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The vitrification experiment

24 Mar

Do you remember that old TV show?

Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World

The Divine Comedy

Mysterious World

Sometimes an archaeologist does something so crazy, so visionary and so flamboyant that one can only stand back and admire the show. Trying to understanding what the heck happened in prehistory sometimes requires extreme acts (and I know this from personal experience). This post tells the story of an urban prehistoric experiment that took place almost 40 years ago in a local authority waste disposal tip (aka a dump) that combined innovation, ingenuity, furniture and weirdness in equal measure.

The East Tullos Yorkshire Television vitrified wall experiment was recently brought to my attention by Richard ‘Scarfolk‘ Littler in a twitter thread that he posted that celebrated eccentric characters and stories covered by the legendary and seminal 1980 televisual experience Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. One of the images that he posted took my breath away. It showed a familiar archaeologist but with an unfamiliar facial hair arrangement, a wild-eyed expression and in the middle of doing something inexplicable.

The tweet

Professor Ian Ralston OBE DLitt FRSE FSA FSA (Scot) MIFA and Abercromby Chair of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh appears to have been, at some point in the past, The Pagan Man with a Stick. He also seems to have been on one of my favourite TV shows from when I was a kid, which means that I may have watched Ian in action 15 years before I first met him, and on further reflection perhaps this film subliminally made me the archaeologist I am today. Although using this logic I could just as easily have become a Bigfoot hunter or an Alien abductee.

arthur_c_clarke_mysterious_world_tv titles

Broadcast over one series and 13 episodes in 1980 on ITV (my memory convinced me that there must have been so many more episodes) the programme featured, between the adverts (no doubt starring Leonard Rossiter and Lorraine Chase), some of the world’s most mysterious mysteries, from cryptozoology to pseudo-archaeology to the supernatural. This heady mixture of nonsense was presented in deadpan seriousness and a cast of eccentrics, academics and self-proclaimed experts brought the whole thing to life. Stories were separated by brief pieces of camera by Clarke himself leaning against a tree somewhere hot (Sri Lanka).

I used to have the book as well, the cover of which shows what might be found beneath Stonehenge if they ever build that tunnel.

Book Cover

It is not every day that a young, but respectable Chas ‘n’ Dave lookalike archaeologist gets to star in his own 10-minute slot in a portmanteau mystery TV documentary, and so I wanted to look into this a little further. The urban fringe landfill location was enough for me to tag this under the category of urban prehistory and write a blog post about it which I have duly done.

The story of this unique vitrification experiment was broadcast in Episode 3 of the show on the theme of Ancient Wisdom, from 11 minutes in. (Some of the other stories on the programme do not seem to me to represent wisdom.)

This account of the vitrification experiment was subsequently supplemented by a detailed and fulsome report on the experiment in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland written diligently by Ralston himself and published in 1986

It is from these two sources that I piece together those momentous spring days in 1980.

Paper title

Quote 1

The experiment entailed the construction of a full-scale 8m long section of wall replicating a hillfort rampart, with the aim to reproduce the effect of vitrification. In effect, this process entails the melting of rocks within the core of such walls (perhaps with internal ‘timber-lacing’ to fuel fires), the end result of which is a glassy stone that is fused and melted together. This is a relatively common trait of later prehistoric fortified sites in Scotland, notably in Angus, and Argyll and Bute. Arguments have long ranged about whether this was caused by accident or design. As archaeologist Andy Heald put it fairly recently, ‘Some think vitrification was a status symbol, some think a settlement would be set alight and inadvertently vitrified in the process by attackers and some think it’s a structural thing to do with strengthening the walls of the fort.’

This heated (pun intended) dispute was the attraction for Arthur C Clarke’s crack team of mystery-chasers: “it was this contrast in views that constituted ‘the mystery'”… as Ralston puts it in his report. This doesn’t seem to me to be a mystery on a par with the Bermuda Triangle or the Nazca Lines, but I guess they had hours of schedules to fill.

The segment of the programme starts with a sweeping view of the laughably pronounced Iron Age hilltop enclosure Tap O’Noth. Ralston arrives on top, bestriding the landscape and then sitting on the ramparts pointing out vitrification while not even appearing to be out of breath. The light levels are low and there is mild peril for sensitive viewers – will he make it back down to his parked car before darkness falls?

Ralston on Tap o Noth

The voiceover person (who is not Arthur C Clarke but sounds suitably serious about the whole business) expresses the mystery of vitrification: was this something that just happened to occur when a fort wall caught fire, or was it the result of, “some technique now lost to strengthen the walls by welding the rocks together”? Gosh, I wonder.

The TV show voiceover further noted that “Ian Ralston, in an ambitious attempt to crack the mystery decided to build his own Iron Age fort”. This was to be done using materials and finance provided by a Mr Nick Lord of Yorkshire Television and where better to carry out this large-scale experiment than in the salubrious surroundings of a smelly dump near Aberdeen. The image on the screen melted from the misty hills of Aberdeenshire to the site of the vitrification experiment. The show was careful to show Aberdeen as if it had just been hit by a nuclear attack.

