A pint of prehistory

Prehistory is frequently justified but not always ancient. In this ghost story for Christmas, I am going to take you on a journey from the walls of a pub, to the pop charts and a board game, via the portal of a crop circle.….

Imagine now that I am the ghost of urban prehistory, taking you by the hand, flying out of the window and up, up and away into the snow. Below you, once you get control of your faculties, emerging from the mists of time and space is a familiar stone circle. Stonehenge! But thankfully we are not stopping there, not just yet, our engagement only as tangible as the ghosts passing through in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor. Soon below us emerges a much larger setting of stones, recognisable as Avebury due to the fact that it is occupied by the living as well as the dead. Then Silbury Hill whizzes past, momentarily mistaken by you for the defunct mound at Marble Arch at London. Atop the mound nestled in the depression lies a sleeping deer. Pausing only momentarily to fight off a pigeon, there below looms the lengthy grandeur of West Kennet, a long streak of megalith, then things become a blur of whiteness, chalk ups and downs.

You awake with a start. You have in your hand a pint of foaming nut brown ale and the sky – or rather the ceiling – is dancing, Rich vibrant colours assault your senses. The Southern Lights, Aurora Stonehengis.

Your are in the Barge Inn, Wiltshire, located near the village of Honeystreet and on the bank of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The walls here are adorned with a wonderful mural that showcases the very best of the local Neolithic archaeology along with some crop circles and other weird and wonderful things that occupy the spaces between archaeology and arcane-ology.

The mural is the work of artist Vince Palmer, the ghost of urban prehistory tells you as he puts another pint on the table you appear now to be sitting at. The beermat, you notice just before it is eclipsed by the glass, is a Scarfolk Brexit pastiche, ‘Britannia’s Folly’. The mural is sometimes known as the ‘sistine chapel of crop circles’. It was painted in 1997 ‘on the day Princess Diana died’ went on your ghostly drinking partner, quoting from the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald newspaper. The walls are adorned with crop circle imagery and artworks showing Stonehenge and Avebury, and crop circle enthusiasts used to meet here to compare notes and new discoveries.

Crop circle typology

Suddenly the ghost is gone, and you are left alone to gaze upwards at the ceiling, an inverted and fantastical prehistoric world. You need a better view of this.

The mural and the crop circles set off all sorts of connections in your brain, your cells lighting up like Christmas lights on a bush. Lying on the pool table you notice a discarded copy of the Fortean Time magazine issue 413 (Christmas 2021). Flicking through it in your hyper aware state, beer bubbles on your breath, you land on a weird article by the Rev Peter Laws on boardgames of a Fortean nature. A two page spread focuses on one of the most bizarre of all such games, in a piece entitled A boardgame from an alien? It is a board game about crop circles and …. Stonehenge.

Taking another sip of your Hopback Brewery’s Crop Circle ale, the story unfolded in front of you like an abandoned cardboard origami dog. During the filming of a BBC / Japanese TV documentary on crop circles in 1990, six crop circles appeared in a field near where filming was happening (in Wiltshire?). This was a moment of high excitement for Project Blackbird, with definitive evidence being sought for the crop circle phenomenon that was accelerating at that time.

Operation Blackbird researchers (Hoaxes website)

Within these circles were found, amongst other things, numerous board games pinned down by sticks, this cardboard diversion called Crop Circle: Mystery Adventure Board game.

BBC coverage of the hoax / Hoaxes website

The imagery of this board game contains several references to Stonehenge. The box has a stylised complete version of the monument amongst the complex imagery on show, with the promise of a ‘revelation of the ancient wisdom’ on the roll of a double 6. Inside Stonehenge formed the centrepiece of the board itself, being depicted in plan form, with baked in solar alignments.

Peter Laws / Fortean Times

Laws notes that, “In the game players become druids or aliens who must place the altar in the centre of a miniature Stonehenge made of blocks” so to that end there were little blue wooden (?) Stonehenge megalith building blocks as well. Board Game Geek documents that this game also included a treasure hunting element and had different covers through time. They note, “This may be the strangest game you have ever seen!”

Stonehenge building blocks (Board Game Geek)

The crop circles within which the board games and other objects had been placed in the dead of night were essentially crap and clearly some kind of prank. One of the team members involved in Operation Blackbird got a note delivered to them the next day, with a claim of responsibility for the crop circle board game prank from the JAMMS. Of course this is a reference to the Justified and Ancients of Mu Mu, also known at the time as the internationally successful band The KLF.

Fortean Times / Peter Laws

Interviews and research by Peter Laws lead him to conclude this was a fake letter and had nothing to do with Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. Yet to coin a phrase of our time, it might not have been true but it was believable. As Laws notes also, they created their own crop circle depicting their band logo. But moreover The KLF are the most prehistorically orientated band that have ever existed with mad dabblings, claims, threats, and artistic creations connected to Wiltshire’s Neolithic monuments in particular an intriguing strand of their career.

Now you are vaguely aware of another ghost, one that is substantially, er, bonier than the urban prehistorian, and likes to point a lot. This ghastly skeletal robed figure is holding a tablet and has just, so it seems, done a google search for KLF and Stonehenge. A bony finger points you to the small screen and beckons you to scroll.

It becomes clear that Stonehenge is a recurrent theme in the work of Cauty and Drummond, going back to Cauty’s time designing fantasy posters for the chain Athena in the late 1970s in the style of his more famous posters for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Like the crop circle board game, this poster included two versions of Stonehenge – a stylised ‘complete’ iteration and a plan view.

Jimmy Cauty’s Stonehenge poster

Someone slaps you on the back as they stagger past on the way to the gents, momentarily breaking this magic chain of thinking. You snap to the side, noticing a hooded figure pointing with a rather bony finger towards a previously un-noticed television set in the corner of the bar. On it is playing a frosty version of The KLF video for their song Last Train to Transcentral. A miniature film set in grainy black and white is the backdrop for a race between a police car and a train, both KLF branded. From time to time megaliths loom in the background amidst a dystopian industrial wasteland.

More connections are made. This film-set is closely reminiscent of Jimmy Cauty’s recently toured artwork Estate, an “interactive dystopian art exhibition featuring four scale-model concrete tower blocks”.

Jimmy Cauty by L-13 Light Industrial Workshop (The Skinny)

One these four blocks “appears to have functioned as a pagan religious centre” (NowThenMagazine). This contains a stone circle. Cauty told The Skinny magazine that his favourite thing in Estate was visiting “Brenda, the teenage Queen of the Iceni Tribe who lives in Iceni Heights….she draws spiral patterns and maths equations on the concrete walls”. Prehistory + crop circles = ??.

Stone circles from The Estate (source: NowThenMagazine, link above)

Just before you disappear down a JG Ballard High Rise rabbit hole, someone slots pennies into a jukebox that again you had not been aware of and on kicks What Time is Love followed by that daft song they did with Tammy Wynette. It was all a big joke for The KLF wasn’t it, except when it wasn’t. John Higgs’ 2012 book The KLF: Chaos, magic, and the band who burned a million pounds documents the Discordian roots of the band and their eventual demoralisation by their own excessive acts. There is a cruel side to their humour. Higgs documents a time when just to piss off Julian Cope no less, Bill Drummond threatened to flatten Silbury Hill with a bulldozer. When Cope heard this “he went white, it was a shock to see him like that actually”.

Some of the most infamous KLF acts surround their appearance at The Brit Awards in 1992 when they appeared with grindcore band Extreme Noise Terror, machine gunned the audience and dumped a dead sheep at the venue. Higgs notes, “As the band left the stage a voice declared over the PA that ‘The KLF have left the music industry’. It was only meant as a joke. They didn’t realise at the time that it was true.” What is less well known is after this event the band took their Best Band award and buried it at Stonehenge. It was subsequently “dug up in the vicinity of the mystical stone circle by a local farmer” (source).

Film Threat

It keeps coming back to Stonehenge. It was here that The KLF in another guise (The Timelords) played out part of a weird relationship they had with now disgraced glam rocker Gary Glitter, who appeared with them once on Top of the Pops almost by accident. The NME documented a solstice visit that in hindsight can only be viewed in the poorest of taste.

The Cope threat presaged aspirations to destroy or modify prehistoric monuments, something that becomes very clear to you when your attention is brought back to the tablet by your creepy pal who you notice has not even touched the bag of peanuts sat between you.

