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How old is a piece of stone?

3 Dec

There can’t be much left to write about the London Stone, an urban megalithic curio that The Guardian newspaper called a ‘psychogeographer’s landmark’. This strange roughly cuboid limestone block, located at 111 Cannon Street in London for at least half a millennium, may well be a solid lump of stone but it consists more of myth than molecule.

the-london-stone-at-st-swithins

There are so many legends associated with this roughed-up beige 76 kg stone block that it strikes me as weird that it has consistently been located in such an un-legendary location. Although in the past the the London Stone has by historical accounts been set into the wall of the former St Swithen’s Church, it has also in more recent times been contained by a rather crappy cage in the wall of a WH Smiths and before that a Sportec sports shop and even The Bank of China. This was after a near miss during the Blitz.

London_Stone-WHSmith

Wikipedia: creative commons, John O’London

Rex Shutterstock photo Daily Mail

Rex Shutterstock photo Guardian 2016

Above two images both Rex / Shutterstock, sourced from The Daily Mail 12022016

There is little point in rehearsing the many stories associated with the origins, meaning and biography of the London Stone. There is such a depth of lore about this object that I am sure that it deserves more than the one or two paragraphs afforded in most books about London; certainly, a lack of time permitted me researching this as rigorously as I would have liked.

For the time being, to cut to the urban prehistoric chase, let’s focus on how old the LS actually might be. Peter Ackroyd (London: the biography, 2001), suggests that it, ‘is of great antiquity’, but ‘as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to survive from prehistoric times’. Two pages tell the story of the Stone in John Matthews and Caroline Wise’s The Secret Lore of London (2016); they describe is a ‘worn stump’ and a ‘geomantic mark-stone’ of, at oldest, Roman origin.

London Lore book illustration

Reproduced in The secret lore of London (Matthews and Wise)

In The Stones of London (2012) Lee Hollis suggests that the London Stone may be little more than a Roman gatepost that has taken on all sorts of myths and legends depending on the political needs of those who told those stories. Ed Glinert (The London Compendium, 2004) calls the Stone a ‘totem for the city’s safety’ which has prehistoric overtones, but more broadly draws on myths about the Stone not being removed from the city. And so on. Each account draws on the same pool of lore, include lots of secondary referencing, and indicate the limitations of the historical text as a source as authors attempt to peer back into the murky mists of time.

There is much that could be done from an archaeological perspective to add to the already-colourful story of the London Stone. There have been various different reliquaries that have held the LS, and this would be an interesting line of investigation both in terms of the form but also materiality of these cages and boxes, as well as telling us something about how people engaged with and interacted with the Stone, and what levels of control were exercised over that engagement.

4-London-Stone-in-Cannon-Street

From John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities of London (1791-1800)

Or perhaps a mapping exercise could be undertaken, considering the various different locations that the London Stone has been placed, on both sides of the street and with slight variation, and other possible places of repose. The location of the Stone vertically might also be traced, with pavement level and higher in the church wall just two variations. Again, how people encountered the London Stone and spatially where it was located might shed light on its social role, and this includes the bodily inclination needed to view the monolith: looking down or peering up.

london-stone-conserved-portrait

Helen Butler does some conservation work (c) Museum of London

The stone itself could (and I’m being fanciful here but what the heck) be the object of scientific study, with techniques such as XRF and Ramon Spectroscopy able to discover paint, blood, sweat, tears and semen stains (OK, maybe not the latter, that would need a CSI-style UV light source…). Use-wear analysis would be able to (theoretically) shed light on the exact metallurgical properties of the sword that was used to strike the London Stone by rebel leader Jack Cade in 1450 (but not what he had for breakfast that day).

jack-cades-rebellion

Stock image of Jack Cade waving his sword about, various sources online.

It is interesting how many old drawings of the stone focus on the detail of the container and not the stone, which more often than not seems to be a shapeless lump. This is perhaps because geometrically this thing is a shapeless lump. The Mail Online described it as looking like, ‘a large piece of leftover masonry’. So a 3D model of the stone would be nice so capture its slightly strange shape and rough surface, and might shed light in the mechanism of the breakage of the stone (it may once have been larger), as well as highlight historic damage and carvings.

London_Stone_scan

(c) Europac 3D

Indeed, after I had written these words, I found out that such a scan has indeed been undertaken by Europac 3D. This laser scan, undertaken to sub 1mm resolution, was done using Arctic Space Spider which sounds like something from a John Carpenter film but probably isn’t. Interestingly, this ‘revealed several man-made carvings, one of which is believed to have been made when Jack Cade entered London’ although I think that one was already visible with the naked eye. I think full results are yet to be published, but at last the Stone can be viewed as something other than a blurry block in a photo or as an etching of a blob in a box (see below).

Ackroyd book illustration

Reproduced in Ackroyd’s London: the biography

The London Stone, as it happens, recently spent a couple of years in the capable hands of the Museum of London’s archaeologists, and they undertook some conservation work on the Stone as well as putting the thing on display with a lovely purple background in their museum (and getting the aforementioned scan done).

John Chase photo Guardian Sep 2018

(c) Museum of London

One of the key areas of their presentation of the stone to the public was some myth-busting, and blimey there are lots of myths and stories attached to this object that they wanted to bust.

Myth number 1 that they ‘bust’ was: It has stood in London since prehistoric times and Myth number 2: It was an ancient altar used for Druidic sacrifices. Both of these centre on the suggestion that the LS is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric stone or even a broken standing stone. However, MOLA question the urban prehistory credentials of this rock, and thus by extension the legitimacy of this blog post. In fact neither myth is really busted, but rather some of the historical biography of the London Stone cited, with the underlying suggestion that there is simply no evidence that this was ever part of a prehistoric monument. They push is back possibly to Saxon or Viking times, maybe even Roman, but no earlier.

Assumed by some authors such as John Strype and William Blake to be a pagan stone, in fact this had no basis in fact and simply confirmed their own romantic proto-druid mythologizing, captured in this stansa from Blake’s Jerusalem:

Where Albion slept beneath the Fatal Tree,
And the Druids’ golden Knife
Rioted in human gore, In Offerings of Human Life…
They groan’d aloud on London Stone,
They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook…

Finally, MOLA get to the point and conclude: “There is no evidence for this, and London Stone, whatever its purpose, was certainly not erected before the Roman period.” Boo.

That’s fine, and also true. There is no evidence that the London Stone is prehistoric in origin. But does this matter? Some in the past have believed it to be the case, and some still do. The prehistoric credentials of this stone are nothing to do with reality, but perception, and this is often the way with odd megaliths and other urban prehistoric miscellany. We might as well ask: how old is a piece of stone? Because the fact that the London Stone is an oolitic limestone means that it is very old, dating to before 1,000,000 BC. It depends on how one frames the question.

London Stone launched

Source: London TimeOut 05102018

Visiting the London Stone today seems to me a legitimate exercise in prehistoric speculation now that it has been re-instated in a new shrine on the former WH Smith site, still 111 Cannon Street.

London Stone wide view low res

The Stone has only been back in its old location for a few months, although now the weird cage has been replaced with a glossy shiny glass-fronted display box. This reliquary appears to be a throwback retro design referencing older versions of the container for the Stone, some of which are pictured earlier in this post.

London Stone new setting low res

Two black plaques sit on either side, one of which explains that we know bugger all about the London Stone, while the other says the same thing in braille (I assume).

The right-hand information panel begins with a malformed tripartite sentence.

London Stone plaque low res

Above the ceremonial repository, there is a simple bookplate inscription saying LONDON STONE and this appears to be part of a limestone facade of the fancy new building, thus mimicking the materiality of old Stoney itself. Has the architectural design for this glassy building been designed with the LS in mind?

