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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.


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.  






8 Dec


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.


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.


The Ulster Ash Grove monument, deploying standing stones and megalithic boulders (Image source:

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


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: Date unknown

Dog in pond Angelfire

Date and dog unknown. Note the green placque on one stone, pictured below. Source:

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


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.


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 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.


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.


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:


former All Saints Church burial ground



improved the square in 1995 for the benefit

of both its students and the general public.

This is still consecrated ground


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 (

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..




The statue got me high

13 Mar

general site view low res

>> the statue got me high <<

A megalithic landscape has been created in an abandoned open cast mine on the edge of the town of Sanquhar, Dumfries and Galloway. It is the Crawick Multiverse. Opened to the public in June 2015, and ten years in the planning and making, this ambitious landform was created by the artist Charles Jencks and funded by the Richard Scott (aka the Duke of Buccleuch). The complex of stone circles, stone rows, megaliths and mounds represents grand cosmic themes:

This world-class landscape art design links the themes of space, astronomy and cosmology, creating a truly inspiring landmark that will appeal to everyone from art enthusiasts and scientists to the wider community.

This is a truly impressive place on an awesome scale, and I have now visited it twice: once when construction was well underway in June 2014, and again in February 2016. The scale and ambition of the venture, and the aspiration to revitalise a ruined post-industrial landscape, are impressive. But yet I can’t help having reservations. There is a curious lack of acknowledgement that the created forms have prehistoric origins, with the cosmic meanings always to the fore. And I also wonder how much the local community will benefit from the Crawick Multiverse.

alan overlooking all low res

I am a great proponent of the value and utility of constructing megalithic monuments today and tomorrow, rather than seeing such structures as just belonging to the ancient past – but in doing so we also need to give a good deal of thought about who will benefit and the messages megaliths can convey. The messages I got at Crawick were decidedly ambiguous as soon as I stepped back from the initial shock and awe of the experience. This post has allowed me to explore my surprisingly ambivalent reaction to a place – a landscape – that I feel I should love, but can’t.


 >> the stone, it called to me <<

Our minibus wound along the A76, travelling from New Cumnock towards Sanquhar. To the north the land was scarred by huge opencast mines, the earth being emptied of its resources in a quite brutal fashion, although in this post-coal age these scars in the land are about to become post-industrial. Gavin MacGregor was leading the field trip, and I was driving, with our destination, at that point, shrouded in mystery, as Gavin had intended all along.

Just before we got to Sanquhar, and as we passed an old military hospital to our right, Gavin indicated we turn left and I did so, steering the deep blue bus and our passengers up a minor road and beneath a railway bridge. On the horizon to our left was an old mining bing, and atop this sat several standing stones, which I was fairly sure were new additions to the skyline. As we heading up an even smaller road into what appeared to be an active quarry site, we were greeted by dozens of similar standing stones in various arrangements, as well as several large yellow diggers rolling back and forth in a dusty beige desert. This working site, this quarry, was punctuated by grey dusty zones and unkempt green sprouting grass, while bing-drumlins and spoilheap-aretes loomed over us to the north and west. Some of these anthropomorphically generated landforms had been further altered, with paths and cairns scraped from the land, with a purpose as yet unclear.

machines low res

Leading off from the area where we parked up the minibus was an avenue of megaliths, an arrow-straight line hundreds of metres long flanked on both sides by standing stones: scores of them.

avenue low res

These straddled an amphitheatre of Classical form, suggesting a chronological and spatial mash-up was being created, while dolmen and standing stones in various arrangements emerged from the side of the avenue. There seemed to be hundreds of megaliths, disappearing off into an invisible point in the distance, an impossible arrangement that defied the material realities of what is just ‘some art in an old mine’. The illusion of infinity was one that was first attempted at Carnac, Brittany, in the Neolithic where thousands of standing stones set in painfully glorious rows go on for ever and ever, transcending time, offering the maddening possibility of counting the stones, reaching the end of the monument, which of course can never happen, really. Walking along such avenues is not about walking from A to B but from travelling from Now to Then. Or Then to Now if you are able to make the return journey, which not everyone can. To have one’s mind blown is not such a bad thing when it is being blown by a million megaliths. And my first experience of the Multiverse was on the verge of doing just that.

mound low res

Actually: this is Carnac. This is Silbury Hill. This is Croft Moraig. This is Bargrennan. This is amazing! Or is it? The contrived nature of this construction site left me queasy, megaliths arranged with clinical precision, where even the casually leant standing stone was an act of proficient design. The fragmented standing stones, shedding pieces of themselves into cairns around their base, was a convenient organic effect, cultivated and left un-checked. The heavy machinery creeping around me had touched and lifted standing stones in a transactional way that could not replicate the pull of the rope, the touch of many hands. The act of translating the vision of the artist and the desire of the wealthy landowner into reshaping the land from industry to art was far too tidy and clean for my liking. Prehistory was dirty, dangerous, unpredictable, improvised. Heavy industry was dirty, dangerous, unpredictable, improvised. There was little sense of any of these qualities at the nascent Multiverse, which was when I first visited in effect incarnate and not yet fully realised and so I left my concerns to one side and took lots of photos in the dying light.