According to Clash Music, “After founding a digger firm called ‘K2 Plant Hire’ with Jimmy Cauty, they nearly bulldozed Stonehenge on the basis that it either needed fixed up or flattened as ‘unworkable’. After looking into hiring helicopters to repair it, they realised all the airspace around there is military controlled, so Drummond and Cauty decided to have their photos taken with Gary Glitter in front of the ancient site before flying off to the Sierra Nevada to blow all their cash making a road movie.”

The plans for Neolithic modification were even more dramatic. In the seminal 1988 book The Manual by The Timelords (aka Drummond & Cauty), the plan was set out in more detail: “we originally wanted the record fronted by real daleks. we could not get permission. it was after that we came up with our car idea. we then wanted to smash the car into stone henge or have a helicopter place it on two of the vertical stones whose horizontal was missing. we thought of dragging it to the top of silbury hill, digging a hole and tipping the car in, nose first, with about four feet stuck in the ground and the rest stuck in the air, so that it looked like we had just arrived from outer space” (source: Andy Burnham on megalithic forum).

Bill Drummond: How to be an Artist

What hold did Neolithic monuments have on The KLF and their other guises? We may never know but through time these engagements moved from destructive to transactional. They tried to sell art outside Stonehenge. In 1997 psychogeographer Stewart Home wrote in The Big Issue that “the KLF are performing again and will do anything to raise enough money to purchase Stonehenge from English Heritage and use it for ritual purposes”. At the same time they tried to buy the Rollright Stones, according to Drummond in Sarah Champion’s book Disco 2000.

Was it all just a capitalist joke, a subversion of social values, an attempt to rule the world through chaos? In this sense Drummond and Cauty were shamanic figures, orchestrating their own ritual-magic, machine-gunning convention, chasing immortality, desperately clinging to the old ways, coveting megaliths.

You snap out of your early 1990s dance music trip and come back to earth with a bang. A bell is ringing loudly behind you, someone calling ‘last orders please and remember to put your fucking mask on when you stand up!’. You realise that you are still in the Barge Inn. There is a sense of time running short now and you become aware that you won’t have time to go outside to see the sarsen stone outside the pub that once had a Banksy painted on it….or did it? It is all rather confusing and a sensory overload is fast approaching.

The Heritage Trust / Wiltshire Gazette & Herald

Worse, you are starting to feel…..woozy.

A trip to the toilet seems in order and for the time being at least there are no ghosts to guide you so off you pop through a side door and a corridor, following the arrows on the walls that you hope will lead to a Stonehenge-free urinal. However a wrong turn later and you are in a annex to the building, no longer in the ancient canal-side pub, but more of a fancy youth hostel. Your eyes are drawn to a stage on the left-hand side of the space, a modest arena for musical performance although it would not have accommodated The KLF, their kit and entourage.

At the back of the stage is a mural, a weird tableaux of temporal and spatial dislocation, showing what you presume to the pub you seem to be trapped in surrounded by prehistory and pagan symbols. A standing stone in the foreground, Silbury Hill (again!) in the background, and a green man partially obscured by a stack of speakers. Things start to go woozy again, and you feel yourself drawn to the image like a fly to a venus flytrap, knowing that what lies inside is sticky but perhaps worth it. You drift towards the open door to the left of the mural, still hoping for a toilet but fearing for the worst.

The door leads to inky blackness. Bill Drummond’s voice (you assume) comes from somewhere to your right, the aural equivalent of the leather bag with hands from that MR James story, dripping from a hole in the wall into your ears. He says in a mellifluous Scottish accent: Stonehenge is a crap circle. Stonehenge is a crap circle. (Or did he say crop circle??) Then you are enveloped by what feels like a huge towel, not with arms thankfully, but nonetheless a struggle ensues in the dark…..

Then! You are safely back in your bed fighting with your bed curtains [or insert 21st equivalent] and realise that was all a dream and it happened in one night, of course it did, because of course 3AM is eternal when in the company of Timelords. You have not even missed Boxing Day.

As you wipe the sleepy residue from your eyes, your attention focuses on a wall to your left. There are two pictures hanging from the wall that you don’t remember seeing there before. Slippers are slipped on (as in put on, not a comedy stumble) and you head over for a look. Screwing up your eyes as if staring into the sun, the pictures start to come into focus, and the events of the last 1500 words come flooding back. Was it really all just a dream?

Time for another pint of prehistory, You never know what it will lead to next.

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Susan Greaney and / or Jack Rowe for alerting me to the murals in the Barge Inn, and Andrew Watson for accompanying me to a recent visit there. I think all online sources and image sources have been made clear above, any photos with no credit are my own. I also want to acknowledge Peter Laws and his FT article for sending me down the particular path that this blog post ended up travelling which came as much of a surprise to me as it did to you.

The Venus of Niddrie

Following lines across the landscape – roads, canals, disused railway lines, desire lines – in an instinctive way, tracing the route of least resistance, reveals connections across space and time that are often unexpected. Walking between two prehistoric ceremonial centres in central Scotland – Cairnpapple Hill and Huly Hill – focused our attention on the spaces in between. Far distant from either of these ancient-yet-modern places, in a slump, many kilometres to go, we had a prehistoric encounter without knowing it. 30th April 2015, on a pilgrimage to Beltane, we encountered the Venus of Niddrie.

Prehistoric pilgrimage – Gavin MacGregor in 2015 (photo: K Brophy)
A pilgrimage back to the Niddrie Woman – John Latham in 1990 (photo: Murdo MacDonald)

In Cal Flyn’s wonderful book Islands of Abandonment. Life in a post-human landscape (William Collins, 2021) there are a few entanglements with my own blogging, notably a trip to Inchkeith, my islands of animal and ceramic middens in Talus. My modest journeys around the post-prehistoric places of Scotland cannot compare with Flyn’s evocative depictions of resilient post-human places, but where out paths have crossed has made me think. Nowhere more so than the red shale bing landscapes of West Lothian.

Flyn writes about these bings. Silbury Hill-like red eminences and amorphous mounds that dominate the landscape around towns and villages such as Broxburn, Winchburgh and Niddrie; seen from the M8 motorway one is reminded of the red sandstone outcrops in central Australia. These awesome spoil heaps are nineteenth century remnants of an industry that extracted oil from shale for use as paraffin, a sort of Victorian fracking, which produced a lot of waste and changed this place, perhaps forever. These changes include many unintended consequences.

Winchburgh and Greendykes shale bings from the SW in 2012 (Crown Copyright)

The mining and extraction industries of central Scotland have left behind these legacy landscape features, terraforming via waste products. There are familiar landmarks with names – the Five Sisters, the Mexican Hat. As Flyn notes, they are also places of rich biodiversity against all odds: “…ruinous, utterly neglected sites such as these have become refugia for wildlife”. Life as we know finds a way and it seems that this way is easier to find when humans leave it alone. Yet these are also weird and alien places, ‘quasi-Martian landscapes’ as Craig Robertson has called them, that had a troubling impact on the authorities and an unknown psychological impact on local communities.

Completely slipping my mind until I read the chapter in Flyn’s book focused on these ‘waste lands’ was the fact that these artificial miniature mountain ranges were a target for the artist collective the Art Placement Group (APG). I visited a fascinating exhibition about the work of this group at Summerhall, Edinburgh, in autumn 2016 called Context is Half the Work. As the exhibition notes explain,

“The Artist Placement Group (APG) was founded in the UK in 1966. The group initiated and organised placements for artists within industry and public institutions where they would research, develop ideas and projects in-situ. According to the APG principle, artistic practices and knowledge no longer needed to be confined to the studio, but the reach of the artist could extend to commercial, industrial and government contexts in order to contribute to social and organisational processes at all levels”.

Source: Context is Half the Work exhibition archive

The exhibition focused on seven projects delivered by the group working with different branches of government, the civil service, industry, and the media in UK in the 1960s and 1970s, including placements with British Steel and STV. One such project was work done by John Latham (1921-2006) across three months with the Scottish Office and Scottish Development Department (SDD) in 1975-76. (Sadly I can’t find my photos from this exhibition in my cavernous office and so I am relying on archived websites to fill in details in my memory here, especially the exhibition archive.) However I have tracked down the physical booklet that I took away with me that day.

As the Tate explains, the Art Placement Group was an attempt to radically change the role of the artist in society; during Latham’s placement with the SDD, he was tasked with “reimagining these giant spoil heaps … and finding them new purpose” (Flyn 2021, 36). This is when something remarkable happened, because Latham proposed that nothing should be done to the bings. “He attempted to save them from destruction by having them declared ‘works of art’” (Exhibition archive). His rationale was surprisingly prehistoric.

Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters 1976 John Latham 1921-2006 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02071

Latham argued that the huge shapeless shale bings around Broxburn and Niddrie were actually giant piece of land art representing what he called the ‘Niddrie Woman’. Cal Flyn notes that Latham suggested that they “had been constructed by 10,000 hands over decades, along the lines of ancient hill figures like the Cerne Abas Giant or the Uffington Horse” (pg 36). Flyn and Roberston both note that he even compared the arrangement of these bings to Palaeolithic ‘venus figurines’, while artist Lucy Lippert in 1983 saw a parallel for these artificial mounds in Silbury Hill, a Neolithic hill with sometime fertility associations. The different bings were allocated body parts of this woman – the torso, the heart, the head and the limb. This was a powerful reallocation of these bings from one sphere of human endeavour – the economic – to another – the spiritual.

Latham’s Niddrie Woman, inverted with south to the top (source: Tate)

Proposals for sculptures or beacons on the top of these bings never came to pass and it would be interesting to find out what civil servants who tasked him with rethinking these bings made of his ideas which were in effect a plea for them to be left alone and not redeveloped or removed. Robertson suggests that they found it compelling, but also notes that in hindsight Latham’s proposal “lacks objective analysis and by turns is sentimental and ponderous, philosophical and stoic. His commentary is biting and highly subjective, castigating planning decisions that failed to consider ‘the bigger picture’.”. One of the implications of his vision is that these bings are more valuable as land art than they are as industrial heritage, even if they are land art only by dint of him suggesting this to be the case.

The view from the air inspired much of Latham’s thinking about the Greendykes shale bings in particular, a collection of several spoil heaps. Robertson writes: “An aerial viewpoint was deemed by Latham to offer a perspective and scale of an otherwise unobtainable human consciousness, and played a hugely important role in his work.” This in interesting as the aerial view has been critiqued by archaeologists such as Matthew Johnson and Chris Tilley (and me!) as being reductive, detached, even non-human in relation to prehistoric possibilities. Latham’s consideration of the bings in West Lothian as being elements of the Niddrie Woman bring to mind the fantasies of the Nazca Lines, or Harry Bell’s Network of Alignments in Glasgow: confections created somehow that cannot have been viewed from above. Thus the Niddrie Woman is an impossible thing, illegible on the ground. Yet it is the spatial and temporal impossibilities that make the whole notion so compelling.

Aerial photograph of Niddrie Woman (source: Tate / Ministry of Defense Crown Copyright / Estate of John Latham)

The Winchburgh shale bing is listed in Scotland’s National Record of the Historic Environment and is one of two of these shale bings to be Scheduled Monuments. Noted industrial historian John Hume called this a “spectacular shale-oil bing of flat-topped type” in his 1976 book The industrial archaeology of Scotland volume 1. This is far removed from John Latham’s visionary and eccentric characterisation of this landscape feature from the same year.

It was this bing that Gavin MacGregor and I encountered on our pilgrimage walk in 2015 where this blog post began. Our route from Cairnpapple Hill henge and cairns included passing through the partially ruinous Bangour Village Hospital (a former psychiatric facility), Uphall, then following a dismantled railway line from Ecclesmachan towards Niddrie and Winchburgh. The south to Newbridge and some standing stones.

Bangour
Industrial debris / cups and rings

But miles before Newbridge, ahead, lay the monstrous bing, and we were magnetically attracted to it, resisting routes of least resistance, cutting across the land.

We hugged along the south side of this bing closely on the footpath beside the Union Canal.

The red scree slope dominated our vision for about 15 minutes of walking, but at the time we did not understand this to be The Heart of the Niddrie Woman, the place where Latham’s ashes have been scattered.

The scree-slope plunged into the canal, bushes and scrubs hanging onto the side, almost on the verge of rolling down to the water, tumbling weeds, hinting at impossible fecundity. Cal Flyn wrote about the bings being symbols of fertility, Venus rising from the industrial ruins, prehistoric in all but name. If ‘Venus figurines’ were indeed teaching aids as some archaeologists have argued, then we can learn much from these giants.

Murdo MacDonald has written in The Drouth about a journey to the Niddrie Woman with John Latham in 1990, a different type of pilgrimage in a landscape of deep personal time. In this piece he also documents in detail the scattering of Latham’s ashes on ‘The Heart’ in 2006. This photo essay also includes evocative images of Latham surveying the different elements of the Niddrie Woman, a curious mixture of lunar wasteland and memorial to our extractive pasts.

John Latham On the Heart (1990, photo Murdo MacDonald)
Torso stratigraphy (photo: Murdo MacDonald)

When up close, one is struck by the stratigraphies of these spoil heaps, inverted geological strata, sections drawn into mounds that evidence this land being ‘stripped bare’ (as Flyn puts it) and reconfigured in random arrangements. There can be no definite purpose to these slopes and hollows, peaks and troughs, other than the convenience of disposal, and a lack of care for the living. One cannot help but admire the bravado of Latham’s act of landscape pareidolia, seeing patterns were there were none, summoning the spirits of prehistory to subvert our more recent heritage and its destructive tendencies.

On reflection, our pilgrimage walk passed by The Heart of the Venus of Niddrie with a respectful nod but little more than that. The red scree was almost too much to process, its meaning having been extracted by mining machines, leaving behind a waste product that escaped out imaginations, our sore feet, our hungry stomachs. Our focus was the prehistory where we began and ended our walk – and yet here it was in front of us in all of its scarlet beauty.

Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post was very much dependent on several sources that have been credited already in the text but for the sake of clarity these were:

Cal Fly 2021 Islands of Abandonment. Life in a post-human landscape (William Collins).

Murdo MacDonald date? John Latham’s Niddrie Woman photo essay. The Drouth.

Craig Richardson 2012 Waste to Monument: John Latham’s Niddrie Woman. Tate Papers 17.

Context of Half the Work. A partial history of the Artist Placement Group. Exhibition archive.

Lucy R. Lippard, Overlay. Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, New York 1983.

I would also very much like to thank Gavin MacGregor for suggesting and leading our pilgrimage walk back in 2016. May we do another – and soon.

In the shadow of the Wall

During this third lockdown Jan and I have been travelling around locally quite a lot for walks to visit Roman sites associated with the Antonine Wall, creating some resources for teaching. Having lived in Airdrie for 15 years, it comes as something of an embarrassment to say that I have never fully appreciated that I live, metaphorically at least, in the shadow of the Antonine Wall. This is not something that has ever impacted on my urban prehistorian activities, although on reflection it seems that there is a chronological case to be made that Roman sites should fall within my purview. After all, when the Romans were in the place that we now call Scotland, everyone else belonged to Iron Age cultural traditions. I have blogged before about Roman sites in urban contexts, notably South Shield Roman Fort Arbeia, albeit in the context of this being constructed bang on top of a prehistoric settlement site. Maybe this urban-Roman thing is an itch I now need to scratch. And so this brings me to this blog post which is more of a muse than a focused piece of writing, so please do indulge me.

The street names around South Shields – Vespasian Avenue, Julien Street – came flooding back to me on a recent visit to Bearsden on the north side of Glasgow to visit the Roman bathhouse there. We parked on Roman Road, and at the junction with Roman Drive, turned left. Then we ended up at Roman Court, just across the road from the Antonine House Care Home.

What have the Romans ever done for us? They gave us plenty of ideas for street names.

I have blogged before about the power and potential of street names to capture the archaeology of a place, although usually I have reflected on this in relation to developer-funded excavations at housing estates such as Cowie and Glenrothes. The documentation of the use of Romanised street and business names was one element of an AHRC funded project called Tales of the Frontier (2007-2009). Howard Williams has written about heritage street names too, for instance in relation to Wat’s Dyke (and see Williams 2020) so I won’t say anymore about this although it is a theme that this blog will return to from time to time.

Bearsden Roman bathhouse is a site I have seen photos of many times before but not visited. It has always struck me as the most urban of sites, with pictures almost always taken from the south showing the footings of the bathhouse with brown suburban flats looming over them, residents in the upper floors having a perpetual aerial view of this site. This is the aforementioned Roman Court, private residences which looked to me like they could have been used in a episode of Poirot. Although they are unlikely to be Christie-detective vintage if this 1979 photograph is anything to go by.

The geometrically-shaped flats seem to complement the regimented nature of the bathhouse itself, both spaces that need to be traversed in the correct order of things within the bounds of social convention. The bathhouse itself was something of a disappointment, with only occasional glimpses of the depth of remains and the hypocaust beneath. I prefered the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh, another recent visit.

