As I explore the places near where I live on foot, within the approved 5km or so limit, I ask myself: ‘Do I just see urban prehistory everywhere? Is it just me? Or are allusions to the prehistoric hard-wired into our urban spaces, industrial estates, retail parks, and housing estates?’. I am coming to suspect the latter, as the alternative would mean that urban prehistory is simply a product of my own delusional state of mind, a pathological condition.
So that’s fine then. On to the business of this post.
Urban exploration is seldom a walk wasted. And following a path, or a desire line, just that little bit more, towards the end of a long walk, if often the time when unexpected discoveries are made. And so it was recently on a lockdown walk in the Lanarkshire sun. On a wander that had already delivered olfactory pleasure drifting from whisky barrels biding their time in warehouses with their doors flung casually open, Jan and I pushed on just a few minutes more, in the shadow of Tesco Extra that from the rear had the appearance and scale of an airport terminal.
A deserted path ran along the backside of this massive grey warehouse, pitted with black doorways at the bottom of unwelcoming stairways. Someone has spray painted a brick wall ‘Mind the steps’ while a bunch of dying flowers hung from a rusting banister nearby, a plaintive sad simple note attached: RIP. An accident on the stairs? We became overwhelmed by the sound of the shop, a low capitalist hum, as if the building were not really a shop but a huge power station feeding on the energy of queuing shoppers.
I glanced off the the right, along a narrow but concrete-paved pathway that led to a clearance, within which were I glimpsed a few inverted shopping trollies, and a pile of big angular boulders. Attracted to this – what other word can I use? – cairn, I pushed aside the foliage, and emerged out into an opening, where other blocks were arranged in more cairns. Huge sandstone discs, like giant tiddlywinks, were arranged in a snaking line. The chase was on, with each break in the vegetation leading to more megalithic revelations.
This cannot be a coincidence. The place we stumbled upon is some kind of landscaped public art, perhaps industrial in spirit, almost certainly not prehistoric in any way whatsoever in the mind of the creator, and yet I cannot help but see these blocks, these lines, these deposits, as prehistoric-esque, to coin a clumsy compound word. Why would anyone see these piles of boulders as anything other than cairns? One even took the form, I am sure, of a fallen standing stone.
Consider the basic facts of the matter. In a hesitant line some 150m in length, punctuated by bushes, squeezed in a green triangle between the Faraday Retail Park, Coatbank Street, and South Circular Road, there are multiple cairns and fallen megaliths of granite and sandstone.
These stones are a 1980s palette of oranges, greys, and pinks, and arranged casually, but the sheer size of some of the boulders meant that there could have been nothing casual about this. In the shadow of high rises, near the din of traffic noise, this is surely urban prehistory?
In one clearing, two trollies lay tied to one another by the chains attached to the pound coin slots. One trolley was from Tesco, the other Asda. This unholy coupling appeared to have been deliberately engineered, perhaps for my benefit, a Ballardian touch that I appreciated. Trollies were strewn all around, their metal carcasses ridden in, broken, borrowed, stolen, then finally dumped amidst this Coatbridge Carnac.
The abandoned trollies give this place the feel of a mortuary space for excarnation, their defleshed skeletal frames picked clean of their consumer flesh, the tin cans, the multi-packs, the boxes and packets, and left to tarnish in the sun. Exposed to the elements, their wheels silently spinning in the breeze.
Gareth Rees recently tweeted about coronavirus and his specialist subject, retail park Car Parks. (Would he choose this topic were he on Mastermind?) One picture, showing ‘bizarre trolley alignments’, made me think about the new affordances that shopping trollies have for us during pandemic. Arbiters of safe social distanced space in shops. Delineations for queues outside shops. And perhaps they should also be viewed as vectors of the transmission of Covid-19 via unwashed hands and surfaces, things to be handled while wearing latex gloves.
It was difficult to make sense of this mostly abandoned piece of landscaping behind the Faraday Retail Park. The gravel surfaces that most of the boulders and stones had been laid atop were overgrown with weeds, and broken bottles and bent cans were strewn all over the place. Litter accumulated around the base of standing stones and collected in the unusual angles created by stones like tangled limbs. Fires had been set in the shadow of some cairns. This was a place that was hidden in plain sight, just off the road, just behind a retail park, and yet seemed like another world that belonged to someone else. We were trespassing, and yet the only life that we could detect here at 4.30pm on a Monday afternoon were rabbits. Lots of rabbits. Some hiding behind shopping trolleys, perspective creating the illusion they were in cages at the whim of a mad scientist.
Someone tweeted later that evening that this place was known as a rabbit run, and the various meanings of this phrase seem apt for this place. Someone else told me it was a failed attempt to establish a Japanese garden behind the Retail Park, although many of the stones looked to me like the byproducts of the heavy industries that used to dominate this landscape. The huge sandstone discs were, I am sure, remnants of bridge supports, although from where I have no idea. Still another theory goes that this is a liminal place that marks the boundaries between the territories of two Coatbridge gangs, perhaps borne out by the tags sprayed onto some of the blocks.
Yet the scale of all of this did not quite compute with any of these explanations. The megaliths that we encountered in that liminal space, that edgy edgeland, seemed to me like they belonged to the fantasy worlds of Doug McLure, or James Franciscus, beneath, beyond, impossible, deeply strange, and yet enchanting. It was our world – my world – and yet not quite of that world. Shoppers nearby largely knew nothing about what we had encountered, in this space that in the end was deemed suitable only to plant shrubs and erect standing stones and cairns. It is defiantly not a shop. But maybe a little bit prehistoric.
As we emerged out of this nether region, passers by on a better-used path looked at us suspiciously, as it urban exploration in that place was unusual behaviour even for lockdown walkers. Little did they know that only a few metres away, amidst the trollies, the rabbits, and the rubbish, lay the Coatbridge Carnac.
We are all paying more attention to the familiar than ever before. The lockdown is making psychogeographers of us all, walking familiar paths with new levels of intensity, experimenting with new routes and unfamiliar trails, all in the name of fulfilling our daily government sanctioned exercise. Escaping the shackles of our homes for those fortunate enough not to have to shield or quarantine completely has become for many of us an essential daytime ritual. Our modes of movement and engagements with others have changed too. Crossing the road to avoid someone has become an act of polite kindness. The pavements have become enlivened with chalk, colourful expressions of home-schooling, support for key workers. Hopscotch is back in fashion. Windows and doors have become adorned by rainbows, thank you notes, messages for those who venture outside on our behalf. The pavements have become assemblages of discarded coronavirus protection, blue rubber gloves discarded here and there, officially approved single-use plastics. The urban landscape around us is slowly changing, and we are documenting this on foot, through smart phones, navigating this new world with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and nostalgia.
Covid-19 is making us walk differently.
It was on just such a recent walk that I encountered, literally six minutes’ walk from where I live in Airdrie, a rather special modern standing stone, set within a stone circle of smaller blocks, all bisected by a footpath.
This sturdy megalith is adorned with a palimpsest of graffiti in multiple colours and hands. These obscure phrases, such as the prominent Jobby Josh MS hint at invective sprayed onto rock, letters shaking with anger (or laughter). Rushed sentiments, two word autobiographies, befitting a crime scene on a public path with many possible witnesses.
The stone circle is almost lost amidst vegetation, its legibility compromised by the pathway. Beside the standing stone focal point, these smaller stones seem almost after-thoughts, and yet they form a clear circle of boulders, none of which appear to be adhering by social distancing principles.
The whole arrangement is part of the Millennium Park on the north edge of Airdrie. I can’t find anything out about this park, but it consists of playing parks with poor post-industrial land quality grass. The stone circle and standing stone sit to the south of the playing fields, beside a confusing jumble of paths and paved settings.
Beside the standing stones is that folk horror trope, a rusting and seemingly abandoned children’s play park, with various rides that look to me like they would require the user to self-administer a tetanus injection upon dismounting the various rusty rides with their twisted paint-flecked poles and corroding springs.
This weird bit of urban leisure planning is more of a place to pass through than tarry, although even here were discarded rubber gloves, lying around like five-fingered condoms.
It was here I decided to film a short recruitment video for our taught postgraduate MSc Landscape Archaeology course. I wonder what the corporate machine of my employers will make of that?
Why have I never spotted this standing stone before? Why did is take a global pandemic of ruinous proportion for me to properly perambulate around the place I have lived for 14 years? My lack of interest in the place that I live, my dependence on the car to get to and from the railway station in town, embarrasses me.
But every time I now walk past this stone, I can’t get this stupid grin off my face. Walking, and looking, will help us emerge from lockdown. When that does happen, let’s not forget what we have learned on our coronambulations.
Acknowledgements: the photos and video were taken by Jan Brophy.
Saturday 5th October 2019. 5002 years, 194 days and 19 hours after Glasgow’s ancient eclipse*, a conference was held to re-evaluate, celebrate, and contextualise the life and times of Glasgow’s antiquarian archaeologist, Ludovic Mclellan Mann. This post offers an overdue summary of the conference, and updates on what is next for the Mann-revival. More in-depth Mann stuff can be found at my dedicated blog for research into this man(n).