London Stone sign low res

This has replaced the crappy but endearing WH Smith context of yore, and the new mini-high rise building is rather more glassy and glamorous. The London Stone has clearly gone upmarket. This is certainly a gentrification from its earlier status, described by Ackroyd as, ‘blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare‘. Nonetheless, the latter part of this statement remains true.

The London Stone obscured low res

The glassy nature of the building within which the LS is now encased affords views behind the Stone, a glimpse that was not within the gift of the stationer WH Smith. Here, disappointingly, the oolitic lump appears to be concealed behind a wall of mdf, although there is the hint of a small panel that might be removable with a smuggled screwdriver once this establishment opens for business, whatever that business might be.

Behind the London Stone low res

Observing those walking past the London Stone suggests that this is, at worst, of no interest, or at best, an over-familiar landmark, as few pedestrians paused to pay their respects. The noticeboard detained a few men with suits for a minute or two, while a woman with a pram did look at it as she perambulated past.

Road closed low res

I got the sense that this is a lonely Stone as I lurked in the area for far too long. This is perhaps why this geological curio literally engaged me in a short twitter conversation, expressing the surprising and hitherto un-expressed desire to be called Kevin. I duly obliged, walking past and affording LS this new moniker with a jolly shout of ‘hello Kevin’, although as yet this new persona has not been adopted widely.

Tweet 1

Tweet 2

Shall we ever get to the truth of it? No, of course not. And why should that matter? When we ask ‘how long is a piece of string’ we don’t expect a factual, empirical answer. The London Stone’s prehistoric credentials are not in doubt as far as I am concerned, elements of a story long told, whether that be the one about it being a broken standing stone or having served as a druid altar or some other sacred megalith of yore.

It doesn’t matter how old the London Stone is: we only need believe it to be so. This is rich narrative, a stone that does not roll but has gathered spiritual moss. As AD Cochrane has noted, ‘Down the centuries a parade of charlatans, poets, modern psychogeographic writers, alchemists, historians and eccentric clergymen have enriched the mythology of London Stone‘. If this isn’t prehistory, I don’t know what is.

There is one source that I was able to find that suggested that this misshapen hunk of rock was once part of a prehistoric monument. In a review of the former London Stone Pub (107 Cannon Street) a contributor to the website ‘Fancy a Pint.com‘ suggests that the Stone was, ‘possibly part of an ancient stone circle’. The same review also suggests that the pub contained, ‘gargoyles, cocktails in test tubes and other assorted horror ephemera’ so perhaps it is for the best that it closed a couple of years ago, to be replaced by The Cannick Taps.

London Stone pub

Photo: Fancyapint.com

Rare views inside the London Stone pub, which appears to have been a gothic extravaganza of poor taste, suggest decor that mimicked the grey metal cage that enclosed the Stone until fairly recently. Bad art imitates poor cage.

quaint-decor-in-pub

Trip Advisor – interior of the London Stone pub (deceased)

How old is this piece of stone? Who cares.

The London Stone is as the London Stone does. LS if you are into the whole brevity thing.

The London Stone abides.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: if you want to find out more about the London Stone, ask it questions on twitter via @thelondonstone – it / Kevin might answer back.

 

 

 

 

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Talus

12 Oct

Talus. Noun.

  1. an accumulation of scree at the base of a cliff or steep slope
  2. an ankle bone
  3. a fortification

 

Automatic writing

The pressure of my thumb caused just enough 0.7mm graphite to ooze from my pencil. Sitting on a train, breathless, fumbling in my bag for the book. Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. This crumpled paperback that had become the roadmap for my increasingly eccentric visits to places in heavily urbanised or industrialised places with obscure prehistoric predecessors. This was no longer enough, I came to realise after writing 116 posts for my blog. I needed new kicks, fresh experiences, the hard stuff.

I opened Sellars’ book up at random pages and saw continual relevance to my own condition, just as the unreliable narrator of this fever-dream of a novel had also done. I began to scribble in the margins, automatic writing. The sections of the book that I applied marginalia to appeared to be random but were perhaps not. Bunker Logic. Scar Tissue. Emergence.

IMG_4723

This book was the archaeological fieldwork guide that I had always wanted. More profound than Barker’s Techniques of Archaeological Investigation. More informative than Drewett’s Field Archaeology. More grounded in reality that Hodder’s The Archaeological Process. More emotionally charged than the MoLAS archaeological site manual (3rd edition).

I came to realise that as a rulebook for surveying the deep time in our world one need do no more than read the complete fictional works of JG Ballard, Applied Ballardianism and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology.

IMG_4966

IMG_4967

Through this psychogeographik grimoire, I had found my hard stuff. The hard stuff of life.

The midden.

 

Calcium Cairns

Middens are indicative of accumulation and disposal, rise and decline. They are the ultimate material expression of consumption.

Middens mark the rise, fall, and will indicate the return of, prehistory.

Middens are contingent on abandonment, emergent in every place that humans exist, from a deserted military island to the urban core.

Middens passively grow, while awaiting collapse.

Middens are our cultural scar tissue, which we cannot help but touch.

Cairns of calcium and carbon.

 

In the Mesolithic of Oronsay, hunters and fishers would bury human finger bones in their shell middens.

In the Neolithic of Orkney, farmers would use midden material to insulate their houses.

Oronsay shell midden canmore_image_SC01453537

But middens are not just of the past. Everywhere around us are middens-in-waiting, potential-middens, partial-middens, middens-in-hiding, proto-middens.

Living is an act of middening.

 

A Gruesome Inventory

The kitchen-midden was discovered on the far side of the small estuarine island of Inchkeith in 1870 at the base of a slope. This artificial organic talus consisted of cooking-debitage, eating-scree, of unknown date and origin. The midden was monumental in its scale, up to 3m high, thick with greasy charcoal.

Baskets of bones were removed from this midden for analysis back in Edinburgh. The scientist tasked with the analysis of these bits and pieces produced a gruesome inventory, scraped from the pages of an anatomical manual, notes from an animal autopsy.

inventory

Basi-occipital and basi-sphenoid fragments of grey seal skulls. Mastoid process and temporal fossa of sheep. Head of the ulna of a sheep. Fourth cervical vertebrae of a pig. Head of left tibia of an ox. Cannon bone of hind foot of bos. Toe bone of bos. Parts of jaw, and several teeth, of horse. Jaw bones of the rabbit. An assemblage of alien species.

Many shells were found too, listed in the analysis like an incantation. Tapes pullastra. Purpura lapillus. Pecten varius. Ostrea Edulis. Pecten maximus. 

It was concluded after this analysis and repeat visits to the island that, ‘there is no evidence as to the period when these rejecta were first cast forth’.

Cast Forth in the Forth.

 

Urban Midden

Hunter Street. There is no such thing as a coincidence so I told myself as I cut up from the Barrowlands Ballroom and headed towards the urban prehistory. I turned onto Hunter Street, folding a map and stuffing it into my back pocket. Across a railway line, over an abandoned tunnel. Ahead of me now were the rusty skeletal remains of warehouses, the Victorian city excarnated, exposed as if on a osteoarchaeologist’s slab.

The sign of the Hunter was affixed to a street light that had beside it a rusty totem pole, its evil twin, pock-marked with corrupted spirals and corroded cupmarks.

Hunter Street

Two drunks in navy shell suits kept appearing during my walk, as if they were being projected for my benefit on a loop by some unknown projectionist. One of them spoke to me tenderly, momentarily breaking the fourth wall, confusing me for his partner in grime, before realising his mistake and flickering out.

