The history of prehistory

One of the little-known pleasures of researching prehistory is excavating archives. This is because the material remains of the past can only tell us so much. Whisper it, but understanding prehistory sometimes requires an engagement with the written word. From antiquarian accounts and field notebooks, to scheduling and planning documentation, to personal archives and media repositories, there is a wealth of information out there that can tells us about the most recent history of even the most ancient of sites. Documents, photographs, sketches, and even letters can be as informative as a nicely excavated posthole or a sherd of Grooved Ware when it comes to forming our prehistoric narratives. Research into any prehistoric site must include consideration of the historic in order to fully contextualise that site.

In his recent book A Contemporary Archaeology of London’s Mega Events (UCL Press, 2022), Johnny Gardner has set out a persuasive case for the methodological toolkit of the contemporary archaeologist to include visits to archives and oral histories, as well as more traditional field skills such as excavation and survey. I would extend this to prehistoric archaeology. Making sense of how a site appears to us now and the range of tangible evidence likely to have survived can only benefit from consideration of historic engagements with these sites; the story of how the site came to be in its current incarnation did not end when the last Neolithic person trudged away at the end of a ceremony. Site formation process documentation is not just about understanding sediments, erosion, or animal burrowing. In the archaeological record nothing stays static for long and humans can’t help themselves.

This post has been prompted by the recent passing to me of some very special photos of the Cochno Stone, a rock art site in West Dunbartonshire that I have been researching since 2015. (Watch this lecture I gave in 2021 for the story so far.) This made me reflect on the journey I have been on searching archives, gathering images, and speaking to people about this site and other rock art panels next to Faifley. I’ve also been doing some writing about this and I’ll update this post with links when they come to fruition. I also did an online lecture on this theme in August 2022 for Kilmartin Trust Museum, which should be available to view here soon.

The point I want to make here is that good prehistory, like any other investigation of the past, can and should happen in libraries, collections, archives and living rooms, otherwise we risk limiting ourselves.

To help make this point I would like to look at photography and the research context for these images. So I’m going to look at two aspects of the Cochno Stone story through the lens of archival material: the painting of the stone by Ludovic Mann in 1937, and events in the years around its burial in 1965.

Material being used here includes the Ronald Morris archive; HES / RCAHMS / Glasgow Life / West Dunbartonshire Council archives; and material held by private individuals. The Ronald Morris archive was my first port of call very early on in the process. Morris was a solicitor turned rock art aficionado, the godfather of amateur rock art archaeology in the UK for many. He was active in the field between the 1960s and 1980s, but he didn’t ever see the Cochno Stone, his first visits to Faifley coming a couple of years after the 1965 burial. I was hopeful though that he might have acquired some photos of Cochno on his visits or through his network of local contacts. So I have spent a couple of sessions looking through his extensive and largely uncatalogued archive held by HES at John Sinclair House in Edinburgh.

The archive contains a series of record pockets, one for each rock art site in Scotland. The Faifley record cards are a treasure trove of information on the sites at Auchnacraig and Whitehill with photos, sketches, fieldwork notes, letters and so on, most of which did not make it into Morris’s publications. Other sources of material will be introduced below.

Morris archive material (top) Auchnacraig 1 file, (bottom) Cochno Stone aka Whitehill 1

Clearly significant archaeological events such as those discussed in this post should be documented well, one would think. But in fact, they are not. There are many photos of the Cochno Stone – try googling it – but in fact these have rather limited scope and tend to fall into one of two categories. There are a tranche of black and white photos that probably date to the years immediately after Mann painted the stone in 1937. These photos tend to show parts of the site, which has been helpful in making sense of the detail of Mann’s paintjob although some areas of the stone have never quite been captured.

The other type of photo are from the time of our excavations at the site in 2016, when the whole stone was uncovered for 10 days. Some of these are ‘official’ photos as it were, taken by me and other team members, and then shared online. Others were taken by visitors to the site, while there is some officially sanctioned HES photography on the canmore page for the site including images taken by their high-spy piece of kit. (This has over 50 photos of the site, a great cross section and well worth checking out.)

But I have been aware for several years that there are gaps in the photographic record for this monument. There are, so far as I can tell, no photos that have come to light yet that show the Cochno Stone before Mann painted it. We only have sketches from the half century between ‘discovery’ in the late 1880s and 1937. Until recently there was only one photo I had seen of the stone actually being painted. And there is real dearth of imagery from the period in the run-up to the burial of the stone in 1965 – a time when one would presume based on our excavation observations that the stone was at least partially grown over and Mann’s paint had largely faded into memory. So we have really good photographic coverage from 1937 to 1950, and 2016, but almost nothing between 1888 and 1936 or 1950 and 1965; clearly between 1965 and today the stone has been buried and beyond the realm of photography for all but a fortnight.