(* eclipse may not have happened, and almost certainly not at the precise time Mann thought it did.)
2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Glasgow’s great eccentric antiquarian and amateur archaeologist Ludovic Mclellan Mann (1869-1955). A controversial figure during his lifetime, Mann nonetheless carried out important excavations, was Scotland’s first ‘rescue archaeologist’ and lived a life committed to public archaeology and heritage education. He is well known for his colourful books on ancient measurements and Earliest Glasgow, and his excavations at the Druid Temple, Clydebank in 1937-9. But what is his legacy? How should we view his eclectic activities and ideas? What role did he play in the development and professionalisation of the archaeology in Glasgow, Scotland and beyond? And what about his non-archaeological interests?
To mark this anniversary, as part of a series of events, a conference and celebration of Mann will be held at the Glasgow University Union Debating Chamber on Saturday 5th October.
We welcome proposals for contributions to this event, whether this be a 20-minute talk or something more creative. In particular, we encourage non-academic content and so are welcome to whatever idea you want to pitch.
Then we sat back and waited to see what would come our way. We were not disappointed.
A really nice range of contributions came in, some of which in the end did not become conference papers due to clashes with other events. These came from a variety of people, from academics to geomancers, those with an ‘amateur’ interest in archaeology, to students. Speakers included early career researchers and pensioners and most things in between. The final programme looked like this:
All of these speakers freely gave up their time, energy, and resources to contribute and attend the conference, and so we are indebted to them. Not named here is Dr Stuart Jeffrey, Glasgow School of Art, who kindly agreed to act as a discussant at the end.
I wanted the venue for the conference to be fairly informal, not a stuffy lecture theatre. I also wanted to keep costs down which limited possible weekend venues in and around Glasgow University where I work. In the end we settled for the debating chamber at the Glasgow University Union, where my previous experience of a conference – the Scottish Student Archaeology Society event in January 2018 – had been a good one.
I spoke at that event, and my only quibble was that I wanted a giant screen to show slides on, not the little one shown in the photo above. Thankfully I was able to squeeze that out of the conference budget as well as an all-singing-all-dancing sound system (which of course conked out on the day of the conference for a while). Thanks to Glasgow Archaeological Society I was also able to organise catering at the venue, and kept the entrance fee down to a tenner for general entrance, fiver for GAS members and students, and free for all helpers and speakers.
Our funders and backers helped make this possible:
The conference pack
I also wanted to ensure that delegates had something tangible to take away with them, rather than just a boring old programme. With no real cash to spare to buy pens, tote bags, or other ephemera to give to those attending (the decadent trappings of the contemporary conference), I decided to design and produce a zine, and include this and some other bits of paperwork in an A4 envelope, which I could buy in cheap packs in Tesco.
The zine was on the theme of the conference of course, old Ludovic himself, and cost nothing directly to the conference attendees, although a lot of A3 paper was used and colour photocopying done at work (hope my line manager does not read this!). One of our students, Hannah Stevenson, kindly folded them all into zines which must have taken ages! In the end only about 75 were ever made so if you have one, hold on to it, one day you may be able to cash in on antiques roadshow or posh pawn brokers.
The zine was accompanied by a postcard advertising a future podcast on Mann, Mannsplaining (still a future aspiration at the time of writing!), with design by Mike Middleton, a conference programme, and some flyers.
Katinka kindly agreed to host a hands-on session with objects associated with Ludovic Mann in the collections of the Kelvingrove Museum. This was held in the Kelvin Hall across the road where much of their archaeological material is now stored. A few early bird delegates turned up the day before the conference and spent a happy hour fondling stuff found or collected by Mann, a veritable material culture menagerie.
The boxes, the writing on the objects, the little notes and labels, were as of much interest as the materials themselves. A tangible connection to the Mann himself.
The day of the conference dawned for me with a mixture of excitement and stress. I went into Glasgow, got a couple of bags of stuff, and come coffee, then went to the venue where I was met with the relaxing presence of lots of helpers ready to get going. Things were set up, even the audio-visual stuff started working after a while, then the audience began to drift in. By the time we were ready to go, there were lots of people in the room, and most of the speakers had been able to turn up!
I’m not going to go over the contents of the day in much detail. There are plans for an edited volume with some contributions which should be out before the end of 2020, and also the whole day was recorded by Tristan Boyle. I’m hoping the talks can be released as part of the Mannsplaining podsact series when it eventually gets up and running. You can also follow live tweeting from the event by checking out #theManntheMyth on the twitter.
But here are some pictures I took on the day of some of the speakers.
As well as the speakers, and others took part other than those photographed above, there was also a display of Mann archival material and some of his books (and some Harry Bell books), and Tom Davies presented a selection of marginalia by Mann in textbooks he had come across. Glasgow Archaeology Society, Glasgow University Student Archaeology Society, and Edinburgh University Press had stalls.
The day was indeed a celebration of Mann, but of course reservations were also expressed about the veracity of some of his explanations, perhaps even the sanity of some of his actions. I think there was a good balance in the room of awareness that for all of his limitations and weaknesses, Mann was a pivotal figure in the development of Scottish archaeology. This was illuminated by a very personal intervention by George Applebey, whose father with the same name was a friend of Mann’s, and did a lot of work with him. George even remembered meeting Mann, who was an uncle figure to him.
The reaction to the day seems to have been positive, with tweets like this one from film-maker Myles Painter making it all worthwhile.
In numbers, the Mann the Myth conference was also a success. 64 people came along to the conference including over 20 Glasgow Archaeology Society members. The day would not have been possible without the financial and in-kind support of our sponsors, while the time and effort given freely by speakers, student helpers, and assorted other supporters was humbling. I hope that this is only the start of my Ludovic Mann journey, not the end, and given his voluminous and mostly uncatalogued archive, that seems very likely. His legacy has yet to be truly reflected on and explored to the depths of the Palaeolithic and onwards.
This post reproduces a short provocation that I gave during the last workshop of the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded Scotland’s 3rd Millennium Archaeology workshop series. Abbreviated as 3M_DO_2019 (#3M_DO), this event took place in Edinburgh on 10th December 2019. The workshop series, organised by Alex Hale of Historic Environment Scotland, and co-organised by Antonia Thomas, UHI, and myself, had the aim of ‘contributing valuable archaeological perspectives to the political, economic, and environmental challenges facing Scotland in the present day.
The final workshop was a chance to reflect on the three previous workshops, and consider future directions for contemporary archaeology in Scotland. These issues are yet to be resolved, with a final event delayed by Covid-19, but we hope to produce an output, or outputs, from this workshop series in the coming months. I would like to thank Alex and Antonia for inviting me to speak at the final workshop, and Gavin MacGregor for support and inspiration.
My brief was to summarise thoughts on workshops to date, and future directions and issues, and I called my provocation Facing Our Dystopian Future. Some of the ideas and even words in this short presentation have been used in earlier blog posts. Links to sources and related material have been added to the text where you might want to follow up on these snapshots and I have slightly edited the text in places where it was rubbish.
When these workshops started, I was not sure if archaeology was part of the problem – or part of the solution.
Of course, it is both.
And not only can archaeology affect change for the good, but it can also document change as it happens.
We are uniquely positioned to document material history and future site formation processes.
As Simon Sellers wrote in his novel Applied Ballardianism, archaeologists see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’.
It is time to rethink what an archaeologist can be and should do. This is what this workshop series has been about.
During this Brexit Age everyone is seeking the comfort of the past. Nostalgia is in abundance. There is more nostalgia than we need. Supply has out-stripped demand.
Some wish for a fantasy Britain, of the 1950s, or perhaps the 1930s. Others seek the comforts and strictures of the Victorian era. Steampunk memories.
Still others seek the relative golden hour of Blairism and the years around the turn of the millennium.
But where will this nostalgia lead?
And is there any comfort to be had in the past? Or is this a delusion?
Welcome to Brexit Britain, where practices, materials, lifeways, are inexorably becoming prehistoric.
Our dystopia is not that of the Orwellian vision of Big Brother. Or Huxley’s Brave New World.
Our dystopia is that of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, of Will Self’s Book of Dave, of a regression to prehistory.
We need to be ready for the Second Iron Age – and who better to prepare us for this task than archaeologists?
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 our return to, 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. And plastic.
Because 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 maddening middening.
If we must stumble into this prehistoric dystopia, then let us offer ourselves, the archaeologists, as expert tour guides.
We are not just over-producing nostalgia. We also have an abundance of plastic. Plastic has outstripped demand, and gone beyond need.
The focus on single use plastic and the Anthropocene will be defining issues by which archaeologists can demonstrate the effectiveness of our techniques but also the efficacy of our critical thinking.
Plastic democratises archaeology because everyone can become collectors of it. We have our own hoards, our own deposition strategies, our own stratigraphies and contexts.
Beach combers document the madness of what we have done. The frustrating pointlessness of what we use plastic for. The sea spews up our iniquities and shortcomings on daily base, each tide revealing a new charge sheet.