I was looking for hunters in the city, middenscapes in the shadow of the industrialised Tennants’ Brewery, makers of liquid gassy capitalism. From my perspective as I entered Barrack Street it seemed that the aluminium pipes that emerged from the brewery were connected directly to the Necropolis, Glasgow’s city centre cemetery, and for a moment I speculated that this must have been for the exchange of fluids. Through the beer haze I could also see the outline of Glasgow Cathedral, one of Ludovic Mann’s ancient Glaswegian pagan places, his Temple of the Moon. There is no such thing as a coincidence.

Moon temple view

Back on Hunter Street (confusingly re-appearing) I reached my destination. A block of modern flats and some old brick-built industrial units on Duke Street where a shell midden had been found during construction works in 1985. Ancient oyster shells had been found on the spoil from the job, and identified too late as being of archaeological significance. In prehistory, I reminded myself, everyone was swallowing oysters all of the time, as they were, as in Victorian times, not simply the preserve of the rich. The shells were then dumped in a pile, calcium cairns, middens.

The industrial unit was orange and glowed in the late afternoon sun, raking across the facade and revealing ghosts – ghost signs, phantom lettering, a typeset palimpsest of failed and out-dated businesses. The building was dominated by a monstrous sign: JAS. D GALLOWAY. TYRE DISTRIBUTORS.

Galloway

I wondered around the block onto a different section of Barrack Street (I was becoming spatially disorientated). I passed a pub – the Ladywell, suggesting an ancient spring or holy well once stood here. On the wall of a neighbouring car repair shop, an occult symbol had been crayoned onto a white-washed wall. Was it a spiral, or a malformed cup-and-ring mark, or a reversed number nine – or a shell, a mollusc, a midden-component?

the symbol

A constellation of coincidences? I reflected on the words written by Marion Shoard and quoted by the fictional headcase Philip in Applied Ballardianism. Urban edgelands allowed us to see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. In essence, socially fundamental constructions, materials and infrastructure often become restricted to urban edges. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

In prehistory, those conflicted spatially dangerous fundamentals were middens.

 

Organic Rejecta

under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow layers of practice the stratigraphy of a lifetime of generations of meals of daily routine of repetition and habit and routine and the accumulation of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow under the people under the streets pressing against the walls of the basements pressure toe bone of bos parts of jaw and several teeth of horse jaw bones of the rabbit tapes pullastra purpura lapillus countless rejecta under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow calcium carbon cairns

 

The Island of Dead Birds

Inchkeith today is a very different place from the island where the kitchen midden was recorded in 1870. Militarisation began in 1879 and continued throughout the first half of  the twentieth century transforming this small rocky eminence through the construction of concrete bunkers, control buildings and the infrastructure of ammunition supply.

This was a defensive, reactive place, but never saw action.

After this brief flourishing, the island has more or less been abandoned to nature (with most of the personnel withdrawn in 1943) like some kind of social experiment.

Quite by chance, this island of precaution has become an emergent prehistoric landscape with its own monuments, its own concrete vocabulary, its new middens.

The porcelain cairn –

The porcelain cairn

The fallen megalith –

IMG_E4562

The shit-stained monolith –

IMG_E4567

The island has its own sacred geometry, ghost paths and leys –

ghost paths

Bunkers abound, underground spaces for the containment of ammunition and men. The walls are burdened with a sinister anatomy of coat hooks and shelf supports.

IMG_E4551

Animals have become complicit in re-making prehistory, the island covered in bird-build middens, accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds.

The bird built midden

Now, in its abandoned state, this concrete island is becoming something … other.

 

Talus

Middens

Mummified mice

Nests within nests by nests

Scattered cartilages and cartridges

Shells upon shells under shelves and on skulls

Pips amidst pipes and petrification

Calcium cairns. Concrete cairns.

Broken bunkers and bones

Talus Talus Talus

Middens.

 

Concrete Island

IMG_4559

Bunker archeology image Amazon

“Abandoned on the sand of the littoral like the skin of a species that has disappeared, the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military history…. (Virilio 2014, 46).

 

Dirty Edgelands

What is urbanisation but an accumulation?

A midden with prehistory as its dirty edgelands, if not in space then certainly in time.

We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.

Living on our own islands with our own futile defences, bunker mentalities, surrounded by lots of shelves.

Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.

And when our megaliths have collapsed, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens and our single-use plastic.

Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds.

We are tomorrow’s urban prehistory.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Gordon Barclay for inviting me to spend a day visiting various fortified islands in the Firth of Forth, amongst them Inchkeith. The few facts about that island that appear in the narrative above come from Gordon’s excellent handouts to accompany the trip and he appears in one photo striding towards an anti-aircraft gun position. 

The account of the kitchen-midden found on Inchkeith in the 1870s is (you can find it online by googling the title of the paper): David Grieve 1872 On the discovery of a kitchen midden on Inchkeith, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 9, 452-55. The jumbled list of animal bones in my post is adapted from this paper.

The limited information available for the Barrack Street / Hunter Street shell midden can be found in the canmore entry for the site here, and Sloan recorded in the 1985 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (pg 46):

“Deposits of oyster shell were reported from approximately this location during housing development in 1982. Although reported too late for active investigation a sample of shell was recovered from builder’s spoil; remains in the possession of the Committee for Early Coastal archaeology”.

This could be a Mesolithic site, but it could also be medieval, or anything in between. We choose our own myths about the past.

Ludovic Mann’s moon temple writings are included in his 1938 short book Ancient Glasgow: Temple of the Moon.

The photograph of a Mesolithic shell midden near the start of the post is of the site Cnoc Sligeach on the island of Oronsay, taken in 1911, and reproduced here thanks to canmore and is © HES: Early photographs of sculptured stones.

I must finish by paying a debt of gratitude to Simon Sellars for his brilliant novel Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018) for inspiring aspects of this post, and leading me to the chapter Edgelands by Marion Shoard (quote from this in the blog post) in Jenkins’ book Remaking the landscape (Profile Books, 2002). Sellars also led me to the majestic Bunker Archeology by Paul Virlio (my version being published in 2014 by Princeton Architectural Press). The image from that book was sourced from the Amazon page for this volume and a credited quotation appears above as well.

The definitions that start this post were adapted from wikipedia

Between minister and reserved

4 Aug

Displayed in a cage, against the house of God, held to the bosom of the Lord.

Church context

Between MINISTER and RESERVED.

Between minister and reserved

On day release from Hookland.

IMG_3951

A rock in a cage at the side of the road, victim of  a pagan witch hunt, the fear of the church. A mute, dumb witness like the caged dissembled humans in the laboratory-prison in the Planet of the Apes. Probed, investigated, scanned, scrutinized.

IMG_3952

‘In the absence of certainty, a kind of pressure builds to push away or define the challenge of the stones. Some are caged….’ (Peter Manson)

The rock

Trapezoidal, a stone torso with a dozen belly buttons, dis-articulated.

IMG_3954

Dragged here in the nineteenth century against its will, taken from its rural repose, and propped against a drainpipe. But did it need to be saved?

IMG_3955

Irish Sea book image

Inventoried by Ronald Morris, the solicitor-cum-rock-art hunter. 22 cups. 5 cup-and-ring marks with grooves. Empirical evidence of a code that cannot be cracked. Not even correct.

Glencorse inventory

Exposed.

Stravaigin tweet

So dangerous it has been caged.

Displayed, against the house of God, held to the bosom of the Lord.

Between MINISTER and RESERVED.

 

Glencorse rock-art: this single sedimentary rock, measuring some 0.74m by 0.91m by 0.34m, was removed from its original hillside location and propped against the side of Glencorse Parish Church, Penicuik, Midlothian, around 1880. It is said that another rock of similar nature was at this time lost, or destroyed. There are at least 25 cupmarks on the surface, each hollow deeply incised, and some 10 of these have a single ring around them. The surface was probably carved in the Neolithic period (after 3000BC) but other than that we know nothing about it.

