Crania suburbia

Juniper Green is not just the colour of posh jumpers and fancy cars. It is also a rather well-heeled suburb on the south side of Edinburgh, within earshot of the city bypass motorway which roars past immediately to the north. The initials of this place, JG, are only one Ballard short of JG Ballard, which interests me. What interests me even more is that this is a place where the dead were uncovered in advance of moneyed urban development – houses, suburban streets – in the nineteenth century. Escaping the noxious smells and over-crowding of Edinburgh city was done at the expense of disturbing the dead, a price the middle classes were no doubt happy to pay. Yet this is also a story of a community rediscovering a prehistoric heritage and the positive impact that this had, including the permanent memorialisation of this in the form of a standing stone.

Before we continue I should note that this blog post contains photos, and drawings, of human skeletal remains.

The story of what was found has already been unpicked by legendary archaeologist Alison Sheridan for the Juniper Green Bronze Age history website and so only needs summarised here by way of context for what actually drew my attention to the Green. This account draws heavily on Alison’s expertise and I am indebted for her supplying additional information to me.

As usual, it started with a tweet. In this case from Alistair McGowan, alerted me to a standing stone beside some tennis courts which had carved onto its surface amongst other things a human skull and an urn.

This hazily reminded me that a friend who lives nearby had mentioned this to me a while back. This was all becoming irresistible and so I planned a visit during a necessary work trip to Edinburgh before Lockdown 3 started with no intention of being socially distanced from this monolith…..

First, some background.

The first cist burial was found in 1851 in a place that might have been a leveled burial mound. Within this well-made stone coffin was a crouched inhumed male individual and a Beaker pot. The skull, which was documented to have been laid on a flat stone pillow, was purchased along with the Beaker by the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. What happened to the remainder of the skeleton is not clear. 

From Crania Britannica
(c) National Museums of Scotland

The location of this find has been the subject of some detective work, with Alison Sheridan noting:

The exact findspot of this cist had been uncertain until recent sleuthing work by Professor Beevers allowed it to be pinpointed. We knew, from ancient accounts, that the cist had been found “not more than ten yards” [around 9 metres] from the Edinburgh-Lanark road. Professor Beevers found notes of a talk given by J J Malloch, the Headmaster of Juniper Green School, to the Colinton Literary Society in 1927. In an aside, reference was made to the Bronze Age bones that had been found in Mr Cattanach’s garden. In the 1920s, Mr Cattanach lived in a house called Viewforth; the house is now the butcher’s shop, and the garden of the house lies very close to the Lanark Road. The National Grid Reference of this location is NT 196686.

This location is now a delicatessen on Lanark Road, formerly the long-lived Scott’s butcher’s shop at number 574-6. Lockdown rules mean that sadly I have to rely on Google Street View to illustrate this location. Sad face.

Images from the Juniper Green 300 website
Google Street view

Almost half a century later, in July 1898 during ‘building operations’, a cist was disturbed although it contained only ‘bone dust and soil’. Three ceramic vessels were recovered, two Food Vessels and an inverted cinerary urn. Fred Coles notes in 1899 that six weeks later another pot was found at this site but ‘it soon disappeared and its whereabouts is not known’. In other words, he could not find out upon whose mantelpiece or sideboard this ancient vessel now sat.

Both images from Coles 1899

This discovery was made along Woodhall Terrace, again here depicted using the google maps rather than the sweat of my own fieldwork efforts.

Google Street view

The locations of both of these discoveries are marked on this wonderful map of Juniper Green that was produced as part of the some serious celebrations in 2007 to mark the 300th anniversary of the suburb. Indeed it was this occasion that saw the local community begin to take note of their prehistoric heritage. The map (by Natasha Stewart, part of a leaflet that can be downloaded here) is enlivened by lovely sketches of some of the finds from these sites.

Drawings by Natasha Stewart

As noted, the Juniper Green 300 celebrations were the catalyst for a renewed interest in the history and heritage of this place, and the residents were clearly enthused by the information that there had been a ‘Juniper Green man’ living here 4,000 years previously, to the extent that some of them were able to see his skull up close and personal during a visit to the National Museum of Scotland, hosted by Alison Sheridan. Because as fortune would have it, the skull had recently been scientifically analysed for a major project on Beakers. There is no such thing as coincidence.

Images (c) JG300

This is not the first time that the skull of this male individual, a man of 40-55 years old, has been subject to analysis. It features in the book Crania Britannica: Delineations and Descriptions of the Skulls of the Aboriginal and Early Inhabitants of the British Islands: with Notices of Their Other Remains. This epic trawl of human skulls, phrenology and craniology was published in 1865 so this skull was fairly freshly out of the ground and into the pages of this unnatural selection in short order. The book documents that this was a rounded (brachycephalic) skull, and was unusually heavy and thick-walled.

Image: McTears auction house
‘Juniper Green man’ as drawn in Crania Britannica

The principle of this book was very much that humans could be ethnically characterised by the shapes of their skulls, and as the title suggests, a major element of this was to demonstrate the racial superiority of western Europeans as opposed to those who had the misfortune to be colonised by the British Empire. Prehistoric skulls were very much part of this narrative, identifying traits that could be compared across skulls found in the Victorian world. The research and narrative contained within this volume would be best described as ‘scientific racism’, building on the earlier Crania Americana. Researcher James Poskott has noted how important such volumes were in allowing “racist theories [to] gain credibility”.

