Tauroctony

Slaying the bull, a cult in the city.

Capital beneath the capital.

The London Mithraeum, and the corruption of prehistory.

Excavation in 1954 © The Times / News Syndication

The Mithraeum in London was found and excavated in the early 1950s as part of a campaign of work by archaeologist WF Grimes to explore ruins and bombsites created by the Second World War. Hints of this structure were found in 1952 when the Walbrook waterway was identified, and full exposure and excavation happened in 1954. As well as the remarkable architecture of this riverside Temple, carved stone fragments were also found including parts of the god Mithras himself.

Rex / BBC

Some 400,000 flooded to visit these excavations, in advance of commercial redevelopment. The initial discovery was memorable and powerful, as documented by an oral history project (instigated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MOLAS) and Bloomberg). In some cases a visit to the site stimulated a lifelong interest in archaeology. This kind of public interest, and pressure, as noted by Mike Pitts (Digging up Britain), forced the developer to “rebuild the temple foundations within the new office block” some 100m from where it was found. This replication only came after a period of storage in a nearby builders yard, and seems to have been something of a hasty and mishandled compromise. Thus began what might be termed the ‘peripatetic’ (source) life of this monument, and an entanglement with City of London money.

The first rebuilding of the Temple in a yard ( The Sphere, 23 October 1954, Image © Illustrated London News Group), source: Flickering Lamps blog)

For many decades the Temple lay hidden in plain sight beside Queen Victoria Street, about 100m from its original location. Orientated north-south rather than east-west it looked every inch a shallow ruin, “embedded in concrete outside Bucklersbury House” (Great Wen blog). The general consensus as far as I can tell from blogs and memories of this incarnation of the Temple was rather sad and lost. Mike Pitts has described this location as, “a weed-grown pavement ornament collecting food wrappers wafted by passing buses” (Digging up Britain (2019), pg. 64). Not the kind of deposition that the acolytes of this mystery cult had in mind, but certainly an ordeal – a trial – for this building.

Original source: unknown

But thanks to unfettered capitalism, the Mithraeum moved again! In 2010, the development merry-go-round began once again, the churn of new-for-old office blocks meaning the end was finally nigh for Bucklersbury House. Unlike the Temple of Mithras, this structure was not dismantled brick by brick and put into storage, having little value other than as a testament to really really boring post-war architecture, of which there are and remain many better examples.

Excavations in the 1990s and 2000s in advance of massive shiny (but still boring) new office blocks at Poultry and then Bucklersbury revealed loads more evidence for Roman occupation of this area documented nicely by Mike Pitts in Digging up Britain (page 64 onwards) and this book produced by MOLA. This development also posed a fundamental threat to the the Temple itself, but the developer, Bloomberg, committed to give a permanent new home to the Temple more or less where it was found in the 1950s.

There is no doubt that the construction of the European headquarters of this massive information and media company allowed a lot of archaeology to be found. There is also no doubt that Bloomberg were keen to celebrate, embrace and (let’s be honest) exploit these discoveries, probably due to a mixture of a genuine sense of duty and some of that reputational boosting feelgood magic dust that only deep time can sprinkle. Don’t take my word for it, this is Michael R Bloomberg in the 2017 book (link above) called Archaeology at Bloomberg:

As steward of this ancient site and artefacts,
Bloomberg has embraced the City of
London’s rich heritage. And as a company
that is centred on communication – of data,
information, news, and analysis – we are
thrilled that Bloomberg has been at the core
of a project that has provided so much,
hugely important, new information about the
character and development of Roman
London during its first century of existence.

Before reaching its current original – final – resting place, the Mithraeum moved again, being constructed and deconstructed more times that one would normally expect even for a Roman site. Sadie Watson who ran many of the excavations around this bit of London told me that before reaching its current location, the Temple was moved and rebuilt temporarily to Battersea. The remarkable resilience of this structure is testament both to the original builders and the skills of archaeologists.

Source: Pitts 2019

And so eventually, in November 2017, the Temple of Mithras had been moved back to more or less where it had been found by Grimes, and was opened to the public within and beneath the huge shiny gold Bloomberg HQ building. Located 7m beneath street level, it offered the opportunity for a free archaeology experience in the heart of the city of London, and I have been lucky enough to visit twice since then (in November 2019 and October 2022). One thing that was noticeable on both visits was that there were primary school groups there, so this is clearly a popular educational visit.

Discourse around discoveries made at the Mithraeum are rooted in the world of commerce and finance as befitting a site that sits near the heart of the City of London, a gold bar’s throw away from the Bank of England. Or as Peter Ackroyd would have it, “…where the clerks of the Empire tossed their pens into the water” (London the Biography (2000), pg 27). Perhaps this is inevitable, with the survival of the Temple and its current fancy latest incarnation down to the largesse and riches of Bloomberg.

