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The mall and the mound part 1: Un-fair

15 Dec

Friday 24th November 2017.

Black Friday.

A large group of protesters gather outside a shopping mall carrying banners with messages that push against the prevailing capitalist mood of the day.

#blackfriday

Words that are designed to shock.

From twitter 2017 protest image

Source: posted on twitter by @LiLightfoot on 24/11/17

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.

 

Shellmound

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.

Shell midden in Maine detail photo

Maine shellmound detail (NY Times)

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.

 

Un-fair

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.

Shellmound and fairground Uhre 1907

The shellmound and dance pavilion (from Uhre 1907)

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’.

640px-Emeryville_Shellmound_Park_entrance

Oakland (California) Public Library (in the public domain)

 

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.

Excavation trench 1902 Uhre 1907

1902 trench (from Uhle 1907)

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.

Chert flakes Uhre 1907

Chert flakes found in the shellmound (from Uhle 1907)

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.

Emeryville_Shellmound1 being levelled 1924

The desolation of the shellmound (1924)

Two views of the mound in 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.

Schenk report title

Extract from Schenk 1926

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.

Shell beads and discs

Shell beads and discs from the mound (Schenk 1926)

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.

Grave goods and burial associations

Schenk 1926 – the Museum Numbers refer to codes for individual skeletons

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.

shellmound-factory-sign

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.

 

 

 

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Melancholia

18 Oct

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):

McClaren statement from Coles 1899

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.

Food Vessel from Tillicoultry Robertson paper

Rock-art photo Robertson paper

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.)

Cist plan Tillicoultry Coles paper

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.

OS 1866

OS 1866

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.

OS 1866

OS 1951

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.

Location map

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.

The mast

Grassy knoll

The skull

Tree symbol

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.

The quarry

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.

Remnant

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.

Remnants

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.

Tillicoultry House

Tillicoultry House. Drain not visible. Source: http://www.ochils.org.uk

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.

Prehistorica melancholia.

 

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.

Perspective plant

5 Oct

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

Part 1: Florence / Firenze in July 2014

DSC_0541

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

tree with rocks low res

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

dissected tree low res

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

Giuseppe Penone

Giuseppe Penone

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

inverted tree low res

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

shrub up top low res

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

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

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

Seahenge

Seahenge

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

general view low res

 

Part 2: Brodick, Arran in September2014

BtC2014Poster (2)

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

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

The vision - box pyre

The vision – box pyre

Construction

Construction

Conflagration

Conflagration

Consequences

Consequences

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

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

DSC_0455

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

karen rann low res

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

 

Concluding thoughts

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

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

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

 

Playground prehistory

20 May

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

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

Strathearn community campus timber circle

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

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

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

Preparing the ground

Preparing the ground

The first post going up

The first post going up

Construction nearing completion

Construction nearing completion

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

circle and path low res

Strathearn community campus timber circle 2

SCC timber circle from school balcony

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

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

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

The vision

The vision

Temporary exhibition in school entrance area

Temporary exhibition in school entrance area

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

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

 

Car park prehistory

11 Feb

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

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

stonehenge in the 1930s NMR photo

Stonehenge in the 1930s: commerce and cars

hotel advert

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

the first car park

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

excavation details

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

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

white painted posthole marker

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

stonehenge car park may 2012

Stonehenge’s much expanded car park, May 2012

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

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

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