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Perspective plant

5 Oct

A summer of trees. Metal trees, upside down trees and trees on fire. Art and performance with prehistoric allusions deliberate and incidental. Culture and nature entangled. And worlds inverted. In two parts.

Part 1: Florence / Firenze in July 2014

DSC_0541

We are visiting the Belvedere Fort, overlooking the Boboli Gardens, in Florence. We encounter an unexpected outdoor art gallery, composed of trees. But upon closer inspection, not wooden trees. Bronze trees which ring when kicked. Trees with rocks in them, like grey eyeless owls.

tree with rocks low res

A dissected tree, cut into segments, supported on branch legs, a golden tube along which it is possible to peer from one end to the other, framing faces and cityscapes.

dissected tree low res

The installations are part of Italian artist Guiseppe Penone’s Prospettiva vegetale (Perspective plant) which ran through summer 2014. The metal trees are manifestations of a ‘deep relationship between man and nature, body and vegetation’ and they represent ambiguity and overlaps between nature and culture, concerns of the artist throughout his career.

Giuseppe Penone

Giuseppe Penone

One particular sculpture had a special impact on me – Le Foglie delle radici / The leaves of the root (2011). This remarkable piece consists of an inverted bronze tree, with roots towards the sky. Nestling in the root pad was some earth and growing from that earth a small shrub, fed by an irrigation system which runs up inside the trees like an invisible vein.

inverted tree low res

‘The placement of the bronze tree trunk is unnatural, with branches that work from the point of support on the ground and the roots facing upwards, but is counterbalanced by the rise of the slender shrub, of which tension toward the light is aided by the mass sculptural on which it rests’ [noticeboard on site]

shrub up top low res

This piece is remarkable, and what is perhaps most special is the plant springing from the top which seems somehow impossible. Yet it reflects the enduring nature of plants; even when trees have toppled, new life can spring from them as anyone who has inspected a root pad can attest to.

And of course there are unmistakable echoes of ‘Seahenge’, the timber circle surrounding an inverted tree trunk that was found on a beach in Norfolk in 1998. This incredible monument, dating to the late Neolithic, only survived because of the waterlogged conditions within which it was submerged for thousands of years. Neolithic timbers almost never survive, and so it is likely inverted trees were a feature of other timber monuments from this period but have not survived.

In an intriguing inversion of the living shrub topping Penone’s upside down tree, it is possible the roots of the Seahenge tree originally supported a corpse.

Seahenge

Seahenge

The location of this monument, on the edge of the land, has a liminal and transformational quality that can also be ascribed to Penone’s Le Foglie delle radici. There is something magical and compelling about the upside-down tree and the inversion of the shrub growing up from the roots. This is the world inverted, nature and culture reversed. The earth touches the sky, and the land touches the sea. Perspective plants.

general view low res

 

Part 2: Brodick, Arran in September2014

BtC2014Poster (2)

Another inversion of trees, on the edge of the land and the sea, this time on the island of Arran. This time, the trees are stripped bare of their foliage appendages, defenestrated sitka spruce trunks transformed into the basic building blocks of a timber circle. Twisting, invasive, vibrant rhododendron branches and trunks chopped up into kindling, at our disposal to fuel fires.

We returned to the scene of the timber circle we built in 2013, on a plateau in a field with views overlooking Brodick Castle, the Firth of Clyde and the Cal Mac ferry trundling back and forth. Last year, we tried to burn the circle and for the most part failed. But this time around we stacked timber into piles, preparing pyres to be burnt, and this time all that would be left would be ashes and dark stains on the earth.

The vision - box pyre

The vision – box pyre

Construction

Construction

Conflagration

Conflagration

Consequences

Consequences

By burning the circle we took trees and transformed them into fuel and then fire, via a series of experimental activities. Plans were hatched and a spectacle staged. Spectators had a deeply visceral experience that impacted on all of the senses (we hope). I did my best to lose myself in the shaman, the ritual ringleader transported to the top of Goat Fell, deeply serious but chaotic, improvising wildly. Culture was imposed on nature, and nature imposed on culture. Again.

As with Penone’s art, and Seahenge, what we did was on the fuzzy zone between nature and culture, and we constructed various reconfigurations of the natural world for our own purposes, bending it to our will, exploiting natural properties, to convey our own messages. But how much were we really in control of what was happening?

