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.
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.
This blog post contains selected extracts from a paper I gave at the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (SPMA) ‘congress’ at the University of Glasgow. More details on the session, The archaeologies of now, organised by James Dixon and Sefryn Penrose, can be found at the end of the post.
For a decade now, I have been exploring various ways that my interest in prehistoric sites in urban places might intersect with a Ballardian worldview. English author JG Ballard’s fiction and non-fiction writing is often characterised as prophetic and dystopian, covering themes such as climate change, consumerism, middle class isolationism and violence, auto-erotica, hidden pathologies, and the excesses of supermodernity. These teased at my brain, something awaiting unlocking.
There is no better indication of the crashing together of prehistory and our modern urban world than roads and cars competing for the same spaces as standing stones. Sometimes this can take on a visceral form, such as a documented attempt in the 2000s to drive a car over the reconstructed Bronze Age barrow at Huly Hill near Edinburgh.
The images above show the outcome of a collision between a BMW and Bedd Morris standing stone in Dyfed, Wales, in October 2011. The stone was broken, and the toppled half initially removed for safe-keeping before later being reinstated. This crash resulted in a small excavation which recovered material culture from the stone socket and two C14 dates. This was not the first time this has happened, the stone being situated on a bend on a fast country road. This event is doomed to be repeated multiple times as if on a loop.
To pursue my Ballardian pathology, I purchased a copy of Simon Sellar’s book Applied Ballardianism on the mistaken belief that it was a textbook or academic treatise about the application of JG Ballard’s ideas in the humanities.
What I got was something very different and yet it unlocked something in my brain that I am still trying to come to terms with: Ballard as a way to rethink our engagements with the material outcomes and traces of the ancient past in the present. A Ballardian archaeology.
Ballard’s obsessions with gated communities, boundaries, social disorder, antisocial behaviour, subversion and urban decay are all obsessions we should have as archaeologists. His focus on urban edgelands and dystopian developments mirror the working environment of many in the heritage sector. These are our desire lines to the past.
The place where the thin line between past and present is at its thinnest is in the urban environment, a point of singularity, starkly shedding light on the condition of being an archaeologist, performing as a prehistorian, rooted in the present.
I have gradually come to realize that urban prehistory is nothing if it is not Ballardian.
Ballards’ writing offers for me the clearest and most coherent means to understand the juxtaposition between past and present which dominates archaeology. All our encounters with traces of the past – material and otherwise – happen in the contemporary, the modern. The past and present meet at a stark and jagged edge, a tear, that for a moment gives the illusion of a past that still exists in a degraded form.
Prehistory offers a heightened state of time-consciousness.
These points of fusion – wormholes that lead nowhere – are the places where the magic happens. The powerful intersections between the ancient and the supermodern occur in places that Ballard would recognize and frequently wrote about – motorway intersections and roundabouts, suburban gated communities, industrial estates, shopping malls, golf courses and leisure centres.
Our encounters are here, in the shadow on the destruction machine.
These renegade essences of the past offer uncomfortable glimpses into the nature of our consumerist society: our prehistoric heritage is routinely damaged, or destroyed, often surgically excavated, to allow development to occur and to maintain our consumer commuter society.
Some of the most fascinating engagements – our weird rituals – with prehistory in the contemporary happen in relation to travel infrastructure projects and that is what I want to focus on here.
Roads and the car. Railway lines and stations. Airport runways and terminal buildings.
These are all places and things that could be described as supermodern, and thus require special consideration.
In order to apply Ballardian logic to prehistory, we must accept that we are now in the age of Hyperprehistory.
Hyperprehistory is a concept that describes the role of prehistory in the supermodern environments we live in today. Supermodernity, as defined by anthropologist Marc Auge is ‘the acceleration of history’.
It is a period of what he called excesses: factual, spatial and self-reflective over-abundance. Gonzalez-Ruibal has gone further and suggests that the super (or hyper) modern includes also material abundance.
An outcome of this is an increased and dynamic world of things and places, which serves and perpetuate these excesses. It is within these processes that prehistory has become entangled.
The supermodern is physically defined by non-places, parts of the landscape that are irrational, ahistorical and that have no identity. These primarily consist of places of transit and consumerism. This concept echoes the work of the geographer Edward Relph who argued that we have created urban spaces that have a sense of placelessness, bereft of emotional attachment. Our urban cityscapes consist of impersonal places where transactions are carried out and facilitate movement to another place, often another non-place.