But our typologies need to be more sophisticated than ‘blue plastics’ or ‘toy soldier plastics’. We need to arrange plastics that are found according to their potential for re-use and recycling. We should be considering moral categories for plastics that are collected too.
And as archaeologists we should be part of the conversation about the how we can put less stuff into the archaeological record, to compress our material footprint, and shrink future assemblages.
We need less single-use archaeology.
As archaeologists we are especially well place to document processes of collapse, entropy, decay, dissolution.
We know that nothing last for ever, that even the most enduring structures will return to their constituent parts.
Our job now is to reflect on recording the mighty structures of today in expectation of their inevitable crash tomorrow.
I was told once by a planning officer during a public inquiry related to Orcadian windfarm development that had wind turbines been erected in the Neolithic, the local tribes would have bowed down and worshipped them.
What seemed ridiculous to me back then, now seems an essential insight.
Wind turbines on Orkney are just another incarnation of the grey upright megaliths erected in prehistory. The turbines are the true Heart of Neolithic Orkney.
They are our source of salvation. We put faith in them. They will ensure our future wellbeing and fecundity, while staving off disaster.
They stand watch over us to remind us of what we have done – and what out futures may become.
How can we have anything but awe for these mighty structures? We have a duty to document them now, and after the collapse, surveying the future ruins of our civilisation.
Underwater sources of power are potentially more powerful than the on-shore farming of wind. But fishing for energy, sinking machines to the depths, does not provide the visual fix that we need to ensure that something is being done. That we are protected, and that our future is seen to being protected.
This is our equivalent of Neolithic pit deposition, putting significant objects beneath the surface to work for the benefit of the community, interceding with the gods on our behalf. It is an act of faith, of sacrifice.
Underwater machines offer the hope of safety but ultimately, when dystopia comes, what is left will be picked over by underwater archaeologists. Measurements will be taken, objects recovered from scatters across the ocean floor. Pipes and tubes will have become occupied by crabs, encrusted with barnacles. Conservators will have to deal with salt-rust and corrosion.
We will probably document a futile gesture that was at least untroubled by sea water level rise, except for the destruction of the secret bunker that controlled it on a nearby beach, an achilles heel built into the system.
Water will gradually seep into the mechanisms of these underwater machines, causing malfunction, the source of power also being the means of their destruction.
We are on a collision course with the sun.
In his book The Crystal World, JG Ballard writes about an environmental crisis where everything in the world gradually turns to crystal. This was one of a series of early novels that he wrote with a focus on climate emergency and the ways that humans are changing the world. He wrote these books half a century ago.
Ballard foretold the future, using his creativity to diagnose society’s pathologies, and make portentous prophecies about the outcomes. As with archaeologists, he observed human – material interactions, and he was especially interested in how people entangled with machines.
Human-machine interactions are a key aspect of contemporary archaeology, as fundamental as human-ceramic or human-megalith relationships are key for prehistorians.
Our insights should allow us to become advocates and activists for what we need to do to avert dystopia. We need to become prophets of the contemporary past.
In summer 2019 I visited Crystal World near Innsbruck in Austria. Ostensibly this is a showcase for the Swarovski crystal makers.
This is a deeply Ballardian experience. The main focal point of the whole gated compound is a huge green passage grave with the face of a Green Giant. From this earthwork mound poured a stream of recycled water, vomited into a placid pond.
Entry to this passage grave is affected behind this saliva-fall, where a straight passage opens up ahead, with golden walls. Walking along this passage brings you into a chamber, where amongst other things are displayed skulls of crystals, and a lifeless figure propped onto the back of a gem-adorned horse.
Inside this Green Giant passage grave, a series of disorientations and otherworldly experiences can be had.
This is a thoroughly retro-futuristic experience, at its heart cold crystal consumerism dressed up in art installations with Ballardian names: Emotional Formation. Transparent Opacity. Chandelier of Grief. Into lattice sun. Crystal Dome. The Mechanical Theatre.
These are the arenas in which the hypermodern are enacted. These should be our fieldwork destinations. These passage grave utopias.
Always start your investigation at the green, grassy mound, for this will be the nerve centre.
In the 2007 book Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape Sefryn Penrose and colleagues considered the archaeology of modern structures, buildings, and landscapes of England. Places that defined modern consumer and leisure behaviour featured highly – shopping malls, theme parks – but also places of transportation – railway stations hubs, airports, motorway intersections.
This Ballardian vision of what archaeologists should be studying and researching is inspiring and suggests that we should collectively be shifting our gaze from the past to the contemporary past.
The contemporary past is where the past now resides, all of it, and we are making new pasts on a daily basis.
One of the categories of place that was considered in this book is Television landscapes.
Recently I spent some time at Salford Quays in Manchester, a canal-side space station dedicated to the recording and broadcasting of television programmes. The skyscape was dominated by huge corporate logos – BBC, ITV, Granada Studies.
Bladerunner meets Coronation Street.
Moving through this landscape, amidst glassy broadcast buildings, felt like being on a reality TV programme. I assumed that I was being observed by cameras from various angles, monitored in a way I found uncomfortable. Groups of people sat in a park, ate in expensive bars, and I could not tell if they were merely visitors to the area, or extras in a film documenting my visit.
In the Blue Peter garden I noted memorials and monuments to dead pets, children’s TV as Pet Semetery.
Salford Quays and other places like it offer blurred experiences, neither reality, not the product of a team of creatives. I felt myself flickering in and out of solidity, almost as if I was being pixilated, about to be broadcast like Mike TV in the Chocolate Factory.
Penrose wrote of the television utopia, the Teletubbies set:
The mythological fantasy land of Teletubbies (1997), devoid in reality of preternatural greenness and baby-faced sun, was embedded incongruously in Warwickshire farmland. Field boundaries were marked by hedgerows that shielded camera operators, tracks and multi-coloured bouncing beings before the field was ploughed back to farmland – as if the teletubbies had never actually existed.
These colourful alien beasts with television screen stomachs and antennae ears are of course the perfect vector for the televisual age, and by gazing into their oblong glass bellies we can see our own futures being broadcast back at us on a loop.
The Teletubbies occupy a monumental landscape, focused on a grassy dome which is reminiscent of the Green Giant passage grave at the Crystal World.
Children must be used to seeing prehistoric structures. In the show In the night garden, the creature Makka Pakka lives in a riverside dolmen. It is almost as if our television producers and creatives are subliminally preparing our children for their dystopian future, but in a metaphor for Brexit Britain, this is being sold as a utopia.
This accords with Penrose’s observation that this is a landscape of deceit and deception.
Goodnight children and don’t have nightmares.
We have our own equivalent of the centrally placed grassy mound phenomenon – the now defunct Archaeolink Prehistory Park near Aberdeen.
Here we have the ruination of a set of ruins, a visitor attraction that was utopian in so many of its ideals, but has now become an overgrown dystopia.
Like the ruinous Bangour Hospital near Livingston, Archaeolink is about to be sold for housing development.
Houses will eventually be built on top of where a roundhouse once stood, although as documented by Gavin MacGregor, this had its door hanging off as early as 2013. The hearth has not been lit for some time.
Various urban explorers have been to this place, broken in, and carried out photographic and documentary surveys.
In some cases, they are literally archaeologists, in other cases they act like archaeologists, documenting the ruination and decay of this place. Urban decay, as with plastics, democratises what we do, and encourages diverse forms of archaeological engagement with the world.
This is a ghost village of confusing temporality. Everything has gradually slipped into a state of disrepair, with stuff left lying about as if the place was abandoned overnight. Timber posts are strewn about like limbs. Roofs have fallen in. The green mound has grassed over, and its glass façade is boarded up, looking like something from the set of an Italian science fiction movie from the 1960s rather than a defunct visitor centre.
Archaeologists document decay, although are not usually able to see it in real time as is the case at Archaeolink.
We must be the biographers of all emergent ruination.
I recently visited the Temple of Mithras in London.
Located beside the now buried stream of Walbrook, this Mithraeum has gone through various incarnations since its discovery in the 1950s. The most recent being funded by Bloomberg, with the Temple relocated to its original location beneath a golden office block.
This is a place that stinks of money.
A display of artefacts found during excavations ahead of the construction of this office compound includes a Roman table and stylus dated to 8th January in AD 57. This records the earliest written evidence for a financial transaction in Britain.
A reference point for visitors to visualise the stratigraphic depth of the Temple is the Bank of England, which is situated a few minutes’ walks away horizontally, and 7m vertically.
Before going down to the gloomy basement within which the Temple can be experienced, one has to pass several huge golden artworks.
Central to the myth of Mithras is the slaying of the bull – the tauroctony.
A sacred secret killing for the approval of the sun god sol. Eyes averted, hand wet with blood, creation in death. The myth remade in temples underground by lonely men trying to become gods.
In our archaeological practice, are we willing to get our hands dirty, to slay the bull, to take on the structural forces that shape and constrain us all today? Or will we be complicit and happy to remain within the bosom of capitalism?
What is contemporary life but an accumulation?
What are humans but constant accumulation and deposition?
Rubbish in, rubbish out.