Both of these bathhouses are stranded in space and time, with the forts that once accompanied them now lost, in the case of Bearsden beneath urban sprawl, in the case of Bothwellhaugh lost to the inundation of Strathclyde Park loch. The latter was so disturbed that the whole bathhouse was dismantled and rebuilt in 1975 in a location that would not be underwater. This was Antonine but set far back from the Wall and frontier, and now sits near the entertainment complex that is M&Ds, ‘Scotland’s theme park’, a venture now lost to the Covid flood.

Another day, another bathhouse, this time in a more standard rural location at Bar Hill, albeit it with spectacular views of the Kelvin Valley that might have occupied the tired soldiers as they dis-robed and prepared for the tepidarium. This structure is barely legible compared to the others, largely succumbing to grass and HES landscaping, but with the usual series of spaces of increasing warmth present and correct. It would not be fair to say that the Romans were predictable, but the presence of Mediterranean style principal’s houses in northern Britain as at Bar Hill and Rough Castle forts does suggest something of a lack of flexibility, maybe also an unwillingness to bend to local weather conditions, the kind of stubbornness that wins you, and the loses, empires.

Photo: Jan Brophy

Bar Hill is also a site that has re-assuring quantities of concrete, setting out the floor plan of the buildings, in a way that very much reminded me of the presentation of Doon Hill Neolithic timber hall in East Lothian, two sites separated by 4,000 years but now with a shared brutal educational aesthetic.

Bar Hill
Doon Hill

I’m sure plenty of concrete lurks within the fabric of the bathhouse in Bearsden, holding it together, binding together the ancient and the twentieth century. There is a synchronicity between the evolving form of these Roman sites and the demands of our modern world that very much interests me, and this had led to the Antonine Wall and its accoutrements having a fleeting presence across Scotland’s central belt, whether escaping in the parks of Falkirk or popping through a crack in a cemetery in Bearsden.

And it to Bearsden we return, to some modest prehistoric activity that is located in the shadow of the Wall, but dates back thousands of years before the relatively fleeting Roman presences in Caledonia. Ahead of the construction of a modest housing development (in size, not in terms of house style) on the very eastern fringe of the town a cluster of prehistoric pits were found by GUARD Archaeology Ltd in 2017-18 and the results of this work were published in the Scottish Archaeological Journal in the early months of this year (Kirpatrick 2021).

Development location outlined in red, and the cemetery and Roman remains (Google maps)

These humble and unspectacular holes in the ground could not contrast more with the might of the Roman wall that passes through a cemetery just a few hundred metres to the north, a cemetery that appears to have been laid out in the shape of a Roman soldier’s head (or is this my imagination?). These pits barely need a formal academic journal publication and yet I am glad they have, and they are sure to be of interest to members of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, which produces this journal.

Archaeologists identified various features associated with human activity in this housing plot, which was at the time a field. This included a group of six shallow pits some of which contained decent quantities of burnt hazel nutshells. Two larger pits were found towards the northwest of the excavation area (numbers 003 and 005) up to 1.65m across and 30cm deep, and nearby a small posthole (009) was found, containing flakes of quartz and quartzite. The former may have been used as a polisher. Radiocarbon dates showed that these features belonged to the sixth to fourth millennium cal BC (late Mesolithic into early Neolithic). Environmental evidence points to a woodland setting. Here we have evidence of a few instances of occupation of this location, with the lighting of fires and preparation of food, nothing more. These are the ghosts that walked this land when the Romans arrived with their disciplined building machine over 3,000 years later, and we might speculate that during wall building operations, the soldiers disturbed similar pits and postholes, churning hazel nutshells and stone tools into the fabric of the border of the Empire, colonizing even the rubbish of the ancestors of the locals.

Of course I had to visit, and so after exploring the bathhouse, Jan and I headed up to Crieff Avenue, the incongruous name given to this development’s single road (why not Campsite Crescent or Quartz Quadrant?). Like so many new housing developments, the place did not yet look worn in, and residents watched us suspiciously as we invaded their weekend peace.

Of course there was no indication that this self-contained little suburb on the urban fringe was once a location where holes were dug, fires were lit, and leather was polished. Why should there be? Bearsden has a heritage that is dominated by the Romans, to the extent that even here there seems to be a touch of their architecture in a children’s play park set up at the centre of this development. I am sure that there is similar wooden playground furniture in a park in the centre of Kirkintilloch, noticed on another recent walk. There are certainly genuine Roman-themed playgrounds across central Scotland thanks to the World Heritage Site delivery team for the Wall, one in each of the five council areas that are straddled by this frontier. But then on Crieff Avenue there is also a wobbly thing shaped like a seal and a cluster of random boulders, so perhaps I am starting to read too much into things. This stuff starts to get to you.

View towards where the two large pits and a posthole were found, with Roman fortification playpark (maybe)

Spending a brief time in this estate-within-an-estate, I confess there was little sense of pastness or heritage here. This small development has radically transformed this location to the extent that former vistas have become impossible to experience, while older neighbouring houses that once had rural views now look onto shiny new houses with butterscotch walls. The excavation images from the report and site archive offer an archival insight into what this place used to look like, how we used to live. There is no point however in bemoaning the uniformity of contemporary housing developments and playparks; I am sure in the Mesolithic one pit looked pretty much the same as any other pit.

Before and after. Arrow shows the same building gable end. Left from Kirkpatrick 2021, right from my visit

This Bearsden visit prompted me to look back on another old urban prehistory project, my quest to find and make sense of a giant head / boat that was eventually tracked down to a scrapyard on the Clyde. During some research into this, I acquired from my parents an old programme for the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival from my parents. This included description of Roman elements in this gargantuan garden-themed event, also on the south bank of the Clyde, namely The Antonine Garden, partially based on the Bearsden bathhouse. So far as I can tell, some of the stonework here was from the actual fort and bathhouse.

Image from the Glasgow Garden Festival programme (1988), original (c) Mitchell Library GC f607.3441443 GLA

The blurb accompanying this image noted that the ‘design emphasised the transition from Roman to Pict’. Other Roman bits and pieces were included here which is nice to know, but having visited this event many times as a 15 year-old I have no memory of this whatsoever.

Weirdly, the Antonine Gardens were then transferred to near Burnbrae Roundabout in Milngavie, another posh suburb of Glasgow near Bearsden. This was the fate of many elements of the Festival which are scattered across Scotland such as the aforementioned giant head or the huge garden tools visible from the M80 at Cumbernauld. This includes a replica mini distance slab and some nifty landscaping in a place that is essentially a busy traffic intersection. The reconstruction of this replica stone-by-stone has curious echoes of the movement of the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh.

Visiting these gardens was the final element of my lockdown walk exploration of the bathhouse and brought home to me once again how entangled these Roman places were with the local Iron Age communities. Or as the noticeboard at the ANTONIVS PIVS garden suggests, the Picts (!?). In the weird internal logic of the noticeboard on site, their territory, ‘Pict Landscape’, is now Waitrose and Aldi supermarkets and a big car park.

To visit these gardens, I left the car (and Jan) in a nearby car park for a pub and Premier Inn. These were closed, the car park empty, a victim of Lockdown 3 regulations. It was an unsettling reminder of our current reality. Yet as I walked back to the car after visiting PIVS gardens, this deserted car park made me think of the empty forts, bathhouses and fortlets that were left behind as the Romans left after their brief occupancy of this area 1800 or so years ago. They left behind them prehistory, but this emptiness was not hopeless, but rather a void within which new opportunities would emerge, focused on a better future.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan for accompanying me on these various walks and also for allowing me the chance to contribute to her teaching despite my obvious lack of knowledge about all things Roman.

I mentioned a few citations in the text:

Williams, H 2020 Living after Offa: place-names and social memory in the Welsh Marshes. Offa’s Dyke Journal 2, 103-40.

Kilpatrick, M 2021 When Birnam Wood rises: prehistoric activity at Birnam Crescent, Bearsden, Glasgow. Scottish Archaeological Journal 43, 69-78.

Crania suburbia

Juniper Green is not just the colour of posh jumpers and fancy cars. It is also a rather well-heeled suburb on the south side of Edinburgh, within earshot of the city bypass motorway which roars past immediately to the north. The initials of this place, JG, are only one Ballard short of JG Ballard, which interests me. What interests me even more is that this is a place where the dead were uncovered in advance of moneyed urban development – houses, suburban streets – in the nineteenth century. Escaping the noxious smells and over-crowding of Edinburgh city was done at the expense of disturbing the dead, a price the middle classes were no doubt happy to pay. Yet this is also a story of a community rediscovering a prehistoric heritage and the positive impact that this had, including the permanent memorialisation of this in the form of a standing stone.