Aberdeen

The rampart section, based on various real forts, was realised, as with so many experimental archaeology projects of this scale and vision, through a series of compromises, imaginative bodges and visits to DIY shops. Ralston takes up the story:

Quote 2

Granite was chosen for the rampart exterior and gabbro for the interior, with wooden beams inserted inside to form the lacing (the internal structure of the wall). The construction project took place over four wet and windy days at the end of March 1980, with a combination of labour by the team of seven and a small fleet of support vehicles doing the work. Ralston was heavily involved in the heavy stuff, having made it down from that mountain top after all, his vigour undiminished.

Construction

Wall nearing completionThe conflagration itself was facilitated by the application of ‘dripping’ (animal fat) to the ends of beams protruding from the rampart while other artificial accelerants were on hand just in case, and a large pyre also had to be constructed up against one side of the wall to get the fire going due to ongoing inclement weather. With a cavalier attitude, Ralston got stuck into the building project with a fag hanging out of his mouth, right next to the stores of paraffin and beef dripping.

Ralston smoking

The fire was started around noon on the 1st of April, with a stiff breeze causing some anxiety. The conflagration as Ralston called it was monitored carefully and managed proactively, with regular truck-loads of wood having to be brought on site to feed the fires and pyres to keep it all burning and raise the temperature within the wall.

Wood supplies seem to have been running low because at one point a delivery of knackered old furniture (or what Ralston called “a miscellaneous cargo of domestic refuse, delivered by the Aberdeen Cleansing Department”), was poured onto the pyre.

A load of old furniture

Despite trying to control air flow into the core of the wall using a tarpaulin, by early evening and five hours into the burn, the internal wall temperature was only 13 degrees. “At about this time the writer clambered onto the top of the wall”. In other words, the shit just got real.

Ralston on the rampart

Ralston on the rampart TV version

This dramatic intervention by Ralston, flying in the face of a risk assessment that had almost certainly not been written anyway (this was 1980 after all), signaled an intensification of pyre building and fire management, which through the course of the evening began to pay dividends as the core temperature of the wall rose steadily.

Sunset

By strategically starting big fires at certain points around the wall in relation to wind direction, the experiment began to meet expectations and the team allowed themselves a dinner break from 9pm to the back of 11pm. By now the wall was collapsing in places and the fire was massive. Then they all went to bed / the pub.

The next morning the team arrived back in the dump to find a smouldering, hot smoky crumbling wall, with fires still burning inside. The wall was monitored and slowly dismantled by hand and machine from 8.30am, with team members raking through the guts of the unstable structure for evidence of vitrification and a small quantity of glassy stones was recovered.

Vitrified material

This material was carefully stored in conditions that retained the high scientific integrity of the samples.

Schweppes vitrified stones

Despite Ralston’s assessment that the fire would have continued to burn for another 24 hours, he also noted that, “the structure appeared markedly unstable and Yorkshire TV, with filming schedules completed, was not prepared to accept the insurance risk represented by the wall any longer. Accordingly, at 1600 hrs, some 28 hours after the experiment had started, the wall was bulldozed flat”.

Bulldozer

This allowed further observation by the archaeologists, but after all of this hard work, was the mystery of vitrification finally solved? The voiceover on the TV show was not so sure, suggesting that the meagre evidence for melting rock (3kg of glassy stone) only posed more questions than it solved. If this was the case, it would surely take half of the trees in Scotland just to vitrify one fort the size of Tap O’Noth, the voice claimed ludicrously and misunderstanding the whole nature of extrapolation.

Ralston’s account of the experiment was more balanced, noting the errors made during the process that had became clear as the fire took hold, and some of the inauthenticities that were essentially unknown variants on what might have happened in the ancient past. He was able to show that under the right circumstances vitrification could happen in such a timber laced rampart, but he could not say for sure what cultural activity (warfare, ritual closure of a site, accidental fire) caused this to happen in the Iron Age.

This ambitious and eccentric project, made possibly by TV largesse (which only really went so far as the many compromises that had to be made demonstrate), shows the potential of educational and informative experimental archaeology in even the most unpromising of locations. This was not the first vitrification experiment nor was it the last, but it was perhaps the most urban.

Even more urban than an equally ambitious and bonkers vitrification experiment that was carried out in the industrial setting of Plean Colliery, between Stirling and Falkirk, by V Gordon Childe in 1937. (The National Geographic recently called this an ‘audacious experiment’.) The Plean vitrification experiment was carried out with Wallace Thorneycroft and a response to questions raised by vitrified material found at a number of forts in Scotland, including one recently excavated by Childe himself at Rahoy, Argyll and Bute. In this case, Childe and Thorneycroft asked / told staff at the colliery to construct a ‘murus gallicus 12 feet long  by 6 feet wide by 6 feet high’ based on detailed sketch plans.

The Plean wall spec

The structure was constructed from materials to hand on the mine, such as fireclay bricks and wooden beams. This gave the wall the appearance of being nothing more than another industrial structure in a mining landscape, and it lacked the rugged organic look of Ralston’s wall. Also, and perhaps this is where motivational inauthenticities creep in, this wall was designed purely to burn and for no other reason.

Plean colliery experiment 1937

The conflagration of this wall would have had an urban audience, with houses overlooking the site, and one presumes the poor sods who built the thing would have been allowed to stand and watch. 4 tons of kindling and logs were used to create a pyre to cause the wall to burn and effect vitrification in its core.

