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Coatbridge Carnac

21 Jun

As I explore the places near where I live on foot, within the approved 5km or so limit, I ask myself: ‘Do I just see urban prehistory everywhere? Is it just me? Or are allusions to the prehistoric hard-wired into our urban spaces, industrial estates, retail parks, and housing estates?’. I am coming to suspect the latter, as the alternative would mean that urban prehistory is simply a product of my own delusional state of mind, a pathological condition.

So that’s fine then. On to the business of this post.

Urban exploration is seldom a walk wasted. And following a path, or a desire line, just that little bit more, towards the end of a long walk, if often the time when unexpected discoveries are made. And so it was recently on a lockdown walk in the Lanarkshire sun. On a wander that had already delivered olfactory pleasure drifting from whisky barrels biding their time in warehouses with their doors flung casually open, Jan and I pushed on just a few minutes more, in the shadow of Tesco Extra that from the rear had the appearance and scale of an airport terminal.

A deserted path ran along the backside of this massive grey warehouse, pitted with black doorways at the bottom of unwelcoming stairways. Someone has spray painted a brick wall ‘Mind the steps’ while a bunch of dying flowers hung from a rusting banister nearby, a plaintive sad simple note attached: RIP. An accident on the stairs? We became overwhelmed by the sound of the shop, a low capitalist hum, as if the building were not really a shop but a huge power station feeding on the energy of queuing shoppers.

I glanced off the the right, along a narrow but concrete-paved pathway that led to a clearance, within which were I glimpsed a few inverted shopping trollies, and a pile of big angular boulders. Attracted to this – what other word can I use? – cairn, I pushed aside the foliage, and emerged out into an opening, where other blocks were arranged in more cairns. Huge sandstone discs, like giant tiddlywinks, were arranged in a snaking line. The chase was on, with each break in the vegetation leading to more megalithic revelations.

This cannot be a coincidence. The place we stumbled upon is some kind of landscaped public art, perhaps industrial in spirit, almost certainly not prehistoric in any way whatsoever in the mind of the creator, and yet I cannot help but see these blocks, these lines, these deposits, as prehistoric-esque, to coin a clumsy compound word. Why would anyone see these piles of boulders as anything other than cairns? One even took the form, I am sure, of a fallen standing stone.

The fallen standing stone (photo: Jan Brophy)

Consider the basic facts of the matter. In a hesitant line some 150m in length, punctuated by bushes, squeezed in a green triangle between the Faraday Retail Park, Coatbank Street, and South Circular Road, there are multiple cairns and fallen megaliths of granite and sandstone.

These stones are a 1980s palette of oranges, greys, and pinks, and arranged casually, but the sheer size of some of the boulders meant that there could have been nothing casual about this. In the shadow of high rises, near the din of traffic noise, this is surely urban prehistory?

In the shadow of high rises

In one clearing, two trollies lay tied to one another by the chains attached to the pound coin slots. One trolley was from Tesco, the other Asda. This unholy coupling appeared to have been deliberately engineered, perhaps for my benefit, a Ballardian touch that I appreciated. Trollies were strewn all around, their metal carcasses ridden in, broken, borrowed, stolen, then finally dumped amidst this Coatbridge Carnac.

The coupled trollies

The abandoned trollies give this place the feel of a mortuary space for excarnation, their defleshed skeletal frames picked clean of their consumer flesh, the tin cans, the multi-packs, the boxes and packets, and left to tarnish in the sun. Exposed to the elements, their wheels silently spinning in the breeze.

Place of trolley excarnation

Gareth Rees recently tweeted about coronavirus and his specialist subject, retail park Car Parks. (Would he choose this topic were he on Mastermind?) One picture, showing ‘bizarre trolley alignments’, made me think about the new affordances that shopping trollies have for us during pandemic. Arbiters of safe social distanced space in shops. Delineations for queues outside shops. And perhaps they should also be viewed as vectors of the transmission of Covid-19 via unwashed hands and surfaces, things to be handled while wearing latex gloves.

It was difficult to make sense of this mostly abandoned piece of landscaping behind the Faraday Retail Park. The gravel surfaces that most of the boulders and stones had been laid atop were overgrown with weeds, and broken bottles and bent cans were strewn all over the place. Litter accumulated around the base of standing stones and collected in the unusual angles created by stones like tangled limbs. Fires had been set in the shadow of some cairns. This was a place that was hidden in plain sight, just off the road, just behind a retail park, and yet seemed like another world that belonged to someone else. We were trespassing, and yet the only life that we could detect here at 4.30pm on a Monday afternoon were rabbits. Lots of rabbits. Some hiding behind shopping trolleys, perspective creating the illusion they were in cages at the whim of a mad scientist.

Someone tweeted later that evening that this place was known as a rabbit run, and the various meanings of this phrase seem apt for this place. Someone else told me it was a failed attempt to establish a Japanese garden behind the Retail Park, although many of the stones looked to me like the byproducts of the heavy industries that used to dominate this landscape. The huge sandstone discs were, I am sure, remnants of bridge supports, although from where I have no idea. Still another theory goes that this is a liminal place that marks the boundaries between the territories of two Coatbridge gangs, perhaps borne out by the tags sprayed onto some of the blocks.