Before we continue I should note that this blog post contains photos, and drawings, of human skeletal remains.

The story of what was found has already been unpicked by legendary archaeologist Alison Sheridan for the Juniper Green Bronze Age history website and so only needs summarised here by way of context for what actually drew my attention to the Green. This account draws heavily on Alison’s expertise and I am indebted for her supplying additional information to me.

As usual, it started with a tweet. In this case from Alistair McGowan, alerted me to a standing stone beside some tennis courts which had carved onto its surface amongst other things a human skull and an urn.

This hazily reminded me that a friend who lives nearby had mentioned this to me a while back. This was all becoming irresistible and so I planned a visit during a necessary work trip to Edinburgh before Lockdown 3 started with no intention of being socially distanced from this monolith…..

First, some background.

The first cist burial was found in 1851 in a place that might have been a leveled burial mound. Within this well-made stone coffin was a crouched inhumed male individual and a Beaker pot. The skull, which was documented to have been laid on a flat stone pillow, was purchased along with the Beaker by the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. What happened to the remainder of the skeleton is not clear. 

From Crania Britannica
(c) National Museums of Scotland

The location of this find has been the subject of some detective work, with Alison Sheridan noting:

The exact findspot of this cist had been uncertain until recent sleuthing work by Professor Beevers allowed it to be pinpointed. We knew, from ancient accounts, that the cist had been found “not more than ten yards” [around 9 metres] from the Edinburgh-Lanark road. Professor Beevers found notes of a talk given by J J Malloch, the Headmaster of Juniper Green School, to the Colinton Literary Society in 1927. In an aside, reference was made to the Bronze Age bones that had been found in Mr Cattanach’s garden. In the 1920s, Mr Cattanach lived in a house called Viewforth; the house is now the butcher’s shop, and the garden of the house lies very close to the Lanark Road. The National Grid Reference of this location is NT 196686.

This location is now a delicatessen on Lanark Road, formerly the long-lived Scott’s butcher’s shop at number 574-6. Lockdown rules mean that sadly I have to rely on Google Street View to illustrate this location. Sad face.

Images from the Juniper Green 300 website
Google Street view

Almost half a century later, in July 1898 during ‘building operations’, a cist was disturbed although it contained only ‘bone dust and soil’. Three ceramic vessels were recovered, two Food Vessels and an inverted cinerary urn. Fred Coles notes in 1899 that six weeks later another pot was found at this site but ‘it soon disappeared and its whereabouts is not known’. In other words, he could not find out upon whose mantelpiece or sideboard this ancient vessel now sat.

Both images from Coles 1899

This discovery was made along Woodhall Terrace, again here depicted using the google maps rather than the sweat of my own fieldwork efforts.

Google Street view

The locations of both of these discoveries are marked on this wonderful map of Juniper Green that was produced as part of the some serious celebrations in 2007 to mark the 300th anniversary of the suburb. Indeed it was this occasion that saw the local community begin to take note of their prehistoric heritage. The map (by Natasha Stewart, part of a leaflet that can be downloaded here) is enlivened by lovely sketches of some of the finds from these sites.

Drawings by Natasha Stewart

As noted, the Juniper Green 300 celebrations were the catalyst for a renewed interest in the history and heritage of this place, and the residents were clearly enthused by the information that there had been a ‘Juniper Green man’ living here 4,000 years previously, to the extent that some of them were able to see his skull up close and personal during a visit to the National Museum of Scotland, hosted by Alison Sheridan. Because as fortune would have it, the skull had recently been scientifically analysed for a major project on Beakers. There is no such thing as coincidence.

Images (c) JG300

This is not the first time that the skull of this male individual, a man of 40-55 years old, has been subject to analysis. It features in the book Crania Britannica: Delineations and Descriptions of the Skulls of the Aboriginal and Early Inhabitants of the British Islands: with Notices of Their Other Remains. This epic trawl of human skulls, phrenology and craniology was published in 1865 so this skull was fairly freshly out of the ground and into the pages of this unnatural selection in short order. The book documents that this was a rounded (brachycephalic) skull, and was unusually heavy and thick-walled.

Image: McTears auction house
‘Juniper Green man’ as drawn in Crania Britannica

The principle of this book was very much that humans could be ethnically characterised by the shapes of their skulls, and as the title suggests, a major element of this was to demonstrate the racial superiority of western Europeans as opposed to those who had the misfortune to be colonised by the British Empire. Prehistoric skulls were very much part of this narrative, identifying traits that could be compared across skulls found in the Victorian world. The research and narrative contained within this volume would be best described as ‘scientific racism’, building on the earlier Crania Americana. Researcher James Poskott has noted how important such volumes were in allowing “racist theories [to] gain credibility”.

This is a way of thinking that I thought had been condemned to the prehistory of archaeology but recently I realised that differentiating between skull shapes is still a thing. I noticed that the late Euan Mackie’s 1977 book The Megalith Builders included a reference to skull shapes of Neolithic people and Beaker users as being different, an idea I thought had long since been abandoned. Upon tweeting this I found out that this kind of argument is still being made. For instance in chapter 6 of the 2019 epic Mike Parker Pearson et al. monograph The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society). I don’t really know what to make of this frankly, but this kind of skull shape data is no longer couched in racist terminology. Nowadays reasons for skull differences are sought in cultural practices such as ‘cradle-boarding’, applied to children to modify skull shape. Indeed Daniel Wilson in his 1863 book The Prehistoric Annals of Scotland (pg 272) suggested this had happened to the Juniper Green man.

The much more recent analysis this skull underwent was part of the Beaker People project, which included radiocarbon dating the head bone, and also carbon, nitrogen, strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotope analysis. This showed that this man (whom Alison called Mr J Green!) had a diet dominated by meat rather than fish. He was probably local and died in the period 2350-2130 cal BC (right at the cusp of the Copper Age and Bronze Age).

The fresh information on these ancient burials was viewed with excitement by local people. At the time of the radiocarbon dating in 2007, then owner of Scott’s Butchers, Colin Hanlon, told The Scotsman, “It’s a huge shock that there were people here all that time ago. The whole community is alive with all this at the moment – everyone’s talking about it. We may arrange something to celebrate that it was here that the village’s oldest resident was found.” There is no doubt that Alison Sheridan played a part in this revival of interest, being described as inspiring by local community group JG Diggers.

There was now momentum. Following on from the 300 year celebration, a monument was erected in the suburb, the one that started this whole thing off for me. In a report on this in The Scotsman on 9th March 2010, this was described as ‘a giant green monument’ (??). This is a slightly confusing description but has some useful detail: “The rectangular monument features carvings of a water wheel, a pot, a skull and a juniper branch, representing aspects of its history” and that it is a “seven-foot structure”. It is not wildly green but made of a greenish slate hence the weird headline. And some of that seven feet is below the ground surface. However what is clear is that the motivation for this was another indication of the sense of pride and awe locally about the depth of time that people had lived in this place.

Local Val Hawkins noted, “so people have been living in Juniper Green since the Bronze Age at least, which was more than 4,000 years ago.” The monument itself was unveiled in front of a crown of 200 people. The standing stone itself – which in effect is what it is – was sculpted by sculptor and stonemason Ian Newton, made of Westmorland slate. The design was by local artist Mick Brettle.

Juniper 300 website images showing the unveiling. Alison Sheridan bottom right

It is located on the corner of Baberton Avenue, Belmont Road and Woodhall Terrace, on a grassy slope beside some tennis courts. I visited this wonderful monument on a chilly December day in 2020, during a slightly lesser set of lockdown restrictions. I was struck by the powerful nature of the carvings on the front side of the stone, the heritage of Juniper Green carved in stone, including the skull that has been mentioned so often in this post and the cinerary urn found in 1898.

The detail on the skull and pottery vessel is wonderful. The skull stares impassively towards the west with a watchful alert eye. The pot has lovely texture on it, decorative strokes and a kinetic form, a suitable vessel made to hold the dead. The 1851 and 1898 discoveries are both shown here together, a tangible symbol of a place with an ancient heritage, conflating time and space into a new symbol for this town at the cusp of the third millennium (AD). From their time to ours. The rear of the standing stone is blank, a canvas upon which the current and next generations might hew their own destinies, document their stories.