Hyperprehistory reflects the intimate connection between urban development, the needs of our consumer society, and the material traces of prehistoric lifeways. It suggests that in the creation of non-places, we often encounter prehistory.
And hyperprehistory also contains within it the potential to place non-places, to add emotional attachments where there are none, to replace surface gloss with the depth of deep time.
We should expect to find prehistory in urban places and in association with transport infrastructure. We should actively seek it out, rather than despair on its ruination.
I always look at roundabouts. They are a legitimate fieldwork target.
Ballard wrote that high rises constructed around his hometown of Shepperton resembled the megaliths of Stonehenge.
There is no such thing as coincidence.
How can we derive meaning from such encounters? What is the social value of hyperprehistory in a supermodern urban world?
One of the most captive audiences you will ever have (except for audiences who are literally captives) are those on public transport, whether on trains, planes, trams or omnibuses. That is why so many commuters spend much of the journey blankly staring of a window picking their nose. They have the disbenefit of having even less agency that car drivers.
More captive still are those who have to pass through and / or spend time in travel hubs, from the humble bus stop to suburban railway stations right up to massive international airports. These placeless places not only have designated waiting / lurking areas, but are also replete with connecting passages, walkways and tunnels. In other words, all sorts of spaces that become venues for consumption, as advertisers and those who own these transit hubs recognise the value of having a bored audience just where you want them.
JG Ballard commonly wrote about such transactional commuter spaces. He noted in an essay on airports for instance that Shepperton was not a suburb of London, but of Heathrow Airport. He wrote:
I have learned to like the intricate network of car rental offices, air freight depots, and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world. Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than a mythical domain of village greens, cathedrals, and manorial vistas.
Ballard would I suspect have been delighted that the expansion of Heathrow Airport in the 2000s created prehistoric landscapes: great primeval forests within which hunter-gatherers thrived and great beasts roamed, geometrically rigorous cursiform vistas, farming landscapes swollen with fecundity. The additional terminal building, an expansion of this sky-city (as Ballard has called it), in its construction passed from non-place to place and back to non-place again.
The hiatus in the middle was the invigoration of excavation, a kind of ecstasy of data gathering.
Heathrow Airport is a place of deep time and shallow lives lived. Ballard noted: I welcome the landscape’s transience, alienation, and discontinuities.
Ballard has also noted that:
At an airport like Heathrow the individual is defined not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40 years, but by the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on a screen.
A flickering screen is the medium by which the prehistoric eruptions that accompanied the construction of the terminal building are communicated to the trapped commuters. Enforcedly at leisure, numbly holding onto their travel documents to enable even the most minor of purchases in Boots and WH Smith, holidaymakers and business people offer the required captive audience.
The stasis of the departure lounge is used as a vehicle for the presentation of a short film about the excavations that took place in advance of the construction of Heathrow Terminal 5. This video, and associated online content, had subtitles rather than sound, a visual essay in deep time.
This short film can also be viewed on any device via youtube, where you can provide your own soundtrack.
In 2018, I stumbled upon an explicit attempt to ‘culturally contaminate’ a ‘non-place’ while travelling from Milan to Milan Malpensa airport via train. The railway station at Terminal 2 contained a detailed exhibition on prehistoric lifeways, material culture and burials. This exhibition is located in that most placeless of places, a concourse between two travel hubs.
The purpose of this bland tunnel-space would be impossible to determine should one be blindfolded and led here. The exhibition space had the qualities of a hospital and an airport waiting space, illuminated by shiny surfaces and energised by the low hum of escalators and the mechanical whirr of elevators.
The material on display was discovered during excavations in advance of the construction of the railway line between Terminals 1 and 2. These objects and this information were revealed because of an infrastructural need, a direct result of supermodernity.
The exhibition has the explicit aim of making a place of this non-place.
The railway station has been chosen as the place to exhibit the finds … making them accessible 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for a very large audience. Passing through the exhibition, even the most hasty and distracted traveller will notice the presentation of a wide selection of finds … accompanied by immediately comprehensible communication.
It is almost as if JG Ballard had written the text to accompany this commuter museum, this intercity exhibition.
Amongst Ballard’s writings include the novel Millennium People, and the collection of essays and reviews, A user’s guide to the millennium. But I increasingly find myself wondering – what millennium was he writing about?
If this pathology has a name, it is archaeology.
Prehistory is the scar tissue of the past.
Hyperprehistory is our framework for navigating ourselves through the coming millennium, whatever it may bring.
