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Encounter with a monstrous head

9 Apr

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

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

View from the north 1

View from the north 2

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

View from the south

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

view from the west

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

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

Scrapyard

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

two mechanical units

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

Helen and the head low res

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

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

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

View from the east initials

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

Helen's photo

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

front of the face

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

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

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

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

 

Floating Head, Richard Groom

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

canmore_image_SC01140807

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

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

GGF map The Glasgow Story

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

04 FLOATING HEAD GARDEN FESTIVAL 1988(1)

Big headurban glasgow blog sausage supper

Screengrab from home video c1645

Charlie Bubble flickr

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

canmore_image_SC01140809

Glasgow Garden Festival site during decommissioning (c) HES canmore_image_SC01140809

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

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

canmore_image_DP00228670

(c) ‘Floating Head’: canmore_image_DP00228670

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

Propped up head

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

 

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

Renfrew big head

(c) Hugh Beattie

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

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

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

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

Lost world

27 Jan

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

conference logo jpgThe rather lovely conference logo

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

Flint Crescent low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

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

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

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

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

Playground photo 1

Neolithic house planThe house that inspired the circular playground feature

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

Playground photo 3

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

Panorama low res

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

Lost world low res

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

General view low res

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

Neolithic house low res

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

Gap in the mound low res 1

Gap in the mound low res 2

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

wildside designs photo

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

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

Then and now

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

Remnants

The former timber setting

Remnants 2

The former log seats 

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

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

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

General view 2 low res

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

Tunnel low res

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

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

Reach out low res

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

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

 

 

 

The mall and the mound part 2: The monument

29 Dec

In my previous post, I introduced the story of the shellmound in Emeryville, California. This site, sacred to the Ohlone Indians and with thousands of years of occupation, use, tradition and burials, was gradually denuded by the requirements of modern urban living, from the construction of a funfair atop the mound in the nineteenth century, to the extensive destruction of the site to create a level space for industrial uses in 1924. Excavations at this site in the early decades of the twentieth century confirmed that this site was not merely a massive midden site, but also a place of ritual and burial, with hundreds of burials, many with grave goods, identified. (Maybe this could have been established by talking to locals of Ohlone heritage?) But these invasive excavations were rescue and salvage digs ahead of development which all happened despite the feelings of the local community.

The second part of my Emeryville posts brings the story up-to-date, and reveals that little seems to have been learned from the lessons of the past.

Mound map

An amazing map showing various incarnation of the shellmound location (source)

 

The Mall

After decades of industrialisation and decline, the location of the shellmound underwent another dramatic transformation with the construction of a shopping mall between 1997 and 2002. This included further archaeological evaluation, and the realisation that despite everything that had happened here, elements of the shellmound – and human remains – still survived in situ. Environmental evaluations also confirmed that the land had been poisoned with heavy metals: it was ‘a singularly vile toxic brew left behind by the acid vats of an abandoned paint factory’ (source).

Reports suggest that there was uneasiness amongst those working on the site. Archaeologists requested permission to carry out a comprehensive excavation ahead of the development, but this was not permitted. Building workers were traumatised and many still refuse to use the mall to this day, given that human remains still lie underneath the shops and car parks. Hundreds of burials were simply reburied in the same location and sealed beneath a protective layer upon which the mall was to be built. I have read that some human remains had to be destroyed because of the levels of chemical pollution in the bones, making repatriation impossible.

abalone pendant 1999

Abalone pendant, found during 1999 excavations (source)

There is no doubt that this process was problematic and contested, and split opinions amongst archaeologists working ahead of development. Local archaeologist Allen Pastron said at the time, ‘The portion of the shellmound that I saw in 1999 was largely intact’ and he quit the project due to the continuation of the construction. On the other hand, another archaeologist working in the project, Sally Salzman Morgan, argued that change is inevitable and needs to be accepted. Yet the contested nature of the project is also evident in her acknowledgement that ‘We did find a lot of intact burials. It’s too inflammatory to say how many there were. But most were disturbed.’ I have been unable to find a report on the archaeological work undertaken as the Mall was being built.

Attempts were made to preserve the shellmound, stop it being damaged further and / or designating this as a protected sacred site. But in the end the local Council went ahead and approved the replacing of the industrial complex with the Bay Street Shopping Mall.

