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.
There can’t be much left to write about the London Stone, an urban megalithic curio that The Guardian newspaper called a ‘psychogeographer’s landmark’. This strange roughly cuboid limestone block, located at 111 Cannon Street in London for at least half a millennium, may well be a solid lump of stone but it consists more of myth than molecule.
There are so many legends associated with this roughed-up beige 76 kg stone block that it strikes me as weird that it has consistently been located in such an un-legendary location. Although in the past the the London Stone has by historical accounts been set into the wall of the former St Swithen’s Church, it has also in more recent times been contained by a rather crappy cage in the wall of a WH Smiths and before that a Sportec sports shop and even The Bank of China. This was after a near miss during the Blitz.
There is little point in rehearsing the many stories associated with the origins, meaning and biography of the London Stone. There is such a depth of lore about this object that I am sure that it deserves more than the one or two paragraphs afforded in most books about London; certainly, a lack of time permitted me researching this as rigorously as I would have liked.
For the time being, to cut to the urban prehistoric chase, let’s focus on how old the LS actually might be. Peter Ackroyd (London: the biography, 2001), suggests that it, ‘is of great antiquity’, but ‘as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to survive from prehistoric times’. Two pages tell the story of the Stone in John Matthews and Caroline Wise’s The Secret Lore of London (2016); they describe is a ‘worn stump’ and a ‘geomantic mark-stone’ of, at oldest, Roman origin.
In The Stones of London (2012) Lee Hollis suggests that the London Stone may be little more than a Roman gatepost that has taken on all sorts of myths and legends depending on the political needs of those who told those stories. Ed Glinert (The London Compendium, 2004) calls the Stone a ‘totem for the city’s safety’ which has prehistoric overtones, but more broadly draws on myths about the Stone not being removed from the city. And so on. Each account draws on the same pool of lore, include lots of secondary referencing, and indicate the limitations of the historical text as a source as authors attempt to peer back into the murky mists of time.
There is much that could be done from an archaeological perspective to add to the already-colourful story of the London Stone. There have been various different reliquaries that have held the LS, and this would be an interesting line of investigation both in terms of the form but also materiality of these cages and boxes, as well as telling us something about how people engaged with and interacted with the Stone, and what levels of control were exercised over that engagement.
Or perhaps a mapping exercise could be undertaken, considering the various different locations that the London Stone has been placed, on both sides of the street and with slight variation, and other possible places of repose. The location of the Stone vertically might also be traced, with pavement level and higher in the church wall just two variations. Again, how people encountered the London Stone and spatially where it was located might shed light on its social role, and this includes the bodily inclination needed to view the monolith: looking down or peering up.
The stone itself could (and I’m being fanciful here but what the heck) be the object of scientific study, with techniques such as XRF and Ramon Spectroscopy able to discover paint, blood, sweat, tears and semen stains (OK, maybe not the latter, that would need a CSI-style UV light source…). Use-wear analysis would be able to (theoretically) shed light on the exact metallurgical properties of the sword that was used to strike the London Stone by rebel leader Jack Cade in 1450 (but not what he had for breakfast that day).
It is interesting how many old drawings of the stone focus on the detail of the container and not the stone, which more often than not seems to be a shapeless lump. This is perhaps because geometrically this thing is a shapeless lump. The Mail Online described it as looking like, ‘a large piece of leftover masonry’. So a 3D model of the stone would be nice so capture its slightly strange shape and rough surface, and might shed light in the mechanism of the breakage of the stone (it may once have been larger), as well as highlight historic damage and carvings.
Indeed, after I had written these words, I found out that such a scan has indeed been undertaken by Europac 3D. This laser scan, undertaken to sub 1mm resolution, was done using Arctic Space Spider which sounds like something from a John Carpenter film but probably isn’t. Interestingly, this ‘revealed several man-made carvings, one of which is believed to have been made when Jack Cade entered London’ although I think that one was already visible with the naked eye. I think full results are yet to be published, but at last the Stone can be viewed as something other than a blurry block in a photo or as an etching of a blob in a box (see below).