There is a real research imperative to tracking down photos from these gaps in our coverage, as these would, one hopes, shed light on the, say, the process of painting, and the changing condition of the stone through time. So I have spent quite a bit of time searching in archives for photos that might fill these time gaps, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to be passed photos and slides from others who know of my research interests. This has allowed the gaps to gradually be filled albeit it slowly and in limited quantities. However when a new photo comes to light it is almost always a thrill, but often poses more questions than it answers. This also catalyses further research, whether that be returning to the excavation archive itself, or going to a library.

Paint: 1937

When I started work on the Cochno Stone, finding out more about the painting in 1937 was a primary aspiration. The painting of the stone by Ludovic Mann and with help from George Applebey is one of the defining moments in the biography of this monument. Notes in Mann’s own archive so far have revealed only circumstantial evidence for what Mann did and why he did it. Speaking to George Applebey’s son, also George, also revealed little on what happened in that summer of 1937. Mann’s work at Knappers / Druid’s Temple that summer completely overshadowed his time at Cochno, to the extent that almost no newsclippings could be found that even showed the paint never mind reported on the event. This is surprising as Mann was very much an influencer and serial media user at the time, as I have written about elsewhere. My attempts to work out what Mann was up to can be found elsewhere (Brophy 2020). Suffice it to say that this eccentric act has in its origins in Mann’s obsessions with prehistoric eclipses, cosmology and metrology.

The actual act of painting, which must have taken quite some time and been very complex, is even trickier to make sense of due to a lack of documentation. One photo in the public domain supposedly showed Mann himself painting the stone. This was published in Ronald Morris’s 1981 book The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway). The caption for Plate 111 notes, ‘L. M. Mann painting in the carvings about 1937’ and the photo was taken from the J Harrison Maxwell collection.

This doesn’t really look like Mann is painting (is it even Mann?) so this is probably a posed shot once the job has been completed and this is certainly one of the most detailed photos of this feature of the site. It reminds me of a rather better-known image, again probably posed by Harrison Maxwell, this one featuring Mann and Applebey. This digital version held by HES was scanned back to front by RCAHMS for some reason, the correct version is also included for reference.


During preparation for The Mann the Myth conference in Glasgow in 2019, Glasgow Life curator Katinka Dalglish passed me a photo she had found in the Mann archive they hold that does actually show someone painting the surface of the stone. At first I assumed this was Mann himself but his hair is not the same as the chap who is definitely Mann in the above photo. Here coloured paint is being applied (probably red, maybe blue) using a course brush and messy paint tin. The stones and white sheet / paper may relate to a rubbing being done of the stone at the same time.

Glasgow Life

Then in May 2022, I was emailed a selection of scanned photos. These photos had been sent to a Mrs Bowie of Clydebank by Ronald Morris in 1979. In turn these had been passed to committee members of the Clydebank Local History Society, Dave Carson and then Sam Gibson. It was Sam who kindly sent me the scans. One of these immediately blew me away: another paint job shot.

This remarkable photo shows another team member – a woman this time – working on the stone, probably painting a cup-and-ring white. Here, the paint tin is clearer, with some on twitter suggesting this might be Crown brand. A brush sits beside the paint, and the brush is slightly less coarse than the one branded by the unknown man above. This suggests that painting the stone was more of a team effort than I had initially presumed. But who are these members of the painting team?

One last look: 1964

The Morris archive contains a folder for the Cochno Stone (aka Whitehill 1). It is disappointingly thin (as he did not actually see the site) but did contain some fascinating photos from 1964 and perhaps 1965.

There are tantalising notes and photos regarding a 1964 excavation carried out by the University of Glasgow’s Horace Fairhurst. This is accompanied by an incredible series of photos showing four middle-aged men on a large rock surface, examining the stone and even lifting flaps of carpet-like turf expose the symbols beneath. There is some confusion in the published work of Morris and his notes as to whether this is actually the Cochno Stone or a neighbouring site that has since been ‘lost’.

What the third of these photographs clearly show is that the Cochno Stone was by 1964 apparently largely free of the paint that Mann had applied, this having weathered away after almost 30 years of exposure to the elements. This photo also shows quite clearly that the edges of the stone had begun to grass over, something we had suspected during the 2016 excavation. The stone was stained on the fringes and the paint survived, suggestive of these areas of the monument having been protected from weather to an extent.