 

The mall

The mall itself is a typical Dawn of the Dead type of place, corporately shiny and trying too hard to be cool. The website for the mall states:

Combining retail, entertainment, hospitality and residential uses, Bay Street Emeryville invites customers to escape into a casual village designed for strolling, shopping and having fun. The character of Bay Street Emeryville is drawn from the rich history of its bayside site as a place where people have gathered for decades to live, work and play. Designed as an eclectic urban village set in an industrial landscape, Bay Street Emeryville uses architecture, lighting, landscape and environmental graphics to create a unique, contemporary atmosphere.

Remember, this is a shopping mall.

Bay_street_shopping_mall_emeryville

Bay Street shopping (creative commons licence)

And there is no mention of the hundreds of dead bodies beneath the feet of shoppers, most not even in their original graves – although I guess that is not a good look. The heritage of this place is mentioned however and it is worth quoting at length what the Mall’s website says as this is the (a) corporate response and statement on what came before the mall, and (b) a list of stuff that has been done to compensate for all of this unfortunate business, even although the word ‘compensate’ is not mentioned, and I suspect for many these reparations are inadequate.

The Ohlone heritage of this place is mentioned in utopian and simplistic terms, almost as if these people were children:

One day, a group of people, the Ohlone, arrived at the Bay. They stopped to gather oysters and mussels to eat. These were easy to collect from the marsh along the shore of the bay. There was also a large creek where they could drink fresh water. The edge of this creek was a great place to camp. When the tide was low, anyone in the village could gather oysters from the gravelly bottom of the bay or use a stick to dig clams out of the mud of the tide flat. This was a great place to live, with plenty of everything people might need: water, food, space, and the materials to make shelters. The Ohlone decided to stay and call this place home.

Curiously, the shellmound is mentioned under the heading ‘Today’:

Over time, the Native Americans inhabiting the site created an elevated landmark known as a “Shellmound” that they used for daily activities as well as a burial ground. By the late 1920’s the upper Shellmound had been demolished and the site transformed with industrial development.

These two sentences are self-serving, suggesting that the main damage to the shellmound occurred long before the shopping centre came along and attempting to legitimise the Mall’s construction in this location. Great pains have been taken to suggest that the Mall and activities that it hosts are little more than a continuation of activities that had happened in this location for thousands of years (except the burial of the dead). Such claims were made, for instance, in 2002, by the Emeryville Vice-Mayor Nora Davis who argued the ‘mixed-use’ nature of the Mall (shops, cinemas, restaurants, public spaces and art) was simply an idea previously invented by Native Americans. As an editorial at the time in The Berkeley Daily Planet stated (tongue in cheek):

Much like Native Americans once gathered at the Emeryville Shellmound to exchange goods, she said, Bay Area residents will come together at Bay Street to shop — at stores like Banana Republic, Gap, Pottery Barn and Victoria’s Secret. But while Native Americans relied mainly on a shellfish diet, modern shoppers will have restaurants like Pasta Pomodoro and Prego to choose from.

This editorial also stresses the extensive plans for reparation from both the city and the developer, although I am not sure how many of the ambitious plans actually came to anything. A promised website about the shellmound and the archaeological work that was undertaken may have existed once, but I can’t find it.

Back on the Mall’s website, there follows information on memorials, art and information in and around the mall and district that have been installed: an ‘interactive educational experience that invokes thought and understanding about the lives of the Ohlone people’.

Certainly, there have been art projects and installations in the area that reflect the heritage of this place as well as its contested nature. For instance, a park was established in 2004 with pieces by artist Sheila Ghidini. This includes a trilithon-like archways, one with a map of the area inscribed upon it, as well as information panels. Orange dots mark the actual location of the shellmound.

b-2-ohlone4-start Sheila Ghidini

bayst-pano_3-v3-big

Source: Sheilaghidin.com

This park was commissioned by the developers, and specifically designed to ‘honor the Emeryville shellmound’. It includes 10 ‘polished granite slabs…each….includes sandblasted text and images which note significant moments in [Ohlone] civilization, from a deadly measles epidemic to their first contact with Westerners.’

According to Megalithic Portal contributor symbionspacesuit, other aspects of the shellmound have been presenced in different ways locally, including a ‘metal arch  suggesting the profile of shellmound’ on a wall in the Mall itself, and material culture from the shellmound being displayed near toilets beneath a nearby IMAX cinema.