This is a fascinating story of a community re-discovering their prehistoric heritage and embracing it. With the enthusiasm and communication skills of Alison Sheridan, this became a potent combination of local pride and – yes – wonder. This is also a celebration of her wonderful and inspiring career, this being only one of many pebbles she has tossed into ponds only to stand back and watch wonderful ripples surge outwards. One need only view her recent Rhind lectures to reflect on a career well spent as not just an academic but also a public prehistorian.

In Juniper Green there was surprise that these jumbled bits and pieces of pots and bone could be so old. Awe that Juniper Green was not just an occupied place for 300 years, or even 3000 years, but 4000 and more. I have it on good authority that enthusiasm remains and Mr J Green’s old head might yet reveal more secrets of who he was and even what he looked like. It reminds me of a great novel I read a few years ago written from the viewpoint of Oliver Cromwell’s decapitated head, Marc Hartzman’s The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: a memoir (Curious Publications, 2015). This skull has been on a journey since being recovered from the ground, passed through many hands, sat in quite a few boxes and storerooms, and more adventures may well lie ahead.

This is a tale that might be played out in many other towns, villages and suburbs across Scotland which have an equally rich heritage but which await the revelation of deep time to happen. The Juniper Green example shows that prehistory can inspire social gatherings, creative acts, conviviality, and local pride. In this case, the prehistoric story of this place is now available to read online, and traced in the contours of a standing stone barely a decade old.

This is the power of urban prehistory.

Sources and acknowledgements: I am indebted to the work of Alison Sheridan on these discoveries and the clear presentation of those results in the Juniper Green 300 website, which was my main source of information here. Alison also kindly supplied some supplementary information.

Other source used:

Coles, F R. 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’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol. 33, 1898-9. Page(s): 354-8.

The skull is SK12 in Mike Parker Pearson, Alison Sheridan, Mandy Jay, Andrew Chamberlain, Mike Richards & Jane Evans (2019)The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society).

The Beaker can be found here (in print, not literally!): Clarke, D L. 1970 Beaker pottery of Great Britain and Ireland, 2v. Cambridge. Page(s): Vol.2, 519, no.1710 and you can view a sketchfab 3D model of the Beaker here.

For anyone interested in some darker research, see Davis and Thurnam, J B and J. 1865 Crania Britannica, 2v. Page(s): Vol.2, vi pl.15. Wash your hands once you are done please.

Neighbours to the dead

An account of a visit to a roadside chambered mound on the island of Skye at a time of special restrictions

An autumnal visit to a chambered cairn, believed to be ancient, having been investigated by various workmen and authorities ‘back in the day’. My researches had suggested to me that this monument sat in urban splendour, in the small town of Broadford on the island of Skye off the west coast of Scotland, an area I was able to reach by means of a bridge rather than boat as I had on my previous travels with a van full of bones*. In order to trek to the cairn, which goes by the local name Liveras, the automobile was parked near the Post Office, pharmacy, trinket shop, and an establishment vending candles bearing the mark of the island. We duly paid and displayed.

The main busy road was crossed avoiding incident, and we began to walk down Liveras Park, a road that curved down to the shore and quickly took on the form of a tarmac trackway along which were placed private residences, a manse – ministerial pile – and a Bed and Breakfasting establishment. It was between two of these buildings and their associated perfectly maintained gardens that the rounded eminence became apparent, a vegetation covered barrow or cairn on the roadside.

The mound itself was crowned with a great display of trees, while ferns and weeds and shrubs filled in the spaces between the splayed trunks of this arrangement. The roots of these established vegetations must surely be cutting deep into the cairn, easing apart the well-placed orthostats in the belly of the tomb, introducing spaces and light where before there was only darkness. The mound melted into the roadside, verge-like, with a covering of the first leaf falls of the season, another layer in the stratigraphy of Liveras.

My extensive research into this monument, conducted over 10 long minutes using the oracle that is google, told me that this cairn had been the subject of crude antiquarian investigation in the nineteenth century. In a talk given to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on 9th January 1832 Donald Gregory Esquire told the attendant audience:

The accidental opening of this massive mound seems to me an unlikely explanation for what may have been more correctly characterised as an exercise in curiosity. However this account hints at the hollow heart of this tree-topped low eminence, from which some treasures were recovered along with the remains of the ancient dead.

The stone object Gregory tells of is a stone-bracer or wrist-guard, worn by an archer, and a second object of similar nature was later recovered from the beach nearby, suggesting it was discarded there during the 1832 foray. The form of this monument – Neolithic – and the recovery of these Bronze Age objects, suggests multiple occasions of human burial at this place, so close now to a manse inhabited by one who commonly ministers to the dead.

The wrist-guard was made from stone from the Langdales in the Lake District and even now resides in a drawer in storage at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It is pictured on a coloured board of information that stands just a few paces away from the cairn.

Death was taken very seriously then‘ begins the writing on this board of information, as if this were not the case now. Perhaps this was a monument constructed by the ancients to cope with excess deaths, locking them away in a safe of stone, the combination code of which was only known to a select few.

Daubed onto a wooden service pole sticking from the side of the cairn was the letter H painted in yellow. This was next to a yellow indicator of electrical flow beneath the earth with its own black H. Thrust into and beneath the lip of the cairn, indicators of another type of power at work here.

This plot will never be built on. There will always be a gap between the manse and the bed and breakfast, and so all those who reside in those buildings will continue to be neighbours to the dead.

Sources and acknowledgements: This chambered cairn is of a Hebridean Type and a little more information can be found in canmore. The account by Gregory can be found here (google the title, a pdf is available online):

Gregory, D. 1857 Notes regarding various remains of antiquity, both of the earlier and middle ages, observed during a recent visit to the Hebrides’, Archaeol Scot, vol. 4, 1857. Page: 364

The final photo in this post was taken by Jan Brophy.

The * indicates another story for another time.

Oh my Goss

Archaeologists are collectors and hoarders. We go through life amassing our own assemblages, perhaps in compensation for all the things we find during fieldwork and excavations that we must hand over to someone else.

My latest collection obsession was prompted by the kindness of Hugo (as in Hugo Anderson-Whymark of the National Museum of Scotland) during the Neolithic Studies Group visit to southwest Scotland in May 2019. During a lunchbreak on a sunny Saturday in Wigtown, he presented me with a small package – a present for me! I carefully unwrapped – excavated – the package that he presented me with and inside was a very small ceramic pot. Directed to read the tiny writing on the base, the reason for this gift soon became clear. This was a very small replica of a prehistoric urn. I could barely believe such a thing existed.

Later than day back in my weird Kirkcudbright B&B room (a short walk from some of the locations used in The Wicker Man) I turned the little fragile pot over in my hands, absorbing the writing on the bottom:

MODEL OF CINERARY URN FOUND AT GLEN DORGAL NOW IN TRURO MUSEUM

On the side of the pot was, weirdly, a crest for the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil. What was the Celtic connection?

This was all very exciting, and Hugo filled me in on the astounding truth – that there were lots of such tiny ceramic prehistoric urns, made (primarily) by Staffordshire ceramics manufacturers WH Goss in the late 19th and early 20th century, based on a variety of later prehistoric pots and urns, with a host of town crests upon them. How could I not have known about this? There is even a Goss Collectors’ Club for fans of the ‘crested urns’ and other china keepsakes made by Goss.

Entry for my Glen Dorgal urn from the Goss Collectors’ Club website

The story of these little pots – the crested urns – goes back to the nineteenth century. Essentially they were cheap tourist souvenirs, produced between 1858 and 1939, and which were embossed with the crest of the town or place where they were being sold. WH Goss used a huge range of historical influences for the shapes of their little urns, in part with an ethos of making these little pots educational and informative. Thus there are countless examples of little urns in the shape of medieval pots and jugs, Roman vessels, leather bags, goblets, drinking urns, milk urns, tankards, all in the order of 60mm to 80mm in size. In each case the object that the china replica is based on is written on the base with a Goss stamp, although this became less common through time thus reducing the educational value of the urns. Other companies such as Arcadia made knock-off cheaper versions of some of these urns.

Pine and Pine 1987

So why are some of these little objects china replicas of prehistoric pots? In a 1995 paper about this phenomenon, Catherine Johns stated that the idea came from Adolphus Goss (1853-1906), son of founder of the Goss company William Henry Goss. Goss Jnr. wanted to produce educational and informative keepsakes of holidays and daytrips for working class tourists. The prehistoric pottery range designs came from the pages of Llewellyn Jewitt’s 1877 The ceramic art of Great Britain (2nd edition) and so, as Johns notes, even at the time, some of the terminology used was out-dated (‘Celtic urn’, ‘ancient cup’). As Anderson-Whymark has tweeted, this book had a fine collection of wood cut illustrations of prehistoric pots including one of the Glen Dorgal urn that started me off on this journey.

