Oh, Edmund… can it be true? That I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest Green?
This post has two points of departure.
Firstly, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word bling in the context of prehistoric metalwork. This is a common enough trope used by archaeologists and the media. But is this really the correct word for how these objects functions in prehistory, or merely a characterisation of objects as being shiny, precious things – even if the objects in question were neither of these things in the Iron Age or Bronze Age?
Perhaps also there is an element of (inverted) snobbery here, of disparaging gratuitous wealth displays, and the appropriation of a word in mainstream discourse that would appear to be more at home in the urban dictionary. Take the case of the so-called Prittlewell Prince, whose early medieval grave was found in 2003 during road-widening in Southend: in the media and amongst archaeologists (from the Time Team to British Archaeology magazine) this individual became widely known as the King of Bling.
Secondly, I find almost all museums boring. Unless they are museums of weird things, or deeply strange, I am left cold by glass cases of inanimate objects, little text panels, maps, and assorted accompanying artwork and imagery. Museums of course can be deeply contested and problematic places, but for me I see them, usually, as reliquaries for cold dead things that we value today and see as representative which they may or may not be.
Museums confuse me with their fixed categories and compartmentalizations, their maze-like floorplans, the disorderly arrangement of things, the missing objects replaced by little loan cards, weird coffee, lockers with non-returnable coin slots, how much coinage to drop into the donations slot at the doorway. They are places of little stresses that I do not enjoy.
I realise how that both of my initial points of departure are contingencies related to the contemporary setting of the museum, that they exist to showcase prehistory (or whatever) in our own terms and not the terms of those who made the stuff (or whose bodies we display). They are places that for me have little sense of pastness, like big shops where nothing is for sale (except in the actual shop).
But on the other hand, as a recent visit I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford did remind me, museums can be fine repositories of urban prehistory. There are few places where urban prehistory exists in such a concentrated form, albeit it in a deeply fragmented and stylised arrangement. If you happen to want a hit of prehistory and are in a city or town, heading to the local museum is as good as a way as any to ensure that you your desire is fulfilled, your lust sated for the good stuff. Although I would argue that museum displays are really just a kind of methadone for prehistory addicts.
On the same weekend as I made my trip to the Ashmolean apres breakfast a conference was being held in Chester on the topic of The Public Archaeology of Treasure. This is one of a series of excellent student conferences organised by the tireless Prof Howard Williams of Chester University, some of which have resulted in publications including papers by students, and generously co-edited with students too. Howard has discussed the conference on several occasions on his brilliant Archaeodeath blog eg before the event and after.
The hashtags for this conference were / are #archbling and #blingarch and this is one of the things that I reflected upon as I sat on a lovely smooth wooden bench in the Ashmolean after failing to find a temporary exhibition of works by the artist Philip Guston that I was actually quite interested in visiting.
Because the European prehistory gallery that I had spent some time on at that point sure was full of bling, gratuitously so. But what intrigued me was how much of this bling was, er, green. Not gold, not silver, not even bronze, but green. Not always shiny, sometimes rather dull. And curiously the idea of green bling made a lot more sense to me because this opened up the category of bling to non-metallic materials. For instance, Neolithic jadeite polished stone axes, of the deepest green. Or wonderful ornate beads of glassy faience, in pale greens and turquoises.
Bling was on my mind for another reason as I pondered a vast wall of busts in the stairwell of the museum. That weekend I had been attending and participating in a continuing education conference on the topic of Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland: prehistoric and Roman. Organised by Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill, this is part of an epic series of conferences on historic matters. I was talking about cursus monuments of course.
Speakers used the word bling a lot over the course of the weekend. My notes for a great talk by the wonderful Dr Seren Griffiths showed that she used the phrase WEIRD BLING but I can’t recall the specific context.
On the Saturday evening, an excellent talk by the National Museum of Scotland’s all-knowing Dr Fraser Hunter on Iron Age stuff was frequently punctuated with the word bling, usually in relation to some shiny piece of metal like a carnyx, a torc, or a lunalae. (I am not confident about the correct singular or pluralisation of any of those words.)
Curiously my notes from Fraser’s talk included a sketch of a weird Iron Age spoon, and a pair of these caught my eye as I wondered about the European Prehistory gallery at the Ashmolean, taking in the sheer green-ness of it all.
The more time I spent in this gallery, the more green stuff I saw, in all sorts of shades, depths, tones, and materials. Lumps of malachite (nuggets of the purest green?), glassy beads, stone axes, torcs, axes, little metal things that I had no idea what they were, and the pair of bronze spoon-things. In fact it seemed to me that there was more green bling than gold bling or silver bling or even brown bling.
Obviously some of this stuff was not green back in the day. A chemical reaction has taken place. Metal corrodes to a coppery haze and loses its original colour over time. A lot of this stuff is green with age: unlike wood, here green does not depict youthfulness and flexibility. But quite a good deal of this stuff was green all along, with for instance the rich greenness of the stone azes brought to the fore by relentless polishing. Here green was the origin point, not the inevitable outcome. Green-ness was worth climbing the Alps for, perhaps even dying for.
And of course a lot of the bling found with the ‘King’ at Prittlewell had, with age, green-ed like this drinking horn fitting and hanging bowl.
My own experience of green bling came with the discovery of a dagger grave in a cist at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross, 2009. The first indication we had of the grave goods was a shaft of green poking from the beige cist floor, almost as if the dagger was a new growth, appropriate amidst a grave that contained rich evidence for Meadowsweet flowers (white bling). The dagger, once all the brown stuff had been cleaned from it, was revealed to be a wonderful green jagged shard of copper alloy with a whale tooth and gold pommel atop. Now, let’s not get started on whale bling.
So if we must use the word bling, and given the word has been used by the Howard Williams and Fraser Hunters of this world, then I guess we must, then let us at least rethink the parameters and temporality of what we mean. Let’s celebrate green bling, if nothing else because it is one of the most common forms in which urban prehistory appears to us, minty fresh, today.
Sources and acknowledgements: the quote that starts this blog post comes from the Blackadder Season 2 episode Money, and was, or course, uttered by Lord Percy.
I would also like to thank Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill for inviting me down to Oxford to take part in the conference.
Where prehistory is turned into gases and powders and pastes and unguents
Through the corridors of power are the containers of powder
The geochemistry of prehistory –
The radiochemistry of prehistory –
The isotope biogeosciences of prehistory –
The prehistory of Scotland and beyond
In the hands of the scientists
In this prehistory laboratory repository
In East Kilbride.
The small print
Bring your samples to us and let us analyse them we provide a comprehensive post-excavation service and are happy to deal with prehistory but also not prehistory if that is appropriate and in some cases we are aware that you are aware that when samples are given to us you do not know if they are prehistoric we do not know if they are prehistoric or not and we offer no money-back guarantees as there are no guarantees no a priori assumptions here just hard science the atoms have no politics our reaktor has no biases and there is no prejudice in a test tube once they have been thoroughly cleaned so roll up and bring us your samples and we will do you proud.