Archaeologies of Now session
A twitter moments summary of the session, posted by James Dixon, can be found here.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank James Dixon for inviting me to take part in this fantastic session, and for the positive feedback my paper got. Thanks to the other speakers for stimulating papers.
I would like to thank Brian Kerr for allowing me to use his photo of me giving the paper.
Image sources, where known, are noted in captions. The first photo of JG Ballard (BBC4 still) comes from an article about Crash in The Reprobate. The second (Shepperton) was sourced from an article about Ballard in The Spectator. In both cases, I don’t think this is the original source of the photo.
The Huly Hill photo source is unknown. Sadly I don’t think it is one of my photos – it is too good!
The Ballard quotations in the post come from an essay he wrote called ‘Airports: the true cities of the 21st century’ which can be found here. His comment about Stonehenge came from a Guardian interview.
This paper was also referred to in the post: Gonzalez-Ruibal, A 2014 Supermodernity and archaeology. In C Smith (ed) Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, 7125-34. New York: Springer.
My paper was also summarised in this twitter thread.
Twitter version of the paper I gave at the @SPMA#PMAC2019 session Archaeologies of Now. My paper was called 'Hyperprehistory: unleashing the deep time of non-places' and was in essence an exploration of the possibility of a Ballardian archaeology….#hyperprehistory 1/ pic.twitter.com/WGFsirdPwW
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.
an accumulation of scree at the base of a cliff or steep slope
an ankle bone
The pressure of my thumb caused just enough 0.7mm graphite to ooze from my pencil. Sitting on a train, breathless, fumbling in my bag for the book. Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. This crumpled paperback that had become the roadmap for my increasingly eccentric visits to places in heavily urbanised or industrialised places with obscure prehistoric predecessors. This was no longer enough, I came to realise after writing 116 posts for my blog. I needed new kicks, fresh experiences, the hard stuff.
I opened Sellars’ book up at random pages and saw continual relevance to my own condition, just as the unreliable narrator of this fever-dream of a novel had also done. I began to scribble in the margins, automatic writing. The sections of the book that I applied marginalia to appeared to be random but were perhaps not. Bunker Logic. Scar Tissue. Emergence.
This book was the archaeological fieldwork guide that I had always wanted. More profound than Barker’s Techniques of Archaeological Investigation. More informative than Drewett’s Field Archaeology. More grounded in reality that Hodder’s The Archaeological Process. More emotionally charged than the MoLAS archaeological site manual (3rd edition).
I came to realise that as a rulebook for surveying the deep time in our world one need do no more than read the complete fictional works of JG Ballard, Applied Ballardianism and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology.
Through this psychogeographik grimoire, I had found my hard stuff. The hard stuff of life.
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 the return of, 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.
In the Mesolithic of Oronsay, hunters and fishers would bury human finger bones in their shell middens.
In the Neolithic of Orkney, farmers would use midden material to insulate their houses.
But 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 middening.
A Gruesome Inventory
The kitchen-midden was discovered on the far side of the small estuarine island of Inchkeith in 1870 at the base of a slope. This artificial organic talus consisted of cooking-debitage, eating-scree, of unknown date and origin. The midden was monumental in its scale, up to 3m high, thick with greasy charcoal.
Baskets of bones were removed from this midden for analysis back in Edinburgh. The scientist tasked with the analysis of these bits and pieces produced a gruesome inventory, scraped from the pages of an anatomical manual, notes from an animal autopsy.
Basi-occipital and basi-sphenoid fragments of grey seal skulls. Mastoid process and temporal fossa of sheep. Head of the ulna of a sheep. Fourth cervical vertebrae of a pig. Head of left tibia of an ox. Cannon bone of hind foot of bos. Toe bone of bos. Parts of jaw, and several teeth, of horse. Jaw bones of the rabbit. An assemblage of alien species.
Many shells were found too, listed in the analysis like an incantation. Tapes pullastra. Purpura lapillus. Pecten varius. Ostrea Edulis. Pecten maximus.
It was concluded after this analysis and repeat visits to the island that, ‘there is no evidence as to the period when these rejecta were first cast forth’.
Cast Forth in the Forth.
Hunter Street. There is no such thing as a coincidence so I told myself as I cut up from the Barrowlands Ballroom and headed towards the urban prehistory. I turned onto Hunter Street, folding a map and stuffing it into my back pocket. Across a railway line, over an abandoned tunnel. Ahead of me now were the rusty skeletal remains of warehouses, the Victorian city excarnated, exposed as if on a osteoarchaeologist’s slab.