Plean fire and vitrication

Childe reported that, ‘the fire was kindled at 11am on March 11 in a snowstorm’, and the wall began to collapse internally within an hour, reaching peak core temperatures in five hours. 20 hours after the fire was started, glassy bubbled rock was picked out of the smouldering debris. As with the Yorkshire Television experiment, the means to vitrify rock had been explored successfully, but the cause and motivation remained unclear.

As an aside, a curious Edinburgh University Abercromby Chair runs through this thread. Ralston currently holds that role as did Childe, both of whom carried out peri-urban vitrification experiments. And Stuart Piggott, another Abercromby Chair, was on a different episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Stuart Piggott

I feel a Venn coming on. In the future, PhDs will be written about this.

Venn

The wonder of the vitrification experiments is that they failed to answer the ‘why’ question even if they were able to shed some light on the ‘how’ and ‘WTF’. Experiments and excavations continue to this day, with for instance an ongoing community and educational project involving the Forestry Commission at Dun Deardail, Argyll and Bute.  Here, the unanswered question, the mystery of vitrification and the melting of rock, offers fertile ground to involve and empower lots of people.

destruction-dun-deardail-cropped-low-resedited

Dun Deardail ablaze (c) Forestry Commission

When reflecting on the 1980 TV show, Ian Ralston told me that that the tweeted still photograph brought back memories although he did not define whether his recollections were negative, positive or bamboozled. He told me,

this is the Arthur C Clarke ‘The Mysterious World of…’ Yorkshire TV escapade … of the vitrified wall on Aberdeen City rubbish dump c. April Fool’s Day 1980 and that’s the unprepossessing surroundings of the tip in the background. I’m holding the torch I was given in due course to ignite the wall”.

He then went back to sorting out Brian Hope-Taylor’s historic Doon Hill excavations in East Lothian from the 1960s (and that would make an amazing blog post…but that’s for another day).

Holding the torch is a nice metaphor for what Ian Ralston was doing here, as well as a literal description. Of course, the great Professor and Edinburgh successor to Childe and Piggott is not quite ready to hand that torch over yet, but when he does, it is important that archaeologists continue to burn bright with enthusiasm, be hirsute with dignity and dream crazy dreams of impossible projects on the urban edgelands.

The end

Sources and acknowledgements: the tweet that started all of this was one a series of brilliant screen grabs and out-of-context comments from the TV show Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious world from Richard Littler. His tweet and screen grabs of Ralston and Piggott have been used in this blog post. Please follow him and buy his books.

The academic publication about East Tullos vitrification experiment was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 116 (1986), pages 17-40 and this is open access via the journal’s ADS page. This was the source for several quotations and the black and white images in the post. The account of the Plean vitrification experiment came from the same journal, in this case volume 72 (1937-38), pages 44-55. This was the source of the several black and white images about this experiment. 

The colour images are stills from the TV show itself, while the images related to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious world are available widely online. The image of Dun Deardail ablaze came from the Forestry Commission website about that project, link in text above.

For an interesting critique of these kinds of experiments, and accounts of the work at Plean and East Tullos, with images I have not included, see this blog.

 

 

 

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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.  

 

 

 

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.

The solace of deep Anthropocene time

30 Oct

Megaliths are often utilized as war memorials, usually with the memorial taking the form of ‘replica’ standing stones, precise stone settings or highly stylized megalithic tombs. These very often occur in urban contexts, and fall into my category of urban prehistoric sites that evoke ancient forms of monument rather than being genuinely ancient in themselves.

Howard Williams has explored this phenomenon in much more depth than I, for instance in relation to the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, in a paper in the International Journal of Heritage Studies (2014). This remarkable landscape of remembrance consists of hundreds of memorial gardens, memorials and monuments, and 30,000 plus trees (many dedicated to individuals and organisations), numbers that are being added to constantly giving the place a sense of dynamism as well as stoicism. Memorials include concoctions of stones from various parts of the UK and France, mnemonics for represented organisations and memorialized events; these include ‘a cairn commemorating the Loch Class Frigates … incorporating stones from each of the Scottish lochs after which the Frigates were named’ (pg 10). Williams calls the Arboretum a ‘megalithic landscape’ noting the presence of five stone circles, including one made of rubble from Dresden. There are also numerous ‘hewn megaliths’, cairns and mounds, what Howard characterizes as ‘material citations’ of the past.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Ulster Ash Grove monument, deploying standing stones and megalithic boulders (Image source: http://www.thenma.org.uk/)

I have blogged about this phenomenon in other locations also, such as Cardiff and Glenrothes, while there are other famous examples internationally such as the replica Stonehenge at Maryhill, Washington. The latter was built in the aftermath of the First World War by Samuel Hill, ‘as a reminder of those sacrifices and the “incredible folly” of the war.’

falkland war memorial cardiff low res

glenrothes war memorial newsclipping

stonehenge1-300x225

Top to bottom: Cardiff, Glenrothes, Maryhill war memorials.

In all these cases, the enduring quality of standing stones appeals to those designing and building memorials, foregrounding timelessness, continuity and authenticity.  A crucial element of all of these kinds of megalithic memorials is their hybrid quality, an ability to mash up different architectural styles and time periods, ‘a conflation of multiple pasts’ as Williams calls it (pg 20).