There are also some street names that reflect the past use of this location, such as Ohlone Way and Shellmound Street.

shellmound street

Source: Megalithic Portal

However, the most visible attempt to make good the ongoing hurt caused by the mall’s construction is the Shellmound Monument.

 

Monument

Due to the controversy caused by the construction of the mall and the perceived desecration of large numbers of burials, it was decided by the authorities to build a monument to the dead and the shellmound, which is located outside the mall at a road intersection and overlying Temescal Creek.

Aerial view of the monument SFGate

An early photo of the monument before it grassed over properly

Shellmound_Emeryville_the monument

Source: Creative Commons licence

The monument consists of a mound-like grassy knoll, and I have tried to make sense of what it actually represents in more detail. The slice cut from the mound seems to be showing sedimentary stratigraphy with shells embedded in the sandstone slabs. There is also a waterfall, maybe representing the bay? On one side of the mound is a strange looking structure which apparently is meant to be a traditional Ohlone basket. Some big random stone ball / bollards are arranged in an arc at the front of the monument.

BayStreetBasket

Ironically, this monument has become the main focus for the annual Black Friday protests against the Mall and the treatment of the dead.

/METRO

Source: East Bay Times

 

Hope?

I invite you to close your eyes; imagine the mall isn’t under your feet but you have ground. And that you’re some place that was here a long time ago, and that you’re going to take a walk and understand what was here before you. Source: Corrina Gould, in an audio walking tour of the shellmound location called An Unsettling Sound.

This is such a difficult situation and a salutary one for me as I blithely blog about how great it would be if we could replace prehistoric sites destroyed by development with street names, artworks and information boards. The Emeryville shellmound shows that this does not always work and in some cases cannot work, because if offers only the slimmest of reparation. These images from the Atlas Obscura sum things up better than I could: this is a place you can no longer go. Or if you do go, expect the experience to be consumerism.

Places you can no longer goFactories and mall cartoon

But should we have no hope? The annual protests, maintained by Corinna Gould, with hundreds attending, and many more boycotting the shopping mall, are a vibrant reminder of the value of heritage and community cohesion. The reparation attempts, no matter how piecemeal they appear, will raise awareness of Ohlone heritage to some visitors to this location. The compelling and tragic story of this place will make some people care. Perhaps at some point the dead will be treated appropriately as has happened in other instances in the region.

And perhaps lessons can be learned. There is an ongoing dispute related to a similar urban Native American site nearby, the West Berkeley shellmound. Here, there has been a good deal of debate about where the mound’s boundaries are and if new developments such as a ‘155 apartments, about 30,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, and a six-level parking garage’ (source) will impact on shellmound remnants. In this case, Corinna Gould and others have got together to propose an alternative vision for the development that celebrates the heritage of this location rather than obliterating it.

ohlone-village-site-concept-1a-aerial1

Chris Walker for the Indian People Organising for Change

In this case, at least, those with a stake in this place other than developers have a chance to make the news, shape the agenda, protest and make their case creatively before the worst actually happens. The case is currently under review (as of December 2017).

save west berkeley shellmound

Source: Tom Lochner, East Bay Times

I started this two part blog post with some introspection about my urban prehistory project, caused by Colleen Morgan’s excellent question to me in York. Having thought a lot about this over the past six weeks, it is clear that what the sad case of Emeryville tells me is that as a heritage professional, I should not assume that my tool kit will work for all occasions, and that I need to let go, talk more to communities and learn from them. They are after all experts in where they live, and I am not. There is also a need to be more pro-active and celebrate the prehistory of places before urbanisation sweeps it away. In 2018, that is exactly what I intend to do.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: as with the first post on this topic, I have leaned heavily on online sources for much of this post, mostly newspaper articles, which have been the source of the various direct quotations in the post. Quotes in this post from Allen Pastron, Sally Morgan and Rosemary Cambra all came from a 2002 editorial in The Berkeley Daily Planet. I am grateful for the supportive comments and permission to use images from local website The E’ville Eye News.

I would also like to thank Andy Burnham of the Megalithic Portal for pointing out to me the excellent webpage they have on the shellmound, with information provided by user symbionspacesuit which includes the map location linked to above. 

The monument picture comes from this weird website, while the aerial view of the monument is widely available online. All other images in the post have the source credited in the caption, and if anyone wants images removed or different copyright statements added, please contact me.

If anyone can point me towards a report on the archaeology undertaken in advance of the Mall’s construction, or the website about the Ohlone heritage of the Mall location that is referred to in the Mall’s own website, I would appreciate it.