Yellow paint lines from 1937 survived probably due to being grassed over by the 1960s

So far I have been unable to find any written record of this piece of fieldwork or established the nature of what Morris called an excavation at this time. Horace Fairhurst (1908-1986) was a geographer cum archaeologist, and the first head of Archaeology Department at the University of Glasgow in the 1960s (a post I currently hold). His most significant research related to medieval and post-medieval settlement in Scotland and the archaeology of the island of Arran. This may well have been an opportunistic piece of work carried out at the request of Morris, and seems to have been at most ‘having a good look’ at the site.

Horace Fairhurst (looking to camera) at Machrie Moor, Arran, in 1979 (source: Demarco Digital Archive)

Very recently another set of photos came into my possession that were taken around the same time, perhaps even during this fieldwork episode. My colleague Nyree Finlay found a small number of slides showing rock art sites within the archive of our now sadly deceased colleague, Alex Morrison. Two of these slides were taken of the Cochno Stone in 1964 and crucially are in colour. These photos have presumably never been seen outside the lecture theatre – until now. I am not sure if these photos were taken by Alex – he graduated in 1964 and so may have accompanied Fairhurst on a visit to the site as they shared rural settlement research interests. Unlike the black and white photos above, here the scale is a shooting stick, rather than a measuring tape.

These stunning images are very helpful in understanding what the Cochno Stone looked like in 1964, less than a year before its burial. Grass and weeds have encroached onto the fringes of the outcrop. Almost no traces of Mann’s paint survives. But perhaps most noticeably, the surface appears covered in scrapes and scratches of the kind one might associate with a lot of people walking on the stone and in some cases marking it: some letters are visible scraped into the stone surface as well as hints of the more deeply incised graffiti we found in 2016. The wall surrounding the stone seems almost ruinous in places with parts of this lying in weeds around the stone although the style survives on the north side. Finally, there is apparently a fence around the entirety of the stone, something I had previously not been aware of.

Within months the stone was buried. Perhaps this brief interlude of interest in the Cochno Stone by some archaeologists from the University of Glasgow was instrumental in the burial, or the visit occurred for the purposes of documentation before the the stone was covered over. This has yet to be established.

The Morris archive includes another significant image which seems to show the location of the Cochno Stone not long after it was buried. The triangular feature on the skyline is part of a metal fence atop the wall around the Cochno Stone and so this picture seems to have been taken from the south-south-west. Rubble or wall remnants appear in the foreground. If this photo was taken by Morris is might have been on a visit to the area in 1968; not all of the stone appears to have grassed over however at this time. Another note: this image seems to be from a proof, but was this photo ever published?

Concluding thoughts

The photos and records I have been fortunate enough to consult over the past few years have been transformative in my understanding of the 20th century story of the Cochno Stone. Yet even for the recent past gaps in knowledge and understanding remain, gaps that to an extent can be filled by talking to people and learning from their memories and experiences. Taken together, these very historical means of knowledge generation – archives, files, photographs, interviews – can help us to piece together the modern biography of prehistoric sites and their study. In turn, this final piece of the biographical narrative of such sites that stretched back thousands of years can be more fully understood. And the last chapter is almost always essential reading in any book for a good reason.

There is much more to unpick here. More photos and files remain to be consulted, and there are people to speak to. Excavating this kind of knowledge will probably be more useful in helping us to understand Faifley’s rock art than anything I could do with a trowel or a microscope. These are human stories, regardless of whether they were being written in stone 5,000 years ago or in 1937, or 1964. So my plea to prehistorians is – look to history!

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the staff of the HES search room for looking out the Ronald Morris archive for me to consult. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Nyree Finlay and Sam Gibson for providing me with some of the materials discussed above. Thanks very much to Michael Gannon for scanning the Morrison slides for me.

I have written a chapter on Ronald Morris’s archive in a book published to celebrate Stan Beckensall’s wonderful life and career in September 2022. The book is being edited by Kate Sharpe and Paul Frodsham and my chapter is called: Digging into the Ronald Morris archive: a Kilmartin Glen case-study. Full details as soon as I have them.

The other reference in the text relates to my own writing on Mann’s paintjob in 1937: K Brophy 2000 The Ludovic technique: the painting of the Cochno Stone, West Dunbartonshire. Scottish Archaeological Journal 42 [email me if you want a pdf of this article]

I also appreciate the invite to speak as part of the Kilmartin House Trust lecture series in summer 2022. The topic was using the Ronald Morris and Ludovic Mann archives. There was a great and well-informed audience of almost 90, and Ken McElroy created this disturbing image to market the talk. It must have worked!