The materials on display reinforce this connection between ancient London and finance, with an obsessional focus on one type of object found during the MOLA excavations – wooden tablets with legible words impressed into them. One dates back to between AD43 and 53. Ghostly Latin words captured some sentiment about a debt and a poultry-keeper. Pitts notes that this tablet is concerned with ‘finance’ and notes also another tablet dated to 8 January AD57 is also concerned with finance, this one being an IOU. In the wall of artefacts on the ground floor of the Mithraeum experience, the caption for this latter tablet reads: “the oldest record of a financial transaction in the city of London”. This stuff isn’t subtle.

The mystery religion of Mithras was, therefore, replaced simply by the mystery of the markets. Occult practices that shape our lives today with their origins millennia ago. Merlin Coverley included the Temple of Mithras in his occult gazetteer of London (Occult London (2008), pg. 136), suggesting that this riverside cult centre set in motion an almost unbroken sequence of the performance of all-male dark arts in this place.

Visiting the Mithraeum is less of an archaeological deep dive and more an exploration of the murky world of secret, unattainable knowledge. In many ways this is a shame, as the nakedly capitalist agenda and the overwhelming miasma of big money almost overcomes what should be a simple exploration of a place of worship. When I was there all I could think about was that this was the corruption of prehistory. As Pitts has noted, “There was no London at all before Rome invaded in AD43”, but there was a whole lot of prehistory out there to inculcate into pseudo-capitalistic practices and tensions.

This is mediated through a multi-media immersive experience of the Temple. Booked timeslots manage the flow of punters, offering a sense of control and selectivity of those allowed in which again reflects the original purpose of this structure. (Although to the great credit of Bloomberg this is a free attraction, unusual in London.)

There is a gallery – the Space – with temporary art exhibits, and a large wall display of objects from various excavations in this block, displayed in a clinical and stylised fashion, with additional information mostly held on tablets that visitors can consult. Thus we have tablets about tablets and all the other Roman rubbish on display Tetris style.

From here one descends, of course a literal realisation of the subterranean nature of the Mithras experience, to 7m below current pavement level. A schematic section drawing of London lines the side of the stairs, allowing one to descend as if on an elevator through an excavation, unpeeling layers, identifying key moments in the time – the great fire of London! The blitz! Once at the bottom, one enters a dark room with black walls, some touchscreen installations, and ghostly figures projected onto the wall. Music and words float in the air, some from archaeologists, and with a narration by Joanna Lumley. A sense of tremendous anticipation is set up by this gloomy space, with tightly wound tourists pacing beside the closed door that will – when opened – allow access to all that matters, the much-moved Mithraeum.

Down another set of stairs, a performative space is entered, with the ruinous Mithraeum spreadeagled in the centre of a large room, surrounded by a glass walkway and fence, in essence a viewing platform.

The lights gets dimmer and mist starts to form, creating a weird barrier of light around the ruins. Sounds become apparent too, footsteps, chattering voices, a ghoulish horn that reminds one of the opening Germanic battle scenes in Gladiator. Latin chanting begins and there are some groans and animated discussion just beyond the scope of our understanding. A neon tauroctony scene lights up the business end of the Temple, a high-tech version of the hole-and-candle altar to be found at Carraburgh Mithraeum on Hadrian’s Wall. Suddenly it stops and after a photo op, visitors can return back above ground, back to the future and the bustle of London. What passed between these visitors alone with their own thoughts in the darkness, deep in the sweat and pain of pathetic elitism, must remain a mystery.

This is a powerful location, on the banks of the buried and largely lost Walbrook, close to the magical London Stone (which I blogged about in 2018). It feels like a location that has depth enough to enflame solitary male rage, echoes of the bull being slaughtered. Because this bloody act – the Tauroctony – lies at the heart of Mithraism, an eternal chase across the University to kill the bull. This is about men getting their hands dirty, doing what has to be done, whatever the cost. In the streets above this monument to self-serving brutality, pubs in the area heave in the early evening with men in suits holding long thin pint glasses of lager. They smell of booze, of money, of mundane masculinity.

During my most recent visit, a stripped to the waste lone guy climbed onto a Starbucks on Walbrook and started throwing rocks at the windows of a mirrored office block. As we watched from Cannon Street, he restlessly prowled back and forth, ranting. The motivations of this topless shouting man hurling rocks at capitalist totems was never made clear: was he slaying the bull or had the bull slayed him?

The London Mithraeum has at its heart the violent act of slaying the bull, the obsessional and bloody outcome of this mystery religion. On my first visit in 2019 I was disturbed by the violence – the capitalist cult – of this place. and what its location represents today. For London, the coming of money, and this mystery religion, meant nothing would ever be the same again.