We will accept samples in the following vessels and receptacles: plastic Tupperware box, tin foil (no hats), carrier bag (bags for life please), matchbox, kinder surprise eggs (plastic element not chocolate please you would be surprised), shoebox.
Samples cannot be accepted in liquid form unless sample is a liquid.
Samples cannot be accepted in gaseous form unless sample is a gas.
The following materials are permissible for sampling and we have some kind of technique for all of these, and if we do not have a technique, we will invent it. Plant microfossils, teeth, shells, all sorts of wood, bone, antler, horns, crusty residues, methane, dirt (please clean dirt before deposition and remove all worms), speleotherms, all manner of artefacts from metals to ceramics to textiles (you name it we, we date it as long as it has a carbon component and once had a proverbial pulse), and assorted elements of the periodic table namely 1-64, 71-100 and 112 (latter only in extremis and we need a 36 hour warning and lots of permits).
We are contractually obliged to note that you should not expect to get your sample back at all, ever, and certainly not in the form you gave it to us. Furthermore it is likely that the container you delivered the sample to us in is unlikely to come out of the process in one piece, and indeed may well be destroyed / recycled / contaminated / melted. However, we do reserve the right to retain bags for life to distribute amongst our staff.
Please note we do not sample the living.
Isotope flavours and ancient diets
And so to the Reaktor
Only the most disembodied of prehistory makes it this far
Only the finest samples underpinned by the most clearly articulated stratigraphic arguments are permitted entry to the Reaktor
Only the best can experience nuclear ecstasy in the Reaktor Shed.
The Reaktor Shed, on the edge of the industrial estate gives nothing away regarding its contents, masked behind the corrugation of obscurity
Shielded from penetration
The Reaktor Shed adorned with a stark geometric deep blue monolith, appearing to emit turquoise ectoplasm, the escaping spirits of the past
Inside the shed, an appointment with science awaits
Don’t be late because time is important here or at least relative chronology
The chronology of prehistory –
Time measured through atomic bombardment –
Complex machinery for the deconstruction of materials and the transformation of those materials into something else – data, information, knowledge
Data that is corrupted by the ignorance of objectivity and the ‘clause of subjectivity’
Spinning stories from the centrifuge.
travelling in time bending light stretching the laws of physics bombarding inside the cage lead lining artefacts broken down to constituent parts indistinguishable from the matter that defines the universe big bang flickering lights and electrical surges
Hazel nutshell protons
Birch bark electrons
Cremated human pelvis photons
Meadowsweet flower quarks
The poetics of C14
Carbon abstraction from carbon extraction
SUERC-21566 (GU-17836); 3120 ± 40 BP; 1500 – 1290 cal BC (95.4%)
SUERC-23247 (GU-18537); 8290 ± 30BP; 7480 – 7250 cal BC (87.1%)
Foreplay before the Bayesian dance
Visual inspection only – for now
A dagger through my heart.
The devil in the detail
Craving statistical probability
The past as conjuration, mediated through tree rings, carbon on carbon, wood on wood
The results are preconceived and can only have one outcome because
All journeys end at the Reaktor
All journeys begin there
The Reaktor loves decay even although the Reaktor cannot love
It is an information machine
Never look back.
SUERC is a shared facility between different Universities in Scotland, and they undertake a wide range of scientific analyses for archaeology and beyond the idea being that lots of expensive equipment and expertise is more efficiently pooled in one location for all to access. This facility includes the following Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) facilities: the Radiocarbon Facility (Environment), the Argon Isotope Facility, the East Kilbride node of the Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility, the Isotope Community Support Facility and the Cosmogenic Isotope Analysis Facility. It has emerged from decades of activity and was formerly the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre (SURRC). They have amazing staff and undertake amazing research and analyses. I could not do what I do without them.
Most of the photos in this blog were taken during a visit to SUERC with Honours archaeology students from the University of Glasgow.
The radiocarbon dates in the ‘C14 poetics’ stanza are from the SERF Project, one of well over 100 dates from that project that were produced by SUERC and funded by HES. The dates were provided by Dr Derek Hamilton.
Much of the information in this post comes from the SUERC website and the text betrays my lack of scientific understanding.
The concept of the ‘clause of subjectivity’ comes from a paper by Tim Flohr Sorensen entitled ‘More than a feeling: towards an archaeology of atmosphere’ (from the Journal Emotions, Space and Society 15, 64-73 (2015)). Thanks to Erin Jamieson for suggesting I read this.
This blog post has been written with Lauren Welsh, who thanks to the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow, was a paid intern on an urban prehistory placement in June 2017. I asked Lauren to come up with an idea for a blog post, and she suggested we visit and investigate an amazing urban prehistory site in her home town of Dreghorn, North Ayrshire….Station Brae.
Never heard of it? Read on to find out why.
NB In this post, my contributions are in italics.
During the summer last year, I was lucky enough to undertake a placement as the Urban Prehistorian’s Intern. This was a fantastic opportunity and I learned so much about what happens behind the scenes when planning community archaeological events and outreach to keep the public informed.
Whilst on this placement I undertook some of my own research into Community/Public Archaeology and I must admit it left me a bit bewildered about how this branch of archaeology is treated.
Where I live, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by lots of archaeology from many different periods. My biggest interest lies however, within prehistory and so focused my research on this. Before I began my research, I was aware that there was a prehistoric monument found in the village next to mine, it is known as the Drybridge Cursus.
However, when I started investigating in more detail I found that this was not the only substantial and interesting find from prehistory in this area.
In 2003/04, archaeological investigations were taking place in my little home village of Dreghorn, in advance of a new housing development at Station Brae. This work took place just before 53 houses were built by Wimpey Homes next to Dreghorn cemetery. The excavations were reported on in Discovery and Excavation Scotland. It was suggested that the excavations had found a ‘probable timber hall’ which is ‘comparable to those at sites such as Balbridie, Crathes, the Claish, and smaller examples at Balfarg and Raigmore’. Like the structures that are mentioned, the Station Brae structure is thought to date to the Neolithic Period. The site is also described as the prehistoric remains at this site as being in a ‘density and scale seldom seen in Scotland’.
This site is clearly a rare find but the only information in the public domain about this important site is the DES article. This goes on to mention that there were a number of archaeological finds that accompanied this impressive timber hall structure. From lithics and Grooved Ware to Carinated Bowls and kilns, this site has a lot of interesting prehistoric archaeology which is often lacking from prehistoric sites. Evidence for later prehistoric activity, and an early medieval settlement were also found here.
Given that this appears to be a site that should be of national importance due to the number of prehistoric artefacts and that is considered to be a timber hall structure, it is extremely confusing that a very small amount of people have heard of it (myself included even prior to my research into the excavation).
I had known about the Station Brae site for many years, as I have been documenting evidence for Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland (in reviews published in 2006 and 2016) and have even written a paper on Scotland’s Neolithic timber halls (published in 2007). However, in all these reviews, Station Brae has proved an elusive site, and attempts in the past to get further information on the excavations – even a coherent plan of the timber hall or possible Grooved Ware associated oval structures – have got me nowhere.