Marking territory, Buckie deposition

Yet the scale of all of this did not quite compute with any of these explanations. The megaliths that we encountered in that liminal space, that edgy edgeland, seemed to me like they belonged to the fantasy worlds of Doug McLure, or James Franciscus, beneath, beyond, impossible, deeply strange, and yet enchanting. It was our world – my world – and yet not quite of that world. Shoppers nearby largely knew nothing about what we had encountered, in this space that in the end was deemed suitable only to plant shrubs and erect standing stones and cairns. It is defiantly not a shop. But maybe a little bit prehistoric.

As we emerged out of this nether region, passers by on a better-used path looked at us suspiciously, as it urban exploration in that place was unusual behaviour even for lockdown walkers. Little did they know that only a few metres away, amidst the trollies, the rabbits, and the rubbish, lay the Coatbridge Carnac.

London cromlech

26 Jan

Looking for Welbeck Street. Hunting for Henrietta House. At times walking and looking upwards. At other times with my nose buried in a map.

Following another tweet, sniffing out a lead, searching for prehistory where by rights there should be none and yet….

… this is London after all.

This tireless, relentless, obsessional quest for #urbanprehistory is driving me on beyond what is reasonable of a person with my other commitments.

And then I see it: the London cromlech. Suddenly it is all worthwhile.

On the corner of Welbeck Street and Henrietta Place, perched high above pavement level, surveying the steady flow of commuters, shoppers, doctors in this medical quarter of Marylebone. A place of bones. On Henrietta Place stands Henrietta House. On Henrietta House stands the cromlech.

Megalithic art on the corner quoins

Occult architecture across a from department store, a place of coins

The Debenhams dolmen

A structure of dark passages and concealed knowledge

rendered in four dimensions, all angles and shadows

having the feeling of being an optical illusion.

A stone joke not shared by those who pass beneath unaware

the view from below being as if from the underworld

and we are the dead.

The cromlech is perched, an iron on coffin legs

placed on a junction, a liminal place of decision-making

looming from its dizzy cliff, inaccessible, skeletal, timeless

representative of an impossible topography.

Field notes 1: the cromlech

The cromlech is not alone. A remarkable series of buildings and structures are carved around the façade of Henrietta House in Portland limestone, the work of sculptor Keir Smith. They are from a commissioned series of sculptures he called From the Dark Cave which was completed in 1992. I traced the edge of this office block with my eyes, moving forward in time, sometimes recognising the well-spaced miniature stone architectural renderings of iconic buildings of Britain both real and stylised.

Smith during work on the project (source: catalogue)

Fifteen buildings, from the dark cave, to Canary Wharf, hundreds of thousands of years of human occupation and endeavor.

Field notes 2: the dark cave

The primitive hut twinned with the cromlech, wrapped around the corner

Temple, cave, pyramid, skyscraper, church

Watchtower and tolbooth

Castles and crenulations

Globes and domes

The phallic observatory

Machines of industry

Whimsy, fancy, folly

The Euston Arch

Hawksmoor (of course).

Plan showing the locations and names of the 15 sculptures, from the catalogue

This work was commissioned by Lynton plc and Nationale-Nederlanden, and in part funded by the Public Arts Development Fund. The influences, process, and rationale, is captured in a rather tough to find short booklet entitled A sculpture for Henrietta House London W1, From the Dark Cave. The second part of the title is written, white on white.

My copy came in the post in an extravagantly stamped envelope.

The creative process involved the creation of a series of wooden maquettes in a specially established woodworking workshop. These are smaller scale versions of the final sculptural pieces which were made by cutting stone blocks with a diamond steel saw, ‘essentially stone constructions rather than pure carvings’.

Maquettes of the Dark Cave, the Cromlech, and the Primitive Hut

As a whole, the buildings represent what Smith characterised as a ‘personalised history of architecture, or more properly of building’. Yet there was also a strong archaeological undercurrent in this work, acknowledged by Smith as a longterm preoccupation. In his obituary in The Guardian it was noted that ‘Art and architecture of the past, archaeology, mythology and landscape informed his early work’ and all of this and more is evident at Henrietta House. There is also a clear occult thread running through this work not least with the depiction of a pyramid that recalls the one in the cemetery of Hawksmoor’s church St Anne of Limehouse and his pyramid in the grounds of Castle Howard.

Of the cromlech itself, Smith notes the ongoing impact on his work of Paul Nash, of whom this carving is a ‘remembrance’ especially the 1937 lithograph Landscape of the megaliths, an Avebury masterpiece. The line of stones in this painting, a kinaesthetic avenue, has more curves and fewer angles compared with the Dark Cave series, but captures a similar processional, progressional, aesthetic in stone.

Nash’s Landscape of the megaliths (Victoria and Albert Museum)

The cromlech is a composite creation, based both on an un-named megalith that Smith saw on a trip to St David’s in Pembrokeshire (= dolmen country) and Kits Coty House, a caged dolmen in Kent. That it is a fictionalised dolmen, composed of multiple sources of information, an every-cromlech, is no surprise. But Smith’s rendition has no cage, only the adjacent cave.

Kits Coty House dolmen (c) English Heritage

Here the Nash influence is at its most strong, and Smith has fabricated a fascinating facsimile of this mysterious monument. Unlike most other buildings in this series, this is a place of the dead, not the living.

What of the future of this artwork? This is a place of transformation. Scaffolding and fencing conceals from view some of the carvings, while men with high-vis jackets, hard hats, and cigarettes loiter in the shadow of the cromlech, observing my own curious behaviour, taking photographs, keeping notes, avoiding traffic.

This is not a quiet location. Close to Oxford Street, it offers the back view of big shops, the rear entrances, the underbelly of capitalism and pre-Christmas consuming.