The sign of the Hunter was affixed to a street light that had beside it a rusty totem pole, its evil twin, pock-marked with corrupted spirals and corroded cupmarks.
Two drunks in navy shell suits kept appearing during my walk, as if they were being projected for my benefit on a loop by some unknown projectionist. One of them spoke to me tenderly, momentarily breaking the fourth wall, confusing me for his partner in grime, before realising his mistake and flickering out.
I was looking for hunters in the city, middenscapes in the shadow of the industrialised Tennants’ Brewery, makers of liquid gassy capitalism. From my perspective as I entered Barrack Street it seemed that the aluminium pipes that emerged from the brewery were connected directly to the Necropolis, Glasgow’s city centre cemetery, and for a moment I speculated that this must have been for the exchange of fluids. Through the beer haze I could also see the outline of Glasgow Cathedral, one of Ludovic Mann’s ancient Glaswegian pagan places, his Temple of the Moon. There is no such thing as a coincidence.
Back on Hunter Street (confusingly re-appearing) I reached my destination. A block of modern flats and some old brick-built industrial units on Duke Street where a shell midden had been found during construction works in 1985. Ancient oyster shells had been found on the spoil from the job, and identified too late as being of archaeological significance. In prehistory, I reminded myself, everyone was swallowing oysters all of the time, as they were, as in Victorian times, not simply the preserve of the rich. The shells were then dumped in a pile, calcium cairns, middens.
The industrial unit was orange and glowed in the late afternoon sun, raking across the facade and revealing ghosts – ghost signs, phantom lettering, a typeset palimpsest of failed and out-dated businesses. The building was dominated by a monstrous sign: JAS. D GALLOWAY. TYRE DISTRIBUTORS.
I wondered around the block onto a different section of Barrack Street (I was becoming spatially disorientated). I passed a pub – the Ladywell, suggesting an ancient spring or holy well once stood here. On the wall of a neighbouring car repair shop, an occult symbol had been crayoned onto a white-washed wall. Was it a spiral, or a malformed cup-and-ring mark, or a reversed number nine – or a shell, a mollusc, a midden-component?
A constellation of coincidences? I reflected on the words written by Marion Shoard and quoted by the fictional headcase Philip in Applied Ballardianism. Urban edgelands allowed us to see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. In essence, socially fundamental constructions, materials and infrastructure often become restricted to urban edges. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
In prehistory, those conflicted spatially dangerous fundamentals were middens.
under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow layers of practice the stratigraphy of a lifetime of generations of meals of daily routine of repetition and habit and routine and the accumulation of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow under the people under the streets pressing against the walls of the basements pressure toe bone of bos parts of jaw and several teeth of horse jaw bones of the rabbit tapes pullastra purpura lapillus countless rejecta under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow calcium carbon cairns
The Island of Dead Birds
Inchkeith today is a very different place from the island where the kitchen midden was recorded in 1870. Militarisation began in 1879 and continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century transforming this small rocky eminence through the construction of concrete bunkers, control buildings and the infrastructure of ammunition supply.
This was a defensive, reactive place, but never saw action.
After this brief flourishing, the island has more or less been abandoned to nature (with most of the personnel withdrawn in 1943) like some kind of social experiment.
Quite by chance, this island of precaution has become an emergent prehistoric landscape with its own monuments, its own concrete vocabulary, its new middens.
The porcelain cairn –
The fallen megalith –
The shit-stained monolith –
The island has its own sacred geometry, ghost paths and leys –
Bunkers abound, underground spaces for the containment of ammunition and men. The walls are burdened with a sinister anatomy of coat hooks and shelf supports.
Animals have become complicit in re-making prehistory, the island covered in bird-build middens, accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds.
Now, in its abandoned state, this concrete island is becoming something … other.
Nests within nests by nests
Scattered cartilages and cartridges
Shells upon shells under shelves and on skulls
Pips amidst pipes and petrification
Calcium cairns. Concrete cairns.
Broken bunkers and bones
Talus Talus Talus
“Abandoned on the sand of the littoral like the skin of a species that has disappeared, the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military history…. (Virilio 2014, 46).
What is urbanisation but an accumulation?
A midden with prehistory as its dirty edgelands, if not in space then certainly in time.
We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.
Living on our own islands with our own futile defences, bunker mentalities, surrounded by lots of shelves.
Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.
And when our megaliths have collapsed, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens and our single-use plastic.
Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds.
