Dreams can come true –

Dreams of empty car parks and painted postholes –

Strange dreams –

Fluorescently illuminated – 

Electric, eclectic dreams.

Photo: Jan Brophy

Pilgrimage involves a journey in hope, ritualised behaviour upon arrival, the slow walk with reverence and humility, supplication in front of reliquaries and relics, the leaving of an offering, the purchase of a souvenir, and a journey back cleansed and vindicated.

I had just this experience recently when I visited the lower floor of a multi-storey car park beneath a Waitrose and shopping mall in Dorchester, Dorset.

A multi-story car park.

This was the fulfillment of a long-held ambition of mine to make this pilgrimage to a place of urban prehistory. An ambition that began with the establishment of a folder in my urban prehistory memory stick on 5th June 2013 simply entitled: ‘Waitrose timber circle‘. A folder set up in expectation of this pilgrimage, six years in the making, and also a potential blog post finally now being realised.

In the folder, the photo that started it all.

A megalithic manel.

Photo: Tim Prevett

A link to the Megalithic Portal page that this picture came from was copied into a largely empty ancient MS Word document in the folder. Also written there was the excitable note: There is also a mural in the shopping centre all about the building of the timber circle!!

The 20 painted red circles in a line running across this car park were the target of my pilgrimage, indicating the (precise?) location of large Neolithic postholes that were excavated in 1984 advance of the shopping mall development by the Wessex Trust for Archaeology (now Wessex Archaeology, ‘welcome to the future of heritage’).

These postholes were part of the boundary of what was likely to have once been a massive late Neolithic (third millennium BC) palisaded enclosure, that is an oval space some 380m across, enclosing about 10 hectares, defined by hundreds of huge timber posts. The extent of this enclosure (of which only a small part was ever excavated) is such that much of central Dorchester sits within / atop its boundary, now of course invisible, buried, perhaps almost wholly destroyed. Five similar postholes were apparently also found at Church Street, a location some hundred metres away. Taken together with the projection of the curve of the posthole arc, dots were duly joined and a notional enclosure was born (or reborn) on the ancient banks of the River Frome (now much smaller than it was back in the day).

site plan

This monument, of which similar examples have been identified across Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, may well represent one of the most monumental endeavors of British prehistory even although it now lies beneath Icen Way, Drumgate Street, the Dinosaur Museum and a pub called The Blue Raddle (‘laugher on tap’).

My own excavations (with Gordon Noble) at comparatively smaller sites at Forteviot and Leadketty, Perth and Kinross, brought home to me how massive these monuments must have been, not simply in terms of the resources, time and labour needed to build them, but also the impact they would have had on the broader landscape. A lot of oak trees had to be felled for starters.

David Simon reconstruction
Forteviot late Neolithic palisaded enclosure and squirrel (c) David Simon / SERF Project

Only 40m worth of the Greyhound Yard boundary was excavated in 1984. These were massive postholes, some almost 3m deep, and 2m to 3m across, with ramps to help with post erection. Using standard calculations (1m of depth can support 3.5m of post height above ground) then these postholes could have supported oak posts of up to 1m in girth and 14m length, perhaps 10m of that the height above ground. These would have been re-arranged tree trunks, bloody massive posts

post height 3

Doing some rough calculations on the back of Brexit propaganda from the nearby Wetherspoons (The Royal Oak), this enclosure would have had a circumference of something like 1.2km (if a complete circuit) defined by posts that were spaced between 1 and 2m apart. The boundary would have consisted of at least 600 oak posts, each weighing in the order of 10 tonnes. That is 6000 tonnes of oak alone, a similar figure to that calculated by Alex Gibson for the Hindwell palisaded enclosure, Wales, which he excavated. (This enclosure was bigger in plan but was defined by smaller postholes.)

Gibson gazetteer
Gazetteer entry for the Dorchester monument in Gibson (2002)

The Greyhound Yard (or my preferred name, Tudor Arcade) monument is only one part of a larger complex of Neolithic enclosures on the south side of the Frome, which also include Maumbury Rings henge, Mount Pleasant mega-henge and Flagstones causewayed enclosure, which puts this locality on a par with the Avebury and Stonehenge landscapes, although less celebrated due to Roman monkeying about, urbanisation and lack of World Heritage Status. (Maumbury is a sensational site despite the Romans buggering it up, and I’ll blog about this in the future.)

Castleden Neo Britiain book map
Source: Castleden’s Neolithic Britain (1992)

Exactly how the monument came to be memorialized in red paint and artworks is less clear (given that this was certainly not a normal thing to do in 1984 never mind today) although I heartily approve of this way of doing things. There are even a couple of metal plaques in the lift concourse area of the car park that explain what the painted circles mean and offer some context which give a space-age start to this prehistoric-car park experience. One has to travel down to get to the good stuff and make Star Trek door noises for the full effect however.

lift concourse

noticeboard in lift concourse

Marked in Mosaic in the floor of this car park are the positions of 20 huge posts the text begins, with the reverent tone of a giant fantasy novel.

The posthole paint circles are a deep brick red, about 1m in diameter each, and spaced less than 2m apart, arranged in an irregular line. These are highly stylised depictions of what the postholes would have looked like and I have my doubts if they the originals were quite disposed like this being both too regular, too small and too close together if the stats given above are to be believed.

line of painted circles

The paint circles offer rich juxtapositions with the more normal paint marks and urban furniture one would expect to find in such a car park.

juxtaposed with u

juxaposed with me

Looking more closely, it is clear that not all of the circles are painted, and indeed some are ‘mosaic’ like, as suggested by the shiny metal noticeboard. These were concentrated on the north side of the car park and seem to be the cover of circular voids, drains or (ritual?) shafts of some kind. This indicated the artifice of this rendition of the monument, suggesting the floor level of the car park is not at the same level as the Neolithic postholes, which would have floated somewhere above or below the tarmac level.

This is urban prehistory with depth, with stratigraphy.


After a period of paying my respects and documenting the occasion with an undue level of excitement and diligence, in a surprisingly empty Sunday lunchtime car park, we headed into the lift shaft and arose to the mall level, levitating over the Neolithic.

Here, we saw the aforementioned mural and it did not disappoint.

the mural

Dynamic ceramic images are set into a brick wall, immediately outside the entrance to Waitrose, position to be admired by shoppers with jute bags placed between their legs. A timeline moving from the Neolithic forwards, left to right, not stopping at the New Stone Age but hinting at deep time and the continuity that such big monuments tended to demand.

In the beginning, erection by beast.

mural panel 2

Then centuries, maybe even a millennium later, but in reality a few centimetres to the right, the age of land divisions as Parker Pearson would have it was depicted. Farmers haunted by the ghosts of the palisade, inexplicable holes which they dare not fill in but perhaps deign to drop some potsherds into just for luck. Or maybe one of their cows shits in one of these ancient hollows, the stuff of life.

mural panel 1

Underneath it all a commentary, a mapping of time to contextualise the images above, words in English almost breaking the spell. But not quite.

The narrative continues into the Iron Age and later still, and once again a metal sign lies nearby to explain all to the curious consumer. As well as annoyingly using the word history to describe what is largely prehistory, the information board informs us that the murals here were funded by the John Lewis Partnership (owners of Waitrose) and again date to AD1984.

metal sign 2

It also tantalizingly notes that the ‘frieze from the original panels’ is now in the ‘Waitrose’ staff canteen area, suggesting these murals are actually replacements or at least based on another piece of art. I did not try to get into the dining room to see it – perhaps I should have but it felt rude to intrude.

Another information panel related to the Neolithic monument which lies beneath this shopping mall was missed by us on our visit, but documented on twitter by Susan Greaney and replicated here with permission.

Noticeboard Sue Greaney tweet
Image reproduced with permission of Susan Greaney

Part of the Dorchester Dormouse Trail, this noticeboard erroneously calls this monument a henge. Nonetheless the reconstruction drawing is evocative of this being a big monument defined by some mighty posts although here people (men of course) are doing the erection and not yoked cattle. The text gradually descends into Stonehenge fetishism and some story about Thomas Hardy. There are however a couple of nice pics from the excavations, a site plan, a cartoon mouse (the eponymous dormouse) and one of those QR codes which I have neither the desire nor the inclination to use.

This noticeboard is located on Acland Road for those who possess local knowledge or want to visit.

The pilgrimage ended with the partaking of victuals at the aforementioned ‘Spoons, safely outwith the boundaries of Greyhound Yard.

Thus I have squeezed all I can from my visit to Dorchester, and the time spent within the confines of this mighty Neolithic enclosure will long live with me, even when viewed through the lens of a 1980s shopping mall.