This is a way of thinking that I thought had been condemned to the prehistory of archaeology but recently I realised that differentiating between skull shapes is still a thing. I noticed that the late Euan Mackie’s 1977 book The Megalith Builders included a reference to skull shapes of Neolithic people and Beaker users as being different, an idea I thought had long since been abandoned. Upon tweeting this I found out that this kind of argument is still being made. For instance in chapter 6 of the 2019 epic Mike Parker Pearson et al. monograph The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society). I don’t really know what to make of this frankly, but this kind of skull shape data is no longer couched in racist terminology. Nowadays reasons for skull differences are sought in cultural practices such as ‘cradle-boarding’, applied to children to modify skull shape. Indeed Daniel Wilson in his 1863 book The Prehistoric Annals of Scotland (pg 272) suggested this had happened to the Juniper Green man.

The much more recent analysis this skull underwent was part of the Beaker People project, which included radiocarbon dating the head bone, and also carbon, nitrogen, strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotope analysis. This showed that this man (whom Alison called Mr J Green!) had a diet dominated by meat rather than fish. He was probably local and died in the period 2350-2130 cal BC (right at the cusp of the Copper Age and Bronze Age).

The fresh information on these ancient burials was viewed with excitement by local people. At the time of the radiocarbon dating in 2007, then owner of Scott’s Butchers, Colin Hanlon, told The Scotsman, “It’s a huge shock that there were people here all that time ago. The whole community is alive with all this at the moment – everyone’s talking about it. We may arrange something to celebrate that it was here that the village’s oldest resident was found.” There is no doubt that Alison Sheridan played a part in this revival of interest, being described as inspiring by local community group JG Diggers.

There was now momentum. Following on from the 300 year celebration, a monument was erected in the suburb, the one that started this whole thing off for me. In a report on this in The Scotsman on 9th March 2010, this was described as ‘a giant green monument’ (??). This is a slightly confusing description but has some useful detail: “The rectangular monument features carvings of a water wheel, a pot, a skull and a juniper branch, representing aspects of its history” and that it is a “seven-foot structure”. It is not wildly green but made of a greenish slate hence the weird headline. And some of that seven feet is below the ground surface. However what is clear is that the motivation for this was another indication of the sense of pride and awe locally about the depth of time that people had lived in this place.

Local Val Hawkins noted, “so people have been living in Juniper Green since the Bronze Age at least, which was more than 4,000 years ago.” The monument itself was unveiled in front of a crown of 200 people. The standing stone itself – which in effect is what it is – was sculpted by sculptor and stonemason Ian Newton, made of Westmorland slate. The design was by local artist Mick Brettle.

Juniper 300 website images showing the unveiling. Alison Sheridan bottom right

It is located on the corner of Baberton Avenue, Belmont Road and Woodhall Terrace, on a grassy slope beside some tennis courts. I visited this wonderful monument on a chilly December day in 2020, during a slightly lesser set of lockdown restrictions. I was struck by the powerful nature of the carvings on the front side of the stone, the heritage of Juniper Green carved in stone, including the skull that has been mentioned so often in this post and the cinerary urn found in 1898.

The detail on the skull and pottery vessel is wonderful. The skull stares impassively towards the west with a watchful alert eye. The pot has lovely texture on it, decorative strokes and a kinetic form, a suitable vessel made to hold the dead. The 1851 and 1898 discoveries are both shown here together, a tangible symbol of a place with an ancient heritage, conflating time and space into a new symbol for this town at the cusp of the third millennium (AD). From their time to ours. The rear of the standing stone is blank, a canvas upon which the current and next generations might hew their own destinies, document their stories.

This is a fascinating story of a community re-discovering their prehistoric heritage and embracing it. With the enthusiasm and communication skills of Alison Sheridan, this became a potent combination of local pride and – yes – wonder. This is also a celebration of her wonderful and inspiring career, this being only one of many pebbles she has tossed into ponds only to stand back and watch wonderful ripples surge outwards. One need only view her recent Rhind lectures to reflect on a career well spent as not just an academic but also a public prehistorian.

In Juniper Green there was surprise that these jumbled bits and pieces of pots and bone could be so old. Awe that Juniper Green was not just an occupied place for 300 years, or even 3000 years, but 4000 and more. I have it on good authority that enthusiasm remains and Mr J Green’s old head might yet reveal more secrets of who he was and even what he looked like. It reminds me of a great novel I read a few years ago written from the viewpoint of Oliver Cromwell’s decapitated head, Marc Hartzman’s The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: a memoir (Curious Publications, 2015). This skull has been on a journey since being recovered from the ground, passed through many hands, sat in quite a few boxes and storerooms, and more adventures may well lie ahead.

This is a tale that might be played out in many other towns, villages and suburbs across Scotland which have an equally rich heritage but which await the revelation of deep time to happen. The Juniper Green example shows that prehistory can inspire social gatherings, creative acts, conviviality, and local pride. In this case, the prehistoric story of this place is now available to read online, and traced in the contours of a standing stone barely a decade old.

This is the power of urban prehistory.

Sources and acknowledgements: I am indebted to the work of Alison Sheridan on these discoveries and the clear presentation of those results in the Juniper Green 300 website, which was my main source of information here. Alison also kindly supplied some supplementary information.

Other source used:

Coles, F R. 1899 ‘Notices of the discovery of a cist and urns at Juniper Green, and of a cist at the Cunninghar, Tillicoultry, and of some undescribed cup- marked stones’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol. 33, 1898-9. Page(s): 354-8.

The skull is SK12 in Mike Parker Pearson, Alison Sheridan, Mandy Jay, Andrew Chamberlain, Mike Richards & Jane Evans (2019)The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society).

The Beaker can be found here (in print, not literally!): Clarke, D L. 1970 Beaker pottery of Great Britain and Ireland, 2v. Cambridge. Page(s): Vol.2, 519, no.1710 and you can view a sketchfab 3D model of the Beaker here.

For anyone interested in some darker research, see Davis and Thurnam, J B and J. 1865 Crania Britannica, 2v. Page(s): Vol.2, vi pl.15. Wash your hands once you are done please.