was recovered from builder’s spoil; remains in the possession of the Committee for Early Coastal archaeology”.
This could be a Mesolithic site, but it could also be medieval, or anything in between. We choose our own myths about the past.
Ludovic Mann’s moon temple writings are included in his 1938 short book Ancient Glasgow: Temple of the Moon.
The photograph of a Mesolithic shell midden near the start of the post is of the site Cnoc Sligeach on the island of Oronsay, taken in 1911, and reproduced here thanks to canmore and is © HES: Early photographs of sculptured stones.
I must finish by paying a debt of gratitude to Simon Sellars for his brilliant novel Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018) for inspiring aspects of this post, and leading me to the chapter Edgelands by Marion Shoard (quote from this in the blog post) in Jenkins’ book Remaking the landscape (Profile Books, 2002). Sellars also led me to the majestic Bunker Archeology by Paul Virlio (my version being published in 2014 by Princeton Architectural Press). The image from that book was sourced from the Amazon page for this volume and a credited quotation appears above as well.
The definitions that start this post were adapted from wikipedia.