The noble attempt to inform patrons of this mall of the deep time beneath their feet and underneath the tyres of their cars is surely an example of hyperprehistory in action, the added value that prehistory can add to a place of consumerism and transactional behaviour.

Let’s face it. You will never look at a red painted circle the same way ever again.

Sources and acknowledgements: I was accompanied on my visit to Dorchester by Jan Brophy and Andrew Watson, and they helped to keep my emotions under control. I am also grateful to Susan Greaney for sharing with me and allowing me to use the photo of the noticeboard which we shamefully missed on our pilgrimage. 

The mural was the handiwork of John Hodgson – his website mentions it briefly. Thanks to Zooms@freespiritspice for pointing this out on twitter.

The excavation report for the Greyhound Yard Dorchester enclosure is:

Woodward, PJ, Davies, SM & Graham, AH 1993 Excavations at the old Methodist chapel and Greyhound Yard, Dorchester 1981-1984. Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Monograph. 

A good general source of information (including the gazetteer entry reproduced above) on the site and parallels is: 

Gibson, A. 2002. The Later Neolithic palisaded sites of Britain. In A. Gibson (ed.) Behind wooden walls: Neolithic palisaded enclosures in Europe, 5–23. Oxford: BAR International Series 1013.

And for a more recent and even broader overview (with lots on Forteviot), see: 

Noble, G and Brophy, K 2011a Big enclosures: the later Neolithic palisaded enclosures of Scotland in their Northwestern European context. European Journal of Archaeology 14.1-2, 60–87.








The Holy Knowe

The Holy Known newscutting

183 West George Street, Glasgow

May 10, 1946


SIR, -this attractive and symmetrical

glacial mound at Lennoxtown, known for

generations as a sacred place, is threatened

with removal to make place for three tem-

porary bungalows despite their being much

open adjoining ground.


Elderly people tell me that as boys they

worked the field where the mound is situ-

ated, and that the tenant farmer of those

days insisted that no agricultural work was

to be allowed upon the mound-not even the

rolling of the grass. It is some 25 years

since I was first taken to see the place.


Nowadays the newcomers to the district

seem to know little about the site, and

apparently care nothing for it, and as

members of the controlling District Council

they favour obliteration, doubtless stirred by

the extreme urgency of the housing shortage.


Thus goes on the deplorable and unneces-

sary work of destruction of sites near Glas-

gow-sites which ought to be kept in pre-

petuity as a source of delight for all thought-

ful people. It is sad to think that during

the last five years in Glasgow and district

more ruthless slaughter of sites of archaeo-

logical and geological interest has been

carried out than during the whole of the the

last 100 years.-I am &c.


Ludovic Mann


a sacred place –



newcomers to the district – 



not even the rolling of the grass –



they favour obliteration –



three temporary bungalows –



this attractive and symmetrical glacial mound –



ruthless slaughter –



kneel before –



a source of delight for all thoughtful people – 



Fact check: the letter that forms the basis of this post and my Lennoxtown visit was published in The Scotsman newspaper. As with many other Ludovic McLellan Mann observations, there is no corroborating evidence for the presence of this Knowe, nor its folk and archaeological significance. If such a mound existed, its contours have not troubled mapmakers. And it is commonplace to find that prefabricated houses from the 1940s were not ‘temporary’, even if this mound was. The ruinous ground behind the three bungalows on a natural rise was once occupied by the Free Church of Lennoxtown, which was used as a drill hall for “D” Company, 7th battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War, and a school also once stood upon this acclivity. 

Map 195x
Putative location of The Holy Knowe (OS map, 1956)



Some urban prehistory sites are strange. Some are sad. Some are both.

There is something melancholy about a prehistoric site that has been destroyed with nothing done to compensate. We are now used to the fairly cosy arrangement that we can accept the destruction of archaeological sites in exchange for them being professionally and fully excavated. This is a deal that archaeologists – and society without most being aware of it – have made with the free market economy. We won’t interfere too much with endless development, change and economic progress and the juggernaut won’t completely flatten what is left of the past without first slowing down a bit or taking little detours. The result is jobs in the heritage sector, lots of random data we would otherwise not have, and sometimes local communities benefit from these transactions too. This might be a Faustian pact, it might even be entirely sensible, but it does mean that in 2017 one of the most important and uncontrollable ways we have of finding prehistoric sites and sucking the information out of them is driven by social need for, and the political demands of, development.

But in the nineteenth century when society was still getting to grips with the implications of massive scale urban and industrial expansion, railway line and canal building, and the requirement for the extraction of the necessary aggregates to make these things happen, no such deal existed. Archaeological sites were swept aside simply because they were literally the wrong place at the wrong time. And so inconvenient standing stones were  toppled, or ”blown with powder’ as in the case of a stone circle at St Colmac’s, Bute. To add insult to injury, whatever survived these extractions was then put to use as building materials, built into walls and barns, or broken up and utilized serendipitously and randomly e.g. in road and rail foundations. Stone cists and coffins were emptied of their contents, with much of the goodies inside ending up on the mantelpieces of the rich landowner, local vicar or an eccentric antiquarian, soon to be ‘lost’. Of course, this was all underpinned by money as well – but the power relationship was balanced differently than it is now. Archaeological sites could be swept away on a whim, facilitated by the signing of a cheque (one of those big fancy Victorian ones), and the data and information that resulted from any crude interventions that followed could be characterized as limited, selective and often rubbish.

Whoever said that no deal was better than a bad deal?

A dead megalithic monument in Clackmannanshire prompted these thoughts to be re-articulated once again. It is a sad and strange story that represent the ways that even substantial prehistoric monuments, when competing with the demands of nineteenth century economic requirements and the requirements of the landed gentry could come to a very sticky end, reduced to nothing more than an antiquity map symbol.


I have a Cunninghar plan

The site to which I refer was called Cunninghar in Tillicoultry. This is a monument that according to varied accounts was substantial, consisting of a circular or oval setting between 20m and 35m in diameter of standing stones three feet high at the foot of the Ochils. (A bank apparently surrounded this, suggesting to me this was a kerb cairn rather than a stone circle for what it is worth.) No record of the number of stones survives, nor any etchings or drawings of this monument. The enthusiastic recorder of prehistoric lost causes and megalithic wild goose chases, Fred Coles, tried to get to the bottom of the story of this stone circle right at the end of the nineteenth century, his sources of information patched together from conversations with an experienced local forester, an OS Name Book entry and some nifty mapwork.

His informant, the estate forester, gave a vivid description of the stone circle and the fate that it met (for the source of this quote, see the end of this post; Location A is shown on Cole’s map reproduced below):

McClaren statement from Coles 1899

The rather undignified evisceration and re-purposing of the monument by the local gentry for their own grand designs, and also perhaps with one eye on the quarrying and thus financial potential of this location to come, left the bank and one single standing stone on site, which became the focus of excavations in the 1890s when two cists, one containing a fine Food Vessel, were discovered on site as the ridge was gradually denuded for aggregate extraction. The account of these discoveries was documented fastidiously by R Robertson in a paper written slightly before Coles arrived on the scene, and in his observation that the site was situated on an ‘elevated ridge of sand intermixed with gravel’ lies the seeds its downfall at the hands of quarrying for those materials.

There is no need to rehearse the details here of the discoveries that occurred in harmony with the rhythm of the extension of the gravel quarry, surprising extractions, suffice it to say that several Bronze Age pots, and a stone marked with rock-art, were discovered.

Food Vessel from Tillicoultry Robertson paper

Rock-art photo Robertson paper

My favourite detail of these impromptu rescue excavations was the discovery by Robertson in the location within a cist that one would have expected a head to be located, ‘a quantity of a fibrous or hairy substance, of dark-red colour’. Analysis was undertaken of this mysterious material by a Professor Struthers who appears to have been something of an expert in these matters, having his own collection of ancient hairs which he sometimes exhibited to the public. He concluded, by comparison with his own reference collection, that this was not the hair of a man, ox or horse – but it might have been the ‘wool’ of a fox, dog or rabbit. (Audrey Henshall later suggested it was otter.) No further analysis of this was undertaken but I like to imagine this was the remnants of a crazy stoat hat. (It is worth noting also that the name of this site derives from something to do with rabbits suggesting this is the kind of location where a rabbit might have burrowed into a cist by accident and died in there. Just saying.)