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Antiqua sub urbana

For most people, decolonial narratives are largely confined to the world of academics and cultural organisations getting on and doing this good work, except when government ministers and journalists decide to make a scary anti-woke fuss about it. However, in spring 2021, as we emerged from yet another lockdown, a carved critique of familiar colonial narratives was erected on a pavement in the centre of Falkirk, a statement in stone aimed at giving back agency to Iron Age people who once lived in this area. This public display of ‘flipping the script on colonial narratives’ as Louisa Campbell has so memorably put it has the power to open up new conversations about both Roman and ‘native’ relations, although there are problematic aspects of this new Antonine Wall distance sculpture that I want to reflect on here.

This political carved stone – a newly created distance sculpture for the Antonine Wall – was installed in central Scottish town Falkirk as part of the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall Project which is delivering a programme of instillations across the five council areas in central Scotland that the Antonine Wall traverses – from west to east, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, and Falkirk. This has included Roman-themed children’s playparks and art installations as well as a series of replica distance sculptures.

Callander Park playpark (photo: Warren Baillie)
The Silvanus sculpture, near Croy, during construction in February 2021 (by Svetlana Kondokova and Big Red Blacksmiths)

For me (as I am not a 7 year-old child), the most exciting is the series of replica sandstone distance sculptures which are (almost all) copies of original carved stones found along the Antonine Wall. These iconic stones included information about the construction of the Wall in that location as well as a good deal of aggrandisement of the Emperor by blowing smoke up his ass in Latin abbreviation format. The Hunterian Museum has a fine collection of these stones, and a range of replicas. These objects are perhaps better known as ‘distance slabs’ but I am in agreement with Campbell’s deconstruction of this terminology.

Screengrab during a talk by Louisa Campbell to Glasgow Archaeological Society in December 2020 (image: NMS)

While much ink has been spilt on the imagery, wording and position of these stones, their study has more recently been elevated by Louisa Campbell, based at the University of Glasgow, whose brilliant analysis using pXRF (portable X-ray fluorescence) and Raman spectrometry has shown that these stones were originally painted, adding to the psychological impact these stones would have had on the indigenous population.

Bridgeness slab colour visualisation (by Lars Hummelshoj, reproduced from Campbell 2020 with permission)

The bold colours such as reds and yellows with white would have added to the effect of these stones as they often depicted poor Iron Age people being trampled under Roman horses or killed by their colonisers, making the locals face up to their trauma on a near daily basis. This was the Iron Age equivalent of the impact of the rich claret of a Hammer Horror film on a cinema audience in 1957 and I suppose in some cases would also have been ‘triggering’ for certain Iron Age people to use contemporary parlance.

The replication of a range of these distance sculptures over the past 18 months does not perhaps present the public with the bold colours of the originals, but nonetheless they do have an impact on the viewer even today as stunning and powerful pieces of art. These were all sculpted old-school style with actual hand tools and real craftsmanship, by artists including City of Glasgow College stonemasonry students. These are generally set into sandstone walls and have accompanying information boards. Jan and I managed to visit all of these, mostly during lockdowns.

The Eastermains sculpture, Twechar, still under wraps in January 2021
Eastermains unveiled by February 2021
The Old Kilpatrick installation, in June 2021
The Arniebog distance stone plinth awaits the distance stone, January 2021, at Auchendavie
Bridgeness, July 2021, an earlier replica with new noticeboards

I must admit that one of the things that always put me off Roman archaeology was the depiction of non-Roman people as ‘natives’, a term I have always found unsavoury. The terminology being used is now changing, and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall team are doing their bit to humanise the ‘defeated’ locals who were no more and no less Iron Age people living a typical farming lifestyle who ended up in the path of an expansionist empire with a professional army. Think of the opening scenes of the movie Gladiator but set in Kilsyth. There is a little content on Iron Age people on the project website, and a wooden Iron Age ‘chief’ stands at the entrance to the Callander playpark. Also included is a (wooden) hoard of Roman coins, of more later.

Callander Park entrance (The Scotsman)

But the most interesting element of this change in messaging about the militarised Roman focus on the Wall is the new Falkirk distance sculpture. This really rather special piece of art was commissioned by the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project with the aspiration of disrupting the colonial narrative of Wall sculpture. The stone itself was designed and carved by Jo Crossland and Luke Batchelor. It depicts a subversion of the normal sculpture imagery, showing Iron Age people at peace in their daily lives or at war defending themselves. By depicting aspects of their lives that are not defined by their defeat and subjugation, it renders local people as active agents, not passive fools.