The London Stone, as it happens, recently spent a couple of years in the capable hands of the Museum of London’s archaeologists, and they undertook some conservation work on the Stone as well as putting the thing on display with a lovely purple background in their museum (and getting the aforementioned scan done).
One of the key areas of their presentation of the stone to the public was some myth-busting, and blimey there are lots of myths and stories attached to this object that they wanted to bust.
Myth number 1 that they ‘bust’ was: It has stood in London since prehistoric times and Myth number 2: It was an ancient altar used for Druidic sacrifices. Both of these centre on the suggestion that the LS is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric stone or even a broken standing stone. However, MOLA question the urban prehistory credentials of this rock, and thus by extension the legitimacy of this blog post. In fact neither myth is really busted, but rather some of the historical biography of the London Stone cited, with the underlying suggestion that there is simply no evidence that this was ever part of a prehistoric monument. They push is back possibly to Saxon or Viking times, maybe even Roman, but no earlier.
Assumed by some authors such as John Strype and William Blake to be a pagan stone, in fact this had no basis in fact and simply confirmed their own romantic proto-druid mythologizing, captured in this stansa from Blake’s Jerusalem:
Where Albion slept beneath the Fatal Tree, And the Druids’ golden Knife Rioted in human gore, In Offerings of Human Life… They groan’d aloud on London Stone, They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook…
Finally, MOLA get to the point and conclude: “There is no evidence for this, and London Stone, whatever its purpose, was certainly not erected before the Roman period.” Boo.
That’s fine, and also true. There is no evidence that the London Stone is prehistoric in origin. But does this matter? Some in the past have believed it to be the case, and some still do. The prehistoric credentials of this stone are nothing to do with reality, but perception, and this is often the way with odd megaliths and other urban prehistoric miscellany. We might as well ask: how old is a piece of stone? Because the fact that the London Stone is an oolitic limestone means that it is very old, dating to before 1,000,000 BC. It depends on how one frames the question.
Visiting the London Stone today seems to me a legitimate exercise in prehistoric speculation now that it has been re-instated in a new shrine on the former WH Smith site, still 111 Cannon Street.
The Stone has only been back in its old location for a few months, although now the weird cage has been replaced with a glossy shiny glass-fronted display box. This reliquary appears to be a throwback retro design referencing older versions of the container for the Stone, some of which are pictured earlier in this post.
Two black plaques sit on either side, one of which explains that we know bugger all about the London Stone, while the other says the same thing in braille (I assume).
The right-hand information panel begins with a malformed tripartite sentence.
Above the ceremonial repository, there is a simple bookplate inscription saying LONDON STONE and this appears to be part of a limestone facade of the fancy new building, thus mimicking the materiality of old Stoney itself. Has the architectural design for this glassy building been designed with the LS in mind?
This has replaced the crappy but endearing WH Smith context of yore, and the new mini-high rise building is rather more glassy and glamorous. The London Stone has clearly gone upmarket. This is certainly a gentrification from its earlier status, described by Ackroyd as, ‘blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare‘. Nonetheless, the latter part of this statement remains true.
The glassy nature of the building within which the LS is now encased affords views behind the Stone, a glimpse that was not within the gift of the stationer WH Smith. Here, disappointingly, the oolitic lump appears to be concealed behind a wall of mdf, although there is the hint of a small panel that might be removable with a smuggled screwdriver once this establishment opens for business, whatever that business might be.
Observing those walking past the London Stone suggests that this is, at worst, of no interest, or at best, an over-familiar landmark, as few pedestrians paused to pay their respects. The noticeboard detained a few men with suits for a minute or two, while a woman with a pram did look at it as she perambulated past.
I got the sense that this is a lonely Stone as I lurked in the area for far too long. This is perhaps why this geological curio literally engaged me in a short twitter conversation, expressing the surprising and hitherto un-expressed desire to be called Kevin. I duly obliged, walking past and affording LS this new moniker with a jolly shout of ‘hello Kevin’, although as yet this new persona has not been adopted widely.
Shall we ever get to the truth of it? No, of course not. And why should that matter? When we ask ‘how long is a piece of string’ we don’t expect a factual, empirical answer. The London Stone’s prehistoric credentials are not in doubt as far as I am concerned, elements of a story long told, whether that be the one about it being a broken standing stone or having served as a druid altar or some other sacred megalith of yore.