Cist plan Tillicoultry Coles paper

Fred Coles reported on another cist found here a few years later, although had nothing to say on the matter of the ginger-haired deposit. He also noted that quarrying had not begun at the south end of this ridge by the time of the OS 1st edition mapping of the 1860s, but by then, the stone circle was already gone, for the reasons already noted above. The sand pit to the north suggests the landowner was well aware of the potential value of this location and the pesky stone circle that was on the way of his bank account being further bloated.

OS 1866
OS 1866

Later maps show the outline of the quarrying in more detail, and so show the activities that led to the discovery of Bronze Age burials here as well as completely removing the site where the stone circle / kerb cairn. In a sense the quarrying was more destructive than the standing stone removal, in the same way as extracting one’s teeth is not half as bad as losing your mouth.

This megalith was wiped off the map, and it was on maps that ironically was the only place where it continued to exist.

OS 1866
OS 1951

Gradually, this location became increasingly surrounded by housing estates and the trappings of the modern urban landscape. Using a really helpful map that Coles made of the archaeological discoveries at Cunninghar, and subsequent mapping, it is possible to roughly plot where these key discoveries were made in relation to the modern Tillicoultry – sandwiched between Dollar Road and Sandy Knowe with a fine view over a cemetery and war memorial.

Location map

It was no surprise to me when I visited on a quiet Saturday morning that there is no sense whatsoever that in this corner of Tillicoultry once stood a substantial multi-phase Bronze Age monument. The Cunninghar sand and gravel ridge that so attracted quarriers survives within the urban setting, in the form of a wide grass-covered bank that runs north-south between two housing estates. A path runs along this ridge and I mounted it, from my parking position on the appropriately named Sandy Knowe, via a set of steps. Once on the embankment I followed a rough path that lead to a broader and uneven overgrown area with a mast atop it. This metallic tower stood within a steel cage with warning signs adorning it.

The mast

Grassy knoll

The skull

Tree symbol

This area betrays little to nothing of its former purpose, other than that it is possible to imagine this as a prominent viewing point with views down to the River Devon. The ridge came to a sudden end at a wall on the fringe the A91, while an escarpment topped with a feeble fence which meandered from east – west marked the limit of the sand and gravel quarry that was once here that finally removed the remnants of this monument, the conclusion of a slow-motion series of interventions.

The quarry

As I wandered around in the faint hope of seeing something, anything, that might hint at megaliths, burials or an embankment, I noticed a large stone lying on the other side of the fence on the edge of what was once the quarry. This had previously been identified by the Northern Antiquarian as being a remnant from the stone circle, and although it seemed to me too small to have fulfilled this purpose, it did look out of place and may once have been a prehistoric something or other.


Down I went into the quarry, now an overgrown edgeland betwixt road, mound and back gardens, nothing but weeds and rubbish strewn about. Spatially, if not physically, there had been a stone circle here once, perhaps elevated 5m above my head. But all that remained were random sad objects: a twisted child’s car seat, a hoard of charity shop sacks and the splayed and stretched out tendons of a Venetian blind.


This made me melancholy. A stone circle had been lost – so be it. But it had been lost and not adequately compensated for. A Food Vessel, Urn and a clump of dead rabbit / otter had been added to the archaeological record, dots on a distribution map (except for the rabbit unless there is a distribution map of Bronze Age wigs), but we don’t even know how many megaliths once stood here. Tillicoultry House with its amazing standing stone lined drain was demolished around 1960, another victim of progress, while the current location of the rock-art-marked stone, visited and visible to Ronald Morris in 1966, is unknown. The Food Vessel is held in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland.

Tillicoultry House
Tillicoultry House. Drain not visible. Source: http://www.ochils.org.uk

There is nothing to let people whose houses are literally metres from where a prehistoric centre of ritual, ceremony and burial once stood know about this, no noticeboards that might inform casual passers-by, a lack of an app or virtual reality ancient version of this place to download. This monument has gone, a victim of all sorts of Victorian hoo-ha. And not only was the monument destroyed, but the place where this monument once stood was destroyed, atomically removed. Once it was removed, the megalith was split up into pieces and then it was later destroyed again, a second death. The burials that were left behind were recovered to an extent, but are now hopelessly dispersed.

There was no deal here – this was a hard extraction, and once the stones had fallen from this cliff edge there was no going back.

I have often said in the past that urban prehistory is not about a sense of loss, or sadness, and this is still the case. But for Cunninghar there have only been bad outcomes, as bad as it gets, and it seems a hopeless case, all that remains being this sad story and footnote in the National Monuments Record of Scotland.

Melancholy is not the same thing as sadness, nor is regret. What I regret about some urban prehistoric sites is that their destruction was in vain, the price paid too high.

Prehistorica melancholia.


Sources and acknowledgements: This post benefited from many conversations with Helen Green about heritage, development and compensatory measures (or lack thereof). 

Little has been published on Cunninghar, or the variants of spelling of that name that are out there (Cuninghar, Cunningar). Two articles were published in close succession in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland about this site, both referred to above. The first of these was Robertson’s 1895 effort, ‘Notice of the discovery of a stone cist and urns at the Cuninghar, Tillicoultry’, in volume 29; the second Cole’s 1899 ‘Notices of the discovery of a cist and urns at Juniper Green, and of a cist at the Cunninghar, Tillicoultry, and of some undescribed cup- marked stones’ (volume 33). Both can be read online for free via the Society webpage. The image of the Food Vessel came from the Robertson paper, the cist plan and rock-art ‘photo’ from Coles, and the latter also provided the quote near the start of the post.

Psychogeography in the park

Glasgow’s parks are deep time.

They are places of rock-art, prehistoric settlement, fortifications, battles, ancient routeways, myth, folklore and megaliths.

Does it matter how deep that time is? Or is a sense of pastness enough, a whiff of the ancient?

This was brought home to me recently when I took two large groups of primary school children on psychogeographical fieldtrips around Queen’s Park in Glasgow’s southside. These semi-structured walks were part of the Glasgow Unity Festival, a weekend of events with the objective of bringing together people from the incredibly diverse neighbourhoods around the park to consider their complex heritage, common problems and shared future. In particular, Govanhill has the most ethnically diverse population in Scotland (with over 40 languages spoken), with many refugees and newish Glaswegians in residence. By exploring the freely accessible but hidden heritage of the park, we hoped to be able to give all of the children who visited us a sense of wonder and ownership that they might be able to pass on to their parents.

Unity Festival logo

Programme for the festival Friday

Govanhill festival poster

Both walks reached the same key point towards the end, what I think of as the heart of the park, a large earthwork enclosure, with some boulders arranged towards it centre, known as Camphill. This is an old place – but how old? It could be thousands of years old, or it could be 600.

I took the view that 600 years old and 2000 years old are both really, really ancient to your average 10-year-old and so ran with the earlier and more impressive of the two. There is a time and a place for spurious accuracy and this was not it.

This was also an opportunity for me to test my ideas about the place-making power of prehistory in urban places with an even more curious and challenging audience than I am used to.


An enigmatic enclosure

What is Camphill? What was Camphill? When was Camphill? The honest answer is – who knows?

The enclosure is substantial. It measures some 95m by 93m in size (a survey undertaken in 1996 by ACFA revising the originally recorded dimensions of 119m NW-SE by 98m) and is defined by a single bank and external ditch (very little of the latter now remains). The bank is no more than 1.2m high in places, with a rough footpath following the top (one of many subversive paths in the park). There are at least two convincing entrances.

Bank with path on top

Within the enclosure sits a rather unconvincing and rough collection of boulders. These do not seem to be set particularly deeply into the ground, nor do they have any discernible pattern. It appears there is no record even of these having existed in the nineteenth century according to the book Archaeology around Glasgow. They are not part of a wrecked stone circle or cairn, and now these rocks are used as seats for dogwalkers and nightdrinkers, surrounding an informal firespot, and are also the target for graffiti almost apologetically scrawled onto the stone-surfaces with a pen.

The camp low res

This is an earthwork enclosure that would have had extensive views across the Clyde Valley to the north and Lanarkshire to the southeast, being located on the shoulder of a drumlin (even deeper back in time than I am prepared to go), although these views have now been obscured by leisure-amenity-trees; the woodland has also contributed to the gradual slumping of the earthworks. Despite this, the remnants of this enclosure are still impressive and surprising in this urban context, with busy allotments located only 100m to the north.

There are claims that this is possibly an Iron Age enclosure, but this has never been established although the form and location of the site means it cannot be ruled out. The Heritage Trail booklet for Queen’s Park (downloadable, here) leaves the interpretation of the site ambiguous, calling the site an ‘encampment’. It goes on, ‘…it is perhaps not surprising to find that the flat topped summit has been occupied since prehistoric times….the brow of the hill could possibly date back to the Iron Age (1000BC – AD1000)’. Now that’s what I call a long Iron Age! The booklet also notes that some argue the enclosure is Pictish or Norman, while there are also historical associations, likely bogus, with the 1568 Battle of Langside.