Dynamic

8 Dec

DYNAMIC

There are a lot of standing stones outside Dynamic Earth, a geological visitor attraction, and within stone’s throw of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

General view low res

This grand collection of megaliths is in reality a very expensive collection of rock samples, erected around 10 years ago, part of a grant from the Millennium Commission of £432,959 to utilise the large open ‘amphitheatre’ like space at the front of weird tent-like original building that is the visitor centre itself.

Stone row from bottom low res

The arc-shaped linear setting of eight standing stones (some actually stacks of rocks arranged into vertical cairns) are essentially a (very) quick-fire geological tour of Scotland. What was expressed at the time of their erection as “a walk through Scotland’s journey in geological time”.

stone pile low res

Each of the monoliths and stone-piles has a label appended to it, stating where each rock was formed on earth as Scotland oozed around the world carried on a tectonic plate like a huge slug.

DSC_1381

At the bottom of the steps that lead up past the stones to the entrance and ticket-desk in the tent-like visitor centre is a noticeboard that states: ‘Around us here in the amphitheatre you can see “Scotland’s Journey” from deep in the southern hemisphere to where we are today….The walk up the ramp reflects Scotland’s landscape and tracks its long geological history’

noticeboard low res

On a slope running down from the standing stones is a bit of fake bedrock, and each time I have been there I have felt an overwhelming temptation to squat and carve rock-art onto this dull landscape feature. However, the nearby policemen with guns protecting the parliament always look a bit bored and I don’t want to give them an excuse to open up on me.

Bedrock 2016 low res

I suppose it is pretty dynamic though, as some weeds have grown in the cracks, between January 2016 and December 2017.

Bedrock 2017 low res

On my most recent visit, I was cheered to notice signs of emergent vandalism on some of the standing stones, including faintly carved initials and a splat of black paint.

Paint splat low res

It’s nowhere near as good as the megalithic rock sample collection at Bournemouth University though.

Bouremouth Uni rocks 1 low res

Bouremouth Uni rocks 2 low res

Sorry Dynamic Earth.

Your megaliths are just a bit rubbish.

Therapy

18 Nov

Window detail 2 low res

Urban prehistory can take a number of forms and scales, although there is a tendency to imagine that the biggest, most complete and coherent examples to be the most efficacious to serve contemporary society.

There are glamorous examples of urban prehistory abounding, and I have blogged on plenty of these over the past five years. (Yes, I wrote glamorous.) Extant standing stones, megaliths, earthworks and brochs in urban locations are often recognizable for their prehistory-ness by locals, visitors and archaeologists, although rarely are these utilized as effectively as they could be.

But not all urban prehistory is like this. In fact, most of it is not. There are lots of bits and pieces, unresolved fragments of smashed and denuded prehistoric all-manner-of-what-have-you, the archaeological equivalent of plankton hoovered up by the gaping maw of the sperm whale that is urbanisation. These bottom feeders are far from the light of archaeological interest, and when they do come to the fore, it is usually briefly, at the trowel’s edge.

These are the pits, the hollows, the scoops, the ditches, the postholes, the stakeholes, the tree throws, the potsherds, the lithics, the carbonised material, the ditches, the axe fragments, the broken querns, the amorphous features, the strangely shaped stones: the fundamental stuff found in advance of development that – for the time being – is the material outcome of the legal principle that the ‘polluter pays’.

Development – urbanisation – generates urban prehistory in this way. Ancient stuff is found only because someone (not a heritage professional) has chosen to build, or knock, something down in a certain location, a place where archaeologists would either not normally chose to look or could not raise funds to investigate even if they wanted to.

But what do we do with all of the material and information found in these instances? Much ends up in the world of grey literature, unpublished and in difficult to access reports often laden with technical detail, placed in repositories that most people know nothing about. There are notable exceptions, where reports of this nature can be accessed, such as GUARD Archaeology’s Archaeology Reports Online (ARO) although these reports are still technical and obscure in nature. Increasingly there is a community element to such excavations, where people and schools can visit the site, local media are consulted and exhibitions / consultations held and talks are given to local heritage groups. But little of this has a legacy or is sustainable for a variety of understandable reasons related to money, time and accepted practices.