It doesn’t matter how old the London Stone is: we only need believe it to be so. This is rich narrative, a stone that does not roll but has gathered spiritual moss. As AD Cochrane has noted, ‘Down the centuries a parade of charlatans, poets, modern psychogeographic writers, alchemists, historians and eccentric clergymen have enriched the mythology of London Stone‘. If this isn’t prehistory, I don’t know what is.
There is one source that I was able to find that suggested that this misshapen hunk of rock was once part of a prehistoric monument. In a review of the former London Stone Pub (107 Cannon Street) a contributor to the website ‘Fancy a Pint.com‘ suggests that the Stone was, ‘possibly part of an ancient stone circle’. The same review also suggests that the pub contained, ‘gargoyles, cocktails in test tubes and other assorted horror ephemera’ so perhaps it is for the best that it closed a couple of years ago, to be replaced by The Cannick Taps.
Rare views inside the London Stone pub, which appears to have been a gothic extravaganza of poor taste, suggest decor that mimicked the grey metal cage that enclosed the Stone until fairly recently. Bad art imitates poor cage.
How old is this piece of stone? Who cares.
The London Stone is as the London Stone does. LS if you are into the whole brevity thing.
The London Stone abides.
Sources and acknowledgements: if you want to find out more about the London Stone, ask it questions on twitter via @thelondonstone – it / Kevin might answer back.
Isn’t is about time we started to mark the locations of prehistoric sites and discoveries in ways that are visible, informative and accessible to local communities and visitors?
It is factually correct to state that the presence of prehistory in your village, town, suburb and city is not a secret. There are online platforms that can tell you this, such as Canmore in Scotland and Coflein in Wales. However, the information contained in these national (and equivalent regional) databases is encoded in archaeological terminology, while site entries often lack detail, depth and / or images to make the information more accessible to a curious member of the public. They are also portals that currently do not work well on smart phones and depend on decent wifi or 4G, not as available in suburbia as you might think.
One way that would be effective at easing the burden on people finding out this stuff for themselves would be an urban prehistory plaque scheme, my preferred colour being brown, not blue [although I have not tested this colour yet]. This simple device, mirroring schemes in other parts of the UK focusing on famous dead people, is familiar and easy to interact with. In my proposal, urban prehistory locales would be marked with a circular disk a foot in diameter containing just enough information to let curious passers-by know the headline information required. This would be high-level and simple but would contain enough information to (a) demand further investigation and (b) blow minds (at least for some). Digital add-ons may become necessary, but the analogue disks would be a good starting place as my recent guerrilla activity on this front suggests…..
The concept of plaques is a familiar one, but it is not a modern invention. The first scheme was proposed in London in 1866 believe it or not, and is the oldest of its kind in the whole wide world. (If you don’t believe in alien life, its the oldest such scheme in the Universe.) Run by the (Royal) Society of Arts, then London County Council, then Greater London Council, and since 1986, English Heritage, these blue info-circles are London-only although many other local authorities and organisations have since adopted similar schemes. The plaques usually mark a building with a connection to a famous person who has been dead for at least 20 years: ‘the intrinsic aim of English Heritage blue plaques is to celebrate the relationship between people and place’. (There is an excellent online resource, Open Plaques, which curates images, locations and stories of plaques from all over the place, well worth checking out.)
There is something immediate and accessible about plaques. They are spatially situated in the correct location someone famous lived and / or died (and less often, where events of note took place or an earlier building once stood). They are reassuringly analogue and do not depend on wifi or a mobile signal although this does not preclude follow-up research later. In some cases, they can surprise and even delight, as when I completely accidentally stumbled upon this Wheeler blue plaque when I was heading for a Cochno Stone meeting in London a couple of years ago.
But can we do more with plaques than just celebrate the rich, famous, mostly men? Could plaques be used to tell stories of what happened in a place, rather than simply who resided where and when? And can we push this back deep into prehistory?