We live on the dirty edgelands of the future.
We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.
Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.
And when our machines have collapsed or been overwhelmed by water, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens, our broken machines, our single-use plastic, and bulls slayed by overwhelming circumstances.
Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds. We should not depend on there being archaeologists of the future age, just curious and liberated animals.
It is all accumulating today.
We cannot be bystanders in this formation of the archaeological record.
Exactly a year ago, 20th March 2019. the new Sighthill stone circle was officially revealed to the media. Designed, as was the first iteration, by Duncan Lunan, this astronomically aligned stone circle has been constructed as a permanent and unique resource within the emerging new Sighthill just to the north-east of Glasgow city centre.
At the time when this new megalith began to emerge, it sat on a raised island amidst a giant muddy building site. Sighthill itself was yet to be reborn, the old variant having been more or less completely bulldozed and remediated as part of a £250 million redevelopment. The standing stones stood resplendent like teeth, their concrete foundations exposed like white gums. At the time they sat in a noisy landscape of construction, with the closest neighbour being a Mercedes car dealership, a Ballardian crash of epic proportions.
A year on, residential Sighthill is now growing slowly, although the stone circle remains (just) in glorious isolation. It still sits in a brownscape of mud amidst machines of construction, but it is slowly visually and metaphorically being lost in an urban skyline. Yet even now, driving west along the M8 into the city centre, the Sighthill’s second stone circle is a fantastic site / sight, emerging as it does on the horizon off to the left. A similar and wonderful view can be gained by the pedestrian by standing on Baird Street bridge over the motorway.
The stone circle is surely Glasgow’s Angel of the North, a great crown of stone on the horizon.
This photo essay (my rather grand description of what is basically a series of photographs) documents the time I was privileged to spend in and around the stone circle on 20th March 2019 thanks to a kind invitation from Duncan.
Oh, Edmund… can it be true? That I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest Green?
This post has two points of departure.
Firstly, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word bling in the context of prehistoric metalwork. This is a common enough trope used by archaeologists and the media. But is this really the correct word for how these objects functions in prehistory, or merely a characterisation of objects as being shiny, precious things – even if the objects in question were neither of these things in the Iron Age or Bronze Age?
Perhaps also there is an element of (inverted) snobbery here, of disparaging gratuitous wealth displays, and the appropriation of a word in mainstream discourse that would appear to be more at home in the urban dictionary. Take the case of the so-called Prittlewell Prince, whose early medieval grave was found in 2003 during road-widening in Southend: in the media and amongst archaeologists (from the Time Team to British Archaeology magazine) this individual became widely known as the King of Bling.
Secondly, I find almost all museums boring. Unless they are museums of weird things, or deeply strange, I am left cold by glass cases of inanimate objects, little text panels, maps, and assorted accompanying artwork and imagery. Museums of course can be deeply contested and problematic places, but for me I see them, usually, as reliquaries for cold dead things that we value today and see as representative which they may or may not be.
Museums confuse me with their fixed categories and compartmentalizations, their maze-like floorplans, the disorderly arrangement of things, the missing objects replaced by little loan cards, weird coffee, lockers with non-returnable coin slots, how much coinage to drop into the donations slot at the doorway. They are places of little stresses that I do not enjoy.
I realise how that both of my initial points of departure are contingencies related to the contemporary setting of the museum, that they exist to showcase prehistory (or whatever) in our own terms and not the terms of those who made the stuff (or whose bodies we display). They are places that for me have little sense of pastness, like big shops where nothing is for sale (except in the actual shop).
But on the other hand, as a recent visit I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford did remind me, museums can be fine repositories of urban prehistory. There are few places where urban prehistory exists in such a concentrated form, albeit it in a deeply fragmented and stylised arrangement. If you happen to want a hit of prehistory and are in a city or town, heading to the local museum is as good as a way as any to ensure that you your desire is fulfilled, your lust sated for the good stuff. Although I would argue that museum displays are really just a kind of methadone for prehistory addicts.
On the same weekend as I made my trip to the Ashmolean apres breakfast a conference was being held in Chester on the topic of The Public Archaeology of Treasure. This is one of a series of excellent student conferences organised by the tireless Prof Howard Williams of Chester University, some of which have resulted in publications including papers by students, and generously co-edited with students too. Howard has discussed the conference on several occasions on his brilliant Archaeodeath blog eg before the event and after.
The hashtags for this conference were / are #archbling and #blingarch and this is one of the things that I reflected upon as I sat on a lovely smooth wooden bench in the Ashmolean after failing to find a temporary exhibition of works by the artist Philip Guston that I was actually quite interested in visiting.
Because the European prehistory gallery that I had spent some time on at that point sure was full of bling, gratuitously so. But what intrigued me was how much of this bling was, er, green. Not gold, not silver, not even bronze, but green. Not always shiny, sometimes rather dull. And curiously the idea of green bling made a lot more sense to me because this opened up the category of bling to non-metallic materials. For instance, Neolithic jadeite polished stone axes, of the deepest green. Or wonderful ornate beads of glassy faience, in pale greens and turquoises.
Bling was on my mind for another reason as I pondered a vast wall of busts in the stairwell of the museum. That weekend I had been attending and participating in a continuing education conference on the topic of Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland: prehistoric and Roman. Organised by Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill, this is part of an epic series of conferences on historic matters. I was talking about cursus monuments of course.
Speakers used the word bling a lot over the course of the weekend. My notes for a great talk by the wonderful Dr Seren Griffiths showed that she used the phrase WEIRD BLING but I can’t recall the specific context.
On the Saturday evening, an excellent talk by the National Museum of Scotland’s all-knowing Dr Fraser Hunter on Iron Age stuff was frequently punctuated with the word bling, usually in relation to some shiny piece of metal like a carnyx, a torc, or a lunalae. (I am not confident about the correct singular or pluralisation of any of those words.)
Curiously my notes from Fraser’s talk included a sketch of a weird Iron Age spoon, and a pair of these caught my eye as I wondered about the European Prehistory gallery at the Ashmolean, taking in the sheer green-ness of it all.
The more time I spent in this gallery, the more green stuff I saw, in all sorts of shades, depths, tones, and materials. Lumps of malachite (nuggets of the purest green?), glassy beads, stone axes, torcs, axes, little metal things that I had no idea what they were, and the pair of bronze spoon-things. In fact it seemed to me that there was more green bling than gold bling or silver bling or even brown bling.
Obviously some of this stuff was not green back in the day. A chemical reaction has taken place. Metal corrodes to a coppery haze and loses its original colour over time. A lot of this stuff is green with age: unlike wood, here green does not depict youthfulness and flexibility. But quite a good deal of this stuff was green all along, with for instance the rich greenness of the stone azes brought to the fore by relentless polishing. Here green was the origin point, not the inevitable outcome. Green-ness was worth climbing the Alps for, perhaps even dying for.
And of course a lot of the bling found with the ‘King’ at Prittlewell had, with age, green-ed like this drinking horn fitting and hanging bowl.
My own experience of green bling came with the discovery of a dagger grave in a cist at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross, 2009. The first indication we had of the grave goods was a shaft of green poking from the beige cist floor, almost as if the dagger was a new growth, appropriate amidst a grave that contained rich evidence for Meadowsweet flowers (white bling). The dagger, once all the brown stuff had been cleaned from it, was revealed to be a wonderful green jagged shard of copper alloy with a whale tooth and gold pommel atop. Now, let’s not get started on whale bling.
So if we must use the word bling, and given the word has been used by the Howard Williams and Fraser Hunters of this world, then I guess we must, then let us at least rethink the parameters and temporality of what we mean. Let’s celebrate green bling, if nothing else because it is one of the most common forms in which urban prehistory appears to us, minty fresh, today.
Sources and acknowledgements: the quote that starts this blog post comes from the Blackadder Season 2 episode Money, and was, or course, uttered by Lord Percy.
I would also like to thank Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill for inviting me down to Oxford to take part in the conference.
Looking for Welbeck Street. Hunting for Henrietta House. At times walking and looking upwards. At other times with my nose buried in a map.
Following another tweet, sniffing out a lead, searching for prehistory where by rights there should be none and yet….
… this is London after all.
This tireless, relentless, obsessional quest for #urbanprehistory is driving me on beyond what is reasonable of a person with my other commitments.
And then I see it: the London cromlech. Suddenly it is all worthwhile.
On the corner of Welbeck Street and Henrietta Place, perched high above pavement level, surveying the steady flow of commuters, shoppers, doctors in this medical quarter of Marylebone. A place of bones. On Henrietta Place stands Henrietta House. On Henrietta House stands the cromlech.
Megalithic art on the corner quoins
Occult architecture across a from department store, a place of coins
The Debenhams dolmen
A structure of dark passages and concealed knowledge
rendered in four dimensions, all angles and shadows
having the feeling of being an optical illusion.
A stone joke not shared by those who pass beneath unaware
the view from below being as if from the underworld
and we are the dead.
The cromlech is perched, an iron on coffin legs
placed on a junction, a liminal place of decision-making
looming from its dizzy cliff, inaccessible, skeletal, timeless
representative of an impossible topography.
