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The suburban broch

23 Aug

As consumers of the past, we have certain requirements for our prehistory. It should be in a bit ruinous but not so knackered that we can’t make sense of it. It needs to be awesome, or dramatic, or have ‘been on a journey’, to hold our attention. And it must be in a rural location, with a green and brown setting, and a big sky overhead. It must be authentic and leave little or nothing to the imagination.

Or so wisdom would have it.

But what happens when visitors encounter prehistoric sites in an explicitly urban setting?

The results can be surprising, as I have been documenting on this blog for the past four and a half years. I have found that communities can be inspired, proud and surprised by even the most denuded of prehistoric sites in their urban midst. Merely the ghostly traces, the essence, need be present to potentially add quality to a place, a value that comes with deep time.

Maybe this holds true for residents, but what about visitors and tourists? This was brought home to me on a recent visit to Shetland, where the rural and coastal idyll that was Jarlshof was shattered the constant chainsaw buzz of a helicopter overhead, and the vacuum cleaner sucking and blowing of aircraft taking off, the multiperiod HES visitor attraction being located right on the edge of Sumburgh airport and within axe-throwing distance of one of the runways.

view of the airport

As I wandered around the perimeter of this Viking settlement I felt like the boy Jim, protagonist in JG Ballard’s book The Empire of the Sun, staring out from his prison camp near Shanghai admiringly to the neighbouring airfield, fantasising over the Japanese aircraft, idolising the pilots and kamikaze, all of which offered a vibrant mechanised counterpoint to the organic, dying camp.

Jim looking at the airfield

Such stark juxtapositions are the very essence of urban prehistory: gazing into the past, observing rituals, secretarying entropy.

Do we fail to understand the significance and story of Jarlshof because of its inauthentic setting? I would argue not, but perhaps the big seascape and even bigger skies airport-proof the archaeology. There is much less room for manoeuvre for urban prehistory – nowhere to hide, few distractions from the reality of the what is out there.

This is very much the case for another HES visitor attraction in Shetland, Clickimin Broch in the main town on the mainland, Lerwick. And I really do mean in the town, located on an island on a small loch in the suburbs, surrounded by the trappings of urbanisation.

canmore_image_DP00082251 air photo

Clickimin broch from the air (c) HES CANMORE id 1203142

The broch was excavated by JRC Hamilton in the 1950s and thus made ready for display to the public as a Ministry of Works guardianship site. Hamilton’s work at this very complex site discovered that the broch had been preceded by earlier settlement sites of late Bronze Age and earlier Iron Age date, and after the main broch phase, the structure was – as a Jarlshof – replaced by a wheelhouse. One of the key outcomes of this programme of work was that the site was made easily accessible to the public although I would argue that in doing this the site has become a little too medieval looking (and I mean this as a bad thing). This work also resulted in the publication of a guidebook by Hamilton for both Clickimin and the taller but far more rural Mousa broch, which has undergone several editions (the guidebook, not the broch).

guidebook front cover

Clickimin was recently nominated in the Dig It! 2017 Hidden Gems competition as the representative for Shetland (the Cochno Stone was the West Dunbartonshire entry) although it is hardly hidden where it stands, wrapped within a transparent urban cocoon. However, the carefully cropped photo of the broch used in that campaign manages to edit out the surrounds.

CLICKIMIN-BROCH Scotland in Six

This remarkable setting contrasts starkly with the often remote, or at least peaceful locations, that most brochs across Scotland are situated within today and yet it has advantages over examples such as Mousa, being easily accessible because of its urban location. And even Clickimin was rural once, as captured in this drawing by W St G Burke from 1875. (Although it could be argued that such big broch complexes were literally urban prehistory 2000 years ago.)

canmore_image_DP00149613 rural setting drawing

(c) HES and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

I was curious what visitors to this broch made of its urban setting. Anyone who prepared in advance by reading the June 2017 edition of The Rough Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland would have been set up for a disappointing experience:

‘With the modern housing in the middle distance, it’s pretty hard to imagine the original setting’

And yet, this ruined setting does not really seem to be what visitors focus on. I looked at all 177 reviews of the broch on TripAdvisor (as of 17th August 2017) and it is striking that hardly any of the visitors to Clickimin view the urban setting as a problem. Very few reviewers even feel the need to mention the urban stuff, and where they do, it almost overwhelmingly is not a problem, and almost always in the context of a 4 or 5 star review. For instance, Razumovskaya: ‘This is an unusual broch in many ways, set as it is at the edge of its loch among the council houses and across the road from Tesco’ (5 star review). Bathgooner, in another 5 star review, states, ‘despite the developments the neighbourhood retains an aura of its mysterious past’. For others, the location is weird and surreal but not a problem. Amanda K, 4 star review, wrote, ‘It’s in an odd place as near supermarket and houses’, while Cameron S, also 4 star review, wrote ‘Implausibly located in the outskirts of Lerwick, this site is surprisingly atmospheric’. Or what about, ‘This is real history next to a main road and a housing estate. But do not let that put you off as it is well worth a visit’ (argosy2gb, 5 star review).