Mike Pitts made a strong case (in the July-August 2012 British Archaeology magazine) for a plaque scheme that does not simply focus on famous recent people such as archaeologists and antiquaries, but also the dead found on excavations. (‘Let’s celebrate the anonymous people who made Britain’ is the sentiment, although I’m not so convinced by this jingoistic tone.) Nonetheless, this is a well-argued polemic and was accompanied by the mocking up of ‘Ochre plaques’ as he called them, in each case located where a ‘famous’ prehistoric dead person had been found…
These are very effective, and got some good feedback at the time and also when Mike recently re-posted them on twitter in response to my own musings on the subject. The focus here on the famous dead fits in with the broader aspirations of plaque schemes although in truth even the ancient dead whom we give nicknames are still unknown, while in some other cases multiple burials and events might also be plaque-marked.
A good example of how this might work is this surprisingly detailed plaque that is situated in a car park in Christchurch, Dorset.
This is part of a local HLF-funded ‘unofficial blue plaque’ scheme, the Millennium Trail, of which are there are many across England and indeed beyond. This series of plaques is accompanied by a map and leaflet available locally.
In the spirit of experimentation I recently carried out a couple of field visits to urban prehistory sites – plaque attacks! – having prepared in advance a rather low tech and mocked up plaque for the occasion. I confess I used dark blue for these early experiments, to provoke a reaction by subverting the familiar format, but will, like a judo person, aim to step up to brown in the future.
My two case-studies are in a sense classic urban prehistory sites – Bronze Age burials that were found during urban expansion in the form of road building, and were subsequently destroyed (although in very different circumstances). Importantly, in neither case is the location of this discovery marked in any way, almost nothing is known about the sites, and in at least one instance the nearest resident was completely unaware of the story. These are unremarkable urban streets with a hidden, remarkable secret, that if known might change the way that (some) people view the place that they live, but hopefully not in an Amityville Horror type of way.
Succoth Place, Edinburgh
In May 1901, during the construction of a new road to the west of the city centre, Succoth Place, running off Garscube Terrace, workmen came across a stone cist that contained a fine prehistoric urn. This was taken into the care of the architect D Menzies and then collected a few days later by archaeologist Fred Coles who subsequently helped investigate the site and wrote up a brief excavation report. The urn was recovered from the cist by the foreman after the cap stones had been broken to make way for the pavement kerb. Further damage to the cist itself revealed, remarkably, that this was a rare double-compartment cist, with two burial cells separated by a single upright central slab. Coles assisted with clearing out the second chamber, within which was a second urn. Both are what we would term Food Vessels and belong to the early Bronze Age.
Nothing else was found in either cist compartment, other than ‘minute fragments of bone, which, on the gentlest handling, crumbled away’. An undignified and dusty end.
Both Food Vessels were later accessioned to the National Museum, and that was the end of the whole business, with presumably the remnants of the cist being wrecked to allow road-building to continue, the whole site having been excavated in a rather crude fashion which was the norm for that time.
In early May 2018, almost exactly 117 years after this discovery, I visited Succoth Place with Glasgow PhD student Denise Telford in the rain armed with my cardboard urban prehistory plaque.
As ever with such trips, careful planning was required, and the friend of the urban prehistorian, the ragged annotated folded A-Z, was employed to get us there safely and efficiently.
The leafy suburbs of this part of Edinburgh, near the Water of Leith, looked rather dreich in the downpour, and we sheltered under overhanging vegetation from time to time as we wound our way up to the top of a hill (via Garscube Terrace) crowned with massive lavish sandstone mansions and a private school. The friendly lollipop man helped us across Henderland Road, just in case we should be crushed by a massive 4×4.
We reached the Garscube and Succoth soon enough. Despite the distinguished and peaceful surrounds, subversion was evident: the street sign has a runic addition in tiny letters, creating the memorably Shakespearean phrase Succoth My Nob Pl(ease).
Coles recorded that the cist was found 60 feet from the junction and so we headed there, with the location where the Bronze Age dead had once lain being mercifully free of the indignity of parked cars.