Prince Charles megalith photo

Prince Charles with a memorial ‘dolmen’ behind him. Location unknown. Photo: The Guardian

I recently visited a rather unusual instance of a war memorial that might actually be utilising a genuine prehistoric megalith, or at least a stone that has been recognised as such locally. Whether this really was the case or not barely matters, but it otherwise conforms to many of the characteristics identified by Williams elsewhere.

The war memorial in the small Clackmannanshire town of Tullibody is a weird re-purposing of a monument known as the Haer Stane (or Samson’s Button). Essentially, the memorial now consists of a huge basalt boulder sunk into a depression that has had a red granite Celtic cross inserted into it, and a pair of placques with a list of names on them stuck on the side. What makes the war memorial of interest to me are antiquarian – and locally maintained – accounts that this massive shapeless lump of stone was once part of a stone circle or perhaps more likely some kind of kerb cairn. The National Monuments Record of Scotland page for this site notes:

The Haer Stane of Tullibody is a shapeless mass of basalt about 8ft high and 30ft round the base which stands on the declivity in front of Baingle Brae Villa. Within the memory of persons living in 1874, it was surrounded by a great number of rough upright stones, about 2 to 3ft high, methodically arranged. North-east of the stone, but within the enclosure, was an old well.

This suggests that in the decades before 1874, when the monument was documented in Crawford’s book Memorials of the town and parish of Alloa, a stone setting surrounded the boulder. Nothing is known about this stone circle at all, and nothing is documented on any map I could find, which must cast some doubt on its existence. The association of this tale with what is far more likely to be a glacial erratic could suggest that this was little more than a set of boulders lying about and locally misinterpreted as anthropogenic.

This boulder, perhaps of archaeological significance, certainly of local historical importance, had another layer of meaning attached in 1921 when a massive red granite standing stone was stuck on top of it upon which was carved a Celtic cross.

An intriguing note is added by an OS Antiquity mapping visit in 1973: ‘encircling the boulder are approx. 60 small loose stones giving a diameter of about 10m. These stones are not in situ due to the construction of a pond, precluding positive identification of a stone circle’. This seems to be unrelated to the antiquarian story, and old postcards of the Haer Stane show the memorial sitting in the middle of a pond with boulders defining the edge of this small body of water, many of which are clearly sitting on the surface and not deeply embedded prehistoric features. Quite why a war memorial had a pond created around it I’m not sure, but it was in a declivity I guess…..

Postcard Haer Stane ebay

Source: http://tullibody.org/history/ Date unknown

Dog in pond Angelfire

Date and dog unknown. Note the green placque on one stone, pictured below. Source: http://www.angelfire.com/sc3/tullibody/

The Haer Stane has a timeless, geological, impressive quality as I found when I visited the monument recently – although it no longer has the pond and circle of stones around it.

The memorial is accessed via the Lych Gate, a wooden gatehouse that was itself recently refurbished as it had fallen into decline. In this old postcard (date unknown) the gate can be seen in its glory before trees grew here, and the Celtic cross element of the memorial can be seen jutting into the air in the background with the Ochils as a spectacular backdrop.

Postcard Tullibody gate

Source: www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/142155

Lych Gate low res

Signs outside memorial low res

Pathways lead to the Haer Stane through trees, creating a buffer from the urban surrounds and generating a ‘peaceful’ ambiance albeit one punctured by the neighbouring school currently being a building site. Huddled in a corner was a boulder (presumably found during building works), acting as a weird megalithic table surrounded by four plastic school chairs. I wonder if this was a survivor of the kerb that once defined the pond around the Haer Stane?

Megalithic table low res

The Haer Stane came into view, a spectacular brute of a boulder, set in the centre of a circle of trees, paths and park benches. Neighbouring house windows overlooked the complex, while dog walkers patrolled at all times. I spoke to one local guy with a dog who told me that the location had become problematic with youths coming into the memorial park drinking (hence the sign at the entranceway) and he also complained about the omission of certain names from the new placque on the Stane itself, some kind of local grumble that I could make little sense of.

Haer Stane view from north low res

Haer Stane low res

Up close, the monument was more complex than I had imagined it could have been. The juxtaposed granite cross seemed to grow from the erratic beneath it, and the two stones displayed no discernible harmony with one another. The Haer Stane itself seems to have cracked in the past, with these cracks evident and filled with some kind of stone-glue. Perhaps this damage was done converting this into a war memorial, cracking it open to insert the cross-stone, enforcing this new role and identity onto the boulder against its will.

Megalith glue low res

Megalith glue.

The boulder was also coated in a thin mud-slip in places, and a few mud ball splats. It was possible to identify child-sized soil handprints around the belly of the stone. The haptic qualities of this monument has clearly been explored by local youths with dirty exuberance.

Stains on the Stane.

Handprint 1 low res

Hand print 2 low res

A green metal placque on a small stone at the base of the monument (the one that had in the past been on the edge of the pond) displayed the following information.

1921

To the memory of

the 27 men who gave their

lives for us in

The Great War 1914-1919

This memorial was raised by their

relatives and friends in

Tullibody Cambus District

Placque low res

Attached to the Haer Stane itself are two black stone squares with names carved into them; these were appended to the stone in 2013 replacing an earlier version (as reported in the local newspaper).

War memorial 626 squadron

(c) Alloa Advertiser

These too had been smeared with mud.