IMG_9741

In fact, it is remarkable how few visitors express negative feelings about the suburban setting – three out of 177 (1.7%) to be precise. One is relatively measured, accompanying a 3 star review. Tony239 wrote, ‘it’s close to Lerwick, and increasing surrounded by it, which robs it of some of it’s allure’. Alyson M headed her 3 star review with the statement: ‘Spoiled by suburban sprawl’. The other is the only 1 star review for the site to date and is worth quoting in full.

‘The worse thing about this is its location. There is a large Tesco to the South, ugly 80s council housing to the East, huge houses to the West, and the worst part of all, a construction site with massive cranes and other construction equipment to the North! The Broch was from over 2000 years ago and it is encircled by all these ugly modern buildings on all sides. Stonehenge is a much better place to visit. (alvinawh, 1 star review).

Mmmn, not sure about the latter point. More visitors complained about the manicured appearance of the broch and the reconstruction work done there than the urban setting, which in itself says a lot about expectations of authenticity which seem more related to the material than the environs.

tripadvisor

Anyway, the overwhelming sense that comes across from reading these scores of reviews is that the suburban setting is an advantage when it comes to visiting this broch. 16% (28 people) mention the proximity of a Tesco supermarket in either neutral or positive terms (convenience, parking). Almost a third mention that the broch is near the centre of Lerwick or within easy walking distance of town, all positive in terms of ease of access. It appears that rather than ruin the broch experience, the urban setting of this monument has made it much more accessible than most brochs such as the more famous Mousa, which is on a wee island with an irregular ferry access. The pathway to Clickimin broch could be a little more wheel-chair friendly, but this is a broch that most people can visit, regardless of mobility.

IMG_9744

One of the intriguing things about the prehistoric monument is how the stonework of the broch blurs with the surrounding suburbia. Far from being a huge time-gap between now and then, there is a sense of continuity, a flow that is quite wonderful.

Angles are created between the broch and buildings that look like timelines to me. Grey lines form an impenetrable artificial horizon that capture the essence of Shetland.

IMG_9758

IMG_9763

The urban and the prehistory bleed into one another and feed off one another, an ancient power source that has not yet run dry.

IMG_9757

IMG_9755

HES have unintentionally created a huge optical illusion, turning the broch from a panopticon to a viewpoint. From only a few places inside the monument complex can the water of the loch be seen.

IMG_9743

The overlaps between towering house and town can nowhere better be seen than in the branding of the small service station located a hundred metres or so from the broch. The Sound Service Station has a peculiar logo, which after some squinting on my behalf, revealed itself to be a stylised side-profile view of the broch and its little island.

And on special occasions the broch has been lit up in different colours at night, Shetland’s contribution to international causes, such as World Aids Day.

This is a monument that still lies at the heart of this community.

World Aids Day image Shetland Times

(c) Shetland Times

It seems to me that the urban setting is not a problem to the vast majority of visitors. Perhaps in the heritage sector we need to re-calibrate our understanding of expectation of the public – maybe they can actually handle historic and archaeological sites that are very knackered, not so awesome or in urban settings. Authenticity comes in many forms, and one reading of that word could be the facilitation of an experience that has resonance and meaning, which can transcend tangible material and landscape qualities.

Who would have thought that a prehistoric site in an urban place could be advantageous? The urban setting of Clickimin, beside a supermarket, petrol station, housing estates, walls, roads, traffic lights, roundabouts, warehouses and a leisure centre does not seem to be a problem. For some, it is a surreal bonus, while others were rather more pragmatic.

‘Seems strange to have an ancient monument in a town – but that’s what it is.’ (GertieSquirt, 4 star review)

IMG_9779

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan for accompanying me on the visit, and for taking the wonderful photos of the Broch that accompany this post (in other words, all of those with no credit in the caption).

The image of the guidebook to the site is available widely online, usually in second hand book websites.