Henrietta House is currently occupied by CBRE who appear to be a big international real estate corporation.

CBRE have embarked on what they call Henrietta House Re-imagined. A ‘divisional director’ says:

This transformational project will create an inspiring and energising workplace which promotes wellbeing, sustainability and productivity. Incorporating the latest in tech and office design, it will allow innovation and collaboration to thrive and will empower our teams to better serve our clients and to attract and retain the best talent.

Whatever.

A glance at the impression of the new look for the exterior of this building shows that Smith’s series of carved buildings will survive this regeneration. This can do no harm to the wellbeing of staff and visitors alike.

And CBRE do appear to like prehistory. They are the ‘Official Real Estate partners’ of the Tutankhamun: treasure of the golden pharaohs exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery (November 2019 to May 2020). This is King Tut on tour. This golden sponsorship deal reminds me of the Bloomburg curation of London’s Temple of Mithras which will be the subject of a future blog post. It would be nice to think that this ethos would encourage information about Smith’s work to be included at Henrietta House, as I am not sure if this is currently the situation.

Smith’s obituary says this of the Dark Cave series: These frontal sculptures were carved in deep relief, much bolder and more three-dimensional than the shallow carving that bas-relief allows. He employed geometric form and references to elements of his favourite buildings, whether significant or utilitarian. Who is to say which category we might assign to the cromlech?

The depiction of the dark cave, of the cromlech, of the primitive hut, represent an urban prehistoric triptych of unparalleled depth and complexity, and are well worth a visit if you are ever in the vicinity.

You won’t regret it.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Magnus Copps for drawing my attention to this cromlech, which I visited during a trip to the TAG conference at UCL in December 2019. A suitable end to the millennium. Quotes in the text either come from ‘the obituary’ (The Guardian, 3rd April 2007, by Ann Elliot) or ‘the catalogue’, which is the 1994 pamphlet From The Dark Cave – A Sculpture For Henrietta House London W1 by Keir Smith. The image of the maquettes is sourced from the Royal British Institute of Architects (RIBA). Finally, the Henrietta House re-imagined visualisation comes from the web page with this name linked to in the text above.

An t-Eilean

31 Dec

I am alone on the campus in the dark, testing the surfaces slippery with rain with care beneath my feet. The relentless Christmas rain.

Surrounded by formless buildings, contained by road and railway lines, deflated and lonely. Sheltering beneath the awning of a bus-stop even although at this time of evening no bus will pass.

On this Ballardian edgeland campus within which I am interned, I’m avoiding going back to my prison cell room, killing time, getting wet.

Working off school dinner turkey dinner, a damp squib cracker, the limp party hat, a lukewarm beer from the car boot of a well-known archaeologist.

Then I see the crannog.

It is a geometrical wonder. A square island – a platform – set within an asymmetrical pentagonal loch. A black pool of water, illuminated by a white streak, seasonal lights, street lamps, the mysterious tower glowing red nearby.

On this island grows a tree, in defiance of the urban coldness of its surroundings, the sterility of this ground, slick with University money.

Illuminated by uplights, dampened by downlights, cathode uppers and downers. I approach and then cross the bridge – the causeway – to the crannog. An t-Eilean – The Island.

The route across the eldritch dark water, the only way onto this island, is lit up blue, like a runway begging me to land. Except it is not land. The surface is lubricious with precipitation.

The square arena of the interior of the crannog is floored with fake wooden tumble, branches that never lived. Gaps in this crazed paving have filled with organic detritus, washed there by the wind and rain. Leaves, twigs, brush, pile. These cracks are fecund with the mechanism of pollination in an otherwise infertile place.

Amidst this inorganic floor, a sort of prehistoric linoleum, are set dazzling white lights that point to the sky, and neon strips.

For a while I am disorientated. Blinded by the light.

The tree was no illusion even although I fancied it was before I crossed the water. How could a living tree exist on this concrete island? Yet it lives although I could not determine how its roots were arranged or what this tree was growing from aside from a brown puddle of soil. It jutted through the floor of this crannog, a living tree that connected water with sky, only stopped from soaring away by its shackles and chains.

The walls of the crannog mixed materials and levels of porosity – cold concrete, dark metal, hard wood. Windows in the walls afforded views of the surrounding campus world, framing the blank canvas in this blank campus. The west side of the compound was a palisade of squared concrete posts, a defensive line.

Wet through with rain, salt-less tears on my face, I squatted over a hot white light and

just

melted

away.

Notes

An t-Eilean – The Island is an award winning installation within the UHI Inverness College campus by architect Lisa MacKenzie. She notes that the work offers a space for reflection in a public civic space. Key questions in the genesis of the work: How do we challenge the management of public spaces at an Institutional level to make landscapes that are real and enlivening? What are the principles that lie behind our encounters with public space and public art? 

Internal view: (c) Gillian Hayes, Dapple Photography 2016

It was constructed by Applied Engineering Design (AED) at a cost of £325,000 in 2013. Their website notes that, it is an unique object in many ways: a gallery; an island and a bespoke structure/art object in its own right. They do not call it a crannog, but rather suggest it is an iconic structure….a surprise and a delight.

Hardwood causeway (c) AED

Ruaraidh MacNeil, HIE Inverness Campus project director, told the Press and Journal newspaper in January 2015: Our plan for Inverness Campus is to create a world-class setting for business, research and education. HIE has created a high quality built environment with interesting landscape, public realm and water features in order to help create global interest in Inverness and Highlands as a business location.