The name of the enclosure, and hence also the former name of this part of the park, and the nearby Camphill Avenue, derives from the perception that this monument was at one point, er, a (Roman?) camp on a hill. There are nineteenth century newspaper records of some kind of excavations taking place within Camphill in 1867, the outcome being the identification of a ‘settlement’ or a corn drying kiln (two pretty different outcomes!). These crude investigations found a paved surface, and a weird sounding ‘cake of charred oats mixed with fragments of oak’. These were once on display in the People’s Palace in Glasgow. A millstone was also found. No formal record of this investigation was ever taken however.

Excavations also took place almost a century later, in 1851, under the guidance of the reliable Jack Scott and Horace Fairhurst. They were unable to find the 1860s excavation trench.

PSAS paper title

Instead, they focused their attention on the southern entrance and boundary to the enclosure, marked on their excellent site plan. (The plan also shows a park path running all the way around the enclosure, overlying the ditch; this path is now largely lost in the vegetation, although can be seen in the old photos of the site, below.) The location of the ‘setting’ of boulders is also helpfully marked.

Fairhurst and Scott plan
Fairhurst & Scott 1953 site plan

The extent of the excavations was relatively limited which is just as well as most of the work seems to have been carried out by park employees ‘Mr Hunter and Mr Richmond’. The work took around four weeks, and the most substantial discovery was a pit containing a ‘modern cow burial’ dug into the base of the bank.

Excavation photo 1

In actuality, very little was found to shed light on when the ditches were cut and ramparts thrown up although it was confirmed that this was indeed a substantial earthwork that once had a big ditch around it. The discovery of sherds of fourteenth century pottery – a bulbous jug or flagon – in one ditch section does not in itself offer evidence that this is when the ditch was cut, although the excavators were inclined to see the deep stratification of these sherds as pointing towards later, rather than prehistoric, origins. An old routeway or road was discovered, perhaps one of the oldest found in Glasgow, passing through the entrance, suggesting visitors to the site today are tracing the footsteps of people who walked here many centuries ago.

Pottery from the excavation

The conclusions of Scott and Fairhurst were rather limp. They could not see any reason why morphologically this could not have been Iron Age in origins, but the ceramics made them doubt this. Rather, they thought the enclosure more likely to be medieval, perhaps once acting as the ramparts of a ‘clay castle’ whatever that means.

A curious footnote was added to this confusion with the discovery of boring Roman Samian ware pottery eroding from the bank in 1985. I would love to add more but I can’t and none of this makes any sense.

DES 1985 entry

The investigation by Scott and Fairhurst was, apparently, the first time an excavation in Scotland had been carried out and funded by the local authority, although I find this difficult to believe (see Lochend Loch crannog for instance). Nonetheless, the desire to find out what this enclosure was and to add value to the visitor experience is notable, and forms part of a lengthy tradition of Camphill being a site of great interest. As with many such ambiguous sites, the actual age does not matter so much as the fact that is it out of sync with the time of a Victorian Park, and this uncertainty has allowed Camphill to be whatever visitors and scholars want it to be. With interesting outcomes.


The heart of the park in the city

For the whole existence of Queen’s Park, established from 1857 onwards, Camphill has been an enigmatic and dominant presence, being located just off the top of the hill upon which the park sits. Maps from the nineteenth century show this site connected to the rest of the park by footpaths and planted with trees. This designed landscape was a product of architect Sir Charles Paxton, who used the influence of parks from across Europe to create grand avenues and vistas, symmetrical paths and strategically positioned plants.

OS Map 1893 Camp
OS 1893
Bartholomew Glasgow map 1895
Bartholomew 1895
OS Map 1913
OS 1913

These maps show that the Camphill enclosure was always built into the designed landscape of this park, whether through the path which circumnavigated it, or its close connection by a path to the visual focus of the park, a hexagonal plinth upon which sites a huge towering flagpole.

Old photos of the site suggest that the earthworks have not always been (a) lost in trees and (b) easily accessible.

Camphill earthwork photo undated
Undated photo, from The Glasgow Story website
1921 photo Mitchell Library GC941435REN
1921 – a fence surrounds the bank at this time.  Mitchell Library photo GC941435REN

The location of the site, on a spectacular vantage point, has lent itself to the enclosure becoming an important touchstone in various attempts to make sense of prehistoric Glasgow. In Ludovic Mann’s 1918 book Mary Queen of Scots at Langside, the discovery of an underground structure at Minard Street, Crossmyloof was recorded (although no other record of the nature of this structure exists). Mann noted that this weird underground cell, “…was situated precisely on a line leading from a prehistoric, circular, defensive earthwork in Queen’s Park to a similar … earthwork in Pollok Wood”. As I argued in a recent public lecture on Glasgow’s sacred geometry, this was the first evidence we have of someone attempting to discover an underlying logic in the location of prehistoric sites in Glasgow, although the significance of this observation was not developed any further by Mann. Camphill, a great and ancient survivor, was part of this scheme it seems.

Mann 1918 line

The point was accepted and developed to a spectacular level by Harry Bell in his book Glasgow’s Sacred Geometry (1st edition, 1984). For Bell, Camphill was fundamentally important in his Glasgow Network of Aligned Sites, a revelation stemming from his realisation that from Camphill one could clearly see ‘the verdigris-coloured roof of Glasgow Cathedral two miles away’. Camphill, in Bell’s vision of ancient Glasgow, was also central to routeways that led in five or six different directions.

Harry Bell book

Harrys-map-Devil's Plantation
Image used courtesy of The Devil’s Plantation / May Miles Thomas

I will write much more about these alignment-chasing prehistorians in the future, but suffice to say that there is an alluring quality to connecting places on maps, or standing on viewpoints like the one near Camphill to look for prominent landmarks as Bell did. This view from Queen’s Park looks towards the Cathedral precinct, the ancient heart of Glasgow as far as Mann was concerned. The Devil’s Plantation does a great job getting inside the head of Harry Bell, and contains several short films and blog posts on Queen’s Park (which, incidentally, capture the character of the place far better than I have here).

A view back in time low res

And I have become entangled in these alignments too, a spiders’ web that has me trapped. Bell identified a line that ran from Camphill that intrigued me. Recently, I plotted this line on an OS 1:25000 map of Glasgow. I grudgingly forced pins through Camphill earthwork, Govan Old Parish Church and then the Cochno Stone, only to realise, as I connected them with string, that this was indeed a straight line. A slight error in the middle location could be countered by moving the point to the Doomster Hill, Govan’s possible prehistoric barrow. Incredulous, I gathered more pins, more string. Then I stopped myself. Through my psychogeographical practices and urban prehistoric fieldwork carried out at the Cochno Stone, Camphill and Doomster Hill, I converged with Ludovic Mann, overlapped with Harry Bell.

Glasgow map Cochno to Camphill annotated version

This could not become my obsession, even although I wanted it to, and so I folded up the map and walked away. I will do my work, on the ground, walking, and not crawling on the floor with pins and string.


Psychogeography in the Park

I was asked by Alan Leslie of Inherit (the Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development) to help with the heritage element of the Unity Festival, his crazy idea being doing psychogeography with primary school children. I pitched the following idea.

So you think you know Queen’s Park? Think again! Psychogeography in the Park is your chance to find out how see the familiar in totally new ways by deliberately getting lost. Psychogeography is all about exploring urban places and parks from a different angle, by going off the beaten paths and pavements, by using maps in different and exciting ways, and by seeing how other people have used places today but also in the past. This means that we can start to uncover some of the recent and ancient historical events that shaped this part of Glasgow, which still exist in surprising and hidden ways even today, from unusual features in the park to local street names. We’ll learn that Queen’s Park is much more than a nice green space to spend some time – it is also a living storybook. Psychogeography in the Park will allow us to go back in time to the Ice Age, the Iron Age, the Battle of Langside and Victorian Glasgow without the need for a time machine!

I had only been to Queen’s Park long ago (my own prehistory) and so I needed to go on a couple of reconnaissance visits in advance to help me get meaningfully lost on the day, if that makes sense. Walking and talking with Alan, and then Helen Green, on these walks helped me to get a sense of the internal and external logic of this park, and some of the remarkable places contained therein.