Yet the site is now in the literature. In a paper published in 2006, I celebrated the discovery of Station Brae ‘putative timber hall’ via developer-funded archaeology although made a curious mistake when adding it to a distribution map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland – I forgot to add it as a dot to a map previously published by Gordon Barclay, and a penciled in x still survives on the map as evidence of this in the published version. Oops.
In a review of timber halls written around the same time, the site was again mentioned although here it was simply viewed as a possible parallel for other Neolithic timber halls, except the Grooved Ware connection was puzzling (this pottery style would be too late for such a big roofed building). However, I was working from the original DES report only and the site did not make it onto a terrible map I produced of Scotland’s Neolithic halls. This doubt fed into a much more recent review of Neolithic settlement evidence in Scotland, where I had grown a little fed up with the situation. I described Station Brae as a ‘tantalising, but as yet unpublished, discovery’ (2016, 216). Despite my high hopes for this site, it has not yet made it into wider synthesis of Neolithic settlement sites, simply because nothing is really known about it.
Given this last paper was written over a decade after the excavations, and I again failed to find out anything about the site, this troubled me. The same old DES source was all that underpinned it, and that was starting to feel a bit tired.
This is clearly a frustrating situation – but one that I am not entirely unware of, having run up against similar road blocks for various reasons, from time-limited confidentiality clauses inserted into excavation contracts by developers, to sites being published in obscure online locations in reports that require a lot of guesswork to locate via google, to publication being delayed for all manner of reasons. But this seemed a more intractable problem. And that has proved to be the case, although Lauren brought it home to me that it is not just Neolithic archaeologists that are frustrated about Station Brae….
What bothered me the most about this discovery is that it is less than 500 yards away from my house and yet I knew nothing about it (which is interesting as I have always had a keen interest in archaeology).
So, what happened? Why has there not been more done at this site to help the locals (and wider public) understand the importance of this site as well as what it helps us to understand about other prehistoric sites similar to this one?
It is certainly strange. The site itself sits in a larger prehistoric landscape. As previously mentioned, there is an impressive cursus monument located at Drybridge and is only about 1 mile away from the Station Brae site. Also, in Drybridge there is a single standing stone, although there has been no known work conducted to say whether the stone is prehistoric or not.
The next village along this route is Dundonald, where today a beautiful castle stands on top of a hill. There have been excavations carried out at the castle which date the archaeological remains back to the early Bronze Age (hopefully the subject of a future urban prehistorian blog post! -KB). There have also been excavations in Kilmarnock recently as well, where (ironically) a Neolithic ‘timber hall’ site was found in 2017 by GUARD Archaeology during development work.
A final important site to mention in this geographical area is Shewalton Moss. This is ‘bog land’ that runs to the Northwest of Dundonald and is known locally to have produced a number of prehistoric artefacts including urns, pottery, flint scrapers and polishers, hammer stones and arrowheads, indicating substantial prehistoric activity in the area (although it is proving difficult to find records of these finds).
In an article in The Herald newspaper on 19th April 2004, the significance of Station Brae was stated in a very public forum. This was at worst based on a press release, at best on an interview with the director of the company who carried out the excavations, and I have highlighted in bold some particularly juicy comments.
‘The site suggests a 5000-year-old village similar in scale to the group of stone houses at Skara Brae, Orkney.’
Tom Addyman, excavation director of Addyman Associates, who carried out the ongoing dig at the housing development, said….”We found 750-odd pieces of Grooved Ware, which is one of the largest collections in the south-west of Scotland. The area is now known as a type site for the Neolithic period, which means that all other sites will be compared to this one.”
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said: “Finding evidence at this date for settlement, in the form of building foundations and for pottery making, is extremely rare, and promises to help us understand the lives of the people who built the great ritual monuments like henges and early stone circles”.’
There are some spectacular claims here, although the comparison of all other known Neolithic sites in Scotland with Station Brae has thus far proved impossible. Mike Pitts’ aspiration for this site remains unrealised.
A drip-feed of information was put out via the media offering further tantalising details. Site director Tom Wilson was quoted by iAyrshire as saying:
“This is only one of five [timber halls] to be discovered in Scotland and we think it dates back to around 3500BC. It would be a farming community with around eight huts taking pride of place in the site. We have also found pits with pottery and a giant fence that must have circled the village. Although other Neolithic villages have been found in Scotland, this is the only one I believe has been permanently lived in. We can see where the huts and kiln would have been. The residents moved further up the hill in the winter as the land was prone to flooding. We’re really like detectives and so far we have found some important artifacts including grooved-ware pottery and a kiln that we think is the oldest found in Scotland.”
I am salivating just reading the description of what was found here. Sorry, I’ll just go and wipe my mouth.
One thing that Lauren said that really struck home was that people in Dreghorn knew that an ancient settlement had been found in the town, but that was all they knew about it. It was like the site had taken on a mythical quality of its own, which would be all well and good but underlying this is a community who have been let down. Because archaeologists came, excavated, spoke to the papers, and then went away again. And that was it.
Lauren did some research as part of the placement that suggests that Dreghorn has embraced the discovery to an extent. It has become something of a branding for this place that it is the ‘Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’. Not snappy but pretty cool. References to this (erroneous) claim can be found online in various places, for instance in the wikipedia page for the town. I guess this impression was given by Tom Addyman himself who told the now defunct Today newspaper on 27th February 2004 that:
“People have always lived here, and have wanted to live here. Can’t think of any other site that has that depth and layering of occupation.”
The Neolithic discoveries in the village have, since the excavations, taken on the status of a a thing, although based on only wafer thin tit-bits of information.
As has already been touched on, the local people (and even some not so local) seem to have heard about Dreghorn and its impressive little title. It seems strange to me that no-one has really ever done any further ‘digging’ to see why it got the title in the first place. It is just something that is accepted. The information about the Station Brae site is out there (what little of it there is) but the information that can be found about this site in the public domain should be enough for the public to start questioning ‘what happened?’ Having spoken to a few locals about this and showing them the information in the public domain, I have found that the unfortunate reality is that they view it as ‘suspicious’. They tend to feel that something strange has happened at this site. The information tells us that this is a nationally important site and yet nothing further has been done to promote this or even investigate this. I must admit, I feel the same as them, although I can also see the dangers of this way of thinking as ‘professionals’ in this field can find it hard to gain and keep trust of the public as it is.
During the placement, Lauren and I visited the location of Station Brae. This is now a grassy bank with a flat top, crowned with older houses and a garage block with an urban goal painted on it. Fine views down to the Annick Water hint at the ideal location this would have been to live 5,000 years ago, just as it is now.
There is no indication whatsoever of what was found in this area before the adjacent newer houses were constructed, either in the lie of the land, or information for passers by and residents. It is impossible to imagine a timber Skara Brae standing here once, this village before the village.