B2 compressed 25%


>> the monument of granite sent a beam into my eye <<

 Approximately 2,000 boulders have been used to create the Crawick Multiverse site

The Sun amphitheatre can hold 5,000 spectators

The north-south line comprises approximately 300 boulders

The site spans approximately 55 acres

The Northpoint provides a 20-mile 360 degree panoramic view

Around 300 boulders were used to create the Multiverse landform [source]


>> it took my hand, it killed me, and it turned me to the sky <<

This landscape of megaliths and mounds represents the multiverse, a concept borrowed from the wilder edges of physics, which refers to the theory that there are multiple universes that exist parallel to one another. Every element of the Crawick Multiverse is a designed element, the vision of the artist made material – and very much in the spirit of other landforms by Jencks such as The Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries. There is a real sense of order about this place, a narrative to be followed, changes underfoot and the choreography of bodily movement signalling a transition into a new aspect of the cosmos and a new set of meanings. There are boundaries and divisions evident everywhere: a division horizontally into ‘four ecologies’ (grassland, mountains, water gorge, desert); a division vertically into a ‘high road’ and a ‘low road’; the classification of every element of the complex into named zones and monuments (the  North-South path, the Amphitheatre, the Supercluster). This is stylised and rule-bound landscape: made of materials from a singularity of concentrated industrial destruction in an unusually creative Big Bang.

reflections low res

A map to the stars is provided for visitors to help make sense of this four-dimensional experience and this includes more detailed interpretations of the key elements of the landscape for the benefit of the visitor, as none of this is really self-evident. The artist as god, create now, explain later, leave a little mystery, and don’t walk on the grass while you’re at it.

map low res

Descriptions of each element emphasise the cosmological and astronomical inspiration for Jencks’s landscape installation. The Supercluster for instance represents ‘the forming of our universe and its place within the cosmos’ with an abstract jigsaw of triangular mounds held together by the ‘rivers of gravity’. The Sun Amphitheatre is all about the ‘beauty of a total eclipse’ while three Comet Shelter Points can be found across the site. At the northern end of the complex sits an artificial mound topped with a spiral setting of large standing stones, some with lines carved upon them. This megalith is the Multiverse itself, ‘the whole ensemble of universes’.

Multiverse low res

The Belvedere Finger sites atop the highest point of the site, on another mound with another spiral path to the top. It is capped by a spectacular plinth upon which a viewing board – the Northpoint Sign – is placed, and it affords views right down the North-South megalith avenue. This is an eccentric plinth – a lectern – a music stand holding a semi-mythical manuscript mapping the surrounding landscape. This is surely also the control panel for a spaceship with information encoded with our origins, found deep within the coal, to help us read the land. The sacred geometry of the ancient past exposed: ‘Cairns’, ‘River Nith Barrow’, ‘Sean Caer Fort’, ‘St Brides Church’. The bones of the land.

the control panel map low res

Has this spaceship just landed, or is it about to take off? Are these our instructions to achieve escape velocity: or colonise planet earth?

the control panel low res


>> A rock that spoke a word (an animated mineral, it can be heard) <<


Position yourself at the control panel of a megalithic spaceship that landed on planet earth –

Landed here, thousands of years ago, when we were still prehistoric –

Adjust yourself –

Calibrate –

Close the air locks –

Set the controls to transcend time –

Place your hand upon the lever and pull back –

Pull back hard –

Warp speed, warp space, warp time –

Find the booster –

Turn on the thruster –

Feel the throb of the stones beneath your feet –

The energy beneath your feet –

Un-docking procedures initiated –

Into the multiverse.