There was nothing here to mark this burial place, and I am fairly sure that the inhabitants of the big houses here know nothing of this either. There was nothing left to do but mark the place with the plaque, which had been carried here in an old-school 5p Morrison’s carrier bag for protection from the incessant rain. In error, Denise snapped 118 photos of me holding the plaque of which the best one is reproduced below.
There was little sense that this was anything other than a posh suburb and certainly there was no room for the remembrance of the dead – the dead whose bodily remains crumbled to dust in order for sandstone mansions to be reachable by horse and cart in as much comfort as was possible at the time. Let’s not be emotive and say that this part of the city was built on the (tiny) bones of the dead, but it was, and perhaps this needs to be remembered, out of respect for the deceased, who did not even have the dignity of a ghostly presence or their own plaque. Until now.
As John Mahoney’s character in the movie Barton Fink so memorably implored drunkenly: ‘Honey, where’s my honey?’.
Morar Road, Crossford, nr Dunfermline
Let’s travel to Fife, just across the River Forth from Succoth and all that, to the location of another Bronze Age urban cist that was knackered in order to facilitate urban expansion. In this case, the cist was destroyed before an archaeologist was even able to look at it – and this happened in 1973!!
During construction of roads for a new housing estate called Keavil on the south side of the town of Crossford on 13th November 1973, a stone coffin or cist was found. The workers on this construction project thought that the collection of flat slabs was ‘some sort of old land drain’ and destroyed the structure to make way for the road the next day. A Mr A Hall was able to recover one thing from this burial, a fine complete Food Vessel pot, which suggests that the destruction of the cist was perhaps not as cavalier as reported, and perhaps the workers could have stopped when this was found rather than when it was all too late. So much for rescue archaeology.
A sober note was made of this unfortunate event in that year’s Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, while a drawing of the vessel and a brief accompanying narrative was published as an addendum to the excavation report of a cist cemetery found at Aberdour Road, Dunfermline (a site I blogged about back in 2012).
The contractors on this build, Geo Wimpey and Co, ‘kindly’ handed the Food Vessel over to the local museum and got on with making roads and money.
Armed with this sorry story, preparations for my second plaque attack were formed a week after the Succoth escapade. Using my time-honoured cheapo approach I created a similar plaque to the previous effort but this time with amended and simplified my logo. I had to contend with a greasy stain on the cardboard transferred from a kitchen surface the work was carried out on.
I visited this location with Glasgow PhD student Andrew Watson, on the way back from another urban prehistory-related fieldtrip to Fife. Andrew map-read me into the estate via a series of colourful streets (none of them Cist Street which might have been the least Wimpey could have done): Hunt Place, Katrine Drive, Western Avenue and then Morar Road and Affric Way, together representing a confusing mixture of street types for no discernible reason. And then we were there, in a quiet suburban road lined with blue bins and puddles.
The kind of place where twenty is plenty.
Andrew and I quickly set up a sophisticated photo shoot, marking the location that the cist was found and destroyed, 1m below the current road level, in a memorable fashion.
As we struggled to get to grips with the placelessness of this place that had once been a sacred burial spot that must have had an abundance of place, the owner of the house outside which we were messing about came out to see what us ‘boys’ were up to. We explained out business and he was amazed that such a thing had been found outside his house, as it was being built, and he assured us he would tell every visitor this exciting revelation (although he also said he hardly got any visitors so this may not be a strong method of dissemination). He declined the chance to have the plaque (an original and unique piece of art one might argue) hung on the front of his house however.
Knowledge exchanged, he walked back inside, and by god I think he had a spring in his step.
This sobering encounter with an old man ended our photo session, and I must say I don’t think Andrew was taking this as seriously as he could have been.
The cardboard plaques that I have made and taken to places that hold rich prehistoric secrets is a device that has started conversations and created complex experiences for all involved. These places of death and burial remain unmarked although digitally their story has now been told again, perhaps for the first time in decades or more, and this is how such plaques could act as easy gateway drugs into the hard stuff of prehistory.
Truth be told, we cannot just expect people to find out about the prehistoric events that may or may not have taken place when their houses or schools or roads were being built or improved. We – archaeologists, heritage professionals – need to be evangelical about this, pro-active prehistory-pushers, talking to people and braving the rain to find ways that tell the lost stories of ancient bones and bits of pottery. Circular information panels may or may not be the best way to do this, but we have nothing to lose by trying to follow the advise of Mike Pitts.