Image of my Glen Dorgal urn from Jewitt, tweeted by Hugo Anderson-Whymark

And so a modest range of prehistoric inspired crested urns were developed, Johns documenting 18 different styles based on Beakers, Food Vessels, and assorted cremation urns of Bronze Age date.

The prehistoric pots, the Hythe Crypt skull, and bust of Goss (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

These miniature china urns are pretty good replicas of the originals, in some cases retaining fine detail such as surface decoration, almost impossible to see except close up. Some retain the asymmetries and irregularities of the original.

Johns did a remarkable job of tracking down what the original pots actually were due to a random selection of information and nomenclature. For instance the handled vessel pictured below was called by Goss the ‘Brixworth Ancient Cup’ which is of course a Beaker: for those if you who like this kind of thing it is No. 626 and Fig. 1066 in Clarke 1970!

Real pots (image from Johns 1995, individual photo rights in captions

Pretty cheap at the time (something like 6d), these little urns have become collectable. More information on each pot can therefore be gleaned from annual sales catalogues, produced years after production was wound down. These contain good pictures and info on all Goss pots, not just the prehistoric ones, and show the wide range of town crests on show, not all of them obvious tourist hotspots.

Images from the 1975 The Price Guide to the models of WH Goss

Generally purchasing these crested urns today is quite an inexpensive business. Hugo’s gift was worth about £2.50 in 1975 as you can see above from the price guide for that year, and in 1999 was valued at £12.50 (Pine 1999). However, I very much doubt Hugo paid that in the charity shop he found the object, and on Ebay such pots now sell for a few quid. Ebay has devalued the market to the extent that at any time loads of these are being auctioned for not much money. Almost no-one else bids for them in my experience.

Devizes Bell-Beaker crested urn for sale!

One quirk of these pots is that almost all have a different town crest and object locaton, but some match. So for instance I have a ‘Devizes Celtic drinking-cup’ urn in my modest collection, with the town crest of Devizes. These are a usually more expensive due to rarity although I don’t think mine cost anything more than normal, nowhere near the £33 it was worth in 1999 apparently.

Matched Devizes urn with Pine 1999 entry in the background

I don’t need to tell you that these objects are immensely collectable for prehistorians. After tweeting about Hugo’s gift and my first crested urn, archaeologists Neil Wilkin and Mark Knight came out as Goss collectors. Hugo has a massive collection by his own account, and legendary Scottish prehistorian Alison Sheridan has some too. Crested urns are held in the collections of the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland.

Image courtesy of Neil Wilkin
Image courtesy of Mark Knight

Of course this started me collecting, and I have now amassed a decent little corpus of crested urns, with more or less all of the 18 types represented by at least one example. In some cases, where small and medium versions were produced, I have one or both. My dad even built a nice display shelving unit for them.

The act of collecting these urns has its own excavation parallels. Coming through the post, most urns have been wrapped up a box and bubble wrap, mimicking the ways that complete pots might be removed from the ground and taken to the lab for analysis. Each act of opening packaging is another form of excavation, unwrapping multiple layers of protection, revealing something beautiful at the end of the process. The material culture of posting and packing these little urns holds its own fascination for me.

Is this urban prehistory? Of course it is. The collection of these weird versions of prehistoric pots seems to me an opportunity to bring the vessels of the ancient dead into our domestic spaces. An opportunity is afforded to trace herringbone designs and lozenge patterns with our fingers, or hold these vessels up to the light which shines right through, literally bone china. Placing these wee pots onto shelves and mantelpieces has echoes in antiquarian practice, where ancient rude urns would be collected from the ground and placed on display by wealthy landowners, only to become lost in the mists of time, turned to dust.

The Goss crested urns are entangled in the Bronze Age, the antiquarian age, the practices of archaeology, the postal service, online auctions, and the lives of collectors.

Johns argued that, ‘there has always been a subtle underlying implication that a natural predilection for designs based on those of antiquity is a mark of an educated and sophisticated taste’. The Goss miniatures sought, in a sense, to democratise this snobby perspective, and open up objects of educational sophistication to suit all pockets and grace the most modest of mantelpieces. What Adolphus Goss started, Ebay finished. Prehistory for the people!

Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Hugo for his kind gift and generous explanations of his collection and advice on how to build my own. Images from Hugo, Neil, and Mark used in this post were all tweeted in response to my excitement at this Goss-giving.

The following sources were refered to in this post:

Catherine Johns 1995 Educational souvenirs: models of British Bronze Age pottery in Goss heraldic porcelain. In Ian Kinnes and Gill Varndell (eds) ‘Unbaked urns of rudely shape’: essays on British and Irish Pottery for Ian Longworth, pages 211-8, Oxbow Books.

Nicholas Pine 1999 The concise encyclopaedia and price guide to Goss china. Milestone publications.

Roland Ward 1975 The price guide to the models of WH Goss. Antique Collector’s Club.

Lynda and Nicholas Pine 1987 The story of the Staffordshire family of potters who invented heraldic porcelain. Milestone publications.

Coatbridge Carnac

As I explore the places near where I live on foot, within the approved 5km or so limit, I ask myself: ‘Do I just see urban prehistory everywhere? Is it just me? Or are allusions to the prehistoric hard-wired into our urban spaces, industrial estates, retail parks, and housing estates?’. I am coming to suspect the latter, as the alternative would mean that urban prehistory is simply a product of my own delusional state of mind, a pathological condition.

So that’s fine then. On to the business of this post.

Urban exploration is seldom a walk wasted. And following a path, or a desire line, just that little bit more, towards the end of a long walk, if often the time when unexpected discoveries are made. And so it was recently on a lockdown walk in the Lanarkshire sun. On a wander that had already delivered olfactory pleasure drifting from whisky barrels biding their time in warehouses with their doors flung casually open, Jan and I pushed on just a few minutes more, in the shadow of Tesco Extra that from the rear had the appearance and scale of an airport terminal.

A deserted path ran along the backside of this massive grey warehouse, pitted with black doorways at the bottom of unwelcoming stairways. Someone has spray painted a brick wall ‘Mind the steps’ while a bunch of dying flowers hung from a rusting banister nearby, a plaintive sad simple note attached: RIP. An accident on the stairs? We became overwhelmed by the sound of the shop, a low capitalist hum, as if the building were not really a shop but a huge power station feeding on the energy of queuing shoppers.

I glanced off the the right, along a narrow but concrete-paved pathway that led to a clearance, within which were I glimpsed a few inverted shopping trollies, and a pile of big angular boulders. Attracted to this – what other word can I use? – cairn, I pushed aside the foliage, and emerged out into an opening, where other blocks were arranged in more cairns. Huge sandstone discs, like giant tiddlywinks, were arranged in a snaking line. The chase was on, with each break in the vegetation leading to more megalithic revelations.

This cannot be a coincidence. The place we stumbled upon is some kind of landscaped public art, perhaps industrial in spirit, almost certainly not prehistoric in any way whatsoever in the mind of the creator, and yet I cannot help but see these blocks, these lines, these deposits, as prehistoric-esque, to coin a clumsy compound word. Why would anyone see these piles of boulders as anything other than cairns? One even took the form, I am sure, of a fallen standing stone.

The fallen standing stone (photo: Jan Brophy)

Consider the basic facts of the matter. In a hesitant line some 150m in length, punctuated by bushes, squeezed in a green triangle between the Faraday Retail Park, Coatbank Street, and South Circular Road, there are multiple cairns and fallen megaliths of granite and sandstone.

These stones are a 1980s palette of oranges, greys, and pinks, and arranged casually, but the sheer size of some of the boulders meant that there could have been nothing casual about this. In the shadow of high rises, near the din of traffic noise, this is surely urban prehistory?

In the shadow of high rises

In one clearing, two trollies lay tied to one another by the chains attached to the pound coin slots. One trolley was from Tesco, the other Asda. This unholy coupling appeared to have been deliberately engineered, perhaps for my benefit, a Ballardian touch that I appreciated. Trollies were strewn all around, their metal carcasses ridden in, broken, borrowed, stolen, then finally dumped amidst this Coatbridge Carnac.

The coupled trollies

The abandoned trollies give this place the feel of a mortuary space for excarnation, their defleshed skeletal frames picked clean of their consumer flesh, the tin cans, the multi-packs, the boxes and packets, and left to tarnish in the sun. Exposed to the elements, their wheels silently spinning in the breeze.