How can we ensure that prehistoric discoveries made in urban places have a lasting impact on the community? What mechanisms can be adopt to ensure that those who pay for archaeology pre-development (often the taxpayer) get value for money and not just some dusty boxes of stuff, dots on maps and obscure reports? There are interesting examples of how this might be done, such as a Neolithic settlement being remembered in street names and the architecture of a children’s playpark at Cowie, Stirling although I am unsure as to the efficacy and sustainability of such enterprising approaches.

Another way this might be done is through art, and I recently stumbled across an example of this that I want to tell you about here.

buildingpic_2405

Vale Health Centre (source: Urban Realm)

In 2012, archaeological evaluation was undertaken in advance of the construction of a new health centre as part of the Vale of Leven Hospital in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire. The work was undertaken by CFA Archaeology Ltd. In an initial evaluation of the site, trial trenches identified seven pits (some possibility postholes) and two sherds of prehistoric pottery.

Photo of pits from WoSAS

Features found during evaluation (c) WoSAS

This was deemed enough for a larger scale excavation, which took place soon after. This resulted in a wide range of discoveries as reported in the 2012 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland. Here, experienced archaeologist Ian Suddaby reported:

An area excavation was carried out in October and November 2011. A total of ninety features were recorded, comprising of pits, post-holes and a circular ring-groove. The pits were largely small and sterile but three significant features were excavated, each containing large quantities of Grooved Ware. Five egg-shaped pits contained burnt mound material. The post-holes formed no recognisable patterns. The ring-groove had a diameter of 10.5m. Neither an entrance, nor internal post-holes were recorded. A palaeochannel was recorded running across the site and the upper levels of this feature contained a buried ploughsoil containing numerous sherds of prehistoric ceramic, quartz and part of a cannal-coal artefact. The ploughsoil overlay a natural sandy fill which was heavily scored by ard-marks. A second phase of excavation in May 2012 exposed and excavated further pits and the remainder of the palaeochannel. It also revealed a ‘U’shaped ditch overlain by quantities of stones. No finds were recovered.’

Enigmatic stone setting from WoSAS

Circular stone setting found at the site (c) WoSAS

This is pretty much standard fare in many respects. A development is planned due to social need and paid for by the taxpayer. The site is chosen and then an archaeological (as well as other environmental) evaluation takes place. Stuff is found, excavated, recorded, a report is written (usually tough to access for the public and often written in an obscure discipline-centric style) and the finds are processed and sent to a (usually local) museum and end up in a box somewhere in a basement.

So far I am pretty sure that Alexandria Health Care Centre (as this archaeological site is snappily called) has ticked all of those boxes. This is unfair to an extent as I have no idea what plans the excavators have to publish the results of their work but it’s fair to say that this won’t be in the Daily Record. The finds have been allocated to Clydebank Museum; but from a visit there in June 2017 they did not seem to have much archaeological material on display.

But something amazing did happen because of these excavations. The discovery of Grooved Ware pottery in pits inspired a therapeutic artwork that now forms part of the fully functioning Vale Centre for Health and Care.

An aspiration of this new Health Centre was for public art to be commissioned for inside the building with the aim being to exploit the therapeutic qualities of such works. The Health Board stated that,

Unique artworks made by four of Scotland’s leading artists commissioned to reflect the local natural environment are permanently installed in the building and grounds of an inspirational new health and care centre for the Vale of Leven West Dunbartonshire…By focusing on the surrounding locality each artist tells a different story about people and place through a range of media including textiles, painting, photography and wood.

The artists were Jephson Robb, Dalziel and Scullion, Deirdie Nelson and Donald Urquhart.

D&S photo low res

Dalziel and Scullion

The latter artist used as inspiration for one of his works the prehistoric pottery found during the excavations that occurred before the Health Centre was constructed. This piece takes the form of a window in the gym and is:

… influenced by the pot shards [sic] found on the site during the excavation process for the new building. Dating back to the Bronze Age [sic] their beautiful geometric markings informed the design for the manifestation for the gym window, offering privacy for staff and patients in the gym yet allowing views out whilst letting plenty of light in.

A rather different account of the artwork and its archaeological origins was reported in the local newspaper in 2013. Margaret Campbell, commissioning manager for the centre, told how a stone circle of Roman date (???) was found during an archaeological check prior to work starting. She said:

It was discovered at the site of the physio area. The archaeological people have taken a couple of the stones and the rest have been buried again. It is standard practice. There was quite an amount of movement through the area in the past and the archaeological visitors were not totally surprised that we found something. Frosting glass will be put on all the windows in the physiotherapy room and we will incorporate the shape of the stone circle into the frosting.