For more on the Dig It! 2017 Hidden Gems competition, go here. This was also the source of the jazzy pic of the broch with writing superimposed on it.

The World Aids Day photo of the broch came from the website of the Shetland Times.

Beneath the motorway

7 May

This is a blog post that appeared not to want to be written.

Computer crashes, lack of focus, lost information, inadequate note-keeping, rain, over-complication: all have conspired to ensure that my rather simple story about a park in Manchester with a stone circle and a ruined church has yet to be written.

So I now I finally want to write this story and keep it simple. Let’s see how it goes.

Signs on the gates low res

All Saints Park, or Grosvenor Park, is located on Oxford Road in Manchester, on the campus of Manchester Metropolitan University, and I used to pass it every now and again when I visited Manchester University just down the road. I popped into the park one summer day a few years ago attracted by a tree that had been wrapped in red fabric.

Wrapped tree June 2013 low res

Once inside this compact little square park, I noticed two things: a strange megalithic monument located in one corner of the park, and a low wall right in the middle of the park that marked the location of an old church. There was clearly deep time here, and a few stories to be uncovered. And as I continued to pop into the park when in Manchester, I realised all sorts of stuff was going on here. There are megaliths and memorials, art installations and scientific experiments, signs and bins, cheeky graffiti, and right in the middle of it all, the ghostly footprint of the destroyed church. Much of this goes unnoticed by the many students from the adjacent Manchester Metropolitan University who hang around here between lectures or at lunchtime, or buy fruit and veg or snacks from pavement stalls outside the park.

the happy bin low res

And almost overhead, just to the north, runs the Mancunian Way (A57(M)), an urban motorway, which offers a suitably Ballardian tone to the park – and automatically made me think of Glasgow, another city with an urban motorway. The sound of cars thundering overhead complements the continual hum of buses going up and down the majestic Oxford Road.

As we’ll see, concrete is on the ground – as well as in the air.

1962694_46a970b8

The Mancunian Way flyover on Oxford Road (Creative Commons licence, photo taken by David Dixon)

One of the most remarkable things about this park is that it is consecrated ground. At each of the four entrances to the park, on the cardinal points, stands a short angular megalith with a plaque on it.

plinth low res.jpg

Each says the same thing:

GROSVENOR SQUARE

former All Saints Church burial ground

the MANCHESTER METROPOLITAN

UNIVERSITY

improved the square in 1995 for the benefit

of both its students and the general public.

This is still consecrated ground

PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT

Cycling, ball games and the consumption of

alcohol are not permitted, dogs must be on a

leash and litter placed in the bin provided.

This introductory text acts as a  gentle warning to park-users and dog-owners, but also as an ode to the park. There is a poetic quality to this potted history, which hints at the protracted and special nature of this places which derives directly from its past use.

This is consecrated ground. PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT.

The dead were laid to rest here, and this was once a sacred site. It isn’t any more, and yet this park cannot escape its past or the rites that were once carried out here. There are bodies beneath the grass and stories to be uncovered beneath our feet.

general view low res

The Church that once stood – All Saints Church – seems to have been cursed. It was opened for business in April 1820, a large and foreboding structure, but seemed to be ill-starred from very early in its life, for instance being badly damaged by a fire when it had stood for only 30 years.

All Saints Church

All Saints Church. Copyright owned by Chetham’s Library, Manchester (www.chethams.org.uk/)

The church gradually ran down in the 20th century, with its cemetery converted to a children’s play park by the 1930s, thus creating the link between youthful leisure and the subterranean cemetery for the first time.

And then came destruction in the form of German bomb which hit the church during the ‘Christmas Blitz’ in 1940.

The church was finally demolished in 1949 as it had become ruinous with no hope of reconstruction.

Church being demolished in 1949

The Church before final demolition in 1949

All Saints still has a presence in the park today in the form of a remarkable ground plan which is almost impossible to discern or make sense of from the ground. Various key aspects of the building are marked out in low walls, paving slabs and large stone cubes. I am not sure when this was done – perhaps in the 1995 refurbishment mentioned on the plaques.

chruch walls low resOn one of my first visits to the park in 2013, a small pile of coins had built up on one of these stone cubes, mostly coppers.

coins on the cube low res

At some point in the recent past, an artist called Grotbags used one of these cubist blocks to display dominoes made from cigarette packets. Death in little black boxes.