The Island (c) Michael Carver photography, Press and Journal

This interesting landscape, this University building site, this sterile edgeland…..

Lots of money, shiny buildings, iconic structures. The University of the future, wanting to appear embedded in the past in its architecture and the names it gives its buildings. But will its values, its principals, the ways staff and students are treated: will these also be in the spirit of the past, the traditions of Scotland’s Universities? Or will they succumb to a neoliberal fantasy that is so very un-crannog?

From the air (Google maps)

This installation is located a few hundred metres from, and on the other side of the A9 to, the Raigmore Neolithic monument reconstruction, the subject of a blog post of mine from 2014. Prehistory cannot be suppressed but it can be appropriated.

Acknowledgements: I was in Inverness to speak at a conference on the theme of Ruination and Decay, and would like to thank the organisers for inviting me, and accommodating me in this soulless campus. And now Rebecca and Antonia know why I disappeared and did not go to the pub with them that night!

Pilgrimage

27 Sep

Dreams can come true –

Dreams of empty car parks and painted postholes –

Strange dreams –

Fluorescently illuminated – 

Electric, eclectic dreams.

Supplication

Photo: Jan Brophy

Pilgrimage involves a journey in hope, ritualised behaviour upon arrival, the slow walk with reverence and humility, supplication in front of reliquaries and relics, the leaving of an offering, the purchase of a souvenir, and a journey back cleansed and vindicated.

I had just this experience recently when I visited the lower floor of a multi-storey car park beneath a Waitrose and shopping mall in Dorchester, Dorset.

A multi-story car park.

This was the fulfillment of a long-held ambition of mine to make this pilgrimage to a place of urban prehistory. An ambition that began with the establishment of a folder in my urban prehistory memory stick on 5th June 2013 simply entitled: ‘Waitrose timber circle‘. A folder set up in expectation of this pilgrimage, six years in the making, and also a potential blog post finally now being realised.

In the folder, the photo that started it all.

A megalithic manel.

WaitroseTimberCircle

Photo: Tim Prevett

A link to the Megalithic Portal page that this picture came from was copied into a largely empty ancient MS Word document in the folder. Also written there was the excitable note: There is also a mural in the shopping centre all about the building of the timber circle!!

The 20 painted red circles in a line running across this car park were the target of my pilgrimage, indicating the (precise?) location of large Neolithic postholes that were excavated in 1984 advance of the shopping mall development by the Wessex Trust for Archaeology (now Wessex Archaeology, ‘welcome to the future of heritage’).

These postholes were part of the boundary of what was likely to have once been a massive late Neolithic (third millennium BC) palisaded enclosure, that is an oval space some 380m across, enclosing about 10 hectares, defined by hundreds of huge timber posts. The extent of this enclosure (of which only a small part was ever excavated) is such that much of central Dorchester sits within / atop its boundary, now of course invisible, buried, perhaps almost wholly destroyed. Five similar postholes were apparently also found at Church Street, a location some hundred metres away. Taken together with the projection of the curve of the posthole arc, dots were duly joined and a notional enclosure was born (or reborn) on the ancient banks of the River Frome (now much smaller than it was back in the day).

site plan

This monument, of which similar examples have been identified across Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, may well represent one of the most monumental endeavors of British prehistory even although it now lies beneath Icen Way, Drumgate Street, the Dinosaur Museum and a pub called The Blue Raddle (‘laugher on tap’).

My own excavations (with Gordon Noble) at comparatively smaller sites at Forteviot and Leadketty, Perth and Kinross, brought home to me how massive these monuments must have been, not simply in terms of the resources, time and labour needed to build them, but also the impact they would have had on the broader landscape. A lot of oak trees had to be felled for starters.

David Simon reconstruction

Forteviot late Neolithic palisaded enclosure and squirrel (c) David Simon / SERF Project

Only 40m worth of the Greyhound Yard boundary was excavated in 1984. These were massive postholes, some almost 3m deep, and 2m to 3m across, with ramps to help with post erection. Using standard calculations (1m of depth can support 3.5m of post height above ground) then these postholes could have supported oak posts of up to 1m in girth and 14m length, perhaps 10m of that the height above ground. These would have been re-arranged tree trunks, bloody massive posts

post height 3

Doing some rough calculations on the back of Brexit propaganda from the nearby Wetherspoons (The Royal Oak), this enclosure would have had a circumference of something like 1.2km (if a complete circuit) defined by posts that were spaced between 1 and 2m apart. The boundary would have consisted of at least 600 oak posts, each weighing in the order of 10 tonnes. That is 6000 tonnes of oak alone, a similar figure to that calculated by Alex Gibson for the Hindwell palisaded enclosure, Wales, which he excavated. (This enclosure was bigger in plan but was defined by smaller postholes.)

Gibson gazetteer

Gazetteer entry for the Dorchester monument in Gibson (2002)

The Greyhound Yard (or my preferred name, Tudor Arcade) monument is only one part of a larger complex of Neolithic enclosures on the south side of the Frome, which also include Maumbury Rings henge, Mount Pleasant mega-henge and Flagstones causewayed enclosure, which puts this locality on a par with the Avebury and Stonehenge landscapes, although less celebrated due to Roman monkeying about, urbanisation and lack of World Heritage Status. (Maumbury is a sensational site despite the Romans buggering it up, and I’ll blog about this in the future.)