The cromlech is not alone. A remarkable series of buildings and structures are carved around the façade of Henrietta House in Portland limestone, the work of sculptor Keir Smith. They are from a commissioned series of sculptures he called From the Dark Cave which was completed in 1992. I traced the edge of this office block with my eyes, moving forward in time, sometimes recognising the well-spaced miniature stone architectural renderings of iconic buildings of Britain both real and stylised.
Fifteen buildings, from the dark cave, to Canary Wharf, hundreds of thousands of years of human occupation and endeavor.
The primitive hut twinned with the cromlech, wrapped around the corner
Temple, cave, pyramid, skyscraper, church
Watchtower and tolbooth
Castles and crenulations
Globes and domes
The phallic observatory
Machines of industry
Whimsy, fancy, folly
The Euston Arch
Hawksmoor (of course).
This work was commissioned by Lynton plc and Nationale-Nederlanden, and in part funded by the Public Arts Development Fund. The influences, process, and rationale, is captured in a rather tough to find short booklet entitled A sculpture for Henrietta House London W1, From the Dark Cave. The second part of the title is written, white on white.
My copy came in the post in an extravagantly stamped envelope.
The creative process involved the creation of a series of wooden maquettes in a specially established woodworking workshop. These are smaller scale versions of the final sculptural pieces which were made by cutting stone blocks with a diamond steel saw, ‘essentially stone constructions rather than pure carvings’.
As a whole, the buildings represent what Smith characterised as a ‘personalised history of architecture, or more properly of building’. Yet there was also a strong archaeological undercurrent in this work, acknowledged by Smith as a longterm preoccupation. In his obituary in The Guardian it was noted that ‘Art and architecture of the past, archaeology, mythology and landscape informed his early work’ and all of this and more is evident at Henrietta House. There is also a clear occult thread running through this work not least with the depiction of a pyramid that recalls the one in the cemetery of Hawksmoor’s church St Anne of Limehouse and his pyramid in the grounds of Castle Howard.
Of the cromlech itself, Smith notes the ongoing impact on his work of Paul Nash, of whom this carving is a ‘remembrance’ especially the 1937 lithograph Landscape of the megaliths, an Avebury masterpiece. The line of stones in this painting, a kinaesthetic avenue, has more curves and fewer angles compared with the Dark Cave series, but captures a similar processional, progressional, aesthetic in stone.
The cromlech is a composite creation, based both on an un-named megalith that Smith saw on a trip to St David’s in Pembrokeshire (= dolmen country) and Kits Coty House, a caged dolmen in Kent. That it is a fictionalised dolmen, composed of multiple sources of information, an every-cromlech, is no surprise. But Smith’s rendition has no cage, only the adjacent cave.
Here the Nash influence is at its most strong, and Smith has fabricated a fascinating facsimile of this mysterious monument. Unlike most other buildings in this series, this is a place of the dead, not the living.
What of the future of this artwork? This is a place of transformation. Scaffolding and fencing conceals from view some of the carvings, while men with high-vis jackets, hard hats, and cigarettes loiter in the shadow of the cromlech, observing my own curious behaviour, taking photographs, keeping notes, avoiding traffic.
This is not a quiet location. Close to Oxford Street, it offers the back view of big shops, the rear entrances, the underbelly of capitalism and pre-Christmas consuming.
Henrietta House is currently occupied by CBRE who appear to be a big international real estate corporation.
This transformational project will create an inspiring and energising workplace which promotes wellbeing, sustainability and productivity. Incorporating the latest in tech and office design, it will allow innovation and collaboration to thrive and will empower our teams to better serve our clients and to attract and retain the best talent.
A glance at the impression of the new look for the exterior of this building shows that Smith’s series of carved buildings will survive this regeneration. This can do no harm to the wellbeing of staff and visitors alike.
And CBRE do appear to like prehistory. They are the ‘Official Real Estate partners’ of the Tutankhamun: treasure of the golden pharaohs exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery (November 2019 to May 2020). This is King Tut on tour. This golden sponsorship deal reminds me of the Bloomburg curation of London’s Temple of Mithras which will be the subject of a future blog post. It would be nice to think that this ethos would encourage information about Smith’s work to be included at Henrietta House, as I am not sure if this is currently the situation.
Smith’s obituary says this of the Dark Cave series: These frontal sculptures were carved in deep relief, much bolder and more three-dimensional than the shallow carving that bas-relief allows. He employed geometric form and references to elements of his favourite buildings, whether significant or utilitarian. Who is to say which category we might assign to the cromlech?
The depiction of the dark cave, of the cromlech, of the primitive hut, represent an urban prehistoric triptych of unparalleled depth and complexity, and are well worth a visit if you are ever in the vicinity.
You won’t regret it.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Magnus Copps for drawing my attention to this cromlech, which I visited during a trip to the TAG conference at UCL in December 2019. A suitable end to the millennium. Quotes in the text either come from ‘the obituary’ (The Guardian, 3rd April 2007, by Ann Elliot) or ‘the catalogue’, which is the 1994 pamphlet From The Dark Cave – A Sculpture For Henrietta House London W1 by Keir Smith. The image of the maquettes is sourced from the Royal British Institute of Architects (RIBA). Finally, the Henrietta House re-imagined visualisation comes from the web page with this name linked to in the text above.
I am alone on the campus in the dark, testing the surfaces slippery with rain with care beneath my feet. The relentless Christmas rain.
Surrounded by formless buildings, contained by road and railway lines, deflated and lonely. Sheltering beneath the awning of a bus-stop even although at this time of evening no bus will pass.
On this Ballardian edgeland campus within which I am interned, I’m avoiding going back to my prison cell room, killing time, getting wet.
Working off school dinner turkey dinner, a damp squib cracker, the limp party hat, a lukewarm beer from the car boot of a well-known archaeologist.
Then I see the crannog.
It is a geometrical wonder. A square island – a platform – set within an asymmetrical pentagonal loch. A black pool of water, illuminated by a white streak, seasonal lights, street lamps, the mysterious tower glowing red nearby.
On this island grows a tree, in defiance of the urban coldness of its surroundings, the sterility of this ground, slick with University money.
Illuminated by uplights, dampened by downlights, cathode uppers and downers. I approach and then cross the bridge – the causeway – to the crannog. An t-Eilean – The Island.
The route across the eldritch dark water, the only way onto this island, is lit up blue, like a runway begging me to land. Except it is not land. The surface is lubricious with precipitation.
The square arena of the interior of the crannog is floored with fake wooden tumble, branches that never lived. Gaps in this crazed paving have filled with organic detritus, washed there by the wind and rain. Leaves, twigs, brush, pile. These cracks are fecund with the mechanism of pollination in an otherwise infertile place.
Amidst this inorganic floor, a sort of prehistoric linoleum, are set dazzling white lights that point to the sky, and neon strips.
For a while I am disorientated. Blinded by the light.
The tree was no illusion even although I fancied it was before I crossed the water. How could a living tree exist on this concrete island? Yet it lives although I could not determine how its roots were arranged or what this tree was growing from aside from a brown puddle of soil. It jutted through the floor of this crannog, a living tree that connected water with sky, only stopped from soaring away by its shackles and chains.
The walls of the crannog mixed materials and levels of porosity – cold concrete, dark metal, hard wood. Windows in the walls afforded views of the surrounding campus world, framing the blank canvas in this blank campus. The west side of the compound was a palisade of squared concrete posts, a defensive line.
Wet through with rain, salt-less tears on my face, I squatted over a hot white light and
An t-Eilean – The Island is an award winning installation within the UHI Inverness College campus by architect Lisa MacKenzie. She notes that the work offers a space for reflection in a public civic space. Key questions in the genesis of the work: How do we challenge the management of public spaces at an Institutional level to make landscapes that are real and enlivening? What are the principles that lie behind our encounters with public space and public art?
It was constructed by Applied Engineering Design (AED) at a cost of £325,000 in 2013. Their website notes that, it is an unique object in many ways: a gallery; an island and a bespoke structure/art object in its own right. They do not call it a crannog, but rather suggest it is an iconic structure….a surprise and a delight.
Ruaraidh MacNeil, HIE Inverness Campus project director, told the Press and Journal newspaper in January 2015: Our plan for Inverness Campus is to create a world-class setting for business, research and education. HIE has created a high quality built environment with interesting landscape, public realm and water features in order to help create global interest in Inverness and Highlands as a business location.
This interesting landscape, this University building site, this sterile edgeland…..
Lots of money, shiny buildings, iconic structures. The University of the future, wanting to appear embedded in the past in its architecture and the names it gives its buildings. But will its values, its principals, the ways staff and students are treated: will these also be in the spirit of the past, the traditions of Scotland’s Universities? Or will they succumb to a neoliberal fantasy that is so very un-crannog?
This installation is located a few hundred metres from, and on the other side of the A9 to, the Raigmore Neolithic monument reconstruction, the subject of a blog post of mine from 2014. Prehistory cannot be suppressed but it can be appropriated.