After the visit, some discrete enquiries were made. What happened here? Without divulging too much information, it appears that the excavations were far more extensive and expensive that planned, and that the money simply stopped coming. No-one could afford to fund adequate post-excavation analysis, nevermind writing up the excavations, although enough resource was available for the material culture to be inspected and safely packaged up to go into storage. None of this stuff has been mis-treated, but nor has its full potential been realised.
The site is in limbo. There is no money to cover the substantial costs of analysing a very large assemblage of material (and that is just the Neolithic stuff I know about). Specialists would have to be paid, and someone or an organisation commissioned to write it all up, a major task as I well know being in the middle of writing up an excavation monograph myself.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case and other sites across Britain have been left in the same kind of situation: excavation done, archive and materials packaged up and put into storage, no more money to write it all up, and perhaps no real motivation or will to go back and sort it all out. There is only thing worse that having to write up an old excavation from a decade or more ago – that is writing up someone else’s old excavation, and in a sector as dynamic as heritage, this is likely what would have to happen. This is comparable to academic archaeologists, who have their own backlogs (as do I) but at least we have the safety net of a contractual situation that vaguely encourages us to spend some time sorting things out, and a career-progression motivation for publication.
I want to make it clear that I am not trying to blame the excavation team or the company that undertook the excavations, which were clearly to a high standard and carried out with rigour and enthusiasm. The team did a great job of getting the media interested in the site and they cannot be held financially liable for further work that has to be done. They also clearly tried to make things happen with this site and recognised its importance.
In this case, the developer also cannot easily be cast as the pantomime villain. In an interim report written by the archaeologists that I managed to obtain when researching this situation, it was clear that in January 2004 there was already a problem. A section in the report entitled ‘Costing’ noted that ‘additional funding sources’ to cover post-ex and publication costs were being sought. It was further noted that these costs were ‘an additional and unforeseen (as well as unwelcome) burden’ upon the developer who had otherwise been helpful and accomodating. In other words, I am guessing that the whole unexpected Neolithic and Medieval settlement bombshell had the potential to destroy budgeting and profit margins in the months and years after the excavations finished and that the original tender for the work, offered in good faith, was simply inadequate to deal with the spectacular discoveries subsequently made.
But I do want to blame the system.
The polluter pays principal is great when it all works, but what happens when it all goes to shit? Who has the ultimate responsibility of fulfilling the expectations of salivating prehistorians and a local population that have been left disappointed? How do we dance sites out of limbo?
There is an ongoing discussion in the heritage sector about this very problem.
Some say we should forget the older digs, write them off, dispose of the boxes of files, and move on.
Others say that Historic Environment Scotland (or Local Authorities) should step in and provide resources for these zombie excavations to be revived, albeit almost certainly at the tax-payers’ expense.
Another school of thought is that the whole system needs to change. A pool of money could be gathered using some kind of Development Tax, to be allocated as and when needed to ensure all remedial archaeology work related to development projects can be centrally funded and completed. This means that tendering would become less of a lottery, projects with almost no costs could not boost profits artificially, and really expensive excavations like Station Brae would not bankrupt anyone to deal with. Used in some European countries, this system might well be a solution going forward, but won’t help deal with backlogged limbo projects, of which there are, sadly, many.
This situation is all the more painful to me because of the urban location. Here, archaeologists, the developer and the system to one extent or another have let people down – the Neolithic people who lived here once, but also the current inhabitants of Dreghorn have been ill-served, with expectations raised of their town being a place of real significance in the ancient heritage of Scotland. There is now a brand to be lived up to – but how can the proud claim of deep time be evidenced, backed up, celebrated, with the site reduced to so many box files and packing cases?
With all this prehistoric evidence cropping up in such a small geographical space, maybe in the future we will be lucky enough carry out more investigations at the site of Station Brae. It would be great if more information on these sites could become available in the public domain so that people can learn about the history of their village and the significance of the archaeology that could potentially be lying in their own back gardens!
Going forward, hopefully by raising awareness of the site, it might encourage people to look further into what can be done to pull this amazing site into the mainstream. If we can go by what is reported in the draft report we have got hold of, then the finds from this site really could potentially be used to lend further understanding to a period of time we really don’t know that much about. Perhaps a crowdfunding initiative could be set up to find the funds needed to complete the post-ex work and write up required to make sense of what has been found here. If the community could take ownership and be proud of the potentially spectacular site that has been found here, I really think it would help raise an awareness that the public really do have an interest in sites like this, just as much as those who have a keen interest in the field and period. And who knows, maybe then, Dreghorn really would deserve its title, ‘Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’, or at least they would understand why this title stuck in the first place!
Sources and acknowledgements: firstly, I would like to thank Lauren for all of her hard work over the course of the placement, and it was a treat for me to get to the Station Brae site as I had read that one paragraph about it for so long! Lauren took me straight there with the knowledge only a local can have, an expertise in this place I could never hope to have. I would also like to thank the wonderful staff at Dundonald Castle for their hospitality during my trip to North Ayrshire, and Richard Hughes for allowing his great photo of the castle to be included in this post.
I sought advice from several seasoned, wise and experienced heritage professionals in the preparation of this post, and although my sources shall remain anonymous, I would like to thank them very much.
I thought long and hard about not naming an archaeologists or other parties involved in the excavation at Station Brae. However, I hope that our post makes it clear that the system is at fault here, and not the diggers or funders. A cursory search would have revealed identities for those who wanted to find out anyway.
The DES entry that started all of this off is: Addyman, T. 2004 Station Brae, Dreghorn (Dreghorn parish), Neolithic settlement with ritualistic component; medieval village’, Discovery Excav Scot, vol. 5. [open access, google Discovery Excavation Scotland]
In the post, a couple of my old papers were referred to. In case anyone wants to follow these up, they are:
Brophy, K 2000 Wet Drybridge: a cursus in Ayrshire. In J Harding & R Johnston (eds) Northern Pasts: Interpretations of the later prehistory of northern England and southern Scotland, 45–56. BAR: Oxford.
Brophy, K 2006 Rethinking Scotland’s Neolithic: combining circumstance and context. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 136, 7–46 [open access, google article or journal name]
Brophy, K 2007 From big house to cult house: early Neolithic timber halls in Scotland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 73, 75–96.
Brophy, K. 2016. On ancient farms: Neolithic settlement in mainland Scotland, in Brophy, K, Ralston, IBM and Macgregor, G (eds) 2016 The Neolithic of mainland Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, pages 200-235.
A large group of protesters gather outside a shopping mall carrying banners with messages that push against the prevailing capitalist mood of the day.
Words that are designed to shock.
For one day, shoppers at the Bay Street Mall, Emeryville, California, are asked not to spend any money in the mall, not to shop.
This is what happens when urban prehistory gets serious.
This is what happens when it really matters to people on an emotional and personal level.
This is what happens when colonisation, urbanisation and planning decisions are the cause of historic and long-lasting hurt.