Castleden Neo Britiain book map

Source: Castleden’s Neolithic Britain (1992)

Exactly how the monument came to be memorialized in red paint and artworks is less clear (given that this was certainly not a normal thing to do in 1984 never mind today) although I heartily approve of this way of doing things. There are even a couple of metal plaques in the lift concourse area of the car park that explain what the painted circles mean and offer some context which give a space-age start to this prehistoric-car park experience. One has to travel down to get to the good stuff and make Star Trek door noises for the full effect however.

lift concourse

noticeboard in lift concourse

Marked in Mosaic in the floor of this car park are the positions of 20 huge posts the text begins, with the reverent tone of a giant fantasy novel.

The posthole paint circles are a deep brick red, about 1m in diameter each, and spaced less than 2m apart, arranged in an irregular line. These are highly stylised depictions of what the postholes would have looked like and I have my doubts if they the originals were quite disposed like this being both too regular, too small and too close together if the stats given above are to be believed.

line of painted circles

The paint circles offer rich juxtapositions with the more normal paint marks and urban furniture one would expect to find in such a car park.

juxtaposed with u

juxaposed with me

Looking more closely, it is clear that not all of the circles are painted, and indeed some are ‘mosaic’ like, as suggested by the shiny metal noticeboard. These were concentrated on the north side of the car park and seem to be the cover of circular voids, drains or (ritual?) shafts of some kind. This indicated the artifice of this rendition of the monument, suggesting the floor level of the car park is not at the same level as the Neolithic postholes, which would have floated somewhere above or below the tarmac level.

This is urban prehistory with depth, with stratigraphy.

mosaic

After a period of paying my respects and documenting the occasion with an undue level of excitement and diligence, in a surprisingly empty Sunday lunchtime car park, we headed into the lift shaft and arose to the mall level, levitating over the Neolithic.

Here, we saw the aforementioned mural and it did not disappoint.

the mural

Dynamic ceramic images are set into a brick wall, immediately outside the entrance to Waitrose, position to be admired by shoppers with jute bags placed between their legs. A timeline moving from the Neolithic forwards, left to right, not stopping at the New Stone Age but hinting at deep time and the continuity that such big monuments tended to demand.

In the beginning, erection by beast.

mural panel 2

Then centuries, maybe even a millennium later, but in reality a few centimetres to the right, the age of land divisions as Parker Pearson would have it was depicted. Farmers haunted by the ghosts of the palisade, inexplicable holes which they dare not fill in but perhaps deign to drop some potsherds into just for luck. Or maybe one of their cows shits in one of these ancient hollows, the stuff of life.

mural panel 1

Underneath it all a commentary, a mapping of time to contextualise the images above, words in English almost breaking the spell. But not quite.

The narrative continues into the Iron Age and later still, and once again a metal sign lies nearby to explain all to the curious consumer. As well as annoyingly using the word history to describe what is largely prehistory, the information board informs us that the murals here were funded by the John Lewis Partnership (owners of Waitrose) and again date to AD1984.

metal sign 2

It also tantalizingly notes that the ‘frieze from the original panels’ is now in the ‘Waitrose’ staff canteen area, suggesting these murals are actually replacements or at least based on another piece of art. I did not try to get into the dining room to see it – perhaps I should have but it felt rude to intrude.

Another information panel related to the Neolithic monument which lies beneath this shopping mall was missed by us on our visit, but documented on twitter by Susan Greaney and replicated here with permission.

Noticeboard Sue Greaney tweet

Image reproduced with permission of Susan Greaney

Part of the Dorchester Dormouse Trail, this noticeboard erroneously calls this monument a henge. Nonetheless the reconstruction drawing is evocative of this being a big monument defined by some mighty posts although here people (men of course) are doing the erection and not yoked cattle. The text gradually descends into Stonehenge fetishism and some story about Thomas Hardy. There are however a couple of nice pics from the excavations, a site plan, a cartoon mouse (the eponymous dormouse) and one of those QR codes which I have neither the desire nor the inclination to use.

This noticeboard is located on Acland Road for those who possess local knowledge or want to visit.

The pilgrimage ended with the partaking of victuals at the aforementioned ‘Spoons, safely outwith the boundaries of Greyhound Yard.

Thus I have squeezed all I can from my visit to Dorchester, and the time spent within the confines of this mighty Neolithic enclosure will long live with me, even when viewed through the lens of a 1980s shopping mall.

The noble attempt to inform patrons of this mall of the deep time beneath their feet and underneath the tyres of their cars is surely an example of hyperprehistory in action, the added value that prehistory can add to a place of consumerism and transactional behaviour.

Let’s face it. You will never look at a red painted circle the same way ever again.

Sources and acknowledgements: I was accompanied on my visit to Dorchester by Jan Brophy and Andrew Watson, and they helped to keep my emotions under control. I am also grateful to Susan Greaney for sharing with me and allowing me to use the photo of the noticeboard which we shamefully missed on our pilgrimage. 

The mural was the handiwork of John Hodgson – his website mentions it briefly. Thanks to Zooms@freespiritspice for pointing this out on twitter.

The excavation report for the Greyhound Yard Dorchester enclosure is:

Woodward, PJ, Davies, SM & Graham, AH 1993 Excavations at the old Methodist chapel and Greyhound Yard, Dorchester 1981-1984. Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Monograph. 

A good general source of information (including the gazetteer entry reproduced above) on the site and parallels is: 

Gibson, A. 2002. The Later Neolithic palisaded sites of Britain. In A. Gibson (ed.) Behind wooden walls: Neolithic palisaded enclosures in Europe, 5–23. Oxford: BAR International Series 1013.