IMG_3953

 

Sources:

Ronald Morris: 1981 book The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway), BAR British Series 86, page 147 (source of  Fig 82 drawing)

Peter Manson: the quote comes from an excellent blog post called Unmoored Stones about Glencorse and other rock-art sites in Scotland. 

Sketchfab: an amazing 3D image of the stone, posted by HES’s Maya Hoole, can be explored here. Follow her on twitter

JAlbum: final image and photo of the stone against a drainpipe came from a fantastic website full of hundreds of great rock-art images, British Rock-art Collection.

Tweets from @HooklandGuide and Stravaigin Across Scotland (@stravaig_aboot) have been included in this blog post. Please follow them!

The rock-art drawing entitled Figure 12.1 comes from the paper ‘Rock art, identity and death in the eba of Ireland and Britain’ by E Evans and T Dowson, pages 103-112 in the book Cummings & Chris Fowler (eds) 2004 The Neolithic of the Irish Sea. Oxbow.

Urban Prehistory and Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy

23 Jun

It is my pleasure to introduce a guest post, by Dr Helen Green, who has recently completed a ground-breaking and important PhD thesis on the topic of ‘Renewable Energy and the Historic Environment: An Analysis of Policy and Practice in Scotland’. Helen is a post-doctoral researcher who, amongst other things, is currently advising the archaeology department in Glasgow (where I am based) on our impact case-studies for the next REF (Research Excellence Framework 2021), and so this blog post comes from a place of being immersed in the process and scrutinising potentially impactful research such as ‘urban prehistory’. REF involves a lot of crap for academics, but at least the requirement to evidence the impact our research has on society concentrates minds and gives a certain credibility to such activities. There are some nice things written here about the stuff I do, but ultimately Helen’s message is that there is a strategic context for this type of public engagement research, and academic checks and balances are in place. I am delighted that Helen sees potential in my work…..

 

Urban Prehistory and Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy

by Helen Green

With this guest contribution I would like to take a step back and consider the work of the urban prehistorian from a slightly broader perspective. In particular, I aim to contextualise it, and outline its importance from a strategic point of view: where we are going as a discipline, and what we are aiming to accomplish together. To this end, I want chip in a few thoughts about how urban prehistory sits in relation to Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, a sector-wide collaboration aimed at focusing and integrating the work we do to support the contribution archaeology makes to society.

 

Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy

Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy was launched in 2015, with the overriding aim of fostering inclusion and collaboration in Scotland’s archaeology. It was produced in response to issues, such as a sense of fragmentation in the sector, but developed into a forward-looking, collaborative framework for trying to improve archaeology’s contribution to society. The committee is chaired by Prof Steve Driscoll from Archaeology at Glasgow University, but includes representatives from across the world of Scottish archaeology, including Historic Environment Scotland, Archaeology Scotland, local council archaeologists, the commercial sector, and the third sector. Delivering the Strategy’s aims is a crucial strand in the work we do in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow.

Strategy front cover

Perhaps the Strategy’s most central and challenging aspiration is to work towards ‘a Scotland where archaeology is for everyone’. However, the Strategy also outlines several more specific aims, which include ‘delivering archaeology’, ‘encouraging greater engagement’, ‘enhancing understanding’, ‘caring and protecting’ and ‘innovation and skills’. I want to consider how urban prehistory and related work is making an important contribution to fulfilling these aims, through a focus on engagement in particular and the ethos of inclusion in general.

 

Urban Prehistory Encourages Greater Engagement

A strategic aim identified in a Historic Scotland report in 2012 (see sources) stated that one of the priorities of any strategy for the sector was to look at ‘how the output from archaeology can be made accessible even more readily and quickly for the purposes of education and interpretation and public display as well as for academic consumption’.

For a long time, the main outputs expected from archaeological fieldwork and research, other than a few shiny monographs and webpages, were dry factual ‘data structure reports’. Even when these are helpfully made freely available on portals such as this one, these are technical documents that are largely inaccessible to non-experts. Academic publications are also problematic, written for an academic audience, and often stuck behind a paywall. There is a great deal of interest in archaeology in Scotland, and some excellent work is being done to make fresh research and excavation reports accessible, through outreach and social media for example, but much more can always be done – and for this reason the Strategy aims to encourage the sector to do better on this issue.

The first aspiration in encouraging greater engagement in the Strategy is:

To encourage creative and collaborative archaeological activities, developing better ways of engaging people with the process and results

One example of this kind of approach is Burning the Circle, a public engagement project held on the island of Arran three times since 2013, which involved the construction of timber monuments to give insight into the process of their creation, which prehistorians such as Colin Richards argue may have been more what they were actually all about, than the finished ‘product’. This is then followed by ‘ritually’ burning them down, to better understand how the archaeological record is formed – and at the same time, to create a spectacular and memorable experience for the general public, which may even reflect an experience people shared thousands of years ago.

2014 Montage lr

Photos: Gavin MacGregor

This work has been carried out by the urban prehistorian in collaboration with organisations, such as Northlight Heritage (in the form of Gavin MacGregor), the National Trust for Scotland, and Arran Ranger Service, and widely publicised with the results shared on social media (@TeamBuildNBurn) and blogs. This innovative way of doing things results in not only a fascinating and engaging experience, but this experience may well echo that of people in prehistoric Scotland, who were surely just as fascinated with timber and fire as anyone.

Team photo from Arran Banner

Photo: Arran Banner

This activity is having other impacts, for instance opening up conversations about ways that people living on Arran could benefit more from the amazing prehistoric monuments and archaeology they have around them. Changing the ways people think about the places they live, and providing opportunities for social benefit = research impact. As the photo above shows, building prehistoric-style monuments is also a great outdoor learning experience, utilising the ‘green gym’.

Other creative and collaborative work of the urban prehistorian has included guided walks in Glasgow, Kilbirnie and Crieff, aimed at bringing to life monuments and prehistoric traces in urban settings that are often no longer visible, informing people and challenging them to see these urban landscapes in different ways. Details of these walks have then been published on the UP blog, bringing these sites and places to more people.

crieff ghosts poster

IMG_3853

The second strategic objective in encouraging greater engagement is:

To maximise the role archaeology can play in learning for people of all ages, benefiting from everyone’s contribution towards valuing, understanding and promoting our past

One neglected archaeological resource in Scotland which the urban prehistorian has helped bring to light is the remains of the past found in the construction of Scotland’s schools. Often the grounds of a school have hidden traces of a very different world in that site’s past – the potential is clear for an immensely valuable educational resource for use in those schools, literally on their doorstep.

GUARD photo of excavations

GUARD excavations in advance of two new playing fields beside the secondary school in Carnoustie, Angus: two Neolithic timber halls and a Bronze Age hoard were found (c) GUARD

Preliminary research by GU student Mar Roige Oliver has identified over 60 new-build schools in Scotland (post-2000) where excavations and evaluations in advance of construction found archaeology.

Schools archaeology Mar chart

Archaeological work undertaken in advance of new-build and refurbished schools in Scotland (Data: Mar Roige Oliver)

But teachers, even if they were made aware of these discoveries (which they almost never are), cannot always make use of this resource by themselves, and archaeologists can and should facilitate better communication and start to explore how these discoveries might impact on the life and fabric of new schools buildings and communities. This was the subject of a lecture Kenny gave recently.

It is sometimes said that archaeology is a largely middle-class pursuit – it shouldn’t be, and, potentially, engaging children and young people through learning could instil a pride in, and passion for, local heritage in more people in society.

A good example of what can be done is the urban prehistorian’s engagement with Ally Beckett of Northlight Heritage, who worked with SSE and the teachers at the school to help build a timber circle in the grounds of Strathearn Community Campus based on Ally’s excavations at Pittentian. Within a short space of time, the circle was already in use for learning, teaching and performance in the school – embedded in the life of the community and as this photo below shows, it looks as good today as it did when built in 2015.

