In my final exploration of the urban prehistoric paranormal sensation that are the Hexham Heads, I want to look at how the Heads have become part of popular culture in ways – I would argue – that no other ‘archaeological objects’ found in 1971 have.
The Hexham Heads truly are the Stonehenge of pseudo-archaeology material culture.
This is part 4 of my Hexham Heads quadrilogy of blog posts, so feel free to check the others out for the background and some archaeological perspective on these little stone buggers if you have not done so already. You can read about the discovery in Urban Prehistorian post 33, competing forms of analysis and study of the heads in post 51, and an account of my own research and fieldwork to date in the more recent post 135. Maybe one day I will write the book that goes with this cover.
There are plenty of other sources of information out there to satisfy any Head scratchings you might have, many of them referred to in this post. This is ever-increasing too, with blogs, bits of books, social media, and a profusion of podcasts keeping the Heads alive despite the fact that no-one appears to be able to account for their movements since 1978. However having immersed myself in this literature and spoken word, I am not sure whether much of this has moved the story on: this is all reportage, in the past tense, retaining the mystery and allure, but never offering a solution.
Why have these spherical objects become so iconic? The fact is that all of the events associated with the timeline of the Heads that we know about for sure (sort of) happened in the 1970s which is an iconic decade for nostalgic creepiness. So the Hexham Heads have become totemic within what we might call a ‘Haunted Generation’, the ongoing spirit of which is captured in Bob Fischer’s wonderful blog and Fortean Times column of the same name, but also the worlds of Scarfolk, and Hookland. They are Folk Horroreana crossed with the Urban Wyrd.
In other words, the Heads have become part of a pantheon of scary memories for people of a certain age, alongside the recently revived Usborne’s The world of the Unknown: Ghosts, and the enduring nostalgia for disturbing public information adverts about boys playing too close to a dangerous body of water or running across a beach strewn with glass (featured in a new BFI blu-ray compendium and online viewer). There is a narrative visual quality to the story of the Heads. They belong in the same universe as the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, The Children of the Stones, and The Owl Service, to the extent that the whole tale sounds like it was actually an obscure ITV kids programme broadcast in 1974 starring Ian Cuthbertson as Don Robins and Gillian Hills as Anne Ross. Torn from the pages of an Alan Garner book that never was: The Stones of the children.
The Hexham Heads have made a leap from the pages of books about mysteries and Forteana, to become a source of nostalgia about our lost childhood, to the extent that I wonder how much we all really remember about this. There is the ongoing search for the clip of Anne Ross’s appearance on the BBC show Nationwide from grown adults who all remember seeing this when it was originally broadcast (or so they think they remember), stills from the show and a transcript of what she said not quite enough. But is this cultural memory masquerading as personal reminiscing? Perhaps a bit of both. This is the power and ambiguity of material culture that archaeologists deal with in all sorts of contexts.
The excellent book Scarred for Life volume 1 contains a vivid account of the Hexham Heads from the point of view of a shared childhood memory that continues to haunt us now that we have all been reminded this happened: as a slightly scary story recalled from childhood, half forgotten. Crucially, this is a memory that derives from television coverage of the story.
The Scarred for Life book is so big and has so much stuff in it that it is quite intimidating to get to grips with (this is a compliment). Like so many books nowadays it also has a very small font which I struggle with (not a compliment). The lack of index does not help (ditto). The Heads are covered almost right at the back of the book (pages 735-737 of a book with 740 pages!). This gives them a miscellaneous quality, a footnote to popular culture high weirdness in the 1970s, almost bringing the decade to an end, and ushering in the 1980s. It is the last part of a section on paranormal stuff, in there with stories like the Bermuda Triangle, the Enfield Haunting, and, Uri Geller; the authors suggest that the 70s was a breakout decade for weird stuff like this into the broader social consciousness via the television. I guess anyone who remembers Geller bending a bloody spoon on TV-am can relate to this.
The three packed pages on the Heads include a newsclipping and an account of the well-worn HH story. It is written in the context of the aforementioned Nationwide piece scaring kids who watched it who remains haunted my the memory of Anne Ross talking about the curse of the Heads that had after all been found by children in their back garden. (What could be more ordinary or more chilling?) Because it is through the lens of the TV camera and in the pages of newspapers that the Heads became mythologised as ‘evil’, ‘creepy’, so that the public consuming these stories became preconditioned to read these attributes into two small stone-ish objects with crappy faces carved into them. The Heads were a ‘media sensation’ which went nationwide with Nationwide, and the entire script of the interview with Ross was printed in the Fortean Times issue 15 (1976), an incantation of creepiness or more likely some kind of personal crisis or breakdown by the academic.