Visit with Alan low res

Unity Festival poster in the rain

Walk with Helen low res

The day of the walks was very wet. As I arrived clutching my coffee, rain hammered down in the marquee that had been set up to accommodate the showing of films about Glasgow’s southside from the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. The grainy film footage was both alien and familiar, like much of the park still was to me.

I ran the walk (as it were) twice, once in the morning with about 15 children, and once in the afternoon with about 50 children. In each case, I prepared the kids and teachers for the walk to come with a short talk explaining about the unexpected deep time in the park. The idea was that I was going to show them how to properly look at the park, rather than just play there, as most of the children did from time to time. I also wanted them to think about how to subvert modern routeways and official paths, and encouraged then to collect found objects, all of which they took to with great enthusiasm.

I encouraged them: ‘Let’s get lost!’.

Talk before the walk low res

Each walk had the same start point: Queen’s Park arena. Both reached their conclusion at the flagpole viewpoint. Both took less than an hour, and in the morning, was undertaken in persistent and horrible precipitation. Each walk took a different route: in the morning, my aim was to reach Camphill randomly, giving the kids periodic choices as the routes and paths we took. In the afternoon, we walked back in time in a more controlled manner, largely because of the large number of kids. We moved from the twentieth century arena to the nineteenth century Victorian designed park layout, to the eighteenth century Pathhead farm which sits in the park, concluding in the ‘Iron Age’ at Camphill. We crowd-time-travelled 2000 years in 30 minutes.

Walk 1 map

Walk 2 map

At the end of the walks, I collected together bags of found objects and marked up maps of the walks, and laid them out for other festival participants to browse.


The most pleasing thing about these semi-structured walks was that I learned as much from the kids as they (I hope) learned from me. At one point some girls disappeared into a bush, and came back out, saying they had found an interesting stone. Sure enough, a polished black rock lay in the undergrowth, a memorial for someone called Moira. I was shown berries and mushrooms and bricks and old walls, and when offered the choice, the children almost always ran across grass or chose the muddy rough path, ignoring the impact this was having on their trainers. On the other hand, none of the children knew so many interesting old things could be found in the park, they were unaware of the Victorian logic underlying much of the landscape, had not noticed the grass-free patch on the edge of a path that marked the location of a now-removed park bench, did not realise that the park had such amazing views across Glasgow.

Knowledge was exchanged.




This has been another long blog post, and yet I feel that I have only really scratched the surface of Queen’s Park and Camphill in the walking and writing of it. Like the children wandering in the rain, junior flaneurs, I am only just learning how to look and move around this place. My research into the work of Harry Bell is at an early stage. And as for what we can say archaeologically about Camphill, there are more questions than answers at this stage. These entangled histories and prehistories ensure that Queen’s Park – like many of Glasgow’s parks – is rich with potential to be more than just a dear green space.


Sources and acknowledgements: 

Psychogeography in the Park. Thanks to Alan Leslie for asking me to become involved, Inhouse for providing the children, and Helen Green for our walk in the park where my methodology finally became clear thanks to her insights.

Bell and Mann. Very limited and adapted extracts from a lecture I gave in Glasgow on 12th September 2017 as part of Door’s Open Day Festival have been included here. I am grateful to May Miles Thomas for allowing me to use an image from The Devil’s Plantation website. The staff at Mitchell library were very helpful in searching out their copy of Harry Bell’s book, while it was Bell himself who identified Mann’s note about Camphill. 

Camphill archaeology. The best summary I have read can be found in Susan Hothersall’s 2007 book Archaeology around Glasgow (Glasgow Museums). The excavation report is Fairhurst and Scott (1953) ‘The earthwork at Camphill in Glasgow’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 85,  146-56. This was also the source of the site plan, pottery drawings and excavation photo. You can find this paper online as a pdf by searching for the title. The Samian ware note is taken from Discovery and Excavation Scotland 1985, page 45. And yes – Samian ware is bloody boring.









Drive thru henge

drive thru henge sign lowest res

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

From the air
From the air

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

Driving through Normangill
Driving through Normangill
Drive thru henge
Drive thru henge

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

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

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

Normangill henge bank and road, looking north
Normangill henge bank and road, looking north

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

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

notes low res

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

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

Long Meg and road 1

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

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

The Mayburgh Rings tractor incident
The Mayburgh Rings tractor incident

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

A henge in my rear view mirror
A henge in my rear view mirror

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

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

The cairn and the caravans

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


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

Keltie Bridge campsite sign

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

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

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

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

Auchenlaich long cairn and caravan

Now, the archaeology bit.

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

Auchenlaich long cairn

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

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

The weird monument
The weird monument

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

Path through Auchenlaich, looking to the west
Path through Auchenlaich, looking to the west

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


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

Axis mundi / modern ley
Axis mundi / modern ley

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

Auchenlaich hardstands

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

red shift dvd cover

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

Tom clutching the axe, still from Red  Shift
Tom clutching the axe, still from Red Shift

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

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

The cairn and the caravans
The cairn and the caravans

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




Some ancient hero

‘Now is the time to recognize the power of the place and interpret that for the future’ (Tom Manley)

Can urban prehistory make a difference to the lives of people? Is there a positive use that can be made of the trashed traces of prehistory that can still be found in our urban landscapes? Can the ancient past help us look to the future?

These are questions that I found myself reflecting on very seriously after a visit I made to Govan in August. I was invited there by Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage to undertake a little bit of urban prehistory work with participants in a community project, and as part of my trip I was interviewed for a film they were making. Some great questions were asked, ones that made me review the whole urban prehistorian project. I want to write about my Govan experience, and subsequent events, in this post (at some length I have to warn you!)

some thing is missing image

The film that was being made at that time is now available online, and is called Two more than most. It was made and produced by a small team of volunteers who are part of a project called Some Thing Is Missing (henceforth STIM).  This project started in summer 2013 to investigate the historical, anecdotal and archaeological history of Govan, and in particular Water Row on the south bank of the River Clyde. This is a place with rich historical significance that is currently a car park and under threat of a still worse fate from Glasgow City Council. The project, with the support of Fablevision as well as Northlight, has as an explicit aim to explore the significance of a huge mound that once stood in this location, the Doomster Hill. This mound is generally thought to have been an early medieval motte or ‘thing’, hence the title of their project. Water Row is also a place that played a role in the shipbuilding heritage of Govan.

This is not just a backward-looking process, however, and the team have also been asking the people of Govan what their vision for Water Row is: and for the most part, this vision is not for this pivotal part of Govan to be turned into a pay-and-display or park-and-ride car park.

this land is rich image
Tom Manley’s evocative image shows a pre-tarmac version of Water Row

STIM is one of a range of exciting community and art projects that have taken place in Govan over the past few years, many of which have drawn on Govan’s historic past for inspiration. Hence the title of the film, taken from Glasgow University archaeologist Prof. Steve Driscoll’s statement that ‘Govan has had two eras of greatness – that is two more than most places’. This refers to medieval Govan, and ship-building Govan, both of which had flourished and declined (or were declining) by the time Govan was swallowed up by the city of Glasgow in 1912.

STIM wanted poster

The premise of the film, I think, is that our heritage, our shared past, is fundamentally important in helping people look the future of the places that they live, because our past is a source of pride, identity and inspiration, transcending time. And this need not be the recent past of oral tradition and stories (captured so well in the film), or the near past of maps, historical documents and drawings, but the ancient past. Because in fact it seems very likely that the Doomster Hill started life not 1200 years ago, but perhaps more than 4000 years ago, a massive Neolithic or Bronze Age burial mound. If this were to be the case, then Govan had a third era of greatness, as a centre of power and pilgrimage in prehistory.

The idea that Govan the place was significant deep into the mists of time adds another exciting dimension to the story of this remarkable town within a city – but before exploring the potential of this revelation, we need to go back to the beginning, the beginning of Govan.

Govan 1878
Robert Paul’s drawing of Govan in 1878. Doomster Hill is visible to the left edge of the image.

The Doomster Hill (such a wonderful name) was a huge stepped mound with a flat top, which historical tradition suggests was a meeting place or court for high status early medieval types (perhaps kings). Very few images and descriptions exist of this mound, lending it enigmatic status. And the mound still existed well into the 19th century, until surrounding Govan, an increasingly industrialised and developed landscape, swallowed it up. This mighty monument was landscaped into a reservoir, and then finally succumbed to the intervention of a dye works and shipyard in the 1850s. Frustratingly, the mound disappeared not long before the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map for Govan was produced, which would at least have marked the location of the mound accurately, if not ensured its survival. And it was flattened a few decades before Ancient Monument legislation was passed that would surely have preserved it for posterity. Now, not only do no accurate images of the Doomster Hill survive, but we don’t even know exactly where is stood.