Let’s celebrate the ancient dead as well as the modern rich and famous. Let’s tell stories of deep time, generate wonder and surprise, and change the way that people see the places that they live.
I wonder – where will the next plaque attack be?
Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Denise and Andrew for accompanying me on these fool’s errands that I do from time to time, and for the stimulating conversation both provided; there ideas have filtered into this post. Thanks also to Mike Pitts for allowing me to use images, and drawing on his own ideas; please join the Council for British Archaeology if you want to receive regular copies of British Archaeology magazine. Thanks also to the many positive comments I got about the UP plaques on twitter.
The report on the Succoth Place discovery can be found in a paper by Fred Coles, ‘Notice on the discovery of cists containing urns at Succoth Place, near Garscube Terrace, Edinburgh’. This was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 36 (1901-02). The Food Vessel and cist image in the post above were both sourced from that paper.
For information (limited) on the Morar Road cist site, see pages 130-1 of Close-Brooks, Norgate and Ritchie (1974) ‘A Bronze Age cemetery at Aberdour Road, Dunfermline, Fife’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 104. This was also the source of the pot drawing for this site. This journal is open access.
The Christchurch blue plaque was first posted on twitter by Annie-Leigh Campbell, while the map / booklet image related to the Millennium Trail in this town came from a website called Dorset Visual Guide. The quote about the purpose of the London blue plaques near the start of the post comes from the official EH site about them, linked to in the same paragraph.
Is it possible to make sense of archaeological traces when nothing remains? Can we extract meaning about the past from the places where the past played itself out? Or, do we have to acknowledge that when it is gone, it is gone? To examine these problematic issues, I want to draw on some rather diverse sources: an urban landscape associated with an infamous Victorian serial killer, a weird parapsychological theory on the fringes of geology, a science fiction TV show, and the application of science in contemporary archaeology.
The recently re-issued book, The London of Jack the Ripper Then and Now, by Robert Clack and Philip Hutchinson (DB Publishing, 2010) presents a detailed analysis of the so-called Whitechapel Murders in their spatial context. The book includes a series of photos of murder scenes then and now, juxtaposing the poorhouses, institutes, slums and public houses of the 1880s with the fast food outlets, car parks and modern housing of today. I wanted to explore this urban landscape in a little more detail, to spend some time in places where notable events once took place but have since been radically transformed. This is a common experience for the archaeologist, although usually relating to rather different kinds of past events.
These murders took place in or on the fringes of Whitechapel in London between 1888 and 1891; some, but by no means all, of these murders have been attributed to Jack the Ripper. The quantity, frequency and unsolved nature of these 20 or so murders speaks volumes for the attitude towards, and lifestyle of, many unfortunate women, many of them prostitutes, living in extreme poverty at that time. These murders, the foggy streets of London and the grime of the East End feed a flourishing tourist activity – Jack the Ripper walks and tours. Whether self-guided, or with a formal group, these tours evoke the spirit of the age, and depend on the power of visiting the very locations where horrible crimes took place well over a century ago. This seems to me an inverse form of topophobia, a landscape of dread and bad memories that has become persistently attractive. Massive urban re-generation and the Blitz have rendered this a very different Whitechapel from the 1880s, yet visitors (some of them ‘Ripperologists’) appear to be seeking out the essences of those crimes, surveying the murderous geography.
A few days ago I visited Whitechapel, with a knowledgeable friend guiding, and spent some time absorbing the vibrant atmosphere of contemporary Whitechapel and Spitalfields, while at the same time recognising ‘infamous’ Ripper-related place names such as Hanbury Street, Fournier Street and the Ten Bells public house (shown in the first photo). Despite the gentrification, these narrow streets and the pub still managed, for me, to evoke something of the atmosphere of how this place used to be, although it is difficult to tell whether this was my projection, or was being projected onto me (a theme I will return to). We looked at one murder location, that of Mary Jane Kelly, supposedly the final ‘Canonical Five’ Jack murder (although doubt has recently been cast on this by some scholars.) In 1888, this location was a hovel called Miller’s Court, where Kelly met a gruesome end. But now it is a multi-story car park, on Duval Street (shown above). The location of the murder, essentially crowded slum dwellings, was demolished in the 20th century and eventually replaced by a new street and car park. This is not much different to the fate of many prehistoric sites and monuments swept away by urbanisation: cemeteries beneath housing estates, roads which were once ritual monuments, bridges built on top of Mesolithic houses. These are places that have changed in role and function through time, the same places and yet different places. But what remains?