Acknowledgements: I was in Inverness to speak at a conference on the theme of Ruination and Decay, and would like to thank the organisers for inviting me, and accommodating me in this soulless campus. And now Rebecca and Antonia know why I disappeared and did not go to the pub with them that night!
Is there truly such a thing as the cursed archaeological discovery? Can old objects that are recovered have latent sinister properties contained by burial, only to be unleashed simply by being found? As an archaeologist I tend not to think about this too hard as my job involves trying to find old things that have been buried by accident or design. If I actually believed in curses my job would be that much more difficult. If curses were actually real then my life would be that much more difficult.
The curse is something of a trope in archaeology, and the object of jokey conversations on many excavations I have been on. I’ve been involved in rites carried out before excavations. I’ve seen ceremonies take place at the end of digs just as things are being covered up again. Different motivations underpinned these events, although I can’t say I took many of them that seriously.
Often we leave things behind on excavations, to be buried with the remnants of the site, from whisky bottles, to coins, to other things which are best left unsaid until after I am either retired or dead. These structured deposits mirror practices that we often find archaeological evidence for, but part of the motivation is also surely to put something back in compensation for what we have taken away.
Archaeologists are a superstitious-curious lot in general, but the famous curses we hear about are driven by popular culture. The most famous example being the ‘curse of the mummy’ or ‘curse of the pharaohs‘, part of a phenomenon that Jasmine Day called ‘mummymania‘. This dates back to the nineteenth century (BC), very much a Victorian concoction, as John J Johnston, and others, have noted.
Yet there seems something strangely illogical about the whole concept of ‘the curse of Tutankhamen’ where a whole bunch of people apparently died, some of whom were old, and others bitten by insects in hot sweaty places (I don’t mean armpits). A dog was heard to howl. All of this over a fairly extended period of time. It is the archaeological equivalent of the ‘curse of Dad’s Army’, where old people playing the parts of old men died within a decade or two of the show being made. It is reminds of me of an amusing running joke in Private Eye where aged celebrities who make it as far as their tenth decade eventually die and join the ’94 club’.
Mummy curses largely belong to the popular culture of films, books, and computer games. But underlying them are real archaeological discoveries (albeit it often found under questionable colonial circumstances) including, lest we forget, dead bodies. Regardless of what happened to their guts and brains post-mortem.
What of another, slightly less famous archaeological curse, that associated with the celebrated Hexham Heads. This is the third is a series of four blogs I am writing on these little buggers, having already explored their discovery, scientific analysis, supernatural associations, and their mysterious disappearance in part 1 and part 2. Some who handled and possessed these objects between 1971 and 1978 believed them to be cursed.
In this third installment, I want to report on my own engagements with the story of the Heads. Nothing original, all that I have done has been done before by others, but I wanted to bring an archaeological sensibility to the process, in part in preparation for a paper I am working on around the topic of cursed material culture. Here, then, I’ll report on my brief chats with archaeologists who were around the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities and archaeology department in the 1970s, some archive research, and finally my cursed fieldwork to the place where the Heads were found.
As of yet, there have been no werewolf (or weresheep) incidents at my home. As of yet.
The archaeology of the Hexham Heads
For the time being, let’s treat the Hexham Heads as a pair of archaeological artefacts. What can we say about them?
They form a small assemblage of archaeological material, both of similar enough form to suggest some kind of typological relationship. They are two spherical objects made of stone-like material, and carved with roughly human physiognomy.
The circumstances of discovery is well documented although of questionable reliability. They were found during an impromptu ‘excavation’ in a suburban back garden by two children in 1971 and thus could be said to have no secure context, but some sort of provenance. They were quickly handed in to the authorities by the finders, and spent a period of time in the care of museum experts and academics, during which they underwent various episodes of invasive sampling. The results of these investigations were contradictory, and during the period of analysis, competing claims about the manufacture and taphonomy of the Heads were made in the media. Nonetheless Dr Anne Ross had the Heads drawn, and they were duly published in a paper on Celtic heads in the journal Archaeoligia Aeliana (with that illustration reproduced in full above). This paper acknowledged the problematic nature of these heads in terms of where they came from and when they were made.
Anne Ross had published on this general topic before, and it could be argued was pre-disposed to be credulous where the Hexham Heads were concerned.
Somehow the Heads ended up being taken to Southampton University, where some of the aforementioned analysis took place. The Heads were then passed onto a scientist, Don Robins, for further investigation of a non-conventional manner. Once this private research was concluded, the Heads subsequently went missing after they came into the possession of a psychic in 1978.
During this period, the Heads were connected to a series of paranormal events.
What happened to them while they were in the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities in the early 1970s? I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to, and correspond, with an archaeologist who dealt with the Heads during this period, Roger Miket.
Despite being photographed by the media in 1974 (really? not sure about the timeline here) clutching the Heads, Roger has little memory of them. (This photo was taken before the Heads were apparently passed back to the Robson family, the finders, see archive discussion below.) Miket did have access to them for a while, and also visited Rede Avenue to see where they were found. For at least some of the period between 1971 and 1974, the Heads were in the keeping of Anne Ross and so not always in Newcastle. Roger concluded, “I was personally very skeptical of the stories attached to them, and never felt anything of a mysterious nature, and certainly not anything malevolent.”
Another archaeologist who was around the Museum and archaeology department in the 1970s is Lindsay Allison-Jones, although she personally did not actually handle or even see them. She told me however that some time later she emailed the (now defunct?) band The Hexham Heads about why they chose that name which suggests a lingering curiosity if nothing else.
Paul Screeton carried out a more extensive interview with Allison with excerpts in his 2012 book The quest for the Hexham Heads.
Digging into the archives
Both Roger and Lindsay suggested I contact Andrew Parkin at the Great North Museum, Newcastle, which now has the archives of the old museum of Antiquities. He kindly scanned and sent me everything in their files appertaining to the Hexham Heads. This file has in the past (I presume) been consulted by Paul Screeton, who reproduced various letters and newsclippings I was sent in Quest for the Hexham Heads.
The documents in this file include a series of 20 letters, notes, and memos, documenting back and forth between the museum staff, academics, the finders of the Heads (the Robsons) and the alleged maker of the heads (Des Craigie). Correspondence includes letters to, or from, Roger Miket, Anne Ross, David Smith (museum director), and DA Robson, one of the scientists who examined the little rascals. Theses documents cover the period 29th October 1971 to 8th April 1975.
Also included were two newsclipping from 1972 (from the Evening Chronicle and Journal) and two Fortean Times articles from 2012, the latter suggesting that the file was at least at that point in time being actively maintained.
Other ephemera include the original version of the Screeton book (Tales of the Hexham Heads) as 10 pdfs, although you can now download this as one convenient pdf from the Hexham Heads blog. A copy of a book section in some kind of mysteries encyclopedia where H is for HH was also appended.
Finally, two key analytical reports were in the file: the pivotal one by DA Robson which argues that the Heads were made of cement, and a more credulous earlier summary written by F Hodson in 1972 that suggested a geological origin for the material that the Heads were made from. Both are discussed in my previous blog post on this matter and are in the public domain.
The earliest letter is the first communication sent to Anne Ross, in other words the first she would have heard about the discovery of the Heads. The letter, from Miket, ends with a handwritten note that the Heads were packed and sent, presumably to Ross, on 25th November 1971.
Also of note in the file, is a letter from Mrs Robson in March 1975 asking for the Heads to be returned to her sons, as they were keen to have them back. The Museum had been keen to return them for some time, having concluded that they were of modern origin. The following month, a letter was sent by David Smith to Des Craigie saying tests had concluded, the Heads had been returned to the Robsons, and that the file was now closed. Typical of the confusion and coincidence that hovers around the Hexham Heads like bees around the Candyman is the note in the letter about the Robson family and analysis by Dr Robson.
What happened next? The archive trail stops here and further confusion has been sown by the above letter. Screeton notes that the Heads were indeed returned to the Robson’s via Prospect House, Hexham (Quest, pg 75). There are still some dots to be joined here however because Screeton also notes that in 1977 Anne Ross said that the Heads were in Southampton with one of the geologists who had sampled them two years earlier and that they had been in a box there for years. Don Robins (not Robson, do keep up!) got his hands on them on 21st September of that year (pg 82) and the rest, as they say, is mystery.
The contradictory nature of historical records is not unusual, and suggests actions and words were not necessarily aligned in this paper trail. There is no way to resolve how the Heads were both in Newcastle being returned to the Robsons while at the same time were in a box in Southampton.
The complex timeline of the movement of the Heads between 1975 and 1978 is captured nicely in the Hexham Heads blog in a tour de force of parallel alternative histories. Four possible sequences of possession are postulated, depending on when the Heads were actually made, and what happened in the pivotal spring of 1975 when the Heads had their Sliding Doors moment. This is ‘Sequence 2’ which presupposes the Heads were indeed genuine ancient objects found by the Robsons and ended up in Southampton, never being returned to the family.