And for a more recent and even broader overview (with lots on Forteviot), see: 

Noble, G and Brophy, K 2011a Big enclosures: the later Neolithic palisaded enclosures of Scotland in their Northwestern European context. European Journal of Archaeology 14.1-2, 60–87.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taunton axe

26 Sep

Serendipitous encounter with

the material culture of urban prehistory

unexpected discovery

the happenchance of sewage infrastructure

small find destined to be documented, drawn

and stored in a box

once found, then forgotten again

almost unknown

unknowable

indicative of an act: loss, disposal

or the outcome of a process: erosion, river-washed

the slow accumulation of the archaeological record

drifting until discovery

on the riverbank

beside the cricket ground

by Mick Aston off the Time Team.

stone axe from taunton drawing

Notes: on the 30th June 1974 Mick Aston, then a field archaeologist with Somerset County Planning Department, found the butt of a Neolithic polished stone axe on the spoil heap of a trench that had been dug beside the River Tone, in the centre of Taunton, for sewage works. The broken axe was green in colour, had been bashed around by the river, and was broken. Analysis by the Petrology Implement Committee identified the possible source of the axe raw material as Cornwall. The axe is now, I assume, in a local museum collection.

SomHERimage14159 Mick Aston

Mick Aston (right) in 1987 (c) Somerset County Council

The location of this discovery is now a pathway running along the eastern bank of the Tone, passing close by the Somerset County Cricket ground. The location is not marked by any formal notification. Nearby is a setting of three megalithic eggs in a wooden compound.

location today

Eggs

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks firstly to Andrew Watson for flagging up the axe discovery for me in the Somerset HER. Andrew also kindly took me to the location and gave me a guided walking tour of central Taunton.

The axe has site reference number 44418 in the local HER database. The discovery of the axe was published by Aston here: Aston, M 1975 A stone axe from Taunton. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 119, pages 70, 71. The axe drawing comes from that publication, and the photo of Mick Aston and colleagues was sources from the Somerset HER.

The art of the Cochno Stone part 2

1 Sep

In my first post looking at art and the Cochno Stone, I considered the 5,000 year-old tradition of using this domed sandstone surface as a canvas for various creative acts in the form of shallow scratches, deeply incised hollows and painted lines. These surface alterations are ambiguous in meaning, each with their own aesthetic qualities and values, either reducing or adding to the monument, all of them inspiring passionate opinions.

cups and rings and lines and scales

In this second post, I would like to consider the art of the Cochno Stone from another perspective, through the medium of sketches and drawings, specifically those drawn from life (ie before the stone was buried in 1965) over a period between the 1880s and 1930s. No doubt there will be some who will argue that some of these drawings are not really works of art and creativity. For instance, can we regard ‘measured’ depictions of something, technical drawings as part of an archaeological study, as being creative or simply reductive? And what is the archaeological value of studying archive material or newspaper clippings with old drawings when we know with the benefit of hindsight that the drawings are either inaccurate, or incomplete, or both? More fundamentally – and this gets to the roots of much debate on the nature of archaeological narratives – to what extent are these objective renderings of the Cochno Stone? Is such a thing even possible? There are layers of art entangled with art here, the art of art, about art, for art.

Regardless of the motivation, medium, and intended audience, I would argue that there is a deeply artistic strand running through the history of attempts to capture the spirit of Cochno and I hope that this story of four decades worth of drawing and sketching the Cochno Stone will persuade you of this. Before getting to the real stuff, however, I want to reflect a little more on the art of depicting rock-art, and this also has resonance for part 3 of this sequence of posts, which will focus on art inspired by the Cochno Stone, so please take notes! 😉

 

The art of rock-art

Prehistoric rock-art lends itself well to contemporary variations in unusual locations, with the simple form and shallow depth endlessly replicatable. Wherever it occurs, if offers a juxtaposition, a curious time slip. Palaeolithic rock-art – cave paintings to you and me – work especially well in this respect, with otherwordly effects as standard.

cumbernauld

Cumbernauld shopping mall mural (artist unknown)

twitter source unknown

I confess I got this from twitter but have no idea who tweeted it, sorry!

More abstract Neolithic and Bronze Age rock-art works is equally portable. This lovely image is in Umea, Sweden, photographed by Lorna Richardson (and reproduced here with permission). This was part of a campaign by the local authorities to promote cycling and draws on the local rock-art repertoire which is a little less abstract than the Scottish equivalents.

Umea urban rock-art Lorna Richardson pic

Photo: Lorna Richardson

Many artists have been inspired by the simplicity and concentricity of cup-and-ring marks. Gavin MacGregor wrote about one such artist, Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933), a landscape painter who lived most of his life in and around Kirkcudbright in southwest Scotland, and one of the famous ‘Glasgow boys’. Gavin notes that Hornel consorted with antiquarians and was himself a keen amateur archaeologist, and as it happens, Kirkcudbright happens to be a real hotspot for rock-art (as well as being the location of some shooting for The Wicker Man movie).

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Brownie of Blednoch (1889)

MacGregor, and the biographer of Hornel, Bill Smith, both draw attention to the echoes of cup-and-ring marks in the depiction of the moon in painting such as The Brownie of Blednoch (1889) and The Druids: bringing in the mistletoe (1890, with George Henry). Gavin notes the former (see above) is dominated by a ‘Gallovoidian shepherd beast, beard of circles and cup-marked eyes … manifestation of the living rock….’. Hornel went as far as to search for new cup-and-ring marked stones and some of his discoveries were recorded in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

It is in the work of the polymath-antiquarian-artist-archaeologist that we find the first recorded artwork associated with the Cochno Stone, with the earliest engagements mediated by various characters of this ilk as well as clergymen. The earliest drawings we have of rock-art in the pages of antiquarians books of the nineteenth century emerged form such a melting pot of influences and interests, blurring the lines between art and objective record, in fascinating ways. Hornel was himself involved in the process of the creation of a series of black and white engravings of Kirkcudbrightshire rock-art, which MacGregor notes were collaborations between a small team and were based on photographs taken of casts made from rock-art panels.