Black placques low res

The re-purposing of this ancient glacial boulder – by definition prehistoric in the broadest sense of this word – into a war memorial fits in well with the hybrid traditions identified by Williams. Here we have a mixture of the ancient, the early medieval and the twentieth century, shaped into an immovable and timeless focus for commemoration. But it also fits well with another tradition, that of archaeological monuments that find themselves in urban settings. The biography of this site since it emerged from the mists of time has been erratic, unpredictable, at times marked by acts of folly. It is now part of the urban landscape, surrounded by the trappings of such places, and despite increased maintenance and watchfulness from the local community, I doubt if it has reached its final form.

One thing that does seem to be a consistant aspect of this monument is the recurring and locally maintained story that the Haer Stane had prehistoric monumental origins. The local Heritage Centre webpage for instance prominently states:

Tullibody – One of the oldest villages in Scotland. We now know that the first peoples were living in this very area. Tullibody looked very different in those days as it was a peninsula, surrounded by water. The early people worshipped the sun and it is now known that Tullibody War Memorial stone formed part of a Druid Circle.

This is also the story given on war memorial websites such as this one where the site is explicitly called the Druid Stone.

Screen grab from war memorial web page

There seems to be a desire to attribute to this monument something more than just random glacial activity, I would imagine because an origin in the deep-time of human (pre)history fits better with the narratives of memorial and myth-building that mourners, descendants and the local community need this place to be. The  truth of it will probably never be known nor does it matter.

Solace has been sought in deep Anthropocene time.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: The Howard Williams paper to which this blog post is heavily indebted has the following citation: Williams, H 2014 Antiquity at the National Arboretum. International Journal of Heritage Studies 20.4., 393-414. To get information about Tullibody’s past, I made use of a few really good local sources of information and images, and these are all cited as sources of the old postcards in the post above. Most of this post was written on a train, hence its untidiness.

Houses upon houses

30 May

There has been a lot of media and social media reaction to the new planning legislation proposed in the recent Queen’s speech, namely the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill. This Bill appears to be based on the premise that archaeological evaluations and other similar mitigatory processes which happen after planning permission has been granted are in some cases holding up development, or being exploited for financial ends, perhaps even regarded by some as frivolous. And so the idea is that this stage of the process could be by-passed in order to deliver the government’s aim to “deliver one million new homes, whilst protecting those areas that we value most including the Green Belt” – and creating lots of new jobs / apprenticeships. Blah blah blah of course they would say that, maybe even with a straight face.

Anyway, this new piece of legislation appears very much to be an attempt to bypass normal planning requirements in England such as dealing properly with any archaeological sites, the rationale I suppose being that archaeological work is expensive and thus gets in the way of money-making enterprises like house-building and economic development. The outcry from the archaeological profession has been loud, with for instance a petition against the legislation having over 15,500 signatories at the time of writing (30/05/16), and lots of angry tweeting going on. The petition has the rather hyperbolic opening line:

Britain has some of the most amazing and diverse archaeological remains in the world, however the new Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill announced today puts all of this at risk, leading to the destruction of our past for good.

In my opinion this kind of statement plays to the view that many have of archaeology as a profession, one of conservatism, complaining, protesting, often for motivations that seem closely aligned to protection for protection’s sake and knowledge gathering for knowledge’s sake. (I have tweeted sentiments to this effect previously regarding protests as varied as those against the Stonehenge tunnel and the housing development near Old Oswestry Fort.)

More balanced  and constructive responses are typified by that of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) which raised concerns for the viability of the heritage sector as a whole and the jobs that come with it, dependent as it is on developer-funded work, although this sector has diversified a lot in recent years. And recent media coverage appears to suggest that if anything the job market for archaeologists can’t keep up with demand, although whether this equates to floods of new good well-paid sustainable jobs is another matter (lets just say it probably doesn’t).

On the one hand I am worried that this legislation – which will apply only to England – will indeed mean the loss and destruction of countless archaeological sites in green belt locations and peri-urban landscapes. On the other hand, perhaps as archaeologists we sometimes fight the wrong battles. We should not necessarily see our profession being defined by developer-funded work alone (unless of course it is a news story about Stonehenge) for instance. These are real-world problems with very real implications for the historic environment and landscape change.

I think we need another strategy. We need to accept that as archaeologists we are part of an economy that thrives on eternal growth (a fictitious concept of course but that is the capitalist fantasy land we currently live in) and this includes always finding more things for the ‘construction industry’ to build. This is all the more pressing given that there is a housing crisis in the UK, with expectations of continual population rise in coming years from various different drivers.

Therefore, as archaeologists, we cannot just throw our hands up in horror about the crude weighting of value we see before us (economic growth v archaeological record) and fall back on out-dated notions of conservatism and activism. Rather, we need to make the case more strategically that heritage professionals can add so much value to developments and construction projects that the country as a whole cannot afford not to make sure archaeology is taken seriously as part of the planning process at all times. I’m afraid this doesn’t just mean: ‘please take note of the archaeology, it’s really interesting and we could really, really do with another box of Grooved Ware or Green Glaze in our museum store room, plus I don’t think we have quite enough grey literature yet’. Heritage and the past is not inherently valuable – being old does not necessarily equate with value for money or even public interest – and so we live in an age where ‘added value’ is required in our words and actions.