Over two blog posts, I want to relate the remarkable and troubling story of the Emeryville shellmound, a sacred Native American Ohlone settlement, ceremonial and burial site that now lies beneath the aforementioned shopping mall.
It is a story that involves poor decision-making, a failure to listen, misunderstanding, racism, secrecy, prehistoric and historic archaeology, urbanisation, and a cast of archaeologists, planners, shoppers and a disenfranchised tribal community, all wrapped up in fumbling attempts at reparation.
The reason I want to write about this site is because its very existence was unknown to me (and probably most of you who are reading this) until I was asked a tough question by Colleen Morgan at the end of a talk about urban prehistory in York in October 2017. After my rambling lecture, Colleen asked me a very interesting and provocative question. It was about the potential problems that could be caused by the incorporation (or otherwise) of prehistoric sites into urban developments in places where there were indigenous communities who may contest the process. She cited the example of ‘Shellmound Mall’, Emeryville.
This was timely, coming a month before the annual Black Friday protest in Emeryville to demonstrate anger and frustration at the way that the indigenous shellmound and burial site had been dealt with in the local planning system that led to the construction of the the Bay Street Mall from 1999 onwards. My account of this sad story is necessarily written from a detached perspective, for which you will have to forgive me, as I am not likely to be able to visit anytime soon on my feeble research budget. This means there is more reliance than usual on online sources of information, images and academic publications (all sources are either noted in, or at the end of, the post).
This is an important story because there can be no better illustration of the fact that around the world today, urban prehistory can have a much deeper resonance that we could ever imagine in a European context. But this does not mean we cannot learn lessons about the place of people and heritage in the planning process, and the complete inadequacy – in some cases – of measures such as excavation and memorialisation to compensate for loss. I’ll reflect more on lessons learned at the end of post 2, but here I want to introduce the site and take the story up until the 1920s.
Shellmounds are midden sites that existed in huge numbers in North America once, focal points for deposition for centuries or more, stretching back thousands of years into prehistory. A recent review of such ‘midden’ mounds in the American Southeast suggests that there has been a shift in the perception of these sites amongst archaeologists over the past two decades. There is now a:
recognition that…..some, if not most, of these shell structures were specifically created ritual landscapes rather than the daily discard of victuals. A subsidiary tenet of this focus is that shell is and of itself was (and is) ‘symbolically potent (Saunders 2015, 2).
The precise nature of the social roles these structures played is unclear, but they were not rubbish dumps. Luby and Gruber (1999, 100) have argued for instance that shellmounds were places of ‘mortuary feasting….sites of frequent festivity, dance, costume and music…essential to the symbolic and mythological life of pre-contact peoples of the San Francisco Bay area’. When recently discussing shellmounds in Maine, Dr Donald Soctomah, historic preservation officer with the Passamaquoddy tribes, told the New York Times that the ‘shell middens are a link to the past’ that tell stories.
Despite the sacred significance of these sites, they have all too often simply been regarded by archaeologists and developers as rubbish heaps which makes little sense if, for no other reason, than some have been shown to be burial sites. All too often they have been denuded by the actions of coastal erosion, colonists and, more recently, developers. Centuries ago the shell-rich material forming the bulk of these mounds was quarried by Europeans for lime, fertilizers and animal feed (NY Times). Urban development continues to threaten mounds, with Emeryville an especially troubling example of this process.
The dates of use of what is now known as the Emeryville shellmound (also known – only to archaeologists – as mound No. 309) stretch back anything from 800BC to 3000BC, depending on the source (the earlier figure appearing more likely). It continued in use until the start of the eighteenth-century AD. This enormous expanse of time in use explains why the mound got so massive by the colonially enforced end of its use-life, growing incrementally into a circular artificial hill, some 110m in diameter and 18m high, with smaller ‘cones’ atop and nearby. The monument was essentially a combination of a huge pile of domestic debris and a sacred burial site, used by a Native American group called the Ohlone Indians who lived, and still live, around San Francisco Bay. It was one of hundreds of such mounds that once existed here.
Excavations in the 1900s, 1924 and 1999 showed, as we shall see, that the mound consisted of masses of shells (such as clam, mussel, oyster, cockle), stone and bone tools and objects, jewellery, pottery, carbonised material – and huge quantities of human remains.
In the nineteenth century (AD) the monument was swept up by urbanisation and soon became subject to associated demands for space and leisure activities. From the 1870s onwards, the shellmound became incorporated into an amusement park called, unsurprisingly, Shellmound Park. As well as the usual rides and attractions one would expect with such a facility, a dance pavilion was built on top of the mound.
The Park was owned by Joseph S Emery and included a ‘rifle range, trotting park, beer garden, band shell [band stand?], and a shady thicket of trees that drew picnickers, all resided beside what remained of the towering Emeryville shellmound’ (source). The same source suggests that the ‘notion of dancing on an Indian burial ground was considered as a thrill that would attract visitors’.
Excavations and the paint factory
The shellmound was subsequently excavated by a team from the University of California lead by John Merriam and Max Uhle in 1902.
An extensive excavation report was published by Uhle on the dig in the journal American Archaeology and Ethnology (volume 7, 1907) and had throughout an unfortunate tone that could be described, charitably, as patronising. (Page 19 announces ‘No traces of cannibalism have been detected’. Not bad for a ‘tribe of low grade civilisation’. Bloody hell.) Settlement evidence, bones, shells and so were found in large quantity, as were a ‘huge range of ‘primitive’ objects’. It was also discovered that the site had also been used for the burial of human remains with 10 bodies found. However, the whole tone of the paper was orientated towards this basically being a huge rubbish heap that people lived on in unsavoury conditions.
Two other excavations followed before 1910, and the Park limped on until the early 1920s when it went bust and the land was sold, to soon be replaced by factories and industrial plants which stood here until the 1990s. The dramatic and brutal remodelling and leveling of this landscape in 1924 is captured in a series of dramatic photographs taken at the time. The mound material was literally bulldozed and extracted as if this was a quarry.
The desolation of the shellmound (1924)
Excavations carried out as this devastation was wrought uncomfortably found significant evidence of the sacred nature of the shellmound. The remains of over 700 burials were found during these ‘salvage’ excavation (or recovery operation as seems more likely to have been the case). A report on this work, by W Egbert Schenk, was published in 1926 by the University of California, his team having taken advantage of the ‘destruction’ to ‘collect fresh data’. Indeed, the opportunity afforded by the dismantlement of this amount was received with a degree of relish.
The steam and tools for this heavy work came from a neighbouring Sulphur plant, giving a sense of the heavy and horrid industry emerging in this area at the time.
As with the earlier investigations, there seems to have been no attempt to ask people of Ohlone heritage anything about the site, but the archaeologists did get some information in the form of memories from local ‘old timers’ who they spoke to.