Timber circle at Crieff

timber circle in buckets

Using the Pittentian Neolithic timber structure as a basis for a teaching session (photo: K Brophy)

The strategy’s final objective for greater engagement in archaeology in Scotland is:

To increase and improve the presentation and interpretation of archaeological information

Staying with the idea of schools as a central part of communities, and a fruitful place for engagement with archaeology, an excellent example of encouraging greater engagement by improving the presentation and interpretation of archaeological information can be found in the campus with the timber circle, Crieff High School. Here, a new information panel was designed by the urban prehistorian and Steve Timoney (UHI Perth College), to presence and celebrate hidden prehistory in and around the grounds. In this case, the archaeology is the cropmark Broich cursus monument, remnants of which still run beneath the school buildings and playground. (Cursus monuments are an enigmatic and little-known type of Neolithic monument (dating to the fourth millennium BC), in most cases ploughed flat and known only from aerial photography.)

Eila speech

Eila MacQueen of Archaeology Scotland and the new noticeboard (Photo: K Brophy)

This is part of the ongoing creation of an archaeology trail (the timber circle mentioned above was phase 1), an innovative project drawing on cropmark evidence, pre-school build excavations and historical records, to bring ‘invisible’ archaeology in and around the campus back to life. Despite the massive impact that these sites and monuments once had on prehistoric communities, little remains to be seen nowadays, and so without the work of archaeologists not only studying these academically, but helping to presence them in the heart of communities, the cursus monument and other monuments of Crieff would be all but unknown. It takes imagination, and persistence, to bring these back to life, but having a cursus beneath one’s town or village can alter perception of a place by adding a real sense of deep time.

During the unveiling of this new noticeboard, Eila MacQueen of Archaeology Scotland said that this initiative (two further boards and a trail are forthcoming) will share the ‘wonderful story’ of the Broich Cursus with both the local community and visitors. She also noted that the creation of this trail fulfils all five objectives of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, so this shows I’m not alone in seeing this work through the lens of strategy.

 

Acknowledgements / sources: the HS source that was mentioned in the text regarding aspirations for the strategy was Historic Scotland (2012) A Review of the Archaeology Function (no longer available online). For more on Scotland’s cursus monuments, see Brophy, K. 2015. Reading Between the Lines: The Neolithic Cursus Monuments of Scotland. London: Routledge. And Colin Richards’ work on stone circles can be found here: Richards, C.  p4-5 Interpreting Stone Circles. In C. Richards (ed.), Building the Great Stone Circles of the North, 2-30. Oxford: Oxbow Books. The information on school archaeology came from Kenny Brophy and Mar Roige Oliver. You can follow post-excavation progress for the Carnoustie excavation by following @CarnoustiePx on twitter.

 

 

Encounter with a monstrous head

9 Apr

Dr Green and I reached the final point of our expedition quite by chance. The end of our journey, marked by an encounter with a monstrous head that neither of us will forget. We had heard reports from locals about the existence of such a head, but had put this down to braggadocio or hallucination brought on my excessive Irn Bru consumption which I believe to be a local beverage with chemical properties that promote altered states of consciousness.

My source had told me that the monstrous head was located in a nether-world of scrap on the southern bank of the River Clyde. My first attempt to catch glimpse of this head, a solo mission, was unsatisfactory, the bulbous orb too distant when viewed from the north side of the river to reveal the details of its concrete physiognomy.

View from the north 1

View from the north 2

Upon approaching the supposed location of this concrete monstrosity, Dr Green and I spoke to various people who made a living breaking automobiles in this place. Surrounded by skeletal motor cars, carburetors and bent doors and wings, these men affected to tell us they knew nothing of a giant head. Yet we had already caught sight of the dome of its skull behind a portable cabin. 

View from the south

The men gazed on the head with awe and wonder from the safety of their own business premises and were soon evangelising about the discovery to colleagues.

view from the west

Yet Dr Green and I did not have the luxury of standing back. We had a duty, now we had come this far, to document and record this wonder of human endeavour, to pay our respects at the chin of the beast.

In order to do this we had to pass through a broken post-industrial world of cairns of scrap metal, clawing digging machines and the constant rumble of crushing and breaking. This was the end of all things, the bent remnants of our society piled high as if to reach heaven but only speaking of hell.

Scrapyard

We scrambled through an open fallen gate, circumnavigated some shacks and warehouses, and entered a broad and open yard, across which we espied the monstrous head behind two ruined mechanical units, one of them an omnibus.

two mechanical units

Closer we edged, until in front of us the huge bald head stood, balanced atop a linear mound of litter, tin cans, building material and detritus. The dome loomed over us and it felt like it had eyes in the back of its considerable cranium.

Helen and the head low res

The preposterously sized crown was propped up by wooden supports, better to enable it to loom over any river dwellers and pleasure cruisers sailing by.

As we hesitantly went closer to the megalith, it was clear that it had enormous orifices, dark holes that we could have climbed into should we have wished, although on reflection we decided that dragging ourselves into and along eye sockets and nasal passages would not have been the wisest course of action. It was better that we did not investigate too closely the sense organs of this thing. 

An over-sized blocked ear was located on either side of the skull, a closed porthole into the brain. This was a great relief for us as there was no enthusiasm for an exploration of an enormous external acoustic meatus or the accompanying skin flaps.

View from the east initials

Crude letters were daubed onto the eastern cheek and chin of the hideous noggin. We documented these photographically although could not and cannot discern the meaning of K P and J G. An incantation to be chanted by acolytes circling the head in a frenzy we supposed. Although the paintwork was not red, it had the character of blood that had dried.

Helen's photo

The proboscis emerged from a beard of green lichen, a moss-tache. We realised that this massive head had features that were disproportionate and exaggerated, its sharp angles directional, indicating the north, notably the mandible. Moss balls ran down the spine of the nose, beads of sweat that mirrored out own precipitative glands. A metal loop protruded from the base of the chin, clearly with the purpose of chaining sacrificial animals and – shudder – humans. And in the centre of the face were the eyes, voids into which our gaze could scarcely be arrested, eyes which somehow seemed to look up- and down-river at the same time. Thankfully the oral cavity remained sealed, forming a rictus grin; we had no desire to see what lay within.

front of the face

As we retreated back to our carriage, we vouchsafed that nothing in our previous existence prepared us for the magnitude of the foreboding, monstrous head that we encountered on the bank of the slow-moving River Clyde that damp Spring morning. 

Its dead eyes looked upon us as gods look upon ants. But more disturbing than all of this was –

an oblong void in the centre of the forehead suggested to us that there once had been a third eye a television screen located here broadcasting messages of hate and despair

What we feared more than anything else was that the rest of the body of this titan was there too, buried deep in the foreshore mud and sludge, awaiting re-animation. This prehistoric abomination, this monstrous appendage, this dreadful megalith, this…this…

 

Floating Head, Richard Groom

The Floating Head was one of many pieces of public art that were commissioned for, and displayed at, the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. This seminal and fondly-remembered summer event took place on the south bank of the River Clyde about 4km to the east of the current location of the Head.

canmore_image_SC01140807

The head is not visible in this photo of the GGF (c) HES canmore_image_SC01140807

The big Head was located in the Marina, which is on the left hand side of the map below.

GGF map The Glasgow Story

The Souvenir Brochure of the Glasgow Garden Festival notes that the artwork was essentially a boat. “British Shipbuilders Training … helped to fabricate Richard Groom’s astonishing floating head – in reality a cement boat – in the harbour itself” (page 79). I have been able to find a few photos of the Head during the Festival (sources in the acknowledgements), and it looks very different.