DSC_0455

In the grounds of Brodick Castle, current artist-in-residence Karen Rann has been shaping nature too, manipulating the leaves of the ubiquitous rhododendron into different shapes and arrangements. The inspiration is a species of tree native to Arran, Sorbus Arranensis, which has a distinctive pattern of leaf growth. Her project, Nature of Change, has involved trimming big leaves into smaller leaves, stacking and re-arranging leaves, and creating holes in leaves which visitors are encouraged to take photos through and upload online.

karen rann low res

And an early engagement with the trees in this beautiful forest park was the adoption of her own tree, Rhododendron k arranensis. The artist becomes the tree, nature and culture all over again. And in this case, no fires were necessary to make an impact.

 

Concluding thoughts

This post was inspired by a few experiences I have had this summer that involve trees and the many forms that they can take. This is important to me as an archaeologist, because I study how prehistoric people engaged with trees – whether through clearing them to create space to farm, or re-shaping trunks and branches to build monuments and houses. And the experiences I have today, in the here and now, inevitably impact on how I interpret what I find in the archaeological record. How could this not happen?

As archaeologists, we make sense of the ancient past not just with our brains but with our bodies and senses. The past exists for us in the present, and therefore our experiences today, the physicality of now, is the filter through which the past manifests itself today. We can’t do anything to change this, nor would I want to.

Sources and acknowledgements: firstly, the Belvedere Fort. I visited with Jan and we had a great time exploring and thinking about this unexpected installation. The information on the exhibition came from a leaflet we picked up on site, and noticeboards. The photo of Penone is available widely online, and more info can be found at the Gagosian website. The Seahenge image was sourced from an excellent online guide to the monument, produced by Norfolk Museums. Burning the circle as an event involved a large team of helpers and funders. I would especially like to thank my colleague Gavin MacGregor, whose idea inspired the pyres. The National Trust for Scotland Rangers at Brodick made it all possible, and special thanks to the amazing Corinna Goeckeritz. The poster was designed by Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage, who also were fundamental to this event happening. I took the photos of the Karen Rann artworks, and for better images, see her blog and webpage (links above).

 

Playground prehistory

20 May

Can urban prehistory help contribute to the improvement of our landscape today and to social well being? Is there a demand for the construction of new prehistoric monuments? Is it possible to re-engage people with their landscape and their past by drawing inspiration from stuff that happened thousands of years ago?

I think that the answer to these questions is yes, and in the next few posts, I want to look at a few contemporary prehistoric style monuments that have been built recently, and the potential social, educational and environmental benefits they are bringing.

Strathearn community campus timber circle

For thousands of years, prehistoric monuments have been in decline. They have been falling apart, eroded, damaged and diminished in number. But in the past few years this trend has changed. Megaliths, henges and other monuments are being built now in increasing numbers, with numerous contemporary functions.

My engagement with the Sighthill stone circle is where I started to think about this. Why don’t we still erect stone circles and timber posts? And I am not just thinking here about reconstructions of damaged or destroyed prehistoric monuments (although of course there is a role for this kind of thing), but also of new monuments, built today from scratch. These could well be inspired by one or more ancient monumental forms, but with modern utility.

A fantastic example of this has, within the past few weeks, been built in Crieff, Perth and Kinross. A new timber circle for the town, constructed within the Strathearn Community Campus. At an archaeological level, the circle is a half size version of a timber circle with central four poster  found and excavated at nearby Pittentian during excavations in advance of the Beauly to Denny power line.

Preparing the ground

Preparing the ground

The first post going up

The first post going up

Construction nearing completion

Construction nearing completion

The circle was constructed over a few days using a heavy machine and enthusiastic workers with hard hats on. The wood used is larch. In other words, there is not much that is authentic about this new timber circle. But this does not stop it working. This does not stop is being beautiful. This does not stop it being a structure that inspires and provokes reactions. The weirdly leaning central four-poster is based on excavation evidence, but is sure to get visitors talking, if not hugging the timbers as I did when I visited last week.

circle and path low res

Strathearn community campus timber circle 2

SCC timber circle from school balcony

This new timber circle is part of an ambitious programme of interventions in the Strathearn Community Campus, inspired by the school and campus senior management, with the support of local enthusiasts, Northlight Heritage archaeologists and Scottish and Southern Electric (SSE), builders of the new power line. The programme aims to presence the prehistory of the local area in the campus, to educate and inform, inspire and amaze, to put into practice the potential social and education benefits of urban prehistory.

As we left the campus last week, standing beside the timber circle was a teacher and a group of school kids. This was a drama class and they were discussing using the circle as a ‘stage’ for part of a forthcoming play. And the first visualisations of this new monument were produced by technical teacher Michael O’Kane very much within a classroom environment. Almost as soon as it was erected, this monument has a use, a function, a role in the community, an educational purpose.