Profile of Doomster Hill to scale, based on historic records and a few drawings (from Ingrid Shearer's Doomster infographic)
Profile of Doomster Hill to scale, based on historic records and a few drawings (from Ingrid Shearer’s Doomster infographic)

Sometimes, mounds used as mottes in the medieval period were actually prehistoric mounds that were re-shaped, and re-purposed. And it seems likely that this was the case in Govan. The best evidence for this comes from a discovery that was made during the last turbulent years of the mound when it was first converted into a reservoir for a nearby dye works. In an account by Rev. Leishman in the New Statistical Account of 1845, he stated: ‘When the reservoir was deepened a few years ago [1830s], three or four rudely formed planks of black oak were dug out of it. Some small fragments of bones were likewise discovered, and a bed of what seemed to be decayed bulrushes.’

He concluded: ‘Nothing forbids us to suppose that [the Doomster Hill] may cover the ashes of some ancient hero, who now sleeps there unknown to fame’.

It seems unlikely that a burial at this depth in the mound – at least 4m depth, probably laid on the ground surface, is anything other than an indication that this was a prehistoric burial mound in an earlier incarnation, perhaps something like the North Mains burial mound in Perth and Kinross which was excavated by Gordon Barclay in 1979. Although a bit smaller than Doomster, this early Bronze Age mound was surrounded by a ditch, with a central burial area and the mound itself contained timber elements. If there were ‘secondary burials’ (as was also the case at North Mains), which is likely, these would have been cremations, and almost certainly would not have been spotted as the Doomster mound was denuded. None of this precludes the use of the mound as a medieval thing, and if this mound had ancient origins, this would have made it all the more powerful a place for kings to associate themselves with.

Artist's impression of Silbury Hill
Artist’s impression of Silbury Hill

Another parallel is the massive artificial knoll, Silbury Hill, in Wiltshire, a huge Neolithic mound built with a stepped profile and flat platform on top for ritual performances to be carried out in view of surrounding spectators. John Barrett has suggested this huge mound always broke the skyline, allowing those on top of the mound to be clearly visible even from distance, and Doomster may also have operated in this way. Silbury does not seem to have been a burial mound, but is a fine example of Neolithic landscape manipulation and monumental craziness.

Of course, as yet there is no direct proof that Doomster was a prehistoric burial mound that was re-used millennia later, but it is an intriguing – and strong – possibility and one that raises questions about the immense period of time that Govan has been special.

The location of Doomster Hill is, as mentioned, only known approximately, located somewhere on the interface between the Water Row car park, and the roads and houses defined by Napier Road, Napier Terrace and Napier Place. The exact location does not matter. What does matter is that the ghostly presence of the mound still lurks in this place, incredibly resilient, and in the last few years efforts have intensified to presence the mound at the heart of Govan once again. In part, this has been due to the efforts of archaeologists like Steve Driscoll and Chris Dalglish, trying to piece together the medieval landscape here, connecting church to mound to river, gathering information to inform future development strategies.

govan burgh survey book

Others have made more tangible interventions in reshaping Water Row, resurrecting the mound. Artist Matt Baker has put in place a series of artworks called Assembly to mark three possible locations of this massive mound; these consist of arcs of cobbles set into grass around the Napier flats, hinting at the huge circumference of the mound. Metal plaques indicate what these arcs represent: the possible site of the ‘giant Doomster Hill’. What I love about these installations (part of a walking route) is that they capture two eras of Govan’s greatness: the huge mound, and also the industrial heritage. The cobbles were recycled from shipyard roads. Industrial debris adorns the cobbles, such as rusty looking steel-toothed wheels. But interestingly the prehistoric potential of Doomster Hill is not represented by Baker, although of course this artwork could easily function as a marker for the ancient past as well as more recent history.


Plaque on Assembly artwork

I visited Govan in August, not just to be interviewed for the film, but also to spend some time with the STIM team thinking about how to raise awareness of prehistoric Govan and the potentially Neolithic or Bronze Age origins of the Doomster Hill. We decided the best way to do this, at least in the first place, would be in the medium of chalk. I wanted to give the team a real sense of the scale of this massive mound, when juxtaposed with cars, pavements and roads. So together with Ingrid and Glasgow University PhD student Helen Green we started with some preliminary map work and a chat about what form the mound may have taken in prehistory.

Prelim mapwork

We then headed out into the Water Row car park armed with a range of materials: maps and plans to help orientate ourselves, multiple colours of chalk, a very long measuring tape, and for reasons that almost now seem lost in time, a rather limp purple helium balloon shaped like a star. Using the maps, and a church as the starting point, we firstly marked the wandering route of a small stream that was marked on some old maps in this location, to the west of where Doomster once stood, and running down (now beneath the car park surface) towards the Clyde. This involved some wandering about, pointing, pacing, using the measuring tape and expert chalk daubing, and we more or less made it to the waterfront in the right sort of place. Gaps were left in the chalk stream where cars were parked.

The water of water row


Using the stream as a guide, we moved to the eastern extent of the car park, and despite inconveniences like cars driving over our tapes, and using an arbitrary centre point, we marked out a huge circle with a diameter of about 50m, reflecting the diameter of Doomster including the ditch. It was quickly apparent the mound must have covered a huge amount of space (the diameter is the equivalent of half of a football pitch).



I stood at the centre with a stick balanced on my head, to indicate the 5m height of the central platform on the mound. (This is what we had intended the balloon to indicate, but it was too limp to reach 5m and instead floated around below waist height.) This may seem like a silly exercise, but made the simple point that this would have been a massive mound.


Ingrid drew a Bronze Age beaker-style burial in the central location, a poignant reminder that at the centre of this massive artificial hill was a burial, presumably of someone very important (some ancient heroine in this case). It may well be that satellite and secondary burials were interred in the mound, but subsequently lost by interventions such as the reshaping of the mound into a thing, and industrial expansion.


After a couple of hours of doing this, we chatted about how the hidden prehistory of Govan could best be permanently marked in Water Row, aside from the great start made with Matt Baker’s Assembly. What is now a car park (and probably some houses) lies above (perhaps even sealing in surviving remnants of the ditch) what was once a massive mound, and not just a 1200 year old mound, but a 4000 year old mound. This age difference matters. The STIM team seemed to be very excited by the potential deep time depth beneath their feet. This is a dimension of Govan’s past that is little known and we all agreed that more could be made of this information.

How this might affect the future of the disputed Water Row car park is unclear, but simply suggesting that we find the mound via excavation and then archive the data and stick up a noticeboard is not enough in my opinion. The photographer Tom Manley has written an evocative article about the past and future of the Doomster Hill in Urban Realm, and he rightly says that, ‘any realistic alternative to a car park must do more than purely preserve what lies beneath the surface’. I agree. Urban prehistory is not about collecting yet more archaeological data for the sake of it. It isn’t about freezing places in time or stopping change.

But it could impact on how change might happen, and the Doomster Hill seems to me a wonderful opportunity to see how far the ancient past could help shape the future for local communities. For instance, the imaginative and inclusive Gallus Games in Glasgow, coinciding with the 2014 Commonwealth Games, will be based in an temporary eco-stadium which explicitly draws on the physical form of the Doomster Hill and has been inspired ‘by the history of Water Row in Govan’ – and is to be built in Water Row. And various other proposals and ideas have at their heart the people of Govan and the unique past of this place. It is heartening to see so much creative effort inspired in developing visions for the future of Govan with Water Row and the Doomster Hill at the centre, and I hope in this process the past doesn’t stop with the medieval kings of Strathclyde.

gallus games eco stadium
The Gallus Games Doomster-inspired eco-stadium, complete with mound elements

Govan is an amazing and vibrant town, but also a place with a lot of problems and challenges. Despite the friendly demeanour of the locals (see the film!) and the amazing archaeology (within Govan Old Parish church is to be found one of the finest collection of early medieval gravestones in Britain) Govan is one of the more deprived areas of Glasgow, still suffering from the fallout of the decline of an Empire and the fall of heavy industry.

Does it matter than this was once a place where kings moved? Can the knowledge that this land is archaeologically rich help improve the lives of people in Govan? Is there any way that understanding the time-depth beneath the tarmac and houses can solve social problems? Does all this pastness help in any way with poverty, drug abuse, low life expectancy or multi-generational unemployment? It seems almost glib to ask such questions. But as archaeologists, what use are our interpretations of the past, our arcane knowledge of ancient texts and even more ancient burial mounds, if we cannot use this information to help someone, somewhere, some thing. In Govan the past cannot harm the present, but exploited with care and passion, it can and should be able to continue to play a part in the regeneration of Govan.