We are tomorrow’s urban prehistory.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Gordon Barclay for inviting me to spend a day visiting various fortified islands in the Firth of Forth, amongst them Inchkeith. The few facts about that island that appear in the narrative above come from Gordon’s excellent handouts to accompany the trip and he appears in one photo striding towards an anti-aircraft gun position.
The account of the kitchen-midden found on Inchkeith in the 1870s is (you can find it online by googling the title of the paper): David Grieve 1872 On the discovery of a kitchen midden on Inchkeith, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 9, 452-55. The jumbled list of animal bones in my post is adapted from this paper.
The limited information available for the Barrack Street / Hunter Street shell midden can be found in the canmore entry for the site here, and Sloan recorded in the 1985 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (pg 46):
“Deposits of oyster shell were reported from approximately this location during housing development in 1982. Although reported too late for active investigation a sample of shell was recovered from builder’s spoil; remains in the possession of the Committee for Early Coastal archaeology”.
This could be a Mesolithic site, but it could also be medieval, or anything in between. We choose our own myths about the past.
Ludovic Mann’s moon temple writings are included in his 1938 short book Ancient Glasgow: Temple of the Moon.
I must finish by paying a debt of gratitude to Simon Sellars for his brilliant novel Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018) for inspiring aspects of this post, and leading me to the chapter Edgelands by Marion Shoard (quote from this in the blog post) in Jenkins’ book Remaking the landscape (Profile Books, 2002). Sellars also led me to the majestic Bunker Archeology by Paul Virlio (my version being published in 2014 by Princeton Architectural Press). The image from that book was sourced from the Amazon page for this volume and a credited quotation appears above as well.
The definitions that start this post were adapted from wikipedia.
‘The half-light, with its glimmer, had always had for him a curious historic reality, as though the world in this quiet hour turned itself into a stage whereon all that had once been could once more be, but invisibly now and therefore magically. The word ‘magic’ was as professionally real to him as the word ‘atom’ to a physicist. He knew his learned theories. But, unlike the physicist, he had to translate his concepts in terms of human behaviour’.
the asymmetrical arrangement of hollow spaces
“…it would drain him through death to the negation of stone; and even then, he would not be the stone, he would be the darkness”.
the architecture of containment
approach with caution
wear protective clothing
invited participants only
inside and outside
“The upended stone was about three feet high, a small ‘standing stone’ or orthostat…These upended stones or orthostats would go right round the cairn forming its containing wall or peristalith. There were theorists who said that the great stone circles themselves were but a later development of this peristalith which kept back the cairn – or kept in the dead’.
systematic investigation of a death chamber
a steady hand
‘Then, as always in such fluid fancy, a knot formed about the one solitary fact, namely that the cairn was a great tomb; and instantly, as if his mind were indeed a radioactive substance emitting thoughts of an inconceivable swiftness, he completed the destruction of the world by atomic bombs, saw the cairn of Westminster Abbey and a future race of archaeologists opening it up’.
ideological demands for absolute decommission
preservation by record
“The evidence would disclose
that this had been
a chambered tomb of the Pre-Atomic age”.
A Tripartite tale: some notes
The long quotations contained within this post were written by Neil Gunn(1891-1973), the Scottish author who grew up in the small village of Dunbeath, about 40 km south-south-east of Dounreay, Caithness. He wrote a series of evocative novels about the transformed and transforming Highlands in the middle of the twentieth century. All the extended quotations in this post come from his 1948 book The Silver Bough. This book tells the story of an arrogant academic archaeologist based in central Scotland who spends a summer on the northwest coast of Scotland in the fictional town of Kinlochoscar excavating a prehistoric megalithic tomb encased in a stone circle. (This is the best book I have read about an excavation other than Peter Ackroyd’s similarly themed First Light.) Nuclear matters are a recurring theme: Gunn was by all accounts disturbed by the dropping of atom bombs on Japan in 1945, while his archaeologist protagonist was active at a time when that profession was on the cusp of being transformed by science, and in particular the radioactive science of radiocarbon dating. In many sense, it is a novel about individual, disciplinary and social ‘loss of innocence’ to coin archaeologist David Clarke’s memorable phrase.