I hope that the children in the school will feel able to use this timber circle, to touch the posts, spend time within the circle, view the monument as an amenity for their benefit.

The vision

The vision

Temporary exhibition in school entrance area

Temporary exhibition in school entrance area

By being useful, and inspiring children I think urban prehistory, new stone circles and megaliths can have a purpose in our contemporary digital society even although standing stones and timber posts are essentially analogue technology.  I look forward to collaborating with the Crieff timber circle team a lot more in the coming months and years.

Sources and ackowledgements: the timber circle has very much been driven by the enthusiasm of head teacher Christine Ross, and her supportive team. The pre-construction image comes from her blog, while the digital vision was prepared by Michael O’Kane. The circle was funded by SSE and suppored by the campus management team, and particular thanks must go to the shamanic genius that is Ally Becket of Northlight Heritage. The two construction photos came from Ian Hamilton and Colin Mayall, the second of which was sourced from Colin’s excellent local history blog. Thanks to everyone involved for allowing me to be involved!

 

Car park prehistory

11 Feb

The well-publicised recent news that the skeleton of Richard III has been found by archaeologists in Leicester is not the first archaeological discovery that has been found beneath a car park. The desire for places to park cars and cover flat locations with tarmac and straight white lines describing car-sized boxes has uncovered all sorts of prehistoric traces in recent decades and one in particular sprung to mind when I read about the twisted bones of a king. Urban prehistory is paradoxical though: the three huge postholes found near Stonehenge just about survived having a car park extended over them, only to be further threatened today by the removal of the same car park.

Throughout the 20th century, Stonehenge became increasingly entangled with the local and regional economy, and the financial fortunes of whoever claimed ‘ownership’ to the extent that access to Stonehenge is now mediated by bus tours, and expensive exclusive pre-dawn access arrangements. Such arrangements appear to date back to attempts by the then owner Sir Edmund Antrobus to charge one shilling for access to the stones in 1901. Such financial disincentives to visit, however, have never put people off. In 1966, the car park at Stonehenge had to be extended. This was because by then Stonehenge was becoming an increasingly popular ‘tourist attraction’ drawing ever larger numbers of visitors who had access to their own car or who could afford to jump onto a touristic omnibus. The ‘excellent’ road links at Stonehenge (the A344 runs a few metres away from it, the A303 nearby) meant that the car (and bus) was increasingly the main way of accessing the monument, and parking on verges on the roadside became untenable.

stonehenge in the 1930s NMR photo

Stonehenge in the 1930s: commerce and cars

hotel advert

The first formal Stonehenge car park was actually constructed just across the A344 from the standing stones in 1935. This was constructed on National Trust land, to service the some 15,000 visitors per month who were drawn here even in the 1930s. This car park was furnished with a small ticket kiosk and toilets, and ice cream vendors soon swooped like confectionary vultures. This facility was described by John Piper in 1948 as, ‘a clearly visible eyesore and the custodian’s chalet in a tasteless and decorative art style, flanks a car park, a turnstile revolves in the wire fence and the ladies and gents is a good solid eyecatcher’. Yet compared to the bloated and extended car park that for now serves Stonehenge, the ‘phase 1’ car park could be said to have had ‘an atmosphere of quiet, almost pastoral charm’ (Lloyd Jones & Crosby 1992).

the first car park

Demand for the monument continued to grow, to such an extent that the original car park and the much abused road verges and tracks around Stonehenge were no longer adequate, and so the aforementioned 1966 car park extension was undertaken. This work was carried out by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works between 7th February and 18th March in that year, with the car park extended quite considerably to the west. The ground level was initially stripped and levelled by a JCB, under the monitoring of archaeologists Faith and Lance Vatcher. In their report on this work, published in the Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine in 1973, they state what happened next. ‘During the cleaning down of the surface to the chalk, three circular holes appeared….in a line running approximately E-W, with a fourth disturbed patch in the chalk of more irregular shape at the western end of the line’. Upon subsequence excavation, these three regular features were shown to be very large pits that had once held timber posts. The fourth ‘blob’ was more amorphous and thought to be a tree throw, that is an irregular pit indicating the location where a tree once stood. There followed in the excavation report a description of the large postholes – which were up to 1.5m deep – and their arrangement relative to one another, and Stonehenge itself a little to the northeast.

excavation details

These postholes could have supported timber posts with diameters of 60cm to 80cm, and using a simple posthole depth / post height ratio of 1:3.5 (the standard measurement for such things) these posts could have been up to 6m in total length, 4m or so of that above ground. These would have been impressive posts, but what was most surprising about the Vatcher’s discovery was that the posts appear to have been made of pine. As Mike Allen has noted, pine would not have been native to the chalk downs of southern England in the Neolithic, yet the Vatcher’s supposed these posts to have been Neolithic in date. But, radiocarbon dates undertaken on samples in the mid-1970s revealed the remarkable discovery that these posts had been erected in the Mesolithic period, making these perhaps the earliest monumental structures ever found in the British Isles, dating to over 8000 years ago, millennia before Stonehenge was constructed. It is not known, however, if all these posts stood at the same time, or if one replaced another over time.