Aside from more of the same kind of stuff that had been found by Uhle et al., the 1924 excavations were notable for the huge quantity of human remains and burials found. At lower levels of the mound, inhumation and cremation rites were identified for over 40 individuals. But, remarkably, the report also notes, with amazing understatement: ‘In the cone 651 bodies were noted’, many crouched pit burials. Also, despite having a quite rigorous watching brief strategy (two observers at all times), Schenk admitted that they probably missed a lot of babies ‘on account of their small size’. (Excavations in other parts of the mound found between 30% and 38% of burials to be those of infants and almost none were found in the main cone.) Many of these burials were found in association with grave goods.
The details are contained in the report on this work, and need not be rehearsed much further here, suffice to say that much of the recording was done visually and at times from a distance due to the industrial nature of the destruction of the mound. Scientific analysis of the few recovered skulls included a cranial study indicating the dead were of a ‘typical Californian type’; this kind of phrenological study would rightly never be allowed to happen today. These human remains are still in a museum store, and have not, as far as I can tell, been repatriated to the Ohlone.
This almost total destruction of this ancient mound was the culmination of decades of urbanisation, the needs of an urban population, and industrialisation nibbling away at its edges, from levelling works, to railroad and road developments. From the mid-1920s onwards the site was occupied by industrial units such as a steel works, cannery, paint factories and insecticide manufacturers, combining to eradicate most of the shellmound and poison the land.
Worse was to follow though in the 1990s – the mall.
To be continued.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Colleen Morgan for prompting me to think about all of this.
Unlike many of my blog posts, this one has been underpinned by ‘actual academic research’. Here are my sources in chronological order of publication (link where open access):
Uhle, M 1907 The Emeryville shellmound, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 7(4), 309-56.
Schenk, R 1926 The Emeryville shellmound: the final report, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 23(3), 147-282.
Luby, EM & Gruber, MF 1999 The dead must be fed: symbolic meanings of the shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay area. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9.1, 95-108.
Rogers, A & Broughton, J 2001 Selective Transport of Animal Parts by Ancient Hunters: A New Statistical Method and an Application to the Emeryville Shellmound Fauna. Journal of Archaeological Science, 28(7), 763-773
Saunders, R 2015 Archaic shellmounds in the American Southeast, Oxford Handbooks Online.
Image sources (where not given in the caption). If anyone wants to correct a source, or ask me to remove a photo, please do let me know via the comments button at the end of the post.
The photo of the Shell Mound sign and the factory behind it came from an excellent source of information about Emeryville in general, a website called The E’ville Eye. This page contains more on the story of the shellmound and info about a documentary that has been made on the subject.
Both images of the mound being dismantled are widely available online, I am not sure what the original source is for either.
Some urban prehistory sites are strange. Some are sad. Some are both.
There is something melancholy about a prehistoric site that has been destroyed with nothing done to compensate. We are now used to the fairly cosy arrangement that we can accept the destruction of archaeological sites in exchange for them being professionally and fully excavated. This is a deal that archaeologists – and society without most being aware of it – have made with the free market economy. We won’t interfere too much with endless development, change and economic progress and the juggernaut won’t completely flatten what is left of the past without first slowing down a bit or taking little detours. The result is jobs in the heritage sector, lots of random data we would otherwise not have, and sometimes local communities benefit from these transactions too. This might be a Faustian pact, it might even be entirely sensible, but it does mean that in 2017 one of the most important and uncontrollable ways we have of finding prehistoric sites and sucking the information out of them is driven by social need for, and the political demands of, development.
But in the nineteenth century when society was still getting to grips with the implications of massive scale urban and industrial expansion, railway line and canal building, and the requirement for the extraction of the necessary aggregates to make these things happen, no such deal existed. Archaeological sites were swept aside simply because they were literally the wrong place at the wrong time. And so inconvenient standing stones were toppled, or ”blown with powder’ as in the case of a stone circle at St Colmac’s, Bute. To add insult to injury, whatever survived these extractions was then put to use as building materials, built into walls and barns, or broken up and utilized serendipitously and randomly e.g. in road and rail foundations. Stone cists and coffins were emptied of their contents, with much of the goodies inside ending up on the mantelpieces of the rich landowner, local vicar or an eccentric antiquarian, soon to be ‘lost’. Of course, this was all underpinned by money as well – but the power relationship was balanced differently than it is now. Archaeological sites could be swept away on a whim, facilitated by the signing of a cheque (one of those big fancy Victorian ones), and the data and information that resulted from any crude interventions that followed could be characterized as limited, selective and often rubbish.
Whoever said that no deal was better than a bad deal?
A dead megalithic monument in Clackmannanshire prompted these thoughts to be re-articulated once again. It is a sad and strange story that represent the ways that even substantial prehistoric monuments, when competing with the demands of nineteenth century economic requirements and the requirements of the landed gentry could come to a very sticky end, reduced to nothing more than an antiquity map symbol.
I have a Cunninghar plan
The site to which I refer was called Cunninghar in Tillicoultry. This is a monument that according to varied accounts was substantial, consisting of a circular or oval setting between 20m and 35m in diameter of standing stones three feet high at the foot of the Ochils. (A bank apparently surrounded this, suggesting to me this was a kerb cairn rather than a stone circle for what it is worth.) No record of the number of stones survives, nor any etchings or drawings of this monument. The enthusiastic recorder of prehistoric lost causes and megalithic wild goose chases, Fred Coles, tried to get to the bottom of the story of this stone circle right at the end of the nineteenth century, his sources of information patched together from conversations with an experienced local forester, an OS Name Book entry and some nifty mapwork.
His informant, the estate forester, gave a vivid description of the stone circle and the fate that it met (for the source of this quote, see the end of this post; Location A is shown on Cole’s map reproduced below):
The rather undignified evisceration and re-purposing of the monument by the local gentry for their own grand designs, and also perhaps with one eye on the quarrying and thus financial potential of this location to come, left the bank and one single standing stone on site, which became the focus of excavations in the 1890s when two cists, one containing a fine Food Vessel, were discovered on site as the ridge was gradually denuded for aggregate extraction. The account of these discoveries was documented fastidiously by R Robertson in a paper written slightly before Coles arrived on the scene, and in his observation that the site was situated on an ‘elevated ridge of sand intermixed with gravel’ lies the seeds its downfall at the hands of quarrying for those materials.
There is no need to rehearse the details here of the discoveries that occurred in harmony with the rhythm of the extension of the gravel quarry, surprising extractions, suffice it to say that several Bronze Age pots, and a stone marked with rock-art, were discovered.
My favourite detail of these impromptu rescue excavations was the discovery by Robertson in the location within a cist that one would have expected a head to be located, ‘a quantity of a fibrous or hairy substance, of dark-red colour’. Analysis was undertaken of this mysterious material by a Professor Struthers who appears to have been something of an expert in these matters, having his own collection of ancient hairs which he sometimes exhibited to the public. He concluded, by comparison with his own reference collection, that this was not the hair of a man, ox or horse – but it might have been the ‘wool’ of a fox, dog or rabbit. (Audrey Henshall later suggested it was otter.) No further analysis of this was undertaken but I like to imagine this was the remnants of a crazy stoat hat. (It is worth noting also that the name of this site derives from something to do with rabbits suggesting this is the kind of location where a rabbit might have burrowed into a cist by accident and died in there. Just saying.)