The chapter is entitled The Nationwide Werewolf: fittingly the Heads have become a 1970s TV memory. ‘We’ don’t remember the Heads. ‘We’ remember Anne Ross looking scared. ‘We’ remember the badly photographed grainy pictures of the Heads staring at us with their dead eyes from the pages of the tabloids. They have become generation haunters. “Those weird, weird 70s”.
Traditional ‘mystery’ accounts of the Heads exist in parallel to such TV narratives, detached from haunted generation nostalgia because the accounts are fueled by recounting the events themselves, not the media coverage of those events. So for instance one might turn to Janet and Colin Bord’s Modern Mysteries of Britain: One hundred years of strange events (Guild, 1988). This chunky volume contains a few pages on the Heads, which the authors call an ‘incredible saga’ (pg 206).
This account of the story is as familiar as it is brief. Not much light is shed on the various inconsistencies and coincidences that accompany the narrative. Several mysteries are highlighted – what is the origin of the Heads and how to explain the supernatural events that seemingly followed them around? Two for the price of one, with the argument running that even if the Heads were made by Des Craigie from cement, that still doesn’t explain away the werewolf stuff. This revisionism, that the power of the Heads lies in what they did rather than what they were, has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.
The few paragraphs on this story, in a section of the book on the topic of assorted oddities, is bulked out with an extended quote from Anne Ross about the supernatural things she experienced once she had the Heads. The authors conclude: ‘But no one can explain why they should have attracted a non-physical entity into their aura’.
The Heads also appear in other mystery books including the classic Readers Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (1973) and Incredible Phenomena (Orbis, 1984). In such accounts connections are made to earth mysteries, Celtic bits and pieces, hauntings, crystals and all sorts of other stuff. The story is very much an unsolved mystery and such books have no intention of solving the mystery – ‘no one can explain’. Curiously the Heads do not appear in this book but as it has a cool cover I have included it nonetheless, and they also do not seem to have entered the orbit of Arthur C Clarke and his mysterious world, which in itself if weird.
Of course if you are interested in going deeper into the mystery you could go straight to the most comprehensive source for all things Hexham Heads, the work of investigative journalist Paul Screeton. Having read Screeton’s writing on earth mysteries, such as Quicksilver Heritage (Abacus 1974), he is no fan of archaeologists, and so these accounts have little to say on the archaeology of the Heads. But Screeton knows the turf, and has spoken to all the major players, and knows this stuff better than anyone.
His first attempt to write about this was a short book published in 1981 and called Tale of the Hexham Heads. You can download a scan of this short book here. Containing 17 pages all told and typeset (reminding me of a BAR book from that decade) this contains Screeton’s original research into this tale, and is not too far removed in time from the original events. There are no images but there is a very useful bibliography of media coverage from the 1970s.
Much more detailed is the definitive sourcebook, the 2010 book Quest for the Hexham Heads (CFZ Press). In my view this book could have done with a firmer editor and a good proofread, but overall it covers everything we know and throws in a whole load of other stuff about werewolves, folklore and haunted pubs. Highly recommended. This is a complex story as I have noted before and so it is worth directing anyone interested to a useful index and guides to aspects of Screeton’s 2012 book on the Hexham Heads blog.
There are also two really useful articles about the HH in the Fortean Times 294 and 295 (towards the end of 2012). These were written by Stuart Ferrol working in part with Paul Screeton. These articles go over the story as per usual but also offer some limited fresh perspectives on the fate of the Heads and contain some interesting bits and pieces. The first article recounts the story so far, while the second part included recent research and interviews (including archaeologist Lyndsay Allison-Jones, whom I have also spoken to). The conclusion? They came “no closer to a conclusion or a definitive explanation…[and] don’t think there ever will be a conclusion” (pg 49). This was followed by an interview of Screeton by Ferrol which allowed the former to repeat the same nonsense about archaeologists as he had published in the 1970s (and it was out of date then!).
One final and excellent place you can get a Hexham Heads fix is in the world of podcasts, and there have been an explosion in these in the last five years. I have binge listened to a range of these, but there are many others out there as a quick google search will reveal.