What were these posts doing here? There is little consensus on this, other than that archaeologists typically describe them as ‘totem-pole like structures’, which conjures up visions of colourful posts with carvings, perhaps to be worshipped. This is as good an explanation as any, although we have little concept of what Mesolithic rituals may have entailed, and no parallels for posts of such antiquity have since been found in Britain. The tree throw has been interpreted by Mike Allen as also once having held a post, although its position on the post line may also suggest that a living tree was once part of this monument. Further work in the car park in 1988-1989 by Martin Trott of Wessex Archaeology discovered a rather amorphous pit or posthole feature in the vicinity of the current ticket offices. This again dated to the Mesolithic. These ‘whole trunks of pine’ (as Tim Darvill has called them) suggest a synergy between posts and trees, and seem to indicate the first instances of monumentality in this incredible landscape.

white painted posthole marker

Immediately after they were excavated, the postholes were backfilled with gravel, and then aluminium tubes were places into the centres of the holes where the posts once stood. These then were used to position concrete markers which were set into the car park tarmac. These are indicated in the modern car park surface by three quite regular white painted circles, which may or may not be the upper surface of the concrete post markers. Little is made of the three holes beneath the car park (never mind the tree throw) and it is walked across, driven across, and generally ignored by most visitors in the clamour to get to the stones. The car park and amenities have stimulated a number of excavations – in 1935, 1966, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1989 and so on – but these are the only discoveries to date of such significance and the only finds to stimulate the use of white paint, concrete and aluminium in such a way.

stonehenge car park may 2012

Stonehenge’s much expanded car park, May 2012

And now the postholes are about to undergo another transformation. With the ongoing construction of the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, the current car park is now about to be decommissioned. The fate of the postholes is unclear, but from what I can gather online, it appears that English Heritage will continue to mark the postholes for visitors, using ‘sensitively designed low level markers’ . The postholes will also sit within a very different context. The major transformation of the Stonehenge visitor experience will involve a new visitor centre in an entirely new location, with the current kiosks, subterranean bogs and the shops being replaced by – according to EH – ‘a very small hub … near the stones to provide emergency toilets’.

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The marking of these posts has always struck me as strange. On the one hand, it is commendable that the location of such ephemeral features (that do not fit comfortably into the Stonehenge narrative) have been afforded some paint in the car park. On the other hand, the lack of information on site means that they have been rendered meaningless, just another tarmac variation. The renewal of the visitor amenities at Stonehenge offers an excellent opportunity to rethink the presentation of these Mesolithic marvels to the visiting masses; EH should act while car parkaeology is in fashion.

Sources: For the original excavation report of the tree throw group, see Vatcher, G and Vatcher, F 1973 Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park, Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine 68, 57-63 (source of the excavation plans reproduced above). Subsequent reporting on the radiocarbon dates can be found in the journal Radiocarbon volume 29, although it is better to go to Mike Allen’s comprehensive synthesis of the Vatcher’s work, subsequent dating and the 1988-89 excavations. This can be found in Cleal, Walker and Montague (eds) 1995 Stonehenge in its landscape: Twentieth century excavation published by English Heritage. For a more accessible overview, see Tim Darvill’s 2006 book Stonehenge: the biography of a landscape (Tempus). For an excellent summary of the ‘treatment’ of Stonehenge over the past 150 years, including touristic developments, see Peter Lloyd Jones and Theo Crosby’s excellent 1992 book Stonehenge Tomorrow (the source of the first Stonehenge car park photo) . The Old George Hotel advert came from Frank Stevens’s 1929 booklet Stonehenge Today & Yesterday, while the black and white image of 1930s Stonehenge is reproduced from a Guardian article, and is part of the National Monuments Record. The Stonehenge posthole marker photo belongs to ‘AngieLake’ and was initially published on the megalithic.co.uk website; this was also the source of the comment on the fate of the postholes. The John Piper quote comes from the Architectural Review, and the Antrobus anecdote from Julian Richards’ book Stonehenge: a history in photographs.