04 FLOATING HEAD GARDEN FESTIVAL 1988(1)

Big headurban glasgow blog sausage supper

Screengrab from home video c1645

Charlie Bubble flickr

The Festival ended in September 1988 and was dismantled, with various bits of art scattered around Scotland. In this air photo of the decommissioned site, the Floating Head is just visible, now out on the Clyde.

canmore_image_SC01140809

Glasgow Garden Festival site during decommissioning (c) HES canmore_image_SC01140809

At what point the Floating Head was floated downstream to its current location I do not know. The Head now sits on the south side of the Clyde, near the Renfrew Ferry terminal, in an industrial estate accessed via Meadowside Street, Renfrew (NT 5068 6862).

It has its own record in the National Record of the Historic Environment (canmore). HES fieldworkers visited this monstrous head on 14 May 2015, and noted: “It now sits on the south bank of the River Clyde, adjacent to a scrap yard. It comprises the lower hull of a boat with a fibre glass moulded head on the top. It currently stands upright on its prow and appears to stare north across the river.”

canmore_image_DP00228670

(c) ‘Floating Head’: canmore_image_DP00228670

Someone who works in a garage beside the yard the big Head sits behind told us that it had been there for at least 20 years, and that this place used to be a boat yard which might be why it was brought here. The Floating Head floats no more, but close examination makes it clear that it has many boat-like traits.

Propped up head

And now it has been erected, propped up, still an artwork but a very different one, a megalithic head watching boats travel up and down the Clyde, a source of puzzlement and wonder to all those who fall beneath its gaze.

 

Acknowledgements: I found out about the big head via Hugh Beattie, who posted the following photo on the My Clydebank Photos website. Hugh told me how to find the head, which prompted my two visits on both sides of the River over the past few weeks.

Renfrew big head

(c) Hugh Beattie

Helen Green accompanied me on the scrapyard fieldtrip, and provided one of the photos in the post above, so many thanks for the support when having to speak to strangers, not my strong point and for her observations which fed into the fanciful narrative that starts this post.

The staff of Renfrew Car Breakers were very helpful and allowed us access to their yard to take some photos. The Head is accessible by the various yards in this location, but permission must be sought, and it didn’t feel very safe. It is better viewed from Yoker on the other side of the River.

The images of the Floating Head in situ were found through various online searches, and attributed (from top to bottom) to: Owen of My Clydebank Photos, unknown, Graham Whyte video screengrab c16:45, Charlie Bubble (Flickr) and Sausage Sandwich (Urban Glasgow blog). If anyone has any other photos of the Floating Head I would love to see them.

My parents managed to find their old copy of the Garden Festival Brochure so many thanks to them for the archive work.

The vitrification experiment

24 Mar

Do you remember that old TV show?

Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World

The Divine Comedy

Mysterious World

Sometimes an archaeologist does something so crazy, so visionary and so flamboyant that one can only stand back and admire the show. Trying to understanding what the heck happened in prehistory sometimes requires extreme acts (and I know this from personal experience). This post tells the story of an urban prehistoric experiment that took place almost 40 years ago in a local authority waste disposal tip (aka a dump) that combined innovation, ingenuity, furniture and weirdness in equal measure.

The East Tullos Yorkshire Television vitrified wall experiment was recently brought to my attention by Richard ‘Scarfolk‘ Littler in a twitter thread that he posted that celebrated eccentric characters and stories covered by the legendary and seminal 1980 televisual experience Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. One of the images that he posted took my breath away. It showed a familiar archaeologist but with an unfamiliar facial hair arrangement, a wild-eyed expression and in the middle of doing something inexplicable.

The tweet

Professor Ian Ralston OBE DLitt FRSE FSA FSA (Scot) MIFA and Abercromby Chair of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh appears to have been, at some point in the past, The Pagan Man with a Stick. He also seems to have been on one of my favourite TV shows from when I was a kid, which means that I may have watched Ian in action 15 years before I first met him, and on further reflection perhaps this film subliminally made me the archaeologist I am today. Although using this logic I could just as easily have become a Bigfoot hunter or an Alien abductee.

arthur_c_clarke_mysterious_world_tv titles

Broadcast over one series and 13 episodes in 1980 on ITV (my memory convinced me that there must have been so many more episodes) the programme featured, between the adverts (no doubt starring Leonard Rossiter and Lorraine Chase), some of the world’s most mysterious mysteries, from cryptozoology to pseudo-archaeology to the supernatural. This heady mixture of nonsense was presented in deadpan seriousness and a cast of eccentrics, academics and self-proclaimed experts brought the whole thing to life. Stories were separated by brief pieces of camera by Clarke himself leaning against a tree somewhere hot (Sri Lanka).

I used to have the book as well, the cover of which shows what might be found beneath Stonehenge if they ever build that tunnel.

Book Cover

It is not every day that a young, but respectable Chas ‘n’ Dave lookalike archaeologist gets to star in his own 10-minute slot in a portmanteau mystery TV documentary, and so I wanted to look into this a little further. The urban fringe landfill location was enough for me to tag this under the category of urban prehistory and write a blog post about it which I have duly done.

The story of this unique vitrification experiment was broadcast in Episode 3 of the show on the theme of Ancient Wisdom, from 11 minutes in. (Some of the other stories on the programme do not seem to me to represent wisdom.)

This account of the vitrification experiment was subsequently supplemented by a detailed and fulsome report on the experiment in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland written diligently by Ralston himself and published in 1986

It is from these two sources that I piece together those momentous spring days in 1980.

Paper title

Quote 1

The experiment entailed the construction of a full-scale 8m long section of wall replicating a hillfort rampart, with the aim to reproduce the effect of vitrification. In effect, this process entails the melting of rocks within the core of such walls (perhaps with internal ‘timber-lacing’ to fuel fires), the end result of which is a glassy stone that is fused and melted together. This is a relatively common trait of later prehistoric fortified sites in Scotland, notably in Angus, and Argyll and Bute. Arguments have long ranged about whether this was caused by accident or design. As archaeologist Andy Heald put it fairly recently, ‘Some think vitrification was a status symbol, some think a settlement would be set alight and inadvertently vitrified in the process by attackers and some think it’s a structural thing to do with strengthening the walls of the fort.’

This heated (pun intended) dispute was the attraction for Arthur C Clarke’s crack team of mystery-chasers: “it was this contrast in views that constituted ‘the mystery'”… as Ralston puts it in his report. This doesn’t seem to me to be a mystery on a par with the Bermuda Triangle or the Nazca Lines, but I guess they had hours of schedules to fill.

The segment of the programme starts with a sweeping view of the laughably pronounced Iron Age hilltop enclosure Tap O’Noth. Ralston arrives on top, bestriding the landscape and then sitting on the ramparts pointing out vitrification while not even appearing to be out of breath. The light levels are low and there is mild peril for sensitive viewers – will he make it back down to his parked car before darkness falls?

Ralston on Tap o Noth

The voiceover person (who is not Arthur C Clarke but sounds suitably serious about the whole business) expresses the mystery of vitrification: was this something that just happened to occur when a fort wall caught fire, or was it the result of, “some technique now lost to strengthen the walls by welding the rocks together”? Gosh, I wonder.

The TV show voiceover further noted that “Ian Ralston, in an ambitious attempt to crack the mystery decided to build his own Iron Age fort”. This was to be done using materials and finance provided by a Mr Nick Lord of Yorkshire Television and where better to carry out this large-scale experiment than in the salubrious surroundings of a smelly dump near Aberdeen. The image on the screen melted from the misty hills of Aberdeenshire to the site of the vitrification experiment. The show was careful to show Aberdeen as if it had just been hit by a nuclear attack.

