We’ve been having something of a clean out in the archaeology department at Glasgow Uni recently in preparation for a new digital imaging lab, and I came across some boxes of papers. These largely contained a collection of notebooks, images, typescripts and photographs that were amassed by a former colleague of mine, who I shall call Dr G_________. Although most of this work has been published in one format or another, one folder in particular caught my eye. This blog post briefly describes the nature of G_________’s research and the unexpected outcome of it. Certain points of detail have been redacted for reasons that will become clear.
The folder was foolscap, of pink cardboard, and on the front was written the following information in black biro.
i.1973 – iv.1973
Above this was added in somewhat less order: Burn this file!!! written with such conviction that the pen had almost punctured the cover of the folder.
The folder contained the following materials.
- A typescript manuscript entitled Analysis of brown powder recovered from the cist at Wester H________ and its implications for our understanding of Bronze Age chieftains in Scotland. The text was short. Written at the top of the page, in rough script in blue biro was the phrase ‘For D.E.S. and the Ministry only’.
- A small plastic bag filled with brown powder / dust.
- A scientific report on 2 sides of A4 written by a Prof W.X.F. B_________ entitled: Scanning Electron Microscopy of brown dust from a prehistoric grave.
- A small notepad with a series of crude childish sketches.
- An annotated drawing of a small ceramic vessel.
- A stub from a cheque book (Bank of Scotland).
Upon reading the typescript, it became clear that the following sequence of events had occurred. In 1959, when Dr G_________ was still an undergraduate, and senior boy scout, he participated in an excavation on the island of _________. During that project, a stone coffin or cist was discovered and excavated, rather crudely by the sounds of it, by the scout troop leader who was also the organist in the local church, St D_______ of C______. The materials from within the cist were roughly inventoried and stored in a bucket, which remained in the garage of the scout troop leader until he died a decade later during a bank robbery on the mainland. The excavation had never been published due to, I assume and reading between the lines, the embarrassing circumstances of its poor excavation. The whole episode was reported in the local press at the time as a gardening project gone wrong.
Later established as a member of academic staff at Glasgow, Dr G_________ was prompted to return to this youthful episode upon hearing the news of the bank job death, surprised as he was to discover that the troop leader, a Mr Q________ had been robbing banks in his twilight years. He journeyed to the island of _________ and was able, with some persuasion and bribery, to recover the bucket of artefacts and bones. He set about privately trying to redeem himself by funding from his own resources the analysis of all the objects in the bucket, with the intention of bringing the site to publication in the Glasgow Archaeological Journal. He felt confident he could reconstruct the cist itself in sufficient detail for such a publication from a combination of memory and some sketches he took at the time.
Everything proceeded smoothly with these private endeavors for a few years, with cheques removed from the cheque book testament to payments made for services rendered from pottery, human bone, textile and lithic specialists. These payments appear to have been made once annually, around the time when it was customary for young academics to receive a bonus for satisfactory performance. These monies were, it seems, used to fund his nefarious post-excavation project, in order to assuage his guilt.
Once the Christmas 1972 bonus was safely banked, he turned to the next phase of his activities, which is where the meat of this tale is to be found. Here, analysis was required of a curious deposit of brown dust that was found in a heap within a small ceramic vessel that was recovered from beside where a partial skull lay on the cist floor. This was seemingly recovered by one of the team members, a lanky youth called B. Mc________, using a teaspoon, and poured into a small sealable plastic bag. Upon the bag was written, in a childish hand, ‘Brown stuff found by head’ and the site code, which I will not reveal here for fear of allowing the identification of the site. This was placed in the bucket with all the other materials at the end of the escapade and went into storage, only being recovered by Dr G_______’s re-invigoration of this site.
It appears that in January 1973, Dr G_________ gave this bag of brown powder to the renowned chemist Prof W.X.F. B_________ who was at that time also tenured at the University of Glasgow. The material was analysed using a newly installed Scanning Electron Microscope. This analytical machine was at that time a novelty, being closely based on the ‘Stereoscan’ machine first put into use at Cambridge University in 1965. The analysis was undertaken rapidly, although the report on this work took several months to be delivered to Dr G________ in his attic office in the archaeology department.
The results, contained within the scientific report were brief and to the point. Dr G________ summarized the results and added his interpretation of them in his typescript.
The brown powder, was found under SEM analysis, to contain the following minerals and compounds: Mica, Titanium Dioxide, Dihydroxyacetone and various Iron Oxides. Initially I regarded this as some kind of dyeing agent, perhaps to ensure that [the] deceased within the stone coffn [sic] had clothes of various shades of brown as is widely believed to have been the case in Scotland in the Bronze Age (Stafford and Green 1963). However, further research led me to the revelation that this was, in fact, what is known colloquially today in 1973 as ‘bronzer’ or ‘self-tanning powder’. In other words, the man (as our analyses have shown) must have kept his tan topped up, perhaps as an indicator of status. This is in keeping with our understanding of Beaker folk: Piggott used to tell me that they liked to look healthy, and the a tanned appearance was indicative of a leisured class with time to spend in the sun.
This radical conclusion – that in effect self-tanning powder was invented in the Bronze Age and was a Beaker-associated novelty just like faience, jet beads and copper axes – would have been a career-making publication for Dr G_________. Yet the discovery was quietly forgotten, filed away in the pink folder, presumably intended never to see the light of day. From what I can gather from the remainder of the account in the folder and some other scribbled notes stapled to the manuscript (some even on toilet paper and napkins) the whole post-excavation project was abandoned at this point as well. Prof W.X.F. B_________ left the University to take up a position with the state-run Premium Bonds organisation within six weeks of turning in his report to my former colleague.
Dr G________ himself, from that point onwards, threw himself into the study of brochs, crannogs, wheelhouses and other variants in Iron Age roundhouse form. He never published a single word on the Bronze Age ever again.
What happened? I spoke to a few retired colleagues who remembered working with Dr G_________ and one of them told me a curious tale. She was not sure of the significance at the time, but then she was not privy to what G_______ was up to or his secret file. The story goes that back in 1973 the University senior management was looking for opportunities to monetise humanities research. One day a heated argument was heard in Dr G_______’s office between G and two vice-principals. When eventually Dr G________ emerged from the office he was ashen faced and from that day onwards he tilted to the Iron Age and quit the boy scouts where he had risen to the rank of Brown Owl. Even more curious, the VPs quit their jobs the following month. To open a tanning parlour in Bellshill called Bronze Age.
This money-spinning venture remains open to this day and I can’t help but join the dots and wonder: what became of the rest of the brown powder that was missing from that little plastic bag…..and what the secret of the success of this lucrative salon might be…..
My suspicions were confirmed only a few days ago, when I was scrambling around beneath the desk in my office looking for a sandwich I had dropped. I noticed a scrap of paper, stuck to the underside of the desk, with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. What was sketched onto that little piece of paper made perfect sense when I recalled that my desk and my office had indeed once been the domain of Dr G__________. As I read once in a fortune cookie: cartoons are the window into a guilty soul.