dominoes by grotbags

The exploded plan of this church is most effectively viewed from the air (or google earth), where its symmetrical design and layout becomes apparent. (I had drawn an annotated plan of the park to show this, but lost it, very much in keeping with this emergence of this post.) The church therefore is almost impossible to appreciate from the ground, an abstract collage of stonework and slabs. Laying out the ground plan of an old ruinous structures is a classic heritage technique used to illustrate historic and Roman buildings, and I can think of many similar examples I have visited where wall foundations, doorways and internal features are visible in manicured grass to give a 2D impression of a 3D building. Yet this is a much more impressionistic interpretative version of the church….and the walls are curiously similar to those at the partially reconstructed Neolithic village of Barnhouse in Orkney (which itself had at its centre the church-like House 8).

barnhouse photo

Barnhouse Late Neolithic building reconstruction on Orkney (photo by Sigurd Towrie)

 

There is a lot to make sense of here already – an abstract church, destroyed by a firestorm from the air, now preserved in stone and slabs. Around this, a grassed over cemetery. And then there is the stone circle. Or rather, stone spiral.

red tree and park low res

Tucked into the back corner of the park, hidden behind trees, a hedge and various additional concrete blocks which appear to have been scattered randomly (perhaps leftovers), is a remarkable spiral structure consisting of a series of  flat standing stones. These are embedded in the hedgerow and are mirrored by a narrow paved pathway, drawing the visitor into the vortex. The stones sit side on to the flow of the spiral, acting more as orthostats than single uprights, giving this monument the feel of an Orkney tomb like Midhowe (another weird Orkney connection).

stone spiral 1 low res

stone spiral 2 low res

stone spiral 3 low res

In the centre of this spiral lies an altar or shrine with a basin on top, usually filled with rainwater, leaves and coins (at least when I have visited). Perhaps it is a bird bath. This concrete cube sits within a cobbled circle with more of the rough stone cubes found across the park on its fringe.

shrine low res

Here I have to be honest. When I initially researched this stone circle, I am sure I discovered that it was a monument to African slaves, but I confess the definitive version of this information and the source alludes me at this time. Certainly the monument has a certain calm beauty to it despite its urban location.

memorials low res

And the circle sits in an area of the park that has become a memorial – to friends, to family members. Just beside the standing stones, small improvised shrines have begun to emerge amidst the flowers and the trees. Some of these are for named individuals, such as Souvik Pal, a student whose body was found in a Manchester canal in January 2013.

souvik pal memorial low res

I want to stop my story here, in the spirit of keeping things simple. This lovely park is well worth a visit, not just for the hidden megaliths with the mysterious meaning, but also for the flowers and memorialisation of the dead, both recent and Victorian, and for the demolished church, and for the things left on the stone blocks, and the graffiti, and even the stuff that hangs from the trees.

It is also a perfect place to have lunch in the sun. All Saints and no saints. Sinners and sandwiches.

tree hanging

John Hyatt and Craig Martin’s artwork, Fireflies in Manchester

I was in Manchester again a few weeks ago, and once again looked in on the park, although this time rain got the better of me, and I turned and walked away back to the city centre, beneath the motorway which seemed to have been emptied of the homeless people who usually congregate there, urban casualties in their concrete cocoon.

I am drawn to this place, fated to keep coming back to the roads and the park, the angles of the concrete, the impossible juxtapositions.

Urban parks can be special places – and All Saints Park is a very special place.

Sources and acknowledgements: some of the images used above have been ctedited to external sources already. The photo of the church being demolished was sourced from a website dedicated to curating old photos of Manchester. The Barnhouse photo comes from Sigurd Towrie’s excellent Orkneyjar website (note, how can I not have a photo of Barnhouse in my own collection?). The David Dixon photo is reproduced under the terms of a creative commons licence. All the other photos are my own.  For more information on Fireflies in Manchester, follow this link. I have no idea who Grotbags is.  

If anyone has any information about the spiral stone circle, I would love to hear from your, just contact me below the post..

 

 

 

The Tebay Three

6 Apr

This is a blog post inspired by the Spirits of Place symposium held in Calderstones Park, Liverpool, 2nd April 2016.

 

Three service stations.

Three standing stones – The Tebay Three.

One journey by car from Airdrie to Liverpool.

Drawn by the spirit of a place.

-which is under lock and key.

-which is behind glass.

The Calderstones megaliths.

 

Point of departure

notes

Annandale Water

Annandale Water 1

Annandale Water 2

tube postcard 2

Annandale Water 3

Tebay East

tebay three b and w low res

The Tebay Three, condemned to stand guard over a picnic area and access road to overflow car parks.