A Neolithic chambered cairn, Cnoc na h-Uiseig, is situated right next to the former nuclear power plant of Dounreay, near Thurso, Caithness, on the north coast of mainland Scotland. This monument is largely ruinous, and was investigated by Arthur JH Edwards in 1928. Excavation of this ‘horned cairn’ showed it to contain various internal chambers, and recovered from the interior were sherds of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery, a perforated bone object, a sandstone axe and the remains of at least five individuals. The site has been much damaged by its location near twentieth century infrastructure, notably a nearby (now defunct) airfield, and in 1964 OS field workers noted that, ‘This chambered cairn, a grassy mound, has been mutilated large-scale construction work and is now slightly rectangular in shape, measuring 22.0m E-W and 17.5m transversely, by about 2.5m high’. It has for many decades been contained within a square fenced enclosure. This tomb was located well within the blast zone and almost impossible to visit for that reason. There are a number of other prehistoric and later heritage sites within a notional exclusion zone.
Dounreay nuclear power plantwas established from 1955 onwards, and had three nuclear reactors. For decades the plant lived in uneasy equilibrium both with the population of the county of Caithness, but also the ruinous Neolithic megalith on its fringes. The plant was famous at times for unorthodox practices involving the disposal of some nuclear material, while there were often tales of radioactive particles on the nearby beaches. This was not an environment conducive to megalith visitation. Closure and decommissioning of the site began in 2005, and is expected to take over two centuries to entirely return the site to its former state. Since its closure, the nuclear plant has undergone a gradual decommissioning process, brought to my attention recently with the inclusion of a glossy brochure about this in the pack for a conference I was attending in the county. Here, we see the act of un-polluting the land, reversing the radioactive decades, as a triumph of technology carried out by robots and scientists wearing protective outfits straight out of science fiction. The decommissioning process has brought with it a longish tail of employment, and some funds to support community projects including those related to heritage and archaeology, although as yet this has not included re-excavation of the chambered cairn.
The end of the Dounreay decommissioning project is anticipated to be in AD 2300. By that time, the chambered tomb will be over 6,000 years old.
It is becoming post-atomic.
Sources: Edwards’ excavation report can be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 63 (1928-29), the paper being called, ‘Excavations at Reay Links and at a horned cairn at Lower Dounreay, Caithness’. There is a very nice introduction to Gunn’s The Silver Bough by Dairmid Gunn, in the 2003 Whittles Publishing edition which shed some light on the motivations behind the book. The timescales for the complete decommissioning process for Dounreay came from this article in the The Engineer Magazine.
Material culture and other items related to Dounreay can be viewed in an exhibition in Caithness Horizons, Thurso.
Photo and image credits: All of the black and white images related to the chambered cairn are reproduced from the Edwards’ excavation report. The photo of the excavator at work (actually on a nearby site, not the chambered cairn) comes from a poster produced by Headland Archaeology entitled, Lower Dounreay: an archaeological landscape. The photo of Neil Gunn comes from the website about him linked to in the text.
The rest of the images, from top to bottom:
Half-built reactor (B&W) Charles Hewitt / Picture Post / Getty, via The Times
Dr Green and I reached the final point of our expedition quite by chance. The end of our journey, marked by an encounter with a monstrous head that neither of us will forget. We had heard reports from locals about the existence of such a head, but had put this down to braggadocio or hallucination brought on my excessive Irn Bru consumption which I believe to be a local beverage with chemical properties that promote altered states of consciousness.
My source had told me that the monstrous head was located in a nether-world of scrap on the southern bank of the River Clyde. My first attempt to catch glimpse of this head, a solo mission, was unsatisfactory, the bulbous orb too distant when viewed from the north side of the river to reveal the details of its concrete physiognomy.
Upon approaching the supposed location of this concrete monstrosity, Dr Green and I spoke to various people who made a living breaking automobiles in this place. Surrounded by skeletal motor cars, carburetors and bent doors and wings, these men affected to tell us they knew nothing of a giant head. Yet we had already caught sight of the dome of its skull behind a portable cabin.
The men gazed on the head with awe and wonder from the safety of their own business premises and were soon evangelising about the discovery to colleagues.
Yet Dr Green and I did not have the luxury of standing back. We had a duty, now we had come this far, to document and record this wonder of human endeavour, to pay our respects at the chin of the beast.
In order to do this we had to pass through a broken post-industrial world of cairns of scrap metal, clawing digging machines and the constant rumble of crushing and breaking. This was the end of all things, the bent remnants of our society piled high as if to reach heaven but only speaking of hell.
We scrambled through an open fallen gate, circumnavigated some shacks and warehouses, and entered a broad and open yard, across which we espied the monstrous head behind two ruined mechanical units, one of them an omnibus.
Closer we edged, until in front of us the huge bald head stood, balanced atop a linear mound of litter, tin cans, building material and detritus. The dome loomed over us and it felt like it had eyes in the back of its considerable cranium.