This account is interesting as it directly connects the location of the artwork with the archaeological site whose discovery inspired it. This spatial connection is reinforced for the manager of the centre by the return to the ground of much of the archaeological materials at the site. It also suggests that the plan was to use the archaeology as inspiration for the artworks but at first it was not clear what element of the site would be reflected in the glass. As it happens, both accounts of this piece of Neolithic art erroneously claim wrong dates for this archaeological material.

I visited the Health Centre to see this artwork for myself. At the reception, I was met with puzzlement. Yes, there is artwork in the building, and yes, there is a gym, but my description of inscribed windows got me nowhere. John was called upon, and he was equally unclear what I meant, but he kindly took me through to the physio gym. There, it was immediately obvious to me that the windows on both sides of this small room were etched with classic Grooved Ware motifs.

Gym interior low res

Window detail low res

Exterior view 3 low res

John was delighted to hear about the pattern of the window and the fact that it was based on 5000 year old pottery that had been found in this exact location. I got the sense that he would be telling everyone about this who would be using the physio room in the future, but it seemed a shame that it took me, on a random visit, to make sense of this all for him and his colleagues.

Outside, the windows were equally clearly Neolithic in style and offered wonderfully complex reflected views of the old Argyll Motor Works building across the road.

Exterior view 1 low resExterior view 2 low res

It strikes me that this is a really nice example of a new building having value added to it because of the prehistoric archaeology that was excavated in advance of its construction. This initiative was not, I don’t think, driven by archaeologists, but the fruits of their labour was inspiring enough. Perhaps as a sector we could be more pro-active about this kind of thing at times, but that won’t always be possible or desirable.

However, it also seems to me that there has been a missed opportunity to pass this information on to the users of the Health Centre and this room in particular. Maybe this kind of thing is needed, as John suggested. I am going to contact the artist about this, and I will work up more accurate and tidier cardboard versions of these labels and send them to the Health Centre in the hope they will be displayed – I’ll update this post if they are.

Artwork label

But then does such transparency matter? (I realise windows are transparent even if the art is not.) None of the artworks in the Health Centre had any information attached to them as far as I could tell, and that does not seem to diminish their therapeutic value. John told me that he felt the art was a nice addition to the building and that users like it. Perhaps more broadly it is enough that the archaeology inspired the art which has no doubt been spotted by hundreds of users since the place opened in November 2013.

Subliminally, at least, every day, users of the gym and rehab facilities will be basking in light filtered through geometric patterns derived from thousands of years-old creativity, casting Grooved Ware shadows on their healing bodies.

Cornelius Holtorf has argued for years (as I have) that loss, and destruction, might not mean the end of the value of a historic resource to society – ‘…the values of a heritage object may not be lost even if it is no longer physically existent’ (2015, 409). In this case the entanglement of a modern healthcare facility and some Neolithic pits has resulted in positive outcomes.  Deep-time beneath this place has been foregrounded in a creative way that is explicitly about helping people to heal. Here, money spent on the archaeology and the art – both it could be argued frivolities in this Austerity Age – represents money well spent, and hint at the power of excavation to be a creative and powerful social act.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: the quotation about the Donald Urquhart window comes from the same source as the ‘Unique artworks’ quote (source in text). The two WoSAS images came from brief reports on this work – evaluation and excavation. The image of the Health Centre came from a nice piece about the building’s innovative architecture, from Urban RealmI would like to thank the staff of the Health Centre who were very helpful and gave up some time to take me through to the thankfully empty gym. I was accompanied on this trip by Glasgow University archaeology student, Mar Roige Oliver, who is doing a ‘urban prehistory’ placement with me. The source of the Holtorf quotation is: Holtorf, C 2015 Averting loss aversion in cultural heritage, International Journal of Heritage Studies 21.4, 405-21. 

 

 

The Wee Ddu

17 May

Bryn Celli Ddu (pronounced Brin Kethli Thee)

This is not a blog post about the enigmatic and complex Neolithic monument Bryn Celli Ddu – despite the fact that this Anglesey megalith has all sorts of weird and wonderful tales to tell.

bryn celli ddu general view low res

This is not a blog post about the concrete super-structure that holds together and supports the wrong-headed reconstruction of a central cairn.

concrete low res

This is not a blog post about the flowers and the coins and the bones, offerings left within the chamber and at the entrance to the passage which leads into the aforementioned wrong-headed reconstruction of a central cairn.

offerings low res

This is not a blog post about the graffiti and scrapes and scratches within the monument which have almost wholly been focused on the aforementioned concrete super-structural elements of the aforementioned wrong-headed reconstruction of the central cairn.