And so what I am suggesting is that we should not bemoan the Government’s actions or actively try to derail them with the trying to maintain the status quo and promote sensationalist petitions, but rather use this an opportunity to make the point that heritage professionals can and do work with developers of all sizes to add value to their projects rather than cost them money, hold them up and generally get in the way (which, like it or not, appears to be how Government ministers view our profession, and probably a lot of develops and businesses do too).

Developers need to be persuaded of the benefits to them (economically, reputationally, and perhaps also in terms of their own community engagement aspirations) to engage with the archaeology, deal with it adequately, and then make use of this for their own promotional purposes etc. This has worked well for instance with BAA and Framework Archaeology relating to Heathrow T5 construction, and just about the only time London’s Crossrail makes the news in positive terms is related to archaeological discoveries.

 

Cowie a walk map

I want to make this point using my own modest example. Last week, I visited a small housing estate on the edge of the Stirling village of Cowie. Here, the construction of houses in the late 1990s allowed a previously unknown Neolithic site of national importance to be discovered and fully excavated. The discovery of rare examples of houses and farming evidence (via a fine assemblage of quernstones) at Chapelfield, Cowie, has added much to our understanding of Neolithic settlement in Scotland, and the site is referred to in the literature frequently. However, I would argue that value was added to the lives of those living in this new housing estate by other means than traditional archaeological outputs, namely by the ways that the results of the excavation were used – in street names, for instance, but also in the co-production of a prehistorically themed children’s play park. Much more could have been done, but this was not just a cut and shut operation which cost the developer plenty-much cash and time with the only minor outcome a footnote in academic books and papers, and a couple of boxes in a storeroom.

General street view low res

The discovery of a Neolithic site here was a surprise. The housing development was proposed by Ogilvie Builders Ltd in the mid-1990s, and GUARD, a commercial archaeology company (at that time based within the University of Glasgow) carried out an initial evaluation. It was thought that there was an Iron Age ditch in the field where the houses were to be built, but evaluation trenches revealed something altogether different – and much, much older: ‘a series of structures defined by stake-holes and a number of pits containing Neolithic pottery’ (John Atkinson 2002, 139). So a really big excavation was carried out, paid for by the developers, Historic Scotland and the regional authority.

Oops. Source is Atkinson 2002. No offence meant.

Oops. Source of the images and information is Atkinson 2002.

 

Excavations at Cowie in 1995 (source: Atkinson 2002).

Excavations at Cowie in 1995 (source: Atkinson 2002).

The outcome was the excavation of a complex Neolithic settlement which included a range of oval and round stake-built structures (with few parallels in Northern Britain). These dated to both the Early and Late Neolithic. Associated with different phases of activity were a series of pits which contained broken quernstones, axe fragments, Arran pitchstone blades, charcoal and Neolithic Carinated Ware pottery. It could be argued that the deposits places in these pits were in part the detritus of everyday life, although these may have been deposited in line with social rules about rubbish, taboo or rituals. Whatever. I’m not getting into the whole Neolithic pit argument here. A few pits that provided Mesolithic radiocarbon dates suggests that this location was used at least in passing up to 8000-10000 years ago. Wow.

 

Today? It is a quiet suburb (if a village can have a suburb), and even on a sunny Monday afternoon, the only people I saw walking about were pushing prams. As I walked around the three streets that define this small estate, I also saw a succession of white vans going back and forth, while occasional chatter from back gardens floated in the feeble breeze. There seemed nothing exceptional about this place – except the deep time. On and off this had been a place for people to live, eat, drink, sleep, and walk around with babies, for at least 5500 years.

Neolithic village low res

These were houses upon houses. Paths upon paths. Beds upon beds. Kitchens above hearths. Dinner plates over pottery bowls. Loaves of bread over quernstone-powdered barley. Toast over carbonised wheat. An awesome example of what archaeology can tell us about the seemingly most mundane and normal of places.

houses upon houses map

It must have been decided that the prehistoric discoveries here were worthy of marking in street names (and I have reflected on the power of these in a previous blog post) and it has been done very nicely here: Flint Crescent. Ochre Crescent. Roundhouse. The latter road, the one into the estate, being afforded a single word that I could find on only two signs. This contrasts with the fate of the Neolithic timber cursus excavated during housing construction in the 1980s at Bannockburn, just 2 miles to the west: remnants of this huge monument lie beneath houses, tarmac and a bed and breakfast, but it has been completely forgotten.

Roundhouse 2 low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

Ochre low res

Flint Cres low res

These street names are quirky and nice although it doesn’t mean that the people who moved into these houses had any sense of the deeply engrained ancient use of this particular place or the significance of the unusual street names. I have suggested before that archaeological discoveries made during housing developments should be made more widely known to those seeking to buy, information included with the house schedule for example. Street names alone are probably not enough to convey this information.

During my walk, I came across a blank road sign offered a tempting opportunity for me to come up with a less ambiguously Neolithic place name, but my chalk would not make a mark on its glossy black surface.

Suggestions welcome....

Suggestions welcome….