“Sequence 2 (the chain begins at the top and each name passes to the name underneath, [being the handiwork of James Fisher])
Colin and Leslie Robson
Professor Richard Bailey
Dr Douglas Robson
All of this begs the question as to how many heads there actually were, and which variants Don Robins / the Robsons were actually given…
There seem to have been a lot of Heads knocking about at this time. Des Craigie, when attempting to demonstrate he made these little ugly objects knocked one up for the media. Newsclippings in the Hexham Heads file include this story dated to 3rd March 1972, from The Evening Chronicle, with the wonderful headline ‘Terror from the Celtic mists’.
The story tells of Ann [sic] Ross’s plans to excavate in the garden at Rede Avenue, it being a possible ‘Celtic burial ground’. Ross makes a direct connection between the presence of such a shrine and the supernatural. Here also the story notes that Colin Robson had been making creepy clay heads at school before his big discovery. Occam’s razor and all that…
The same claim is made in the above cutting, also in the collection, from the Journal at the same time.
As archaeological objects, the Hexham Heads pose more questions than they provide answers. Their origin, discovery method, materiality, chain of ownership, and current whereabouts are unclear. Frankly this is all a bit suspicious if we are to regard these as anything other than modern curios. There are issues of authenticity, honesty, and motivation, that all render these deeply problematic objects. And that is before the curse is taken into consideration.
If Anne Ross planned fieldwork, then perhaps so should I, although excavation seemed a bit over the top.
I first tried to document a visit to Rede Avenue back in March 2013. On a fieldtrip with Honours students to northern England, I left the team at Hexham Abbey and briskly walked the 15 minutes or so it took to get to the house where the Heads had been found 40 years earlier. After a detour to a nice toilet in M&S I headed through a car park, up some stairs, and walked the few minutes towards the familiar house, number 3. There followed some discrete photography of the house and street signs, and some careful peering through a hedgerow into the back garden where the Heads were found.
On my walk back to meet up with the students, I went down a very narrow alley connecting a car park with Priestpopple (an actual street name) past some warehouses. Daubed on one wall was a cartoonish round face, a head looking back at me in Hexham. A coincidence?
I met the students at The Grapes pub. This establishment features in Paul Screeton’s book about the Hexham Heads because apparently it is haunted. He featured a salacious story about the ghost’s nefarious activities.
On the occasion of that visit, no hauntings or further incidents occurred, and I had a pleasant pint in the shadow of a slot machine, possibly one of those ones with the head of Noel Edmonds on it, glaring out with Iron Age inscrutability. Then we decamped and headed onto some Roman site nearby.
A few years later when I was starting to blog about the Heads, I went back to my archives and could not find any photos from this visit. I had the photos of the abbey visit itself and the Roman site afterwards, but the Rede Avenue images were missing. Cursed!
It took me six years to make it back. In the area to make some mediocre Neolithic-style pottery with Potted History Graham Taylor, I decided to take the chance and make the pilgrimage again although this time Jan came with me to take the photos. I wasn’t taking any chances this time. Especially as I had forgotten a power cable for my phone and so I could not take any pics. Even then it took ten months to retrieve the photos from the visit from the cloud, a ghostly disembodied repository.
We headed up the alleyway but the graffiti was gone, replaced by one of those muddy brown rectangles that are frequently painted over such daubings. Through the retail car park we passed (which was not pedestrian friendly lacking a pavement) and up the set of stairs out onto Wanless Lane / Loan. In turn we wound up a slight gradient to Rede Avenue. This is Hexham Head country.
We sidled up to the semi-detached house at the western end of the street, standing at the end of the drive-way. Some photos were taken of the house and surrounds, and no-one seems to have been around, or looking out through one of the many windows on the property.
As with my first visit, my only sense of unease related to lurking outside someone’s house and taking pictures of it. We looked at the back garden from whence the Heads came. But this did not feel like a cursed place to me. It had no real sense of pastness, which I do sometimes pick up when working at prehistoric sites. But in itself this is probably wishful thinking.
The end of my quest for the Hexham Heads was a disappointment, but then I think those particular objects retain a sense of mystery only when we don’t look at them too closely. Expose them to the harsh light of scrutiny, or stare directly at them, and their power withers and they become, well, frankly a bit ridiculous.
We retreated to a Wetherspoons in town that is a converted old cinema, which I must say has very spacious toilets.
A few months later we returned to Hexham, this time to see the Abbey, which had been closed in our earlier visit, which had me cursing at the time. Inside, we saw more heads, this time carvings on wooden benches, misericordia, and a fine series of stone carved figures along the side of the tomb of Rowland Leschman, Prior of the Abbey in the 1480s.
Screeton spends a lot of time looking at heads in the abbey and trying to find rude sculptures, but of course they have nothing to do with the Rede Avenue Heads. Quite a few places here did remind me though of the BBC adaptation of The stalls of Barchester.…
Heads are everywhere in Hexham. Painted heads. Wooden heads. Stone heads. Pints with great big foamy heads. Cursed heads. They should call the place Headsxham.
Do I feel cursed now that I have excavated those stone rows in Caithness, or disturbed a few prehistoric burials in my time? Have I brought certain doom and bad luck upon myself because I have reduced the Heads to archaeological objects? Should I be looking over my shoulder for mummies, were-sheep, or the ghosts of monks, or Dad’s Army cast member zombies?
Not really. I don’t look over my shoulder. Perhaps I dare not.
I have visited Rede Avenue twice, in my hunt for the tale of the Heads. Not the truth you understand. Just the story. The place. Suburbia. Mundanity coloured by an explosion of supernatural energy. Five minutes’ walk from Marks and Spencers. Ten minutes’ stroll from haunted pub The Grapes. Not much further on to ‘spoons and the Abbey. Something undeniably weird happened here almost 40 years ago……
Head hunting has its pleasures, and one of the things that strikes me as most fascinating about the HHs is that, despite their loss and uncertain origins, they have never been more accessible, more visible, more written, and spoken about. A new lease of life has been afforded the Heads as generation haunters, and this will be the subject of my final forthcoming post on this bestial pair of spheres.
Sources and acknowledgements: many thanks to Lindsay Allison-Jones, Andrew Parkin, and Roger Miket, for their help with filling in some of the archaeological and archival background. Many thanks to Jan for taking the Rede Avenue pictures in this post. Other images have been credited as appropriate in the text or below those pictures. I have never been in touch with Paul Screeton (I don’t think he likes archaeologists all that much) but I owe a debt to his book and several images that have been reproduced in this post. Information about the Leschman Screen at Hexham Abbey came from the abbey webpages. Finally, thanks to James Fisher, custodian of the Hexham Heads blog, for his help, and making material about them available freely and for all who dare to care.
It only took
a tweet to confirm what I had long suspected.
Stonehengism isn’t just a problem for archaeologists. It is a social problem too. It is not just us – archaeologists – that seem to be obsessed with Stonehenge.
Despite being relatively well known amongst a certain select audience as someone who has, let’s just say, reservations, about the amount of time and attention focused on Stonehenge, the most popular things I do always seem to be about the fun or even positive aspects of Stonehenge.
My most liked blog post dates back over five years – and I can’t help feel that the visual focus and passing mention of Stonehenge in relation to it’s brutal look and feel attracted 220 ‘likes’, several pingbacks, and literally hundreds of new followers of the blog in the space of a week.
And so it has happened again, this time with a tweet. Posted on the evening of Friday 16th November 2019, it was an innocuous suggestion that twitter-users play a game which I called #StonehengeAnything
By any stretch of imagination compared to my usual social media track record, this went mental. Over an intense 72 hour period I struggled to keep up with all replies to my initial tweet, those using the hashtag for the game, and replies to others who retweeted the tweet, including a big signal boost from Alice Roberts and Sarah Parcak, who both played along as well.
As of the evening of 19th November, impressions and interactions were off the scale for what I normally achieve, plus I probably picked up over 50 new followers.
I added some variants as we went along, such as #StonehengeYourself. I also introduced the concept of a #StonehengeWhack – a noun that when matched with Stonehenge simply produces google images of Stonehenge with no added weirdness. This was based on an idea that comedian Dave Gorman popularised a few years ago, Googlewhack, “a contest for finding a Google search query consisting of exactly two words without quotation marks that returns exactly one hit” (wikipedia).
What prompted this? In part it was due to some research I have been doing with Gordon Barclay for a paper we are working on related to late Neolithic studies and Neo-colonial geographies. I was doing a lot of Stonehenge-this and Stonehenge-that searching online to follow up various lines of inquiry, and some of these got a bit silly. Then I realised that no matter how silly things got, I still seemed to get a directly related image.
Photos of the real Stonehenge with things in the foreground. Photoshopped images of Stonehenge added to things, or things added to Stonehenge. Stonehenge corporate branding. Stonehenge merch. Trilithons made of all sorts of weird and wonderful materials. Things that someone thought looked a bit like Stonehenge. Stonehenge memes. Cartoons of Stonehenge. Relentless bloody Stonehenge. And some deeply weird combinations.