Three ‘standing stones’ arranged in a tight circle – a symbolic community, perhaps, but one of a very different era…. If the roof claims silently, ‘I am not a building’, the columns, portico and standing stones counterclaim ‘…but I am still a monument’, a monument incomplete, a monument barely human that yet accommodates the human (Austin 2011, 219-220).

Travels in Lounge Space, Samuel Austin’s PhD thesis.

Tebay megaliths polaroid

More of a triangle than a circle. Enclosing a tiny space no larger than required for one adult to squeeze into, standing in an upright cist, shielded from the incessant back and forth of cars. Insulated from the motorway in a time capsule made of quarried stone.

Tebay 1

Tebay 2

tube postcard

Tebay 3

Charnock Richard

A chocolate box masquerading as a postcard, retrieved from the other side of the bridge….

Charnock Richard 1

Charnock Richard 2

…and an erroneous plural….

tube postcard 3

Charnock Richard 3

….before carefully gathered debitage is assembled.

Debitage cropped and low res

Calderstones – arrival

The final postcards posted – on Druids Cross Road.

post box low res

Then into the vortex of Calderstones Park –

Calderstones Park postcard

And megalithic Liverpool –

megalithic liverpool postcard

South Liverpool –

druid temple postcard

Finally arrived.

calderstones pagoda postcard

#SpiritsofPlace

Sources and acknowledgements: Spirits of Place was dreamt up and organised by John Reppion, and my interest in Calderstones was very much inspired by his definitive article on the urban prehistory of this part of Liverpool, here reproduced in The Daily Grail. The ‘druid temple’ postcard is based on a photo from that post. The Calderstones postcard was sourced on ebay and by the time you read this will probably have been sold. The text in red pen on the back of my sent postcards is adapted from Georges Perec’s ‘Two hundred and forty-three postcards in real colour’ (1978).

Urn

6 Feb

If R really did mark the spot beneath the tarmac – beneath the car park – where Richard III was found….

Richard III car park photo

….then what might be find beneath the tarmac elsewhere….

urn 3

….beneath our feet and our traffic and our infrastructure?

urn 2

The ancient dead also endure…..

urn

….beneath our cities, our towns, our houses, our gardens and our car parks.

 

Note: Cremation Urn (noun): a ceramic vessel, typically dating to the Bronze Age, used for the collection and storage of cremated human remains. The cremated bones were often sealed inside these large bucket-shaped pots by a skin or hide lid. Cremation urns were generally buried in pits, often upside down. The majority of Bronze Age cremation cemeteries found in the 20th century were uncovered due to urban expansion and road building.

Source: the Richard III photo was sourced from the Bailiwick Express.

Drive thru henge

20 Apr

drive thru henge sign lowest res

Last month I drove through a henge. Right through the middle of it. On a little road. The location was remote. It was cold, a bit wet and low mist hung over the surrounding hills. The henge was barely discernible. Invisible to the ‘untrained eye’. Yet there it was, a low broad bank, a weed-filled damp ditch, with a raised platform in the interior. And a road right through the middle of it. A little road, one that does not even appear to have a number. A dead end. A road that leads nowhere really, just up to a reservoir with lots of warning signs not to enter and not to park, and a house with a crazy tree house. But that isn’t relevant.

From the air

From the air

The drive thru henge is called Normangill (NMRS number NS92SE 11) in South Lanarkshire, near Crawford. It is located in the valley of the River Camp with low rolling hills on all sides, some adorned with wind turbines. The henge is class 2, that is, it has two opposed entrances, in this case on the north and south sides of the enclosure. It is quite a large monument, up to 60m in diameter on its longest axis, defined by a flat bank and shallow wide ditch. The entrances on the north and south sides are both very wide, at least 17m. As with many henges, the boundaries and entrances are disproportionately large relative to the size of the monument as a whole, and so it actually encloses a relatively small area. And a road.

Driving through Normangill

Driving through Normangill

Drive thru henge

Drive thru henge

The monument is bisected by this little east-west running road, which cuts a swathe some 10.7m wide right through the middle of this ancient enclosure. Curiously, this little road seems to have started life as a railway line. OS mapping from the 1920s shows this feature to be a railway, branching off the nearby main Glasgow – Carlisle line at Crawford, but really it was only a little railway line.