However, after the houses had been built, a more tangible and exciting possibility emerged – the creation of a children’s play park with a prehistoric theme. The need for a park was actually prompted by the sad death of a child by drowning in a pond next to the houses. The designers of the park, Judi Legg and Mike Hyatt, drew inspiration from the Neolithic archaeology that had been found when the houses were being constructed. This led to local children being asked to actively help design the park in a prehistoric style:

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. 

Playground photo 1

Playground photo 2

Playground photo 3

Children also helped choose and plant trees and hedgerows in and around the park, which was officially opened in 2006. It is regarded as an example of good practice by the Free Play Network because of the freedom to roam afforded to kids, although I would suggest the co-production of the park form, and the inspiration of the prehistoric archaeology found here, are also wonderful and innovative elements of this park.

Flint Crescent low res

As I said before, this is a modest example, where archaeological evaluation and intervention during the planning and development process has resulted in amazing archaeological discoveries. But there is much more to it – the very fabric of the housing estate and the identity of those who live(d) there is entangled in street (place) names, while the prehistoric discoveries here eventually helped inspire children’s play facilities and some amazing educational opportunities for local kids. Of course, I am under no illusions that most folk who live there now may well know nothing about any of the prehistoric pre-history of where they live, and I would imagine much more could be done to inform, amaze and inspire the local community. But the information is there, the work has been done, and none of this could have happened without the active collaboration of archaeologists, developer and local authority – potentially a relationship under threat in England from the Tory Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill.

If we are to be taken seriously as a sector, and want to really impact on how the planning process works, we need to be proactive and not reactive. We need to make the positive case for responsible, sustainable and meaningful engagements with the archaeological record during the planning and development process. We need to argue for the added value that heritage and deep-time depths can bring to new suburban communities. We need to make the point that the construction industry will thrive and benefit from working with heritage professionals precisely because of all that expensive and time-consuming ancient stuff that is out there under the ground waiting to be found. And we need to acknowledge that landscapes change, that society has needs, and that many aspects of the historic environment will, eventually, be swept away.

In other words there is a business case to be made for treating the past as an investment in the future – and I would argue this case will do more to ‘save our archaeology’ than any petition you care to sign.

Neolithic village fake sign low res

Sources and acknowledgements: I have mentioned and linked to my sources in the text above. For context, this post was written between 25-30th May 2016. The excavation report for Chapelfield, Cowie is freely available online – full details are: 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 first two playground photos were sourced from the wildside.scot website (link above) and this was also the source of the extended quotation used in my post, while the third photo was posted by the Free Play Network and attributed to Stirling Council Play Services.

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.

 

 

 

 

Beneath the motorway

7 May

This is a blog post that appeared not to want to be written.

Computer crashes, lack of focus, lost information, inadequate note-keeping, rain, over-complication: all have conspired to ensure that my rather simple story about a park in Manchester with a stone circle and a ruined church has yet to be written.

So I now I finally want to write this story and keep it simple. Let’s see how it goes.

Signs on the gates low res

All Saints Park, or Grosvenor Park, is located on Oxford Road in Manchester, on the campus of Manchester Metropolitan University, and I used to pass it every now and again when I visited Manchester University just down the road. I popped into the park one summer day a few years ago attracted by a tree that had been wrapped in red fabric.

Wrapped tree June 2013 low res

Once inside this compact little square park, I noticed two things: a strange megalithic monument located in one corner of the park, and a low wall right in the middle of the park that marked the location of an old church. There was clearly deep time here, and a few stories to be uncovered. And as I continued to pop into the park when in Manchester, I realised all sorts of stuff was going on here. There are megaliths and memorials, art installations and scientific experiments, signs and bins, cheeky graffiti, and right in the middle of it all, the ghostly footprint of the destroyed church. Much of this goes unnoticed by the many students from the adjacent Manchester Metropolitan University who hang around here between lectures or at lunchtime, or buy fruit and veg or snacks from pavement stalls outside the park.

the happy bin low res

And almost overhead, just to the north, runs the Mancunian Way (A57(M)), an urban motorway, which offers a suitably Ballardian tone to the park – and automatically made me think of Glasgow, another city with an urban motorway. The sound of cars thundering overhead complements the continual hum of buses going up and down the majestic Oxford Road.

As we’ll see, concrete is on the ground – as well as in the air.

1962694_46a970b8

The Mancunian Way flyover on Oxford Road (Creative Commons licence, photo taken by David Dixon)

One of the most remarkable things about this park is that it is consecrated ground. At each of the four entrances to the park, on the cardinal points, stands a short angular megalith with a plaque on it.

plinth low res.jpg

Each says the same thing:

GROSVENOR SQUARE

former All Saints Church burial ground

the MANCHESTER METROPOLITAN

UNIVERSITY

improved the square in 1995 for the benefit

of both its students and the general public.

This is still consecrated ground

PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT

Cycling, ball games and the consumption of

alcohol are not permitted, dogs must be on a

leash and litter placed in the bin provided.

This introductory text acts as a  gentle warning to park-users and dog-owners, but also as an ode to the park. There is a poetic quality to this potted history, which hints at the protracted and special nature of this places which derives directly from its past use.

This is consecrated ground. PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT.

The dead were laid to rest here, and this was once a sacred site. It isn’t any more, and yet this park cannot escape its past or the rites that were once carried out here. There are bodies beneath the grass and stories to be uncovered beneath our feet.

general view low res

The Church that once stood – All Saints Church – seems to have been cursed. It was opened for business in April 1820, a large and foreboding structure, but seemed to be ill-starred from very early in its life, for instance being badly damaged by a fire when it had stood for only 30 years.