But I had something else in mind. In his excellent 1999 book Metaphor and Material Culture, Chris Tilley included an essay which I have always loved (and believe me I don’t love everything he writes) on the genealogy and usage of the word megalith. The essay ‘Frozen Metaphor: megaliths in text’ is a gloriously granular exploration of how rigid adherence to archaeological vocabulary constrains interpretations. The legacy of the weird faux-Latin word megalith has been one of reductionism, leading to a narrow range of pre-figured interpretations of things we call megalith.
This was a study in archaeological banality. Tilley writes this about the word megalith but he might as well have been writing about Stonehenge: “The term creates a particular form of discourse and – such is its power – there appears to be an inability to reinscribe the past in a fresh manner” (1999, 83).
One of the things that Tilley explored in relation to text was words that were combined with megalith. He noted common matches in the archaeological literature: words related to burial, monumentality, ritual. Then, he did a curious thing which exposed the banality of our discourse and the inadequacy of our vocabulary: he created Table 3.3. Drum roll please.
It is no coincidence that in my initial series of #StonehengeAnything tweets, I included Stonehenge Volvo.
Tilley noted: Bearing in mind what the word megalith actually means ie ‘big stone’, why is it that we might laugh at megalithic (big stone) vegetable when it is apparently quite normal and unproblematic to refer to big stone evolution, big stone people, big stone territories, big stone rituals, etc?
And so, Stonehenge has been rendered banal through its ubiquity. Stonehenge limits and constrains our discourse as a word, concept, and image. Why is Stonehenge Ritual any less – or more – nonsensical than Stonehenge Whiskey and Coke? Why do we have to accept Stonehenge Age but laugh at Stonehenge Marmite?
The ubiquity of Stonehenge is something that has been playing on my mind for a while. And not just in terms of the disproportionate amounts of intellect, money, and time spent on the archaeology of this monument and its surrounding landscape. I have also been concerned about the dominance of Stonehenge in the public imagination when it comes to British prehistory (not even just the Neolithic period). For many people Stonehenge is British / English prehistory.
For some Stonehenge is a political symbol of Britishness / Englishness, which is deeply problematic, and in some senses is enabled by the ways that archaeologists fetishise this place, and probably not helped by its pop culture aesthetic.
This ubiquity comes in many forms. For instance, the coverage of Stonehenge in Britain’s popular archaeology magazine, British Archaeology, is remarkable in its quantity and depth in comparison to any other site, never mind any other Neolithic site. (The only story that came close to competing in the last decade was the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III.) To quantify this, I considered the front page, the main selling point of this magazine in shops and online, to be representative of the main stories and headlines contained within each edition. I looked at every cover of this magazine published between November 2003 and May-June 2017 (83 editions in all). A remarkable 11% of these editions had as the main front cover feature Stonehenge. On seven occasions, Stonehenge was the cover feature two editions in a row.
In the same period, only one other Neolithic site was afforded cover story prominence (0.13%), and this was the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, the other dominant pole of British Neolithic studies.
Internal content shows an even stronger bias towards Stonehenge, with at least 29% of the issues containing an article about Stonehenge. A few stories were about Durrington Walls which is gradually adopting the role of ‘the place where the Stonehenge builders lived’ in the literature. For this dataset, I only focused on articles mentioned on the front cover of the magazine, and it is likely this underplays the true level of Stonehenge content. News stories about Stonehenge are commonplace and are not included in these figures. Only five other British Neolithic sites were mentioned on the front cover of any of these 83 magazines, and three of these are in Wessex (Avebury, Silbury Hill, Dorset excavations the name of which currently escapes me….).
I am not being critical of the editor across this period, Mike Pitts. He clearly knows his audience! And I have not looked at this for a few years so the balance may well have shifted.
Stonehenge ubiquity is therefore reflected in archaeology the discipline, and academic and popular publications. And it seems a vast array of other walks of life.
Did you know, for instance, that there are over 80 replica and fake Stonehenges around the world today, lovingly documented by the wonderful Clonehenge blog.
This is where #StonehengeAnything comes in.
I analysed 319 tweets that used the hashtag #StonehengeAnything or replied to a thread prompted by my initial tweet, over the period of 72 hours from evening of 15th to 18th November 2019. I may have missed some, and this data does not include some random latecomers to the party since that period so apologies if your bizarre suggestion is not reflected here.
I divided the Anything part of equation (Stonehenge being the recurrent ‘anchor’ word) into a series of rather arbitrary categories, with ‘Other’ capturing a miscellaneous assortment of things. So for instance Stonehenge Underpants was filed under clothing, Stonehenge Monty Python under popular culture. In some cases I had to guess what the tweeter had initially searched under. In other cases, searches produced unpredictable results eg Stonehenge Pineapple brought up Liver Salt tablets. Stonehenge Idiot produced a fabricated picture of Nigel Farage with Stonehenge behind him. (Hang on, is that really that unpredictable?)
In other words, this is dirty data.
The most popular connections were food, animals, and then household and garden items. The two most popular individual searches were Stonehenge Breakfast and Stonehenge Cheese. An image of a cat apparently taking a selfie was the individual image I saw most, four times.
As Chris Tilley found, combining an over-familiar archaeological word with a random noun is surprisingly powerful. The Bodily Matters category especially so in a sort of David Cronenberg way.
There was a focus on horror themes and professions which overlapped to an extent. Is a vampire a profession? What about a pirate? Astronaut is more cut and dry. Thus are the pitfalls of classification.
There were a range of #StonehengeWhacks, combinations so obscure that no-one anywhere in the world had thought to create or fabricate an image to fit this bill. Examples included Swingball, Finch, Vaccine, Turtle, Circus, Aardwark, Parrot, Rockabilly, Radiator, Japan, Wallaby, Covfefe, Pigeon, Narwhal and – surprisingly – Gorilla. (Stonehenge Monkey did work.) I am sure there are many more examples, and on balance I would imagine that searches that did not work were less likely to be tweeted than ones that did work. I failed with Stonehenge Two Ronnies for instance. But even as I write, someone might be messing about with a picture of a tapir at Stonehenge.
I think however that #StonehengeAnything works about 95% of the time.
One curious footnote to this searching frenzy was the identification of a series of weird cartoons, all of which are stock images for sale, using the same Stonehenge background. These are produced by VectorToons, all sell for 20 dollars a pop minus the watermark, and feature a foreground element and eccentric caption. I assume these are generated by a bot.
The example above, one option which is found searching for Stonehenge Vampire, includes some additional detail. Cartoon image of an immortal man, with graying hair, wearing a black coattail tux with pointed collar, red bow tie, white shirt and socks, black shoes, oversized head with pointed nose, ears and red eyes looking onto his right, lips sealed in a smirk showing his fangs.
Stan Sagrott @archaeostef tweeted that there are 102 pages of these, and with 32 per page, this means that there are something like 3264 variants on this! I have not had time to crunch the numbers on this but a lot of them are animals, often in anthropomorphic situations (eg a cat using a laptop in front of Stonehenge).
This one is confusing because it is not even a pirate, it is someone dressed as a pirate. Stonehenge Fancy Dress? Stonehenge Accountant letting his hair down?
The rather simple and elegant description for this one is: A regular cockroach with brown outer wings, six legs, and two antennae.
Each of these cartoons has the same Stonehenge information: A mysterious landmark in England, made of large boulders of rocks forming a circle, on a green grassy area. I’ve read worse descriptions.
Talking of Cock-Roaches, one of my favourites was #Stonehenge Ken Barlow, submitted for consideration by @vopiscus_bm.
Finally, it is worth noting how complicit English Heritage are in all of this. A lot of the results eg Stonehenge jumper, Stonehenge Ginger Wine, were merchandise that they market and sell. There are literally hundreds of products with a Stonehenge angle in their online shop, up to a piece of jewellery costing £1250.
As Aaron Watson preciently wrote in 2004, the word HengeTM had become in archaeology, through over-use, a brand. And so it is for StonehengeTM: the brand.
Stonehenge can be lots of silly things. Why this is the case is not easy to work out. There is of course something iconic about this monument? Where else has pictorial images with the Rolling Stones, God, Alice Roberts, St Patrick and Zombies. What other stone circle has been drawn by Vic Reeves? Which other monument was one of the stars of This is Spinal Tap?
But Stonehenge can be serious things as well. A World Heritage Site. A symbol. A synedoche. A metaphor. A noun, a verb, an adjective. It is a period of time, it is a cultural tradition. It is a phenomenon.
But does it also represent a narrowness of focus, a constraint on our imagination, a failure of archaeologists to lead us all beyond the shadow of an enormous, grey, looming trilithon?
Tilley concluded his essay by writing, Is it useful for us now to start to cross the word out in our texts, in a classic Derridean move, and accept that megaliths do not exist, while realising they will almost certainly continue to do so?
For megalith, replace Stonehenge.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to everyone who tweeted, retweeted and joined in the fun.
In this post I have referred to a couple of essays:
Tilley, C 1999 Frozen metaphor: megaliths in text. From Metaphor and Material culture (Oxford: Blackwell), pages 82-101
Watson, A 2004 Monuments that made the world: performing the henge. From Rosamund Cleal and Josh Pollard’s edited volume Monuments and material culture (Hobnob Press), pages 83-97.