OS map extract from 1920s, showing the railway line - the henge location is marked by the red circle

OS map extract from 1920s, showing the railway line – the henge location is marked by the red circle

A little railway line that appears to have serviced a prisoner of war camp at the end of the valley. This was in use in the First World War and there German prisoners were engaged in building the dam that holds back Camps Reservoir that now lies at the end of the little road which bisects the henge. This is one of only 39 such camps in Scotland associated with the Great War, and like most such camps, almost nothing is known about it and barely any traces survive (it has NMRS number NS92SE 66).

Normangill henge bank and road, looking north

Normangill henge bank and road, looking north

The process of driving railway tracks through the henge caused a schism in the monument. The bisection of the henge has an almost exactly east-west orientation, while the henge itself is orientated north-south. The henge is now divided into four quadrants: NE, NW, SE, SW. Other effects were also created by railway and road construction. This cutting produced spoil which seems to have been piled into the centre of the henge itself, mis-shaping the monument. It has a peculiar mounded appearance, with the bank visible in section on both sides of the road, albeit grassed over. Only a trowel scrape from being exposed. And at least the road has rendered the henge accessible to those with cars or via an easy flat walk from Crawford a few miles away. Having said that I am not sure how many people actually know that the henge is there, or how many visitors it receives.

Many will drive thru, but how many stop? The little road is a quiet road and the henge is largely silent.

notes low res

Roy Loveday has observed the recurring spatial proximity of Roman roads and Class 2 henges in the north of England, and this is not a crazy a thought as it first seems. Clearly the Romans were interested in existing routeways (which henges often sat within) but also local sacred and ancient sites which they often took a colonial interest in. Some Roman roads not only lie close to class 2 henges, but run parallel to them, suggesting a certain flow through the landscape was maintained. A Roman road passes close to Normangill too. In other words, henges were usually built in places that were moved through, by roads, tracks and rivers, and often reflect those routes. But not many henges have been subverted to become routes themselves as is the case at Normangill.

It is possible of course to drive into and through the massive henge at Avebury in Wiltshire (as well as have a pint in the middle of the henge, a luxury not afforded to visitors to Normangill). And you can also drive through Long Meg and Her Daughters stone circle in Cumbria; indeed you can park within the stone circle, although you then have to perform an awkward turning manoeuvre on the road, or within a nearby farm yard. I have seen a milk tanker do it so it can be done.

Long Meg and road 1

Two views of the road through Long Meg and her Daughters stone circle

Two views of the road through Long Meg and her Daughters stone circle

And if you have a tractor, you can pretty much drive through any henge you want, such as this character I spotted whizzing around within Mayburgh Rings henge recently, dispensing little white balls from a chute at the back of his farmyard machine.

The Mayburgh Rings tractor incident

The Mayburgh Rings tractor incident

‘Drive thru’ is a label of convenience in the world today. Drive thru fast food. Drive thru coffee shops. Drive thru weddings and funerals. Drive thru this, that and the other. It seems that some do not even want to have to get out of their cars to furnish themselves with fast food and hot drinks, or take part in some life-changing ceremonies. I was once told (in a previous job with a government agency) that in the past OS archaeological fieldworkers would only record sites that they could see from their landrovers, so Normangill must have been very popular back then. Flasks, cameras and notepads all that were needed to update the archaeological record.

A henge in my rear view mirror

A henge in my rear view mirror

I suppose the collision of car and henge, two distinctly different things belonging to very different cultures, is indicative of many of the weird contemporary engagements that we have with prehistoric sites. Even in this ‘rural’ location, the industrial, urban, mechanical intrudes. Cars crash through this henge and for those in the know, a secret pleasure can be derived by these seconds of fusion, curiously Ballardian, but over all too soon.

Sources and acknowledgements: I drove thru / through Normangill henge with Helen Green, whom I must thank for helping formulate my thoughts for this post and who told me about the site in the first place. The limited amount of information there is out there on this monument largely comes from CANMORE and the air photo used in this post is an amended version of the RCAHMS copyright image LA2950CN – I am not sure when the photo was taken, probably in the 1970s or 1980s. The map extract is from an OS One Inch Map (series produced 1921-1930), which can be viewed online via the National Map Library of Scotland – this map is out of copyright. Information on prisoner of war camps came from Gordon Barclay’s very interesting 2013 report The Built Heritage of the First World War in Scotland’. Roy Loveday’s paper ‘Double entrance henges – routes to the past’ can be found in an edited volume called Prehistoric ritual and religion (edited by Gibson and Simpson, published by Sutton, 1998); like most things written by Roy, it is well worth a read.