>> (and now I see the things the stone has shown to me) <<

There is another modern megalithic monument nearby, just outside the town of Dalmellington in East Ayrshire. Erected for the millennium, ‘The Standing Stones of dael meallain tuinn’ is a monument to mining, a marker recognising that this is land that has been worked by people for thousands of years.

seven stones low res

The use of rocks for standing stones here is not about the cosmos, but about the earth itself, looking to the ground, not the sky. Consisting of an arc of seven standing stones set on a crescent-shaped mound the name of this monument means ‘the meeting place at the mound with the motte’. The invocation of a motte here in the monument name hints that this is a central point, a place of justice, a parliament.

stones and pennyvenie bing low res

Behind the stones sits Pennyvenie coal bing, another industrial Silbury Hill. And like the Multiverse Silbury Hills, these standing stones and the fabric of this monument are made from industrial debris, offered up by the earth. But unlike the Multiverse, this simple, austere monument captures much more poignantly the heavy industry that preceded it. This is a thoroughly rooted monument, with connections as deep as a seam of coal.

the gate and the fence low res

This megalith sits at the entrance road to an open cast mine / quarry, the last and ugly vestiges of the coal industry that once dominated the Doon Valley. But access to the standing stones appears not to be encouraged, restricted by a locked gate and warning signs, and so detaching the stones from the communities which they represent. Because the seven stones represent seven mining settlements – Dalmellington, Bellsbank, Burnton, Craigmark, Benquhat, Pennyvenie, Waterside – a Proclaimers-like roll call of towns and villages entangled with heavy industry and the extraction of minerals from the earth, villages and towns forever associated with our changing and voracious energy demands.

Heavy industry created communities but also caused dislocation and ensured the disempowerment of those communities: the locked gate, the entrance fee, maintain this status quo.


>> They pale before the monolith that towers over me <<

My second visit to the Crawick Multiverse, 20 months after the first, was a very different affair. Again, I was on a fieldtrip and again I was driving a minibus with Gavin taking the lead, but this time the minibus was silver. We arrived in the car park for the Multiverse around 3.30pm with blue skies and the orange setting sun casting our long shadows onto the footpaths and fences. It was interesting to note that the Multiverse still doesn’t merit a Brown Sign all of its own on the A76, almost as if it is still on probation as a proper tourist attraction.

We were introduced to the landscape by one of the staff and he handed out A3 colour maps (see above) which included brief descriptions of the key elements of the Multiverse. The trappings of a fully open tourist attraction are beginning to emerge where before there had been a just been a rough quarry road: fences, gates, car park, noticeboards and a portaloo were in place, with the focal being being a temporary ticket office in the form of a portacabin where it is possible to purchase mugs and postcards.

noticeboard low res

We followed one of the two entry pathways and began to head uphill, skirting round a bing, before emerging out onto an escarpment which we followed right to the top. In places this was very steep and muddy. (There are ongoing drainage problems which appear not have been fully resolved although on our arrival it was hinted that an elaborate drainage system had been developed.) We passed a setting of four large standing stones, and as the path up the side of the bing became steeper, so we got increasingly spectacular views to the south and west over an awesome landscape of standing stones and mounds.

walking uphill low res

Towards the top of the ridge we encountered the mound with the huge white viewing map on it (the Belvedere Finger), and wound our way up to the top of this on the spiralling pathway, stopping to take in views from time to time, and look down into a large round hole, filled with water and its own spiral path, the Void Shelter according to our maps. At the centre of this vortex was a flat megalith.

The void shelter low res and colour altered

From these high points of the site it was easy to appreciate the major changes here since our last visit almost two years previously.

Then and now

Beyond the top, one of the Comet Shelters was closed, and the path was roped off in places due to mud and erosion. It’s almost as if the site is trying to return to its previous (pre-)industrial form, defying the careful shaping and health-and-safety requirements of such a visitor attraction. We passed the spiralling Multiverse, essentially a Brittonic megalith, and headed to the spiritual core of this landscape, the Omphalos.

omphalos low res

This was very different from other elements of the complex. It consisted of large red sandstone blocks set into a megalithic chamber, with an austere iron gate, while an iron grid also overlay the top, making entry almost impossible, and certainly not permitted. The map describes this place as the Omphalos, the ‘centre or navel of the world’ – the interior megaliths are ‘special rocks’ representing the ‘mythical or actual centre of the world’. The unusual restriction of access, red rocks and harsh metal elements gave this a very different feel from the rest of the installation. As we stood here, the setting sun turned this megalithic wall and chamber ahead of us into a deep orange to blood red, and we were afforded fine views along the North-South path. From A to B, past to present, looking through megaliths to a railway viaduct and Sanquhar resting below.