In the foreword to The London of Jack the Ripper Then and Now Stewart P Evans writes about ‘Victorian terraced dwellings, whose mute walls had seen Jack the Ripper at work’. Here, we have the evocation of the stones of the walls themselves being witnesses to the crimes, perhaps the only witnesses, and that they hold these secrets even today, beyond our reach. This is redolent of an idea called the Stone Tape Theory, an idea made popular in 1972 by the BBC TV sci-fi show The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale. (Kneale had previously created Quatermass, where in one storyline a more tangible horror lurked beneath London’s streets.) This theory is based on the premise that materials such as stone are able to record traumatic or highly emotional events that took place in their vicinity in the form of energy; in some cases this energy is released creating phenomena such as ghosts. In other words, ‘ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie’. The TV show follows a group of researchers developing a new recording technique in a Victorian mansion, where they come across a ghost that is somehow projected from the stone walls of a reputedly haunted room. But the ‘recording’ need not be visual. Don Robins, part-geologist, was especially keen on the notion that sounds could be captured by crystals, which I suppose could include the screams of a murder victim, or the chanting of shaman in a stone circle. This idea was promoted in his 1988 book The Secret Language of Stone, another strand of the wider concept of ‘residual haunting’. This loose connection of sources and ideas have been influential in parapsychological research (with current explanations focused on things like magnetic energy) and capture the sense that physical, material places can retain essences, or residues, of the past. Such theories developed because hauntings tend to have a spatial association, although the same could be said about most human activities. The murders of Jack the Ripper were grounded in the locations that they occurred, ‘place memories’ that transcend place-change.
There is, of course, no scientific of rational basis for believing this theory. If this were true, then all of the efforts of archaeologists would be concentrated on trying to rewind standing stones, or plug megaliths into DVD players. Yet archaeologists do treat stone (and other materials) as if they have recorded, or encoded, information about the past. The measurement and characterisation of atoms and molecules through petrological analysis allows us to source standing stones and Neolithic polished stone axes. The analysis of quartz and feldspar crystals allows us to determine when buried rock was last exposed to the sunlight. Such scientific techniques extract pre-recorded information from places and objects that tell us something of their history, and the activities involving them in the prehistoric past. What’s more, our chemical processes examine traumatic events: the death of an organism, the extraction of stone from the living rock, the burial of things. Yet as archaeologists we are trained not to think like this: the scientific data we collect from materials (in the past, surgically removed for thin sections) may have inherent properties that we can record, but we still need to make sense of that data.
Walking around Whitechapel today is a bit like walking through a landscape where prehistoric monuments once stood. Prior knowledge, documentary and map research and survey work by others allow us to build up a mental map of how this space was once used. Dots have been placed on this map at locations where important sites once existed. These places have fundamentally changed, yet they retain memory and significance of what went before. These impact on modern land-use and activities in this urban location, from the tourist industry, to inspiring street art, graffiti and literature. The pastness of Whitechapel has a direct correlation with the identity of this place today as well, for good and ill. Yet it is unlikely the residues of the Ripper are really encoded or trapped in Whitechapel bricks. Rather, we generate these essences through our engagements and experiences; we keep them alive through our interest and our gaze. Without us, the past would cease to exist.
Sources: Thanks to Alan for guiding our walk around Whitechapel, and to Aphrodite, Chris and Gavin for accompanying us. I looked at various online sources for information on stone tape theories, and found a very useful summary in a paper by Pamela Rae Heath called A new theory on place memory, found in the Australian Journal of Parapsychology 5.1 (2005), 40–58. The Stone Tape screengrab is widely available online.