The cairn and the caravans

11 Mar

‘The enemy of the nomad is the authority that wants to take the space and enclose it and to create fixed and well-directed paths for movement. And the nomad, cut free of roots, bonds and fixed identities, is the enemy of authority, resisting its discipline’ (Mike Pearson (2010) Site specific performance, pg 20)

 

This is the story of a Neolithic chambered long cairn that has gradually become wrapped by caravans, enclosed by campervans, ringed by campers. En-camped. It’s right in the middle of the caravans!

Keltie Bridge campsite sign

The life of the caravan owner: pottering about, mobile yet static in a mobile yet static home. A space that is compact and nested, no sharp edges, no wasted space. Things slide away, fold up and compress. Awkward spaces and strangely angled rooms, the dance to get through doors. Claustrophobically small with 360 degree window walls and pleated patterned curtains.

Caravan parks: Ballardian gated communities, members only, private entertainment and private bars, communal bins and roadways that have rules of their own, obscure parking regulations. Hardstands and hook ups. Shower blocks and toilet blocks. Phone boxes and flower pots.

Signs of warning and advice: private, keep of the grass, no ball games, no littering, clean up your dog waste, use the bins provided, please ensure this gate remains closed, call this number if reception is closed, phone out of order, park here, do not park here, site closed until 1st April.

This is an orderly world, everything in its place and a place for everything within and without, just so. Intruding into this space: a massive megalithic mound. Right in the middle of the caravans!

Auchenlaich long cairn and caravan

Now, the archaeology bit.

Auchenlaich Neolithic long cairn (NMRS number NN60NW 4) is near Callander in Stirling (historic Perthshire). It is the longest long cairn in Scotland, a lengthy but low mound of rocks, which runs for over 320m in an almost north-south alignment, over three times the length of the average football pitch. At the northern end, the cairn is 15m across, and for much of its length the monument is little more than between knee and thigh height. The southern end is enlarged due to the presence of a trapezoidal chambered tomb, almost 50m in length, and here the cairn swells to a more impressive 1.6m height. A possible forecourt is evident here, and a second ‘burial chamber’ is probably located about 110m to the north (the ‘lateral chamber’), the remnants of which protrude from the low mound.

Auchenlaich long cairn

Almost no work has been done here other than a modern site survey. The lateral chamber may have been ‘cleaned out’ by a local farmer in the 1950s but the outcome of this clandestine activity is unknown. Amazingly the monument was only identified in its entirety by the county archaeologist Lorna Main in 1991. The expansion of the caravan park in the mid-1990s to enclose the cairn on three sides meant that some limited archaeological evaluation work had to be done in the vicinity of the cairn’s southern end but little of note was found. There remains the possibility that this is a hugely long pile of stones with no burials ever having been placed here; even if human remains were interred here in the Neolithic, it is likely that 95% of the cairn is a solid pile of stones, an extravagant adornment to someone’s final resting place, a folly.

The cairn is now thoroughly entangled with the caravan site which is called Keltie Bridge. When I visited, the campsite was closed, and so I affected an entry by climbing over the boundary fence which straddled a linear glacial mound on the edge of the park. From here, I walked through some trees, then down a rough slope and out into the exposed, open expanse of the deserted caravan site. Empty dark windows surrounded me, a hibernating middle-class middle-aged panopticon. Nothing moved and there were no sounds. Random careless landscaping abounded: white painted rocks, a weird monument of boulders topped with tree rings and a planter with a dead plant within.

The weird monument

The weird monument

The dead-eyed caravans were the only witnesses to my walk towards the grassy mound right in the middle of this urban nomad encampment, the huge cairn surrounded by a tokenistic wire and wood fence. I wandered around this pointless boundary, on the silent caravan park roadway, past the cream coloured empty shower and toilet block and towards some parked campervans. The monument stretched out ahead of me, to the end of the caravan site and then beyond, straddled by a wall which marked the northern boundary of the campsite. Although unimpressive in terms of height and girth, this is still a dramatic monument, of almost comical length, extended beyond all utility and seriousness, fading towards the obscure and distant northern terminal.

Path through Auchenlaich, looking to the west

Path through Auchenlaich, looking to the west

Two threadbare trees grow from the monument, a small one on the southern cairn, a much larger one with destructive roots infiltrating the mound near the lateral chamber. This damage can be surveyed from the comfort of a formal pathway that bisects the long cairn, a curiously decorated shortcut across the monument, with gateways at either end, festooned with empty half-moon planters. Both ends of this path are marked by a single grey-black post with a light atop at waist height. This routeway takes the trespassing explorer and caravan-er alike from one side of the cairn to the other across a ‘break’ in the bank, and allows impressive if unheralded views north and south along the mound.