Fred Coles reported on another cist found here a few years later, although had nothing to say on the matter of the ginger-haired deposit. He also noted that quarrying had not begun at the south end of this ridge by the time of the OS 1st edition mapping of the 1860s, but by then, the stone circle was already gone, for the reasons already noted above. The sand pit to the north suggests the landowner was well aware of the potential value of this location and the pesky stone circle that was on the way of his bank account being further bloated.
Later maps show the outline of the quarrying in more detail, and so show the activities that led to the discovery of Bronze Age burials here as well as completely removing the site where the stone circle / kerb cairn. In a sense the quarrying was more destructive than the standing stone removal, in the same way as extracting one’s teeth is not half as bad as losing your mouth.
This megalith was wiped off the map, and it was on maps that ironically was the only place where it continued to exist.
Gradually, this location became increasingly surrounded by housing estates and the trappings of the modern urban landscape. Using a really helpful map that Coles made of the archaeological discoveries at Cunninghar, and subsequent mapping, it is possible to roughly plot where these key discoveries were made in relation to the modern Tillicoultry – sandwiched between Dollar Road and Sandy Knowe with a fine view over a cemetery and war memorial.
It was no surprise to me when I visited on a quiet Saturday morning that there is no sense whatsoever that in this corner of Tillicoultry once stood a substantial multi-phase Bronze Age monument. The Cunninghar sand and gravel ridge that so attracted quarriers survives within the urban setting, in the form of a wide grass-covered bank that runs north-south between two housing estates. A path runs along this ridge and I mounted it, from my parking position on the appropriately named Sandy Knowe, via a set of steps. Once on the embankment I followed a rough path that lead to a broader and uneven overgrown area with a mast atop it. This metallic tower stood within a steel cage with warning signs adorning it.
This area betrays little to nothing of its former purpose, other than that it is possible to imagine this as a prominent viewing point with views down to the River Devon. The ridge came to a sudden end at a wall on the fringe the A91, while an escarpment topped with a feeble fence which meandered from east – west marked the limit of the sand and gravel quarry that was once here that finally removed the remnants of this monument, the conclusion of a slow-motion series of interventions.
As I wandered around in the faint hope of seeing something, anything, that might hint at megaliths, burials or an embankment, I noticed a large stone lying on the other side of the fence on the edge of what was once the quarry. This had previously been identified by the Northern Antiquarian as being a remnant from the stone circle, and although it seemed to me too small to have fulfilled this purpose, it did look out of place and may once have been a prehistoric something or other.
Down I went into the quarry, now an overgrown edgeland betwixt road, mound and back gardens, nothing but weeds and rubbish strewn about. Spatially, if not physically, there had been a stone circle here once, perhaps elevated 5m above my head. But all that remained were random sad objects: a twisted child’s car seat, a hoard of charity shop sacks and the splayed and stretched out tendons of a Venetian blind.
This made me melancholy. A stone circle had been lost – so be it. But it had been lost and not adequately compensated for. A Food Vessel, Urn and a clump of dead rabbit / otter had been added to the archaeological record, dots on a distribution map (except for the rabbit unless there is a distribution map of Bronze Age wigs), but we don’t even know how many megaliths once stood here. Tillicoultry House with its amazing standing stone lined drain was demolished around 1960, another victim of progress, while the current location of the rock-art-marked stone, visited and visible to Ronald Morris in 1966, is unknown. The Food Vessel is held in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland.
There is nothing to let people whose houses are literally metres from where a prehistoric centre of ritual, ceremony and burial once stood know about this, no noticeboards that might inform casual passers-by, a lack of an app or virtual reality ancient version of this place to download. This monument has gone, a victim of all sorts of Victorian hoo-ha. And not only was the monument destroyed, but the place where this monument once stood was destroyed, atomically removed. Once it was removed, the megalith was split up into pieces and then it was later destroyed again, a second death. The burials that were left behind were recovered to an extent, but are now hopelessly dispersed.
There was no deal here – this was a hard extraction, and once the stones had fallen from this cliff edge there was no going back.
I have often said in the past that urban prehistory is not about a sense of loss, or sadness, and this is still the case. But for Cunninghar there have only been bad outcomes, as bad as it gets, and it seems a hopeless case, all that remains being this sad story and footnote in the National Monuments Record of Scotland.
Melancholy is not the same thing as sadness, nor is regret. What I regret about some urban prehistoric sites is that their destruction was in vain, the price paid too high.
Sources and acknowledgements: This post benefited from many conversations with Helen Green about heritage, development and compensatory measures (or lack thereof).
Little has been published on Cunninghar, or the variants of spelling of that name that are out there (Cuninghar, Cunningar). Two articles were published in close succession in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland about this site, both referred to above. The first of these was Robertson’s 1895 effort, ‘Notice of the discovery of a stone cist and urns at the Cuninghar, Tillicoultry’, in volume 29; the second Cole’s 1899 ‘Notices of the discovery of a cist and urns at Juniper Green, and of a cist at the Cunninghar, Tillicoultry, and of some undescribed cup- marked stones’ (volume 33). Both can be read online for free via the Society webpage. The image of the Food Vessel came from the Robertson paper, the cist plan and rock-art ‘photo’ from Coles, and the latter also provided the quote near the start of the post.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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]
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.
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.
Part 2: Brodick, Arran in September2014
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The National Monuments Record of Scotland (NMRS) is a wonderful thing, accessed remotely via the CANMORE portal, offering a window onto tens of thousands of mostly old things around Scotland. I use the word ‘thing’ here because it is difficult to summarise the content of the NMRS without recourse to such a vague term. At a slightly more specific level, the kinds of things you can expect to find while browsing in the NMRS includes archaeological sites, historic buildings, material culture, shipwrecks, cropmark sites, events (such as watching briefs or surveys), natural features, public art and sculptures, and perhaps surprisingly, some very modern phenomena such as tower blocks and – much to my amazement – roundabouts. I stumbled upon the NMRS category ‘roundabout’ when exploring the urban prehistory of East Kilbride (note to self: there is not much urban prehistory in EK, but there are many, many roundabouts). I could not resist exploring a little further.
The term roundabout is contained within the NMRS Thesaurus of Monument Types, and defined concisely as: ‘A circular construction at the intersection of two or more roads to aid the passage of vehicles from one road to another.’ This definition has a certain poetic quality to it. The term roundabout exists within a hierarchy of terms, which widen out to Road Transport Site and then more widely still, simply Transport. (As an archaeologist, I would define a roundabout as a circular or oval space upon which no-one is intended to set foot enclosed by roads.) Although circular junctions existed in various places earlier in the twentieth century, the widespread use of roundabouts on Britain’s roads dates back to as recently as the 1960s. The roundabout as a formal junction type was introduced by Transport Research Laboratory engineers, followed soon by legislation to standardise the use of roundabouts, that is, the ‘offside priority rule’, which was passed in 1966. The mini roundabout was first created in 1976, the invention of Frank Blackmore. The role of roundabouts is very simple: they keep traffic flowing at junctions in a way that traffic lights and other types of junction could not.