All Saints Church

All Saints Church. Copyright owned by Chetham’s Library, Manchester (www.chethams.org.uk/)

The church gradually ran down in the 20th century, with its cemetery converted to a children’s play park by the 1930s, thus creating the link between youthful leisure and the subterranean cemetery for the first time.

And then came destruction in the form of German bomb which hit the church during the ‘Christmas Blitz’ in 1940.

The church was finally demolished in 1949 as it had become ruinous with no hope of reconstruction.

Church being demolished in 1949

The Church before final demolition in 1949

All Saints still has a presence in the park today in the form of a remarkable ground plan which is almost impossible to discern or make sense of from the ground. Various key aspects of the building are marked out in low walls, paving slabs and large stone cubes. I am not sure when this was done – perhaps in the 1995 refurbishment mentioned on the plaques.

chruch walls low resOn one of my first visits to the park in 2013, a small pile of coins had built up on one of these stone cubes, mostly coppers.

coins on the cube low res

At some point in the recent past, an artist called Grotbags used one of these cubist blocks to display dominoes made from cigarette packets. Death in little black boxes.

dominoes by grotbags

The exploded plan of this church is most effectively viewed from the air (or google earth), where its symmetrical design and layout becomes apparent. (I had drawn an annotated plan of the park to show this, but lost it, very much in keeping with this emergence of this post.) The church therefore is almost impossible to appreciate from the ground, an abstract collage of stonework and slabs. Laying out the ground plan of an old ruinous structures is a classic heritage technique used to illustrate historic and Roman buildings, and I can think of many similar examples I have visited where wall foundations, doorways and internal features are visible in manicured grass to give a 2D impression of a 3D building. Yet this is a much more impressionistic interpretative version of the church….and the walls are curiously similar to those at the partially reconstructed Neolithic village of Barnhouse in Orkney (which itself had at its centre the church-like House 8).

barnhouse photo

Barnhouse Late Neolithic building reconstruction on Orkney (photo by Sigurd Towrie)

 

There is a lot to make sense of here already – an abstract church, destroyed by a firestorm from the air, now preserved in stone and slabs. Around this, a grassed over cemetery. And then there is the stone circle. Or rather, stone spiral.

red tree and park low res

Tucked into the back corner of the park, hidden behind trees, a hedge and various additional concrete blocks which appear to have been scattered randomly (perhaps leftovers), is a remarkable spiral structure consisting of a series of  flat standing stones. These are embedded in the hedgerow and are mirrored by a narrow paved pathway, drawing the visitor into the vortex. The stones sit side on to the flow of the spiral, acting more as orthostats than single uprights, giving this monument the feel of an Orkney tomb like Midhowe (another weird Orkney connection).

stone spiral 1 low res

stone spiral 2 low res

stone spiral 3 low res

In the centre of this spiral lies an altar or shrine with a basin on top, usually filled with rainwater, leaves and coins (at least when I have visited). Perhaps it is a bird bath. This concrete cube sits within a cobbled circle with more of the rough stone cubes found across the park on its fringe.

shrine low res

Here I have to be honest. When I initially researched this stone circle, I am sure I discovered that it was a monument to African slaves, but I confess the definitive version of this information and the source alludes me at this time. Certainly the monument has a certain calm beauty to it despite its urban location.

memorials low res

And the circle sits in an area of the park that has become a memorial – to friends, to family members. Just beside the standing stones, small improvised shrines have begun to emerge amidst the flowers and the trees. Some of these are for named individuals, such as Souvik Pal, a student whose body was found in a Manchester canal in January 2013.

souvik pal memorial low res

I want to stop my story here, in the spirit of keeping things simple. This lovely park is well worth a visit, not just for the hidden megaliths with the mysterious meaning, but also for the flowers and memorialisation of the dead, both recent and Victorian, and for the demolished church, and for the things left on the stone blocks, and the graffiti, and even the stuff that hangs from the trees.

It is also a perfect place to have lunch in the sun. All Saints and no saints. Sinners and sandwiches.

tree hanging

John Hyatt and Craig Martin’s artwork, Fireflies in Manchester

I was in Manchester again a few weeks ago, and once again looked in on the park, although this time rain got the better of me, and I turned and walked away back to the city centre, beneath the motorway which seemed to have been emptied of the homeless people who usually congregate there, urban casualties in their concrete cocoon.

I am drawn to this place, fated to keep coming back to the roads and the park, the angles of the concrete, the impossible juxtapositions.

Urban parks can be special places – and All Saints Park is a very special place.

Sources and acknowledgements: some of the images used above have been ctedited to external sources already. The photo of the church being demolished was sourced from a website dedicated to curating old photos of Manchester. The Barnhouse photo comes from Sigurd Towrie’s excellent Orkneyjar website (note, how can I not have a photo of Barnhouse in my own collection?). The David Dixon photo is reproduced under the terms of a creative commons licence. All the other photos are my own.  For more information on Fireflies in Manchester, follow this link. I have no idea who Grotbags is.  

If anyone has any information about the spiral stone circle, I would love to hear from your, just contact me below the post..