Very few HH podcasts take an archaeological perspective so a good place to start is Archyfantasies podcast on the subject. The coverage is enlivened by some interesting North American pronunciations of Hex-HAM and a deeply sceptical perspective. There is a lot of focus on the multi-layered aspects of the story and overlaps with conspiracy theory thinking, but also some errors in fact in relation to recounting the story of the Heads. Covered also is some helpful discussion about the differences between the invasive and non-invasive petrological analyses undertaken on the Heads in the seventies. The conclusion was that these objects are “undeniably modern”. Nonetheless this is a thought-provoking hour.
The Loremen podcast (series 2 episode 13) has a decent and jolly account of the story and actually mentions my blogs as a useful source of information. This episode also focuses on the Middleton Hooter (!?).
I wasn’t quite so keen on the jokey couple routine on the Spooky Tales podcast (actually Episode 1). Hosts John and Louise part bicker, part bounce off each other in a rather contrived style to tell the story via some dead-ends and diversions. No surprises here. I liked the more cerebral approach to be found in the Lore of the Land podcast where presenters Stacia and Siofra situated the objects in a broader discussion of Celtic heads with a focus on the Bradford Heads. Check out Episode 4: The cult of the head.
I rather enjoyed the discussion of the Heads in the Unexplained Podcast (series 1 episode 9 The Dawn of the Head). This is essentially a straight narrative account of the story, which becomes ever more outlandish as it unfolds. As with some of the other podcasts, there is a general conclusion that it doesn’t really matter whether the objects are authentically ancient or not, some people believe them to have supernatural qualities, which is all that matters in the end. “Throughout history we have attributed worth and sentiment to inanimate objects….”.
And yes, the Heads have their own rather thin Wikipedia page.
What is the future for the Hexham Heads? More podcasts, more speculation for sure. There has been a long-mooted documentary film, Heads! which is yet to see the light of day as far as I can tell. Perhaps Funko will get in on the act and create a Hexham Heads collectible ‘figurines’ as part of their Myth range. I guess also the search will go on just in case they do still exist somewhere, perhaps in a kitchen drawer, you know the one that has all the bits and pieces in it. Perhaps even the cursed Nationwide footage will be found.
Maybe more still could be done. Maybe Hexham could start to use the Heads and their associated fantastical story in marketing, tapping into the growing dark heritage tourism trend. The trickle of the curious that head to Rede Avenue to surreptitiously photograph the garden where the Heads were found might be replaced by less bashful bus parties and cruise ship day trippers although one can hardly imagine the residents welcoming this development.
Perhaps one day I will even complete the academic journal paper that I have partially written about the Heads with the theme of cursed material culture. Stranger things have happened.
How to conclude this tale? The Hexham Heads, as has been said by many who have looked into their story, are objects that transcend time. The age and authenticity hardly seems to matter anymore, which may be a convenient intellectual sleight of hand, or merely an acknowledgment of the slipperiness of material culture. These are objects that have a biography and a chaine operatoire just as surely as if they were a polished stone axe. They are sticky things that accrued stories and myths and claims and data around them, creating a fuzziness that continues to obscure anything that we might want to call the truth. They are many things and perhaps none of them: they are totemic, they are toys or gifts, they are possessed with an evil power to attract supernatural events, they are stone, they are cement, they are ancient, they are from the 1960s, they are evil, they are mundane, they are lost, they are hidden, they are destroyed, they are curated. The list goes on because like so many things that we interact with, they are entangled with us and out stories and motivations and beliefs and hopes and fears. They haunt us because of this slipperiness, this quality of shape-shifting, and yet this is a quality that most material culture possesses, because we ensure these do not remain inanimate objects through our interactions with them. The Hexham Heads have depended on a cast of people to animate them, and have responded by animating the lives of those who interacted with them. This is their legacy and their power.
The Hexham Heads have a resonance and reach that few other aspects of the urban prehistory pantheon have. The are genuine generation haunters for a haunted generation that laps up such creepy – and at times laughable – stuff. If I didn’t know better I would suspect that someone was pulling the strings, having a laugh at the expense of others, pushing to see how outlandish things might get. There is a soap opera dynamic to their story that seems on first glance to be scripted. But I suspect the chaotic story and unfathomable contradictions that have dogged the Hexham Heads are beyond even the most devious of screenwriting minds. This story is so improbable that it must be true.