This fascinating road engineering history takes us little closer to finding out why ‘roundabout’ is a class of monument within the NMRS. To investigate this further, I searched the NMRS using the keyword ‘roundabout’ to see what kinds of things had been included. In fact only two roundabouts in all of Scotland have actually been given their own NMRS number; most of the search results (24 in total) relate to sites with some connection to a roundabout in their location or name. For instance, in one case a roundabout is included almost incidentally because it contains a sculpture of two beavers at the entrance to Beaverbank Business Park in Edinburgh (NMRS number NT27NE 1682).
The two NMRS roundabouts are, perhaps not surprisingly, in two of Scotland’s new towns. The first of these is the Torrance Roundabout in East Kilbride. This traffic island sits on the south side of the town, on the junction between the A726 Strathaven Road, Greenhills Road and Torrance Wynd. The presence of this roundabout in the NMRS is inexplicable (it has NMRS number NS65SW 181, grid reference NS 64625 52026). I visited this roundabout and found it to be a featureless traffic island without even a hint of landscaping within the centre, nothing more than a flat-topped low monoblock round mound with road signs and a single advertisement perched on top. In a town that is, in a sense, defined by its roundabouts the Torrance Roundabout is not even the most interesting roundabout in East Kilbride.
In fact, there are well over 60 roundabouts in EK, part of the vision of the town’s New Town Development Corporation which existed between 1947 and 1996. Roundabouts should be viewed within the context of the utopian ideals that lay behind the development of Scotland’s post-war New Towns: modern, clean and efficient creations that facilitated the smooth flow of traffic. Now, most just of these roundabouts just look a bit shabby.
The other roundabout named in the NMRS is in one of Scotland’s other New Towns, Cumbernauld. The inclusion of Muirhead Roundabout (NS77NE 181) is equally puzzling. Three very nice aerial photographs of the roundabout and adjacent tower blocks are included in CANMORE for public access and show more of an intersection than a roundabout, essentially a means to connect a series of local roads with the main A8011 which runs below. The presence of some artworks beneath the roundabout – ‘neon waves’ – on the side of the A8011 does not appear to be the focus of the photos. This roundabout served as a useful detour for traffic when the Olympic torch relay passed nearby on 28th May 2012. I did not visit this roundabout in preparation for this blog although in the past I may have driven beneath it.
Roundabouts are found at junctions, road confluences, and are nodal points in our transport system, and so in some ways at least they function rather like some monuments would have in prehistory. And so it is intriguing to think about roundabouts which sit in locations that were important in the past. One example of this is the Greenyards Roundabout, on the edge of Bannockburn, Stirling, which was constructed in 2010. I went to this location in November of that year specifically to visit the site of a Neolithic monument that had once stood in this place. This was a complex of early Neolithic postholes and pits, remnants of a timber cursus monument with adjacent u-shaped pit-defined enclosure (NMRS numbers NS89SW 24 and 22 respectively). These monuments were excavated by the Central Excavation Unit in 1984-85 ahead of the construction of a housing development and the ‘Stirling Eastern Distributor Road’ (the A91). Now destroyed, or only with ephemeral vestiges surviving under tarmac, houses and gardens, nothing can be seen of the ghostly traces of this prehistoric ceremonial complex. The Laurinda Bed and Breakfast lies over part of the western end of the cursus.
This complex suffered a further intervention between November 2009 and February 2010 with the construction of a new roundabout where the Cowie Road meets the A91 on the eastern fringes of the housing development, adjacent to a bus depot. This location is just to the north of the two aforementioned early Neolithic enclosures.
Excavations revealed one or two later prehistoric roundhouses (one of which dates to the middle of the 2nd millennium BC) as well as assorted postholes and pits (see NMRS NS89SW 155). This cluster of features is, in a sense, unremarkable, and fits a pattern of later prehistoric settlement in the vicinity in the form of Iron Age enclosures found during the 1984 campaign of developer-funded fieldwork to the north. But the recurring significance of this landscape revealed by all of these excavations is interesting: hints of Mesolithic activity, Neolithic ceremony and fire-lighting, Bronze Age roundhouses, Iron Age fortification, indications of Medieval activity in the form of ‘black oat’, post-medieval rig and furrow agriculture, bus hanger, an A road, housing estate, with the roundabout merely the latest aspect of the biography of this location, a location with splendid views of the Ochils to the north.
JG Ballard’s 1974 book Concrete Island tells the parable of an architect who has a car accident while commuting and crashes into a traffic island in a tangle of roads, junctions and intersections. He becomes trapped on the island by a wall of roads and cars that he can neither pass, nor flag down. The transgression of actually being in the middle of a roundabout is viewed by Ballard as a modern parable for the commuter lifestyle and the dis-association between people caused by cars and roads. And indeed being in a roundabout is a strange sensation, as I found out when visiting the middle of the Torrance Roundabout. I had a strong sensation that this was somewhere where one should not go, and once there, it can be difficult to get off again safely. People in passing cars stared at me disapprovingly. Standing on a concrete island is an anti-social activity and leaves you vulnerable and exposed.
My recent experiences at Torrance and Greenyards were in stark contrast. I visited the thoroughly modern EK roundabout on foot to experience its featurelessness, but drove round the Greenyards roundabout a few days later, conscious that I was passing over a place that had been significant for thousands of years. The ways that our experiences of the past are mediated can entail many different methods: by foot, by car, by bike, bus or train. And as ever, the past has become entangled in the present because even today we are still building monuments.
Sources: For more information on the Bannockburn cursus excavations in the 1980s, see Rideout, J.S. 1997 Excavation of Neolithic enclosures at Cowie Road, Bannockburn, 1984-5. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) 127, 29–68. The Greenyards Roundabout excavations have not yet been fully published; see Mitchell and Hastie’s brief note in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 11, page 170 (you can read this in CANMORE). For more on the Iron Age enclosure excavations, see Rideout, J.S. 1996 Excavation of a promontory fort and palisaded homestead at Lower Greenyards, Bannockburn, Stirlingshire, 1982-1985 in PSAS 126, 199-269. (PSAS back issues can be accessed free online via the Society’s webpage.) Background information on the Torrance and Muirhead Roundabouts came from the North and South Lanarkshire Council webpages, while the ethos behind the establishment of East Kilbride can be explored further at this webpage. The Georgetown roundabout photograph (the first image in this blog) was sourced from a website dedicated to ‘Flying the Flag for Merthyr Tydfil all around the World’; I hope I have done my bit for the cause here. The Whitemoss roundabout photo was sourced from the East Kilbride News website. The extract from the 1940s Highway Code, and the Concrete Island cover, are available widely online, while the 1978 Highway Code cover is a free image sourced from the difitalimaj website. Jan took the photos of the Greenyards Roundabout as I drove up to and around it.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.