North South path with filter


>> The stone it calls to you (you can’t refuse to do the things it tells you to) <<

What do I think about it all? Superficially it is awesome, with the scale and ambition matching some of the great building projects of prehistory. But this also leads me to deeper reflection on the curious lack of prehistory within this land art. Perhaps it is so in–your-face and explicit that the site consists of hundreds of standing stones and several megalithic arrangements that it need not be mentioned. But there appears to be an almost perverse desire to dress up the meaning and utility of this place in cosmic terms, deliberately (for it can only be deliberate) making little or nothing of the quite obvious Neolithic elements that abound in this old quarry. This is weird because visitors do latch on to the prehistoric parallels quite readily: Trip Adviser users have called it ‘Stonehenge 2’, ‘a modern Stonehenge’ and ‘a modern ancient site’. An FT journalist who wrote about the Multiverse (link below) noted: “The great avenue, pointing towards a nearby viaduct and more distant hills, has the cryptic simplicity of a Neolithic alignment”. And multiple allusions to megaliths, Stonehenge, Carnac and so on can be found online.

opening ceremony from BBC website

The opening ceremony, June 2014 (source: BBC)


What is going on here? Why does the published material related to the Multiverse almost entirely ignore the prehistoric appearance of this place, and focus instead on the industry and local landscape (a little) and the cosmos (a lot)? It is almost as if there is a desire to reach for the heavens and the future, rather than back into the past. Yet this is a landscape that has depth and has been occupied for thousands of years. This is celebrated on the noticeboard for the Dalmellington seven standing stone monument which says:

‘For over 6000 years there have been settlements around the Loch Doon area, and in particular the Doon Valley’.

The Multiverse is not the first megalithic construction in this landscape and it will not doubt not be the last. The past, present and future are entangled in stone in this place, mined and quarried to make monuments, mined and quarried to extract coal and other minerals, mined and quarried to pluck large rocks from the pit to repurpose as modern megaliths. All these actions are about power, about the economy, about people living and working together. The Multiverse represents another part of the biography of this land – but so far, just one small part, standing on the shoulders of megalithic giants and the labour of mining communities.


>> And what they found was just a statue standing where the statue got me high <<

 What it the Multiverse for? To what end has something like £1 million been spent (the figure widely quoted in the media)? Who benefits?

There is no doubt that the Multiverse is a timely intervention, largely economic and social, although it has also addressed a literal hole in the landscape. An article on Crawick that appeared in the Financial Times suggests that motivations included improving the quality of landscape that had been essentially sucked dry and then abandoned by an opencast mining company, much to the dismay of local people. Another motivation was as prosaic:

‘to help revive the local economy, hit hard by the demise of the mining industry and by the fact that the region is, in tourism terms, a backwater: the Crawick Multiverse could be a much-needed draw.’

There is also no doubt a degree of a very wealthy landowner using a chunk of his money philanthropically to support the arts. Charles Jencks himself has said, “This work of land art, created primarily from earth and bounders on the site, celebrated the surrounding Scottish countryside and its landmarks, looking outwards and back in time”. This could be viewed as a generous act of largesse, or a rich man’s privilege, depending on your perspective. It is probably a bit of both.

mosaics low res

But what do local people actually think about this place? What value for money do they feel has been squeezed from a millionaire’s spare million quid? There was an aspiration early in the process to give free access to local people I believe, although I can’t find any evidence that this has actually been implemented. Certainly, it is free to visit on foot after hours when the car park is closed – but this applies to everyone and anyone, not just locals. (Ironically, Buccleuch recently courted minor controversy with a plan to charge for access to another of the Duke’s estates, Dalkeith Country Park in the evenings.) I am not sure how many jobs have been created either – were the staff working for the Estate anyway, or have new posts been created? As yet, it is too early to assess how strong visitor numbers are, or how many of those visitors also pop into town and have lunch or spend money in local shops. Mosaics on site created with local schoolchildren (see photo above), and talk of school and educational visits, suggest another benefit which could emerge through time.

Perhaps if the Crawick Multiverse can genuinely catalyse economic regeneration, create jobs and revitalise interest in this forgotten corner of Scotland, then the gesture of the Duke and the creative genius of Jencks will be vindicated. But if this turns out to be art for arts sake, an industrial-scale folly, visited by those with cars, excluding large chunks of the population, an elitist attraction, then perhaps something else should have been done with this huge hole and the money to help the local community.

Sources and acknowledgements: the title of this post and the subheadings are all taken from the They Might be Giants 1992 song The statue got me high (from the album Apollo 18). Information about the Crawick Multiverse came from their website (including the quote near the start of the post and the list of stats that make up the third section of this post) and the map handed out to visitors (a few extracts of which are included in the post). Thanks to the Estate for allowing us access to the Multiverse during construction, and informative conversations with staff on both visits, and thanks also to Gavin for facilitating the visit in 2014. The opening ceremony image was sourced from a BBC story about this event, source link in caption. Finally, thanks to all of those who joined me on those two fieldtrips, chats during walks around the Multiverse helped shaped my own thoughts.