Acknowledgements and sources: this post would not have been possible without the input of lots of people. Helen Green accompanied me on my Govan visit and as usual was a great source of ideas and information, and she is great with chalk and balloons! Ingrid Shearer invited me to be involved, and has done a wonderful job working with various projects and artists in Govan; she also provided me with a lot of Doomster background information. The Some Thing is Missing Team are Rosie Walker, Sarah Marie Garcais and David Kerr and they did a fine job on the day, and the film is fantastic; I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. We used the offices of Fablevision for some pre-urban-prehistory map work and also for the interview afterwards. Thanks also to Tom Manley who helped with some of the chalkwork; his Doomster Hill Urban Realm article was very inspiring and provided the quote that starts the blog. My main source of archaeological information was Dalglish and Driscoll’s Govan Burgh Survey, an engaging and accessible read, and a great bargain at less than a tenner! The photos in this blog are my own, but I have also used some images derived from various different initiatives in Govan. The ‘Missing’ poster comes from the STIM blog (link in text above) while the STIM card image comes from their Facebook page. The ‘This land is rich’ image was designed by Tom Manley  and used with his permission, the Gallus Games stadium image comes from their website (link above once again), and the image of Govan is by Robert Paul and dates to 1758. Ingrid Shearer kindly allowed me to reproduce part of her Doomster infographic. The Silbury Hill image came from a Geographical Magazine article on that monument, from July 2008.

Vespasian Avenue

Trajan Street

Trajan Avenue

Julian Street

Julian Avenue

Vespasian Street

Vespasian Avenue


South Shields, in Tyne and Wear, is best known in archaeological circles as the location of Arbeia Roman Fort, a coastal supply base for Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike the dry and grey ruins of the forts on the Wall, or the seemingly endless excavations at the sprawling Vindolanda, South Shields has been the location of innovative, imaginative and colourful reconstructions. All of this in the heart of urban South Shields.

air photo of the fort and its surrounds

Modern excavations of the fort and surrounds began in 1983. This total excavation (as this methodology was once called) revealed a sequence of different phases of fort construction and expansion, and a lot of other Roman stuff. However, South Shields is more notable for its remarkable reconstructions. The south west gatehouse was built in the late 1980s, with two upper floors and an outdoor walkway, and this was followed by the more recent construction of a Commanding Officer’s House and Barracks Block. These remarkable structures give a real flavour of the way that the Roman officer class imported the colour, hygiene and luxury of Mediterranean living (as far as was possible) to this northern edge of the Empire.




These reconstructions have always been a bit controversial amongst archaeologists, built on the footprint of the original buildings and structures, and of course they involve a fair degree of speculation (and in some respects, might even be wrong). But they also represent exciting and colourful spaces that can fire the imagination of visitors.

However, although I do enjoy the reconstructions at Arbeia, what has always fascinated me about this place is that it sits within an urban place, surrounded on three sides by rows of houses, and on the other by a primary school. I have visited this fort on several occasions and this has always struck me as an interesting juxtaposition. Although the reconstructed elements of the fort make it look like a place out of time, it offers a valuable local resource, increasingly marketed and advertised in the locality by road signs and Roman bits and pieces in the vicinity, as well as being immortalised in the street names of the urban grid around the fort, with roads named after various Roman emperors, the street names I started this blog with.

south shields road sign

But before this blog transforms into an Urban Romanist love in, it is worth pointing out that of course the Romans were not the first people to occupy this piece of real estate. Excavations at South Shields over the past three decades have revealed a series of prehistoric sites and monuments beneath the fort, and within the surrounding environs. In fact, the existence of the fort has facilitated the survival of a spread of prehistoric sites, features and material culture within this urban space. The excavators have noted, ‘the overlying Roman stratigraphy, while removing some of the immediately pre-Roman horizon, had sealed and preserved the earlier iron-age structures and the contours of their contemporary ground surface’. And of course it is likely that no prehistoric traces would have been found here anyway, if the Roman fort had not attracted archaeologists with their trowels. And so at last we have some indication of what the Romans have done for us.

neolithic linear pit

Various bits and pieces of ephemeral prehistoric traces were found: for instance a Mesolithic soil horizon (sexy!) and some Neolithic scoops, pits, postholes, hollows and slots, some of which may have represented structures or post-settings. The presence of burnt daub suggests there may have been one or more building here, maybe a Neolithic house or shelter. These finds were accompanied by an assemblage of prehistoric worked lithics. Some of these were microliths (these are Mesolithic), suggesting thousands of years of low level activity and occupation in earlier prehistory at South Shields. Later prehistoric traces were more substantial, none more so than a roundhouse that was found beneath the corner of one phase of the Roman fort, part of a farmsteading.

excavation plan

This roundhouse would have been a relatively substantial building, almost 9m in diameter with a post and plank built wall, and a high pointy (= technical term) roof. A reconstruction of the roundhouse and some of the features found around it is displayed in the reconstructed Roman gatehouse.


The house interior had evidence for a hearth, and storage pit. It would have been large enough to support a family group, and was associated with agricultural activities. The people who lived in this house grew wheat and barley, and ate wild fruit and nuts. At the end of its life, the house burnt down: whether this was a deliberate or accidental act is unknown.

Location of the Iron Age roundhouse, under the Roman stuff

stratigraphic section

When the Roman arrived here in the second century AD, and militarised this place that had once been a farm, they would have had no sense that a single phase house had once stood in the place that would become a parade ground for Roman troops. Buried beneath layers of Roman activity, including the compact clay and boulder surface of the parade ground, the prehistory was sealed in. In the same way, the presence of Roman walls and ruins acted as a seal to preserve and protect the more fragile archaeology within the fort, protected from the rise of urbanisation that eventually engulfed this location. One Empire was replaced by another Empire, and layer upon layer accrued through time. The nature of stratigraphy is that one thing buries another, eradicating and preserving, a build-up of layers of the past that in the case of South Shields lie underneath, amidst and around an urban landscape.


At the risk of sounding like my non-existent evil twin, the Urban Romanist, there is an interesting coda to the South Shields story. In 2012 Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums were awarded a £400,000 Heritage Lottery Funded project entitled ‘Hadrian’s Wall and its Legacy in Tyneside’. This project is a community archaeology scheme and:

… will unearth details about the lesser-known sections of Hadrian’s Wall, including large sections which are hidden under modern roads and buildings, and to raise awareness of the Wall in local communities.

hadrian's wall in newcastle 1952

This remarkable photograph shows an excavation in Newcastle City Centre in 1952, with hints of Hadrian’s Wall popping out of the trench. This reminds us, as if this needed to be said, that world class archaeology (prehistoric and otherwise) can and does still exist within and beneath urban landscapes today – even in city centres and housing estates. This HLF Project also suggests that exploring archaeology can be beneficial to local communities, through empowering and informing people, as well as offerings opportunities to learn new skills and volunteer.

Time Team at South Shields

And this principal is at work at South Shields, with an ongoing community archaeology project, part of the WallQuest Project which is funded by the same HLF funds mentioned above. In South Shields since 2012 local people and volunteers have been excavating at the site of the civilian settlement, a sprawl of buildings and services that would have been situated immediately outwith the fort. This ongoing work ‘will open up the excavation programme to participants from the local community, and provide opportunities for participants to work with artefacts and learn how to analyse excavation records’.

Even in the most unpromising of places, places that are urban and covered in houses and tarmac, traces of the distant past still exist, and have a good deal of potential that we should be ready and willing to take advantage of for the benefit of everyone, not just archaeologists.

Sources: Almost all of the information about prehistoric South Shields was derived from this excavation report: Hodgson, N, Stobbs, GC and van der Veen, M 2001 An Iron Age settlement and remains of earlier prehistoric date beneath South Shields Roman Fort, Tyne and Wear, from the Archaeological Journal 158, 62-160. This paper was the source of the quote about the preserving qualities of Roman archaeology, and also I amended / reproduced three drawings from this report. On my last visit, Nick Hodgson, archaeological projects manager for Tyne Wear Archives and Museums was kind enough to point out the location of the Iron Age roundhouse to me. Information on the HLF award, and the 1952 image, came from the Tyne and Wear Museums Arbeia webpage news section. The South Shields road sign image was source from a great website, followthebrownsigns.com, the content of which is encapsulated in the site’s name. The air photo of the fort is available widely online and the final South Shields community excavation photo came from the WallQuest webpage. For more information on the fort, go to the webpages of the Arbeia Society and the fort itself.