Aberdeen

The rampart section, based on various real forts, was realised, as with so many experimental archaeology projects of this scale and vision, through a series of compromises, imaginative bodges and visits to DIY shops. Ralston takes up the story:

Quote 2

Granite was chosen for the rampart exterior and gabbro for the interior, with wooden beams inserted inside to form the lacing (the internal structure of the wall). The construction project took place over four wet and windy days at the end of March 1980, with a combination of labour by the team of seven and a small fleet of support vehicles doing the work. Ralston was heavily involved in the heavy stuff, having made it down from that mountain top after all, his vigour undiminished.

Construction

Wall nearing completionThe conflagration itself was facilitated by the application of ‘dripping’ (animal fat) to the ends of beams protruding from the rampart while other artificial accelerants were on hand just in case, and a large pyre also had to be constructed up against one side of the wall to get the fire going due to ongoing inclement weather. With a cavalier attitude, Ralston got stuck into the building project with a fag hanging out of his mouth, right next to the stores of paraffin and beef dripping.

Ralston smoking

The fire was started around noon on the 1st of April, with a stiff breeze causing some anxiety. The conflagration as Ralston called it was monitored carefully and managed proactively, with regular truck-loads of wood having to be brought on site to feed the fires and pyres to keep it all burning and raise the temperature within the wall.

Wood supplies seem to have been running low because at one point a delivery of knackered old furniture (or what Ralston called “a miscellaneous cargo of domestic refuse, delivered by the Aberdeen Cleansing Department”), was poured onto the pyre.

A load of old furniture

Despite trying to control air flow into the core of the wall using a tarpaulin, by early evening and five hours into the burn, the internal wall temperature was only 13 degrees. “At about this time the writer clambered onto the top of the wall”. In other words, the shit just got real.

Ralston on the rampart

Ralston on the rampart TV version

This dramatic intervention by Ralston, flying in the face of a risk assessment that had almost certainly not been written anyway (this was 1980 after all), signaled an intensification of pyre building and fire management, which through the course of the evening began to pay dividends as the core temperature of the wall rose steadily.

Sunset

By strategically starting big fires at certain points around the wall in relation to wind direction, the experiment began to meet expectations and the team allowed themselves a dinner break from 9pm to the back of 11pm. By now the wall was collapsing in places and the fire was massive. Then they all went to bed / the pub.

The next morning the team arrived back in the dump to find a smouldering, hot smoky crumbling wall, with fires still burning inside. The wall was monitored and slowly dismantled by hand and machine from 8.30am, with team members raking through the guts of the unstable structure for evidence of vitrification and a small quantity of glassy stones was recovered.

Vitrified material

This material was carefully stored in conditions that retained the high scientific integrity of the samples.

Schweppes vitrified stones

Despite Ralston’s assessment that the fire would have continued to burn for another 24 hours, he also noted that, “the structure appeared markedly unstable and Yorkshire TV, with filming schedules completed, was not prepared to accept the insurance risk represented by the wall any longer. Accordingly, at 1600 hrs, some 28 hours after the experiment had started, the wall was bulldozed flat”.

Bulldozer

This allowed further observation by the archaeologists, but after all of this hard work, was the mystery of vitrification finally solved? The voiceover on the TV show was not so sure, suggesting that the meagre evidence for melting rock (3kg of glassy stone) only posed more questions than it solved. If this was the case, it would surely take half of the trees in Scotland just to vitrify one fort the size of Tap O’Noth, the voice claimed ludicrously and misunderstanding the whole nature of extrapolation.

Ralston’s account of the experiment was more balanced, noting the errors made during the process that had became clear as the fire took hold, and some of the inauthenticities that were essentially unknown variants on what might have happened in the ancient past. He was able to show that under the right circumstances vitrification could happen in such a timber laced rampart, but he could not say for sure what cultural activity (warfare, ritual closure of a site, accidental fire) caused this to happen in the Iron Age.

This ambitious and eccentric project, made possibly by TV largesse (which only really went so far as the many compromises that had to be made demonstrate), shows the potential of educational and informative experimental archaeology in even the most unpromising of locations. This was not the first vitrification experiment nor was it the last, but it was perhaps the most urban.

Even more urban than an equally ambitious and bonkers vitrification experiment that was carried out in the industrial setting of Plean Colliery, between Stirling and Falkirk, by V Gordon Childe in 1937. (The National Geographic recently called this an ‘audacious experiment’.) The Plean vitrification experiment was carried out with Wallace Thorneycroft and a response to questions raised by vitrified material found at a number of forts in Scotland, including one recently excavated by Childe himself at Rahoy, Argyll and Bute. In this case, Childe and Thorneycroft asked / told staff at the colliery to construct a ‘murus gallicus 12 feet long  by 6 feet wide by 6 feet high’ based on detailed sketch plans.

The Plean wall spec

The structure was constructed from materials to hand on the mine, such as fireclay bricks and wooden beams. This gave the wall the appearance of being nothing more than another industrial structure in a mining landscape, and it lacked the rugged organic look of Ralston’s wall. Also, and perhaps this is where motivational inauthenticities creep in, this wall was designed purely to burn and for no other reason.

Plean colliery experiment 1937

The conflagration of this wall would have had an urban audience, with houses overlooking the site, and one presumes the poor sods who built the thing would have been allowed to stand and watch. 4 tons of kindling and logs were used to create a pyre to cause the wall to burn and effect vitrification in its core.

Plean fire and vitrication

Childe reported that, ‘the fire was kindled at 11am on March 11 in a snowstorm’, and the wall began to collapse internally within an hour, reaching peak core temperatures in five hours. 20 hours after the fire was started, glassy bubbled rock was picked out of the smouldering debris. As with the Yorkshire Television experiment, the means to vitrify rock had been explored successfully, but the cause and motivation remained unclear.

As an aside, a curious Edinburgh University Abercromby Chair runs through this thread. Ralston currently holds that role as did Childe, both of whom carried out peri-urban vitrification experiments. And Stuart Piggott, another Abercromby Chair, was on a different episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Stuart Piggott

I feel a Venn coming on. In the future, PhDs will be written about this.

Venn

The wonder of the vitrification experiments is that they failed to answer the ‘why’ question even if they were able to shed some light on the ‘how’ and ‘WTF’. Experiments and excavations continue to this day, with for instance an ongoing community and educational project involving the Forestry Commission at Dun Deardail, Argyll and Bute.  Here, the unanswered question, the mystery of vitrification and the melting of rock, offers fertile ground to involve and empower lots of people.

destruction-dun-deardail-cropped-low-resedited

Dun Deardail ablaze (c) Forestry Commission

When reflecting on the 1980 TV show, Ian Ralston told me that that the tweeted still photograph brought back memories although he did not define whether his recollections were negative, positive or bamboozled. He told me,

this is the Arthur C Clarke ‘The Mysterious World of…’ Yorkshire TV escapade … of the vitrified wall on Aberdeen City rubbish dump c. April Fool’s Day 1980 and that’s the unprepossessing surroundings of the tip in the background. I’m holding the torch I was given in due course to ignite the wall”.

He then went back to sorting out Brian Hope-Taylor’s historic Doon Hill excavations in East Lothian from the 1960s (and that would make an amazing blog post…but that’s for another day).

Holding the torch is a nice metaphor for what Ian Ralston was doing here, as well as a literal description. Of course, the great Professor and Edinburgh successor to Childe and Piggott is not quite ready to hand that torch over yet, but when he does, it is important that archaeologists continue to burn bright with enthusiasm, be hirsute with dignity and dream crazy dreams of impossible projects on the urban edgelands.

The end

Sources and acknowledgements: the tweet that started all of this was one a series of brilliant screen grabs and out-of-context comments from the TV show Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious world from Richard Littler. His tweet and screen grabs of Ralston and Piggott have been used in this blog post. Please follow him and buy his books.

