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Drive thru henge

20 Apr

drive thru henge sign lowest res

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

From the air

From the air

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

Driving through Normangill

Driving through Normangill

Drive thru henge

Drive thru henge

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

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

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

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

Normangill henge bank and road, looking north

Normangill henge bank and road, looking north

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

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

notes low res

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

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

Long Meg and road 1

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

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

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

The Mayburgh Rings tractor incident

The Mayburgh Rings tractor incident

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

A henge in my rear view mirror

A henge in my rear view mirror

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

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

The cairn and the caravans

11 Mar

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


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

Keltie Bridge campsite sign

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

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

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

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

Auchenlaich long cairn and caravan

Now, the archaeology bit.

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

Auchenlaich long cairn

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

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

The weird monument

The weird monument

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

Path through Auchenlaich, looking to the west

Path through Auchenlaich, looking to the west

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


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

8 Oct

‘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

11 May

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,, 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.


12 Apr

‘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.