Nor is this a blog post about the standing stone in the chamber or the pit next to it that contained a bone from a human ear. Although now I kind of wish it was.

graffiti on concrete low res

This is not a blog post about the bizarre standing stone covered in eccentric carvings that exists on site now as a replica, located in what may be the wrong place.

standing stone low res

This is not a blog post about the small quartz pebble that someone has balanced on top of the aforementioned bizarre standing stone covered in eccentric carvings that exists on site now as a replica, located in what may be the wrong place.

quartz on standing stone low res

This is not a blog post about the landscapes and manicured platform, wall and ditch that surrounds the megalithic components of the monument including the aforementioned concrete super-structural elements of the aforementioned wrong-headed reconstruction of the central cairn and the aforementioned bizarre standing stone covered in eccentric carvings that exists on site now as a replica, located in what may be the wrong place.

platform low res

Nor is this is not a blog post about the ever-so-contemporary and annoyingly ambiguous noticeboards that now adorn the site, which celebrate the fact archaeologists know next-to-bugger-all about this mysterious monument.

new sign low res

This isn’t even a blog post about the wonderful old Ministry of Works iron sign on the roadside that advertise the existence of Bryn Celli Ddu to road users and passers by, the types of sign that was once all that was ever provided for visitors to such monuments, until it became fashionable to install the aforementioned ever-so-contemporary and annoyingly ambiguous noticeboards that now adorn the site, which celebrate the fact archaeologists know next-to-bugger-all about this mysterious monument.

old sign low res

No. This is a blog post about the car park for Bryn Celli Ddu. Because the car park has as its central focus what appears at first site to be a version of Bryn Celli Ddu – a version that may well have been built and designed in an alternative reality but a version nonetheless. I am not the first person to have blogged about this car park megalith – of course Howard Williams got there first and recognised at the time of his visit the quintessentially urban prehistoric nature of this tomb in the car park.

He called this monument ‘a miniature roofless replica of Bryn Celli Ddu itself’ – the Wee Ddu.

view from the bus low res

The alternative Bryn Celli Ddu was not there last time I was in this car park in 2002. Then, I was leading a student fieldtrip. All I can remember about the car park from that visit was that when we left the bus to head onto the site, the coach driver took the opportunity to empty his chemical toilet over a fence. (I don’t have any pictures of that ghastly event.) In fact, this monumental addition to the visitor experience here was only built in 2014.

This new monument consists of an open circular chamber with a short entrance passage on one side. The exposure of the central area of the monument gives the impression that it has undergone the megalithic equivalent of a craniectomy, with the top completely removed. The interior consists of a circular flat area some 4m in diameter, with a low wall surrounding this upon which I presume one is encouraged to sit and pause awhile before or after a long drive. While doing this one can lean back onto a circle of flat stones set into a bank that surround the interior and define the central chamber as a whole. The impression is a glorified megalithic park bench.

reconstruction low res

interior low res

Built into this round monument are three curious and rather small trilithons. The dynamic nature of this monument is illustrated by the fact that these have become noticeboards since Howard Williams visited in early 2015. At that time, these little trilithons were spaces that had been filled with dry stone walling: he noted a similarity to other modern trilithons at the ‘Druids Temple’, Masham and he’s right.

Howard photo of the trilithons

Howard Williams’s photo from 2015 showing the trilithons in their virgin state (source: his brilliant Archaeodeath blog)

Now however these trilithons have become frames for three fancy new noticeboards, adorned with wonderful Aaron Watson images and dreamy words about other archaeological sites in the vicinity such as the amazing Llyn Cerrig Bach hoard.

trilithon with noticeboard low res

The whole affair is surrounded by elements of a stone circle, which consists of big stones that actually look exactly like the kind of boulders that sit on the grassy verges of about 50% of car parks in the UK.

‘What is going on here?’ Howard asks in a different and more eloquent form of words during a moment of uncharacteristic indecision.