The academic publication about East Tullos vitrification experiment was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 116 (1986), pages 17-40 and this is open access via the journal’s ADS page. This was the source for several quotations and the black and white images in the post. The account of the Plean vitrification experiment came from the same journal, in this case volume 72 (1937-38), pages 44-55. This was the source of the several black and white images about this experiment. 

The colour images are stills from the TV show itself, while the images related to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious world are available widely online. The image of Dun Deardail ablaze came from the Forestry Commission website about that project, link in text above.

For an interesting critique of these kinds of experiments, and accounts of the work at Plean and East Tullos, with images I have not included, see this blog.

 

 

 

Lost world

27 Jan

This blog post has been written to coincide with a paper I gave at the first ever Scottish Students Archaeology Society Conference held in the University of Glasgow on the weekend of 27th and 28th January 2018. My paper was entitled Houses upon houses: the impact of urbanisation on our understanding of Neolithic settlement in Scotland and at some point in the future will be available to view on youtube. I’ll update this post with a link when that happens.

conference logo jpgThe rather lovely conference logo

As part of preparing my lecture I revisited an urban prehistory site that I blogged about in May 2016, a Neolithic settlement site that was found in advance of a housing development in Cowie, near Stirling. The blog post, Houses upon houses, was a reflection on how archaeology could as a discipline do better to utilize the results of developer-funded excavations, in terms of how we synthesize such data, but also how results are disseminated and what community benefits might accrue from exciting (and even mundane) discoveries. In the case of this housing estate, some of the roads had been given prehistoric sounding names to reflect the remarkable Late Neolithic site that GUARD excavated in 1995. This was an easy win in a sense although does not necessarily tell those who move(d) into this area exactly what was found because their houses had to be built there.

Flint Crescent low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

A more imaginative and substantive development happened at Cowie that also drew directly on the prehistoric archaeology but in a potentially more powerful way than the street names – the creation of a children’s playground that was inspired by aspects of what GUARD found, although when I first visited this place I didn’t actually go to the playground because I didn’t find out about it until after the event.

In my first post about Cowie, I assigned the design of this playpark to Judi Legg and Mike Hyatt, and quoted on the design process:

Local children paid a visit to a pre-history park, Archaeolink, and many of the ideas they got from this visit as well as information about the pre-historic Cowie site itself have been built into the design of the park, which includes shelters, cooking and seating areas, and a raised beach, as well as mounds, tunnels, slides and a climbing wall. The children’s involvement in the design development has meant that the design concept which underpins the site layout contains elements which the children understand and which feel familiar to them. 

The co-production and imagination that went into this was impressive to say the least. The images I found online of the playpark, such as those below, showed aspects of the excavation results did indeed directly effect the design. For instance, a circular arrangement of mounds with structures inside mirrors the Late Neolithic double-skinned roundhouses found by Atkinson and team. That the material form of this – mounds and not organic structures – was not entirely accurate did not dilute the effect I don’t think.

Playground photo 1

Neolithic house planThe house that inspired the circular playground feature

The playpark itself was established a few years after the houses were built after a tragic accident there involving a child. The local community formed a group which campaigned for a safe playpark and the site – which overlies where some of the archaeology was found – was designed with the help of the children themselves, a nice example of co-production. The park cost £110,000 to build and was funded by Section 75 housing developers’ contributions, BBC Children in Need, the Stirling Landfill Tax Trust and Cowie Play Areas Group local fundraising events. Maintenance is provided by the local authority.

Playground photo 3

I wanted to close a loop, so the day before I gave my lecture I paid a quick visit to the playground which was both frosty and empty as I walked around in the beautiful and dazzling sunlight. Although I found that the form of the playground was creative and exciting, I was also disappointed to see that the site had suffered a decline over the past decade or so and some of the nice features built into the playpark were simply gone or were unrecognizable due to missing elements.

Panorama low res

The park itself is called Lost World, which I love, and this name was cast into the sturdy metal and wooden gate into the park, which can be reached by following a narrow pathway between two houses on Flint Crescent.

Lost world low res

Once inside the park, it is clear that this is a place that aspires for an organic look using timber and earthwork features that are unusually arranged to draw on excavation results. Boulders were also strewn around. It had a very naturalistic feel even although it channels an anthropomorphic place. The centre of the park is dominated by a curving long mound with tunnels running through it and slides adorning its sides, while there are normal and weird trees dotted around. A looping path meanders around the park and there is always something to look at. Boring it is not.

General view low res

A nice little Neolithic-style house was evident and in one piece, and although it looked more like a Wessex Late Neolithic house than an Eastern Lowland Scotland one, I suspect excitable children could not care less about that! Or maybe it is a little raised granary? It looks like the playground has interpretive challenges for visitors of all ages.

Neolithic house low res

As I walked around, it was clear that elements of the park were missing or had declined somewhat since the glory days of their first erection. In particular, the long mound, which I had to haul myself atop using a rope, had a huge gouge taken out of the middle to the extent that is had its own sandy stratigraphy.

Gap in the mound low res 1

Gap in the mound low res 2

Upon looking back at old photos, this gap was created by the removal of a large wooden structure that used to be here.

wildside designs photo

The park when first constructed: the wooden structure in the middle of the mound has gone leaving the gap that can be seen in my own 2018 photos (Wild Scot)

The circular earthwork setting, based on the Neolithic roundhouse plan, also appeared to have several somethings missing in the middle.

Then and now

Upon closer inspection, remnants of the structures that had once stood here (inspired by ideas of sitting around the fireplace in the middle of a house I would imagine) could still be seen on the ground, the archaeology of an archaeological playground.

Remnants

The former timber setting

Remnants 2

The former log seats 

The arrangement of boulders, a hearth of sorts, is barely recognizable anymore and this is where the problem with such well-meaning endeavours sometimes arises. There is the awkward question of sustainability. I have seen this so many times before. Noticeboards get dirty and difficult to read or simply become out-of-date. Signs are removed, fall down or become obsolete. Metal constructions rust. Wood falls apart or burns. Earthworks slump or have cars driven over them. No-one has the money to fix the problems. It is unclear who should do this work. The original players in making things happen have moved on.

In other words, attempts to celebrate, preserve and educate the public about archaeological sites often themselves fall victim to the processes of entropy that the archaeological materials underwent in the past that caused the situation in the first place.

None of this is necessarily the fault of an individual or organisation but something has gone wrong and sometimes it is not clear how the problem can be fixed.

General view 2 low res

As far as I can see Cowie’s Neolithic village, their own Lost World, is in danger of becoming lost again. This is not through anything other than a basic lack of sustainability and funding which are absolutely commonplace problems not just in the heritage sector but also in the age of austerity in which we live.

Tunnel low res

Yet this is still a wonderful park and there are more ideas and imagination stuffed into this small corner on the edge of a housing estate than is normal. Perhaps the local authority can be persuaded to tidy this up properly, or maybe the community can once again lift themselves to work in a common cause inspired by social need and prehistory. Suggestions made to me both on twitter and at the conference itself suggest to me that there could be a really nice project here, both in documenting this unique playground but also rebuilding, refreshing and – something that was missing I think first time around – really explaining to park users what this is all about. I will see what I can do to help make some of this happen.

It really is a place where it is possible to feel you can reach out and touch the past. Or at least climb up, slide down and crawl through the past.

Reach out low res

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the organisation team for the conference for asking me to speak and allowing me to take an urban prehistory angle! 

The excavation report for this site is available open access online. It is John Atkinson 2002 Excavation of a Neolithic occupation site at Chapelfield, Cowie, Stirling, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 139-192. The original photos of the playground with the wooden structure in the mound came from the Wild Scot website, as did the extended quotation and the information about the costs, funding and designers. The other old playpark photos came from Stirling Council Play Services and the Free Play Network. Thanks to those who suggested ideas at the conference and on twitter, I will actively be pursuing these.