‘Wilful damage to the monument is an offence’ (English Heritage ‘safety’ warning)

Driving on the M6 past Penrith, from the comfort of your car it is possible to spot one of the largest prehistoric monuments in northern Britain, Mayburgh Rings henge monument. This site consists of a truly massive bank created from hundreds of thousands of rounded, water worn pebbles which defines a circular area some 90m in diameter with a single standing stone in the centre. The bank itself is huge, up to 45m in width and almost 8m high, dotted with trees protruding from the grass that now covers the monument. Built on a natural knoll, from outwith in particular, this is a an awe-inspiring monument and what strikes me most about Mayburgh is its sense of timelessness, of stasis, as if it has not really changed since first constructed 4000 years or more ago (other than being gradually overrun with weeds). The scale of the banks ensures that the modern world barely encroaches on the senses, other than a house roof peeking over the bank on the western side of the henge, and the incessant noise from the M6 located just 100m to the southwest.


The impression of being in a truly ancient place dissolves when one looks out through the single entrance on the eastern side of the henge, for through this narrow gap one can make out field boundaries, walls, roads, buildings and – another henge! But this henge – known as King Arthur’s Round Table (or henceforth, KART) could not be more different from Mayburgh in a whole range of different ways, not least that a series of modern interventions have pulled this henge out of shape and out of time. Yet as with most urban prehistory, this is a place with a story to tell, and once upon a time, this was also a place where one could take tea in a proper china cup.

air photo of henge from visit cumbria website

KART is located at the southern side of the village of Eamont Bridge, near Penrith, and is squashed into the corner former by two roads, the A6 which has removed part of the bank on the eastern side of the henge, and the B5320 which intrudes more seriously onto the north side of the earthwork. Alongside the road runs a stone wall and a fence, both of which cut across the henge on the east and north sides, and a war memorial stands at the road junction, sitting on the remnants of the henge bank. A series of other modern interventions have been added to the henge’s northern interior area including two gates in the wall, a brown road sign, a bus stop sign, and the deeply unhelpful English Heritage noticeboard.

a henge transformed colour

This, then, is a prehistoric monument that has been adorned with many of the fineries of the 20th century, yet the name of the site suggests an alternative non-prehistoric narrative had before this become attached to this monument. In about 1538, Leland recorded that this earthwork was known locally as ‘the round table’ or ‘Arture’s Castle’. The site was first recorded properly by Sir Willian Dugdale in the 1660s; his drawing depicted a henge with two entrances, as well as two standing stones. The megaliths were gone by the time William Stukeley visited this site (and Mayburgh) in the 1770s; this ‘theft’ was the first of many indignities that this monument would suffer.

stukeley drawing
Stukeley’s drawing: KART is the enclosure on the left

round table painting


The true origins of the name for this henge are lost in time, although it seems unlikely that anyone thought this was literally once the location of a big wooden table with knights sat around it chivalrously passing the salt to one another. In a short discussion of the folklore associated with this henge in the journal Folklore (volume 64, 1953) Charles Thomas noted that jousting traditions were attached to one of the henges at Thornborough, Yorkshire and it may be that these sites became somewhat entangled in folk tradition. Stukeley went a long way to mythologizing KART in his depiction of the monument: he believed that the henge was so-named because if was once the location for jousting (tilting) or single combat (he wrote of KART that it was a ‘British wrestling place calld King Arthurs Round Table’) and it likely that this is the ‘round table’ association as Thomas suggested. The current English Heritage noticeboard, depicted above, bizarrely utilises Stukeley’s drawing – which has nothing to do with the prehistoric origins of the henge – to illustrate the monument for the benefit of visitors to the site. The text is unhelpful – no useful (and some inaccurate) archaeological details are given – and the site is called (as with the brown road sign on the north edge of the henge) simply Arthur’s Round Table.

henge with jousting drawing

In the 19th century, the process of shrinking and reworking the henge had begun in earnest regardless of the grand associations the monument had in local tradition. The henge was, remarkably, given a complete makeover in the decades leading up to 1830. William Bushby was the innkeeper and owner of the Crown Inn, located just 25m to the north of the henge. According to a local source who remembered these events (the 83 year old Abraham Rawlinson) Bushby and his son decided to establish a tea garden within the henge. This involved a general tarting up process: the ditch was cleared out and deepened, the bank was raised in height and given a flat top, the causeway tidied up, and a raised sub-circular platform created within the interior of the henge. This platform was the location of the tea garden, presumably consisting of some tables and chairs, and perhaps a gazebo-type structure. Excavations over a century later discovered lots of broken china in this location. The conversion of a henge to a tea garden may well be unique in British archaeology, and is an illustration of an early attempt to monetise such a monument. Sadly, valuable archaeological evidence was lost or moved during this process, scrambling the stratigraphy of the monument and making it look a bit strange, the henge equivalent of too much plastic surgery. Furthermore, by the time the henge was recorded by CW Dymond in 1889 (it is he who picked up on Rawlinson’s tale), the roads had encroached on the monument, destroying the northern entrance.

bushby sign

The Crown today

Despite the Bushby intervention, excavations in the first half of the 20th century did manage to shed some light on the monument and its true antiquity. It was only this work that firmly placed the monument in prehistory, although it would still be some time before it became associated with the henge tradition. The first of these excavations occurred in 1937, undertaken by the famous historian and philosopher RG Collingwood. He dabbled in excavation, although it would be for his philosophical work that he would have more influence in archaeology decades after his death. Collingwood’s excavations were, it would seem, not that good. He became ill and the work was completed in summer 1939 by the German archaeologist Gerhard Bersu. Bersu had previously been invited to Britain to carry out some excavation in southern Britain, but when war broke out, he was interred in the Isle of Man as an ‘enemy alien’. (The impending war may also have impacted on Collingwood’s excavations: a blog on Eamont Bridge history suggests that the ‘digging came to an abrupt end when photographs of some of the bridges in the area were found in the Crown Hotel bedroom of a German member of the team’.)

Gerhard Bersu

excavation photos

Bersu’s work at KART therefore came just a few months before his internment, and the fine excavation report – published in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society volume XL (1940) – must have been written while he was on the Isle of Man. Bersu was a brilliant and clever excavator, but his work at KART revealed little about the nature of this monument, although a pit or grave containing a cremation was found within the interior of the henge. He concluded the site was a Bronze Age sepulchral monument and may at one time have been a mounded barrow.


I have visited KART many times over the past decade, usually in conjunction with Mayburgh, and it always strikes me as a peculiar place. When visited just after Mayburgh, it is tempting to be disappointed by the authenticity gap between these henges. It is easy to lose oneself in Mayburgh, disappear into the past, but no such luxury is afforded at KART. Here, one enters the monument not through an impressive monumental gap in the earthwork, but through a wooden ‘kissing gate’ after negotiating a surprisingly busy B road. Once inside the monument, the impression is of order and symmetry, the henge a wide open green space that looks nicely manicured (probably because it is sometimes grazed by sheep), almost as if ready for use as a tea garden again. (Or maybe something else: on my last visit a few weeks ago, I found the detritus of a McDonald’s meal.)



KART illustrates well the sometimes painful journey prehistoric monuments have had to go through to get to their current state. The location of this henge on the fringes of a small village has been both a curse and a blessing for KART – the site has not been forgotten even if it has been altered and denuded. This monument has maintained a relatively high profile for centuries now in a range of different guises, as a place with a mythological Arthurian connection, a pleasant place to have a cup of tea, the location of excavations by two important 20th century characters, and now a rather bland visitor attraction. And this seems so much better to me than a pristine, authentic Neolithic earthwork surviving in the middle of nowhere than no-one ever visits or takes the time to give a silly name. So if you are going to go to a henge in the near future, I recommend you go KART.

Sources: The historical information on King Arthur’s Round Table was largely gathered from Bersu’s 1940 excavation report, and a paper by Pete Topping entitled The Penrith henges: a survey by the RCHME, from the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society volume 58 (1992). (The annotated plan is based on the RCHME survey of the henge.) The other images come from a variety of different sources. The painting of the Arthurian round table is a Wikipedia commons image. Stukeley’s drawing is widely available online, although English Heritage claim copyright on their website, while the jousting drawing was sourced from the Cumbrian Stone Circle webpage; I am not sure about the true origin of this image. The Bushby sign and Bersu photo can be found in various places online. The air photo of the henge was one of many available online, and came from the Visit Cumbria webpage. Bersu’s photo is commonly reproduced online, while the excavation photos comes from his 1940 report.