Place of trolley excarnation

Gareth Rees recently tweeted about coronavirus and his specialist subject, retail park Car Parks. (Would he choose this topic were he on Mastermind?) One picture, showing ‘bizarre trolley alignments’, made me think about the new affordances that shopping trollies have for us during pandemic. Arbiters of safe social distanced space in shops. Delineations for queues outside shops. And perhaps they should also be viewed as vectors of the transmission of Covid-19 via unwashed hands and surfaces, things to be handled while wearing latex gloves.

It was difficult to make sense of this mostly abandoned piece of landscaping behind the Faraday Retail Park. The gravel surfaces that most of the boulders and stones had been laid atop were overgrown with weeds, and broken bottles and bent cans were strewn all over the place. Litter accumulated around the base of standing stones and collected in the unusual angles created by stones like tangled limbs. Fires had been set in the shadow of some cairns. This was a place that was hidden in plain sight, just off the road, just behind a retail park, and yet seemed like another world that belonged to someone else. We were trespassing, and yet the only life that we could detect here at 4.30pm on a Monday afternoon were rabbits. Lots of rabbits. Some hiding behind shopping trolleys, perspective creating the illusion they were in cages at the whim of a mad scientist.

Someone tweeted later that evening that this place was known as a rabbit run, and the various meanings of this phrase seem apt for this place. Someone else told me it was a failed attempt to establish a Japanese garden behind the Retail Park, although many of the stones looked to me like the byproducts of the heavy industries that used to dominate this landscape. The huge sandstone discs were, I am sure, remnants of bridge supports, although from where I have no idea. Still another theory goes that this is a liminal place that marks the boundaries between the territories of two Coatbridge gangs, perhaps borne out by the tags sprayed onto some of the blocks.

Marking territory, Buckie deposition

Yet the scale of all of this did not quite compute with any of these explanations. The megaliths that we encountered in that liminal space, that edgy edgeland, seemed to me like they belonged to the fantasy worlds of Doug McLure, or James Franciscus, beneath, beyond, impossible, deeply strange, and yet enchanting. It was our world – my world – and yet not quite of that world. Shoppers nearby largely knew nothing about what we had encountered, in this space that in the end was deemed suitable only to plant shrubs and erect standing stones and cairns. It is defiantly not a shop. But maybe a little bit prehistoric.

As we emerged out of this nether region, passers by on a better-used path looked at us suspiciously, as it urban exploration in that place was unusual behaviour even for lockdown walkers. Little did they know that only a few metres away, amidst the trollies, the rabbits, and the rubbish, lay the Coatbridge Carnac.

Lockdown megalith

We are all paying more attention to the familiar than ever before. The lockdown is making psychogeographers of us all, walking familiar paths with new levels of intensity, experimenting with new routes and unfamiliar trails, all in the name of fulfilling our daily government sanctioned exercise. Escaping the shackles of our homes for those fortunate enough not to have to shield or quarantine completely has become for many of us an essential daytime ritual. Our modes of movement and engagements with others have changed too. Crossing the road to avoid someone has become an act of polite kindness. The pavements have become enlivened with chalk, colourful expressions of home-schooling, support for key workers. Hopscotch is back in fashion. Windows and doors have become adorned by rainbows, thank you notes, messages for those who venture outside on our behalf. The pavements have become assemblages of discarded coronavirus protection, blue rubber gloves discarded here and there, officially approved single-use plastics. The urban landscape around us is slowly changing, and we are documenting this on foot, through smart phones, navigating this new world with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and nostalgia.

Covid-19 is making us walk differently.

It was on just such a recent walk that I encountered, literally six minutes’ walk from where I live in Airdrie, a rather special modern standing stone, set within a stone circle of smaller blocks, all bisected by a footpath.

pic 2

low res 2

This sturdy megalith is adorned with a palimpsest of graffiti in multiple colours and hands. These obscure phrases, such as the prominent Jobby Josh MS hint at invective sprayed onto rock, letters shaking with anger (or laughter). Rushed sentiments, two word autobiographies, befitting a crime scene on a public path with many possible witnesses.

low res

The stone circle is almost lost amidst vegetation, its legibility compromised by the pathway. Beside the standing stone focal point, these smaller stones seem almost after-thoughts, and yet they form a clear circle of boulders, none of which appear to be adhering by social distancing principles.

low res 3

The whole arrangement is part of the Millennium Park on the north edge of Airdrie. I can’t find anything out about this park, but it consists of playing parks with poor post-industrial land quality grass. The stone circle and standing stone sit to the south of the playing fields, beside a confusing jumble of paths and paved settings.

Beside the standing stones is that folk horror trope, a rusting and seemingly abandoned children’s play park, with various rides that look to me like they would require the user to self-administer a tetanus injection upon dismounting the various rusty rides with their twisted paint-flecked poles and corroding springs.

satellite
Google maps. Stone circle marked by red arrow.

This weird bit of urban leisure planning is more of a place to pass through than tarry, although even here were discarded rubber gloves, lying around like five-fingered condoms.

sta alert

It was here I decided to film a short recruitment video for our taught postgraduate MSc Landscape Archaeology course. I wonder what the corporate machine of my employers will make of that?

PGT video

Why have I never spotted this standing stone before? Why did is take a global pandemic of ruinous proportion for me to properly perambulate around the place I have lived for 14 years? My lack of interest in the place that I live, my dependence on the car to get to and from the railway station in town, embarrasses me.

pic 1

But every time I now walk past this stone, I can’t get this stupid grin off my face. Walking, and looking, will help us emerge from lockdown. When that does happen, let’s not forget what we have learned on our coronambulations.

Acknowledgements: the photos and video were taken by Jan Brophy. 

 

Great crown of stone

Exactly a year ago, 20th March 2019. the new Sighthill stone circle was officially revealed to the media. Designed, as was the first iteration, by Duncan Lunan, this astronomically aligned stone circle has been constructed as a permanent and unique resource within the emerging new Sighthill just to the north-east of Glasgow city centre.

At the time when this new megalith began to emerge, it sat on a raised island amidst a giant muddy building site. Sighthill itself was yet to be reborn, the old variant having been more or less completely bulldozed and remediated as part of a £250 million redevelopment. The standing stones stood resplendent like teeth, their concrete foundations exposed like white gums. At the time they sat in a noisy landscape of construction, with the closest neighbour being a Mercedes car dealership, a Ballardian crash of epic proportions.

A year on, residential Sighthill is now growing slowly, although the stone circle remains (just) in glorious isolation. It still sits in a brownscape of mud amidst machines of construction, but it is slowly visually and metaphorically being lost in an urban skyline. Yet even now, driving west along the M8 into the city centre, the Sighthill’s second stone circle is a fantastic site / sight, emerging as it does on the horizon off to the left. A similar and wonderful view can be gained by the pedestrian by standing on Baird Street bridge over the motorway.

The stone circle is surely Glasgow’s Angel of the North, a great crown of stone on the horizon.

This photo essay (my rather grand description of what is basically a series of photographs) documents the time I was privileged to spend in and around the stone circle on 20th March 2019 thanks to a kind invitation from Duncan.

Duncan prepares
Media scrum
The gathering
PPE and me
Pilgrims
High vis 1
Mud bath
The mints
Megalith bagging
Camera obscura
Alignment
Photo op
City limits
High vis 2
Through a crack
Great crown of stone
Mounds and megaliths
Artist’s impression of the circle when its new urban setting is completed (artist unknown)

Men of Felben

Resolute.

Men of Felben awakened from their deep slumber.

Looking for fuel.

Felben approach

Unfurling themselves.

Dwarfing standing stones.

Remnants of their former selves.

Giants de-petrifying.

Becoming metal.

Leaving their shackles behind.

Fully erect

Looming over vehicles.

But not looking at them.

The circle of life.

Roundabout.

Over vehicles

Standing guard beside their tombs.

Limestone boxes.

The eternity of stone.

Spirits in the sky.

Revealed

 

Sources and acknowledgements: Die Herrn von Felben (The Men of Felben) is an artwork (artist unknown to me) within a roundabout in the town of Mittersil in the Austrian Tyrol. At the time of its construction in 2014 it was one of 95 in the Salzburg Region, although probably the only traffic island adorned by two metal giants and four portal dolmen. 

Newspaper photo of Felben
Source: Salzburger Nachrichten

The ‘gentlemen’ of Felben were noblemen from the 12th century whose name is commemorated in the nearby Felbertal mountain pass and the tunnel, Felbertauern, that runs through it (source). 

The photos in the post were taken, from a car, by Jan Brophy.