High Banks engraving

This is a period when the first drawings as a matter of record were being produced for cup-and-ring marks, and there was no rulebook, no style guide, no best practice conventions to follow. Artists used licence and produced evocative and memorable images, which often used unusual perspectives and were, for a time, concerned with context and not metrical accuracy.

Stronach Ridge drawing

Somerville’s 1901 sketch of the Stronach Ridge cup-and-ring marks, Arran

It was also around this time that a young Ludovic Mann became obsessed with cup-and-rings marks near the rural family holiday home, according to Katinka Dalglish, an obsession that would reach its feverish conclusion on the surface of the Cochno Stone to which we now turn. Before going any further in this post, I must also offer the debt of gratitude I owe to Jim Mearns for doing much of the archive research which underpins the history of early drawings of Cochno.

 

Sketches and symbols

Several drawings or sketches of the Cochno Stone were undertaken before 1900, each with a very different style, scope and ambition. (A cast was also taken although the nature and fate of this remains unknown.) These wonderfully capture the emergent understanding of Cochno, presenting only symbols that were initially visible, sometimes selectively so. The gradual reveal of the removal of grass from the stone was played out in these artistic renderings and associated accounts.

A partial drawing, defined within a box, was published with the first detailed account of the Cochno Stone, by Rev James Harvey, in 1889. This may well be the earliest drawing we have of any part of the Cochno stone, certainly the first to be published, and it focuses on the only area of the stone cleared when Harvey encountered it. This is a rather plain drawing, with cupmarks represented as dots and dashes, and lacking depth. Harvey himself did the drawings in 1887, but also took rubbings, which he was then able to use to correct his field sketches. The end product has a sense of immediacy, a work in progress, megalithic notations in a sketchbook. Looking at this sketch now for me is slightly disorientating as east is to the top, but is a welcome break from the tyranny of the north. However, this is also a drawing of some authority, having been published in that august organ the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS).

Harvey published drawing

The wonderful little sketch below was drawn by another minister, the Rev Robert Munro at the latest in 1890. It shows edited highlights of what must have been visible at that time. Two slightly different versions of this drawing were reproduced, the earliest, remarkably, in The Illustrated London News on 6th September 1890. A slightly amended version was then included in John Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick (1893). (A further version of this was reproduced in Harry Bell’s 1980s book Glasgow’s Secret Geometry but wrongly attributed to William Donnelly.)

ILN version of the drawing 1890

1890 (top), 1893 (below)

Harvey drawing detail

When compared with what we know of Cochno now from our excavation of 2016, some of this drawing is quite fanciful, but it is also an image that has real depth. (The version published by Bruce even has the feel of a rubbing, a nice observation made by Grahame Gardner.) However, unlike Harvey’s drawing, there is no scale here, thus giving the drawing a sense of being more of an artistic and interpretive depiction rather than a document of precise record. This is perhaps the case, as elements of this depiction of the stone are spatially impossible, with symbols simply in the wrong place relative to one another and so this is an image of cup-and-ring mark density, not accuracy. The use of a sharply defined diagonal line allows symbols from another part of the stone – in this case the south-western extent, several metres from the other symbols to be shown in the same drawing, making this a sort of ‘Cochno Stone greatest hits’ compilation.

This emphasis on selected bits of the Cochno Stone was countered by the clearing of vegetation, and drawing of the whole monument, by William Donnelly in the mid-1890s, working with John Bruce. Illustrator Donnelly’s drawing of the whole of the stone was published in PSAS in 1896, but a slightly earlier and different version was printed in an edition of Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick and includes the artist’s signature and the date – 1895. The slightly earlier drawing, the upper of the two versions depicted below, is notable for its inclusion of a north arrow and some landscape detail that are inexplicably absent from the more widely circulated ‘authoritative’ PSAS version.

Bruce material on Cochno 005

Figure 3

Donnelly’s drawing from 1895 (top) and 1896. Spot the differences!

Donnelly himself was an interesting character, and his illustrations showed an equally bold approach to cup-and-ring mark symbols found elsewhere.

william donnelly

William Donnelly at work with a sweaty forehead (c) HES

dumbuck-dubious-debris

Hoax carved stone objects found near Dumbuck Crannog (c) HES

His depiction of symbols of these hoax items found during his excavations (with John Bruce, him again) have echoes of what he saw and drew at Cochno just a few years previously, and suggest a hankering towards the weird and esoteric which he was also able to satisfy at Cochno with his recording of a cross in a circle and two four-toe footprints, neither typical prehistoric motifs. On the cusp of archaeological professionalism, but with visibility and access to archaeological sites still somewhat limited, at the turn of the century such drawings had to be taken on trust.

Yet the rise in interest and participation in rambling and hikes in the early decades of the twentieth century allowed less authoritative accounts of archaeological monuments to be composed and disseminated. The only two sketches of the Cochno Stone that I know of from between 1900 and 1965 were both drawn by non-professional archaeologists.