Auchenlaich

Looking back to the east it became clear that the directing mind behind this peculiar arrangement had established an axis mundi that wilfully cut across the cairn, connecting a caravan with the shower block, a ley of some kind to compete with the more tangible megalithic line of power it crosses.

Axis mundi / modern ley

Axis mundi / modern ley

On the other side of the cairn, a row of ghostly empty caravan plots runs parallel to the fence. A single caravan occupied one of these plots, but the others remained vacant, rectangles of grey gravel with a green power outlet jutting from the ground beside each. Here we have lines of power, both megalithic and electrical – all impotent, limp and inactive but rich with possibility.

Auchenlaich hardstands

And so I took my leave of this place, leaving the campsite the way I had arrived, with no-one apparently around to witness my walk. And it struck me that this was a place of frustration and emptiness, with the long cairn at the heart of this vacuum. Here, the megalith has been caged and enclosed, with the coming and going of holidaymakers and residents incidental. No-one notices the monument even if it can be walked over and around. I read 93 reviews of the Caravan Park and campsite and only one mentioned the ‘largest burial chamber in Scotland’; another noted the enclosure, within which ewes and lambs grazed. The cairn wills itself to be noticed, to retain relevance, to matter – but it does not.

red shift dvd cover

Caravans can induce such feelings of despair, receptacles of plastic and twee banality, dependent on cars or lorries to move them around. Such a caravan features prominently in the 1978 BBC ‘Play for Today’ Red Shift (recently released on DVD by the BFI). This remarkable and challenging drama flits between the stories of three young men in the present day, the English Civil War and during the Roman occupation of Britain. The play is ostensibly about the power of place, with all stories revolving around significant events which occurred near or on Mow Cop, Cheshire, a village beside a strange rocky ridge with a ruined castle on top of it. The protagonists are connected by a polished stone axe, wielded as a weapon against the Romans, buried and found on numerous occasions subsequently. This powerful object is found in a void in a wall on top of Mow Cop in the 1970s by Tom and his girlfriend Jan (having been placed there after a violent event in the 17th century) and soon becomes something of an obsession for Tom: he caresses it, and studies it, hiding it in his small bed space in the caravan he shares with his overbearing parents. It is in this caravan that the first shift between times occurs in the film, after a very heated argument that hints at the troubled narratives that lie ahead. The caravan signifies the confined spaces that Tom feels constrain him in all aspects of his life, but it acts for a time as a suitable museum and reliquary for his prized stone axe before he finally accepts he must hand the axe over to an expert.

Tom clutching the axe, still from Red  Shift

Tom clutching the axe, still from Red Shift

Auchenlaich long cairn is confined as well, within layer after layer of enclosure – fence, grass verge, road, caravans and the boundary of the campsite itself. The cairn and caravans have come to resemble one another: the megalith and its setting has become caravanesque, fitted into its compartment, folded away, neat and tidy, not in anyone’s way. Even in prehistory stone cupboards served as hidden and efficient storage spaces for bones. Perhaps too the caravans have become like chambered cairns, repositories of memories and places of routine, spatially compact with standardised exteriors. This is an orderly world, everything in its place and a place for everything within and without, just so.

But for how long can this monstrous monument be subdued? In Red Shift, Tom smashes the caravan kitchen window and thus connects with the ancient past. At Keltie Bridge, there is a chance for all the campers and caravanners to make a similar and tangible connection with prehistory, from the comfort of their own mobile home. They need only step outside their tents and caravans and take a deep breath before the plunge.

The cairn and the caravans

The cairn and the caravans

Sources and acknowledgements – the primary source of information on the Auchenlaich long cairn comes from a short report by Sally Foster and Jack Stevenson to be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 132 (2002), part of an excavation report on the nearby Claish Neolithic timber hall (Barclay, Brophy and MacGregor, pages 65-137). The plan of the cairn in this blog post is an amended version of a plan that appears in that report, which I have amateurishly embellished. For more on the monument, see also its CANMORE entry. The image of the Red Shift DVD front cover is widely available online, while the still showing Tom and the axe was sourced from the TV Cream website. The reviews of the Caravan Park that I read (up to 10th March 2015) were from Trip Advisor and UK Campsite.

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