The preposterously sized crown was propped up by wooden supports, better to enable it to loom over any river dwellers and pleasure cruisers sailing by.
As we hesitantly went closer to the megalith, it was clear that it had enormous orifices, dark holes that we could have climbed into should we have wished, although on reflection we decided that dragging ourselves into and along eye sockets and nasal passages would not have been the wisest course of action. It was better that we did not investigate too closely the sense organs of this thing.
An over-sized blocked ear was located on either side of the skull, a closed porthole into the brain. This was a great relief for us as there was no enthusiasm for an exploration of an enormous external acoustic meatus or the accompanying skin flaps.
Crude letters were daubed onto the eastern cheek and chin of the hideous noggin. We documented these photographically although could not and cannot discern the meaning of K P and J G. An incantation to be chanted by acolytes circling the head in a frenzy we supposed. Although the paintwork was not red, it had the character of blood that had dried.
The proboscis emerged from a beard of green lichen, a moss-tache. We realised that this massive head had features that were disproportionate and exaggerated, its sharp angles directional, indicating the north, notably the mandible. Moss balls ran down the spine of the nose, beads of sweat that mirrored out own precipitative glands. A metal loop protruded from the base of the chin, clearly with the purpose of chaining sacrificial animals and – shudder – humans. And in the centre of the face were the eyes, voids into which our gaze could scarcely be arrested, eyes which somehow seemed to look up- and down-river at the same time. Thankfully the oral cavity remained sealed, forming a rictus grin; we had no desire to see what lay within.
As we retreated back to our carriage, we vouchsafed that nothing in our previous existence prepared us for the magnitude of the foreboding, monstrous head that we encountered on the bank of the slow-moving River Clyde that damp Spring morning.
Its dead eyes looked upon us as gods look upon ants. But more disturbing than all of this was –
an oblong void in the centre of the forehead suggested to us that there once had been a third eye a television screen located here broadcasting messages of hate and despair
What we feared more than anything else was that the rest of the body of this titan was there too, buried deep in the foreshore mud and sludge, awaiting re-animation. This prehistoric abomination, this monstrous appendage, this dreadful megalith, this…this…
Floating Head, Richard Groom
The Floating Head was one of many pieces of public art that were commissioned for, and displayed at, the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. This seminal and fondly-remembered summer event took place on the south bank of the River Clyde about 4km to the east of the current location of the Head.
The big Head was located in the Marina, which is on the left hand side of the map below.
The Souvenir Brochure of the Glasgow Garden Festival notes that the artwork was essentially a boat. “British Shipbuilders Training … helped to fabricate Richard Groom’s astonishing floating head – in reality a cement boat – in the harbour itself” (page 79). I have been able to find a few photos of the Head during the Festival (sources in the acknowledgements), and it looks very different.
The Festival ended in September 1988 and was dismantled, with various bits of art scattered around Scotland. In this air photo of the decommissioned site, the Floating Head is just visible, now out on the Clyde.
At what point the Floating Head was floated downstream to its current location I do not know. The Head now sits on the south side of the Clyde, near the Renfrew Ferry terminal, in an industrial estate accessed via Meadowside Street, Renfrew (NT 5068 6862).
It has its own record in the National Record of the Historic Environment (canmore). HES fieldworkers visited this monstrous head on 14 May 2015, and noted: “It now sits on the south bank of the River Clyde, adjacent to a scrap yard. It comprises the lower hull of a boat with a fibre glass moulded head on the top. It currently stands upright on its prow and appears to stare north across the river.”
Someone who works in a garage beside the yard the big Head sits behind told us that it had been there for at least 20 years, and that this place used to be a boat yard which might be why it was brought here. The Floating Head floats no more, but close examination makes it clear that it has many boat-like traits.
And now it has been erected, propped up, still an artwork but a very different one, a megalithic head watching boats travel up and down the Clyde, a source of puzzlement and wonder to all those who fall beneath its gaze.
Acknowledgements: I found out about the big head via Hugh Beattie, who posted the following photo on the My Clydebank Photos website. Hugh told me how to find the head, which prompted my two visits on both sides of the River over the past few weeks.
Helen Green accompanied me on the scrapyard fieldtrip, and provided one of the photos in the post above, so many thanks for the support when having to speak to strangers, not my strong point and for her observations which fed into the fanciful narrative that starts this post.
The staff of Renfrew Car Breakers were very helpful and allowed us access to their yard to take some photos. The Head is accessible by the various yards in this location, but permission must be sought, and it didn’t feel very safe. It is better viewed from Yoker on the other side of the River.