The earliest of these was published, firstly in the Glasgow Evening Times newspaper in 1909, and then in the book Some Sylvan Scenes near Glasgow by T C F Brotchie in 1910.

Brotchie drawing

Brotchie book

This lovely sketch captures a very small fragment of the Cochno Stone focused on a ‘dumb-bell’ motif, sketched at the end of a good ‘Saturday afternoon ramble’. This is a truly artistic rendering, taken from an oblique angle rather than depicting the plan view, with no scale, no north arrow, no conventions – but a sufficiency of dynamism. The rings around the cup have a real sense of mobility, almost as if the symbols were spinning in front of Brotchie’s eyes. There is also a synechdotal quality to this sketch, a gutter running off the right-hand side of the drawing hinting at more to be discovered (and drawn) beyond the frame.

Such dynamism is also evident in another Cochno Stone drawing, one which I have reproduced before, notably in the excavation summary report. Ludovic Mann’s audacious attempt to explain the cosmological meaning of each ring of a cup-and-ring mark complex is as mind-blowing now as it must have been when published in the late 1930s as part of a consideration of the Knappers site he had been excavating in nearby Clydebank.

Figure 5

Source: Mann’s 1939 booklet The Druid Temple Explained.

This ‘dialectogram’ (for the wonderful work of Mitch Miller is one of the best parallels I can think of here) is an amalgam of all the other Cochno drawings to that date. There is convention. There is artistic licence. There is narrative. There is a focus on the giant cup-and-ring mark motifs on the upper reaches of the Cochno Stone that also featured prominently in the drawings of Munro, Harvey and Donnelly. There is passion. And there is wonder.

And there are more questions than answers. Always more questions than answers.

All of these Cochno Stones drawings, produced over a period of forty years, offer a series of dynamic and creative attempts to document and make sense of the cup-and-ring marks, using the conventions and styles of their time and channeled through the personal motivations and passions of the artist-recorder. In their own ways, each of these drawing is a version of the Cochno Stone that captures some of the character of the rock and its symbols and taken together they form a compelling biography of this place, another chapter of a story that began to be written (before there was writing) 5,000 years ago.

What I especially find alluring about this collection of drawings is that they were drawn from life – by actually standing at the site and looking at the stone. This is where Morris’s much reproduced drawing of the stone falls short – it was cobbled together from the plans by Harvey and Donnelly, and some photographs from the 1930s. While it was (until our photogrammetric and laser survey of 2016) the most comprehensive drawing of the Cochno Stone produced, it creaks at the edges with the slightest bit of scrutiny especially when compared with earlier, more dynamic, drawings. It is clinical, transactional, flat.

decent drawing of the stone

Source: Morris 1981

Morris, a solicitor, was a lateral thinker. To really start to make sense of rock-art, concentric thinking is required.

 

Thinking concentrically

One of the most common questions that I get asked about the Cochno Stone regards the meaning of the symbols, and regardless of how accurately we record and draw the cupmarks and the cups-and-rings and the gutters, that meaning cannot be revealed to us. Therefore, despite the formal and technical shortcomings of some of the earlier drawings of the Cochno Stone, these are no more or less likely to help make sense of the symbols than any image we could generate now that was mediated through digital technology. In this case at least, the pencil is no more or less mighty than the pixel.

Figure 13 Laser scan

The joy of the art of the Cochno Stone – and indeed any abstract rock-art – is not about accuracy, or precision, but about mediation, dialogue, spending time with the stone, tracing the contours of the prehistoric depressions with our fingers. There is much merit in standing back and letting a laser scanner do its thing, or viewing the stone through the lens of the camera. But drawings and sketches involve a powerful intimacy that mirrors the acts that created the rock-art in the first place.

Forget the scales. We don’t need north arrows. Making sense of rock-art is about thinking concentrically, not metrically.

S Jeffrey Sian Jones cleaning rock-art

Auchnacraig rock-art panel, near Cochno (Photo: Stuart Jeffrey)

In the final part of my series of posts looking at the art of the Cochno Stone, I will consider art and creative acts that have been inspired by the Cochno Stone, but that exist spatially somewhere else. In some cases they have only had a brief existence or do not exist at all. A mural, a comic book, Chalkno stones and inspired architectural design all attest to the power of Cochno to provoke a response and empower.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: as noted in the post, the story of the antiquarian and early drawings of the Cochno Stone could not have been told without the research and diligence of Jim Mearns. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Gavin MacGregor and Alex Hale for the input that their research has had on this post and I have linked to their work where possible. For more on Donnelly and Dumbuck, you can download for free Alex and Rob Sands’ book Controversy on the Clyde: archaeologists, fakes and forgers from here. The biography of Hornel alluded to is Bill Smith’s 2010 book Hornel: the life and work of Edward Atkinson Hornel. I’m also very grateful to Lorna Richardson for both allowing me to use her Umea photograph, but giving me some background context for the image. 

The High Banks rock-art drawing came from Hamilton’s paper in PSAS 23 (1888-9) ‘Notice of additional groups of carvings of cups and circles on rock surfaces at High Banks, Kircudbrightshire’. The Stronach rock-art sketch comes from Somerville’s PSAS article, ‘Notice of cup- and ring-marked rocks on the Stronach Ridge, near Brodick, Arran’ (volume 35, 1900-1901). All PSAS articles can be downloaded free.

Ronald Morris’s drawing of the Cochno Stone comes from his 1981 BAR volume The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway).

Other image permissions have been included in the captions, or the text accompanying the images

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.