“Is this a sanctioned ancient monument or the creation of some rogue megalithic artist? Is this a ceremonial feature built to serve the modern Pagans who utilise Bryn Celli Ddu for their ceremonies? Is it a megalithic picnic area for visiting school groups? Is it indeed new or was it protected and cloaked by spells during my last visit? Cadw’s website conceals well this new megalithic monument. Who out there can unlock its secrets and mysteries?”

I don’t claim to be able to make sense of this addition to the rich prehistoric landscape around Bryn Celli Ddu although that won’t stop me trying (!). This seems to be part of an attempt by CADW to add depth to the visitor experience, to give the impression that as soon as you turn off the road and step out of your car that you are somewhere different in time, as well as space. This is a place where the Neolithic is mysterious but also cool, colourful and funky. A place you can crawl all over and get your hands dirty. A car park that is no longer accessible to coaches with full toilets as half of the space is now taken up by a new megalithic monument.

The car park could even be a destination in its own right – the lengthy access path to the monument precludes some with mobility problems making it, so why not stay in the car park and still have a megalithic experience? Actually, this makes sense to some, as one review of the site on Trip Advisor suggests that the black metal fence around Bryn Celli Ddu makes it look as if it is ‘trapped in a municipal car park’. Car park prehistory indeed.

An extravagant noticeboard stuck onto another standing stone appears to be another recent addition to this complex.

big map notice low res

And now it all starts to make sense. An exchange of tweets literally as I wrote this post clarified that this circular monument has a very specific role: as a ‘orientation hub for the island’s prehistoric sites’ according to archaeologist Ffion Reynolds (follow her! She is @caws_llyffant). This makes sense – it is the best-known prehistoric site in Anglesey and not far from the bridges, and so an ideal starting point for anyone doing a tour of the island’s archaeology. And it makes even more sense that the monument actually looks a lot like one of the Bronze Age stone roundhouses at Din Lligwy, also on Anglesey. This is not actually the Wee Ddu, but the Wee Anglesey.

House_at_Din_Llugwy

Bronze Age roundhouse at Din Lligwy – look familiar?

The clarification on the meaning of this monument from Ffion gives me an excuse to mention some work she has been doing with others at BCD in recent years. Since the monument was excavated and imaginatively reconstructed by WJ Hemp in 1925-29, there has been much debate about the phasing and form of the monument, as well as its chronology. This has become clearer in recent years. A definitive review of the site based on fresh dating was published in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society in 2010 by Steve Burrow. More recently survey work by amongst others Seren Griffiths, Ben Edwards and Ffion have shown through impossibly high-tech sounding technique called electrical resistance tomography (ERT) that the enclosure around the tomb may have had a bank and therefore might have been a henge, with interesting implications.

Aside from this good old interpretive work, Bryn Celli Ddu has been the focus of several community and open day events in recent years, including a renewed focus on the alignment of the tomb’s passage on the midsummer sunrise. Ben, Seren and Ffion are running a community archaeology project in and around the site next month with an open day on 18th June 2016 having started their project in 2015. And there is now even a comic based on the site, commissioned by CADW and created by John Swogger.

cover of Bryn Celli Ddu comic

Cover of John Swogger’s comic

So this really hasn’t been a blog post about Bryn Celli Ddu. It has become a blog post about how archaeologists are adapting to modern technologies and adopting new ways to engage with the public in interesting analogue and digital ways. I don’t think all of it works, such as the new noticeboards on site which lack helpful basic information for the casual visitor, but as an overall experience it holds together rather well. There is something refreshingly timeless about this site, with something for everyone, whether it be the lovable old Ministry of Works roadside sign, or the experience of clambering into a tomb (concrete superstructure or not, this is always fun), or the flowers carefully placed and left undisturbed in and around the passage grave.

There is even something for the urban prehistorian.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks firstly must go to Seren Griffiths and Ben Edwards who were our guides over the weekend of 13-15th May when the Neolithic Studies Group visited Bryn Celli Ddu during a trip to Anglesey. Thanks also to Ffion Reynolds for clarifying the nature of the car park monument, and to Howard Williams for beating me to it! I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting from his blog and using an image for comparative purposes. The definitive modern account of the monument by Steve Burrow is Burrow, S 2010 Bryn Celli Ddu passage tomb, Anglesey, PPS 76, 249-70, from which some information in this post was derived. To find out more about the comic for Bryn Celli Ddu, go to this CADW webpage. The image of the Din Lligwy house is in the public domain.