The images of the Floating Head in situ were found through various online searches, and attributed (from top to bottom) to: Owen of My Clydebank Photos, unknown, Graham Whyte video screengrab c16:45, Charlie Bubble (Flickr) and Sausage Sandwich (Urban Glasgow blog). If anyone has any other photos of the Floating Head I would love to see them.
My parents managed to find their old copy of the Garden Festival Brochure so many thanks to them for the archive work.
Sometimes fate and coincidence coalesce in such a way that they cause revelation. In my case this occurred recently when happenstance dictated that an urban prehistory stall I hosted at a science festival saw me located in a space between the material remnants of Glasgow’s prehistory, and a Ballardian nightmare. Completely outwith my control and I suspect beyond the ken of the organisers of the event, I was stationed at perhaps the most appropriate place in the whole city for the urban prehistorian to brandish his assorted wares.
For four hours I stood in what was essentially a glorified passageway in Glasgow’s Riverside Museum beside my rather feeble table of material culture, manipulated images, newsclippings and a flickering laptop slide show of urban prehistory images. On the horizons of my peripheral vision were a huge silver and copper engine, an old Corporation bus, and a display telling the story of the man who patrols the River Clyde to rescue those who jump or fall into the river. My more immediate landscape was starker still. To my right was a glass case containing two rotted timber logboats that had also been recovered from the Clyde, where they had been abandoned thousands of years ago. To my left was a tableaux set up around a crashed motorcycle, where a circular arrangement of television screens – a video henge – told the story of the collision with a motor car that had permanently ruined the bike and temporarily damaged the rider.
The story was on a ten-minute loop and so in effect I relived the story of the crash twenty four times by lunchtime.
This powerful, occult location, struck me as absolutely appropriate, and as I stood dumbly and heard the paramedics recount again and again how they held the motorcyclist in a neutral position while they established the mechanism of injury, it struck me once again that urban prehistory is nothing if it is not Ballardian. In fact, it is an example of what Simon Sellers has recently called Applied Ballardianism, ‘a theory of nothing’.
The remnants of prehistory that jut into the modern urban landscape occur in places that Ballard wrote about repeatedly – motorway intersections and roundabouts, suburban gated communities, industrial estates, shopping malls, golf courses and leisure centres. These renegade essences of the past offer uncomfortable glimpses in to the nature of our consumerist society, often destroyed, damaged or surgically excavated to allow development to occur, the past not being allowed to stand in the way of the present. These archaeological atrocities occur in order for us to exhibit the past in staged, stylized and un-natural ways, making an exhibition of the triumph of modernity over the pagan ancient past that lies barely concealed beneath the surface.
And so I turned once again, and re-arranged the objects on my table, exhibiting myself for a non-existent audience. Passers by lingered over the wreckage of the motorbike and I realized I could not compete with hyper-reality of the crash. Such is life.
“The car crash is the most dramatic event in most people’s lives apart from their own deaths, and for many the two will coincide. Are we merely victims in a meaningless tragedy, or do these appalling accidents take place with some kind of unconscious collaboration on our part?” (JG Ballard, 1971)
Lost in the mud
“Ballard once said, ‘One is aware of a sort of invisible marine world, of living below the water line. It works on you imaginatively after a while.’”
Context: the stall I set up was part of Exploration 2017, a festival of science and academic research taking place in a wide variety of venues across Scotland on 29-30th September 2017. The theme of the stall was Urban Prehistory and to be honest I didn’t get much in the way of interest from the public. I had plenty of time with my Ballardian thoughts in other words.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Jamie Gallagher for allowing me to take part in Explorathon 2017. Helen Green and Denise Telford helped me with the stall, while Fraser Capie kindly brought me a coffee mid-morning. The posters for the stall were designed with the help of Lauren Welsh.
The exhibition telling the story of the accident is called CRASH, a 12 minute installation by Joseph Briffa.
Illustration sources:The JG Ballard photo is a screengrab from a BBC4 documentary. I found this on the website, Volume 1 Brooklyn. The urban stone circle, beneath an underpass, is from the inside cover of the one of the popular Crap Towns books.
Quotation sources: Ballard 1971, from an article he wrote for the motoring magazine Drive. The underwater Ballard quotation was found in the Applied Ballardianism website (link, above).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
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.
The urban and the prehistory bleed into one another and feed off one another, an ancient power source that has not yet run dry.
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.
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.
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)
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.