The sculpture knowingly adopts the tropes of the Roman originals, in terms of composition, writing and the Roman numeral dating (MMXX) but also subverts at every opportunity from language to the pictures. It shows a broch (and indeed there is a rare lowland broch near Falkirk, Tappoch) and a carnyx, the Iron Age battle horn. A Roman soldier is trampled underfoot by a horse, a direct reversal of imagery on stones such as Bridgeness. The stone also acts as a tribute to the ‘legion’ of volunteers who engaged with the project, although to me it works best as a political statement. The commissioning brief for this piece of work asked for such an approach: “The design should include reference to the local Iron Age population…”. 

Louisa Campbell has written about the replica sculptures and in particular the Falkirk example. She notes that the images on this new stone directly respond to consultation responses from the public. “These images explore wider perspectives in the story of the Roman occupation of Scotland as requested by members of the local communities consulting on the project who expressed a desire to incorporate scenes of local people fighting back against hostile Roman attacks” (2021, 21). This is about a desire to see a community marginalised in Antonine Wall imagery and narratives given a voice; it shows an underdog story.

Original drawing by and © Josephine Crossland and Luke Batchelor, first published in Campbell 2021, reproduced here with permission

However, this aspect of the consultation does trouble me a little. Are we in danger of replacing one myth with another, the evil colonist replaced by the noble colonised? The violent imagery on the new distance sculpture may serve for some viewers as a revenge narrative: are you not entertained? This reminds me a little uncomfortably of what many kids who grew up in Scotland at the same time as me thought about the Romans in Scotland – something I recounted in a recent paper about the past and Scotland’s independence referendum:

“…..dogged Pictish resistance against Roman invaders, the unconquerable Scots, in contrast to the English
who folded at the first sight of a Roman ship (a silly mythology engrained in the minds of Scottish
school children of my generation!) (Brophy 2020, 59).

Perhaps unsurprisingly media coverage of this new carved stone focused on the ‘fighting back’ narrative, such as a headline in The Scotsman on 30th April 2020, Northern warriors who fought the Romans in Scotland to be celebrated at Antonine Wall. So there could be a problem with the messaging here. On the other hand perhaps my stance here could be interpreted as victim blaming, not my intention. This is about nuance.

For me, the most significant element of the sculpture occurs in the bottom right-hand corner. Here we have a scene showing the handing over of the hoard of coins from Romans to locals (rendered in wood in the new playpark). This can be interpreted in a number of different ways – a bribe, a payment for services rendered, a transactional arrangement, a gift perhaps creating an obligation. Here we have in one image all of the complexity of the Roman-Iron Age relationship that is not truly reflected in images of violence regardless of who the perpetrator is, because not everyone who lived here when the Romans were about was killed, and some may have done rather well out of the situation. This is not to downplay the physical and psychological violence of colonisation, but the hoard does allow I think a springboard to open up new conversations amongst the public about the short occupation of southern Scotland. Perhaps more broadly it forces reflection on other colonial narratives, where Scots were the colonists and did the trampling underfoot.

And this is rooted in archaeological reality. The hoard is a real thing, a clay pot found in 1933 containing 1925 Roman silver coins the latest of which date to the 3rd century AD, which is incidentally long after the Wall was built and in use. Were the locals ‘paid to behave‘? Todd in 1985 argued that the hoard “represents payments to a barbarian leader or dynasty in return for the maintenance of peace and order north of the Antonine Wall in the period c AD 160-230” suggesting how complex these colonial relationships probably were. The deposition of these coins, perhaps with ritual overtone as suggested of such hoards in the ScARF Roman panel report, adds another dimension to the significance of this deposit.

The Falkirk hoard (c) National Museums of Scotland

A fragment of textile – a ‘tartan’ – was found with this hoard and this informs the clothing worn in this sculpture by the non-Romans which is a nice touch, but perhaps adds another layer to the rebellious free-spirited Scot narrative that lingers in our national consciousness.

(c) National Museums of Scotland

This new distance sculpture is located on Cow Wynd, a street than runs south from the pedestrianised heart of modern Falkirk. This is also the location of a Roman Fort that once stood here, but now it sits surrounded by a tattoo parlour, a cafeteria, a hair salon and a ladieswear boutique. The closeness to the main shopping strip in town and the thoroughfare of commuters and walkers will ensure that this new monument gets plenty of glances. Those who pause to read the noticeboards and take in the powerful images on the stone might also pause to think, be provoked, by the message that it conveys, propaganda of a very different type to that practiced by the Romans.

Location map of the Falkirk Distance Sculpture (Google Maps)

However, the information board to the right of the sculpture notes that this stone celebrates the native people, a phrase I am uneasy with and I am surprised was included. Indeed I think that more information could have been included here to help the casual passer-by to have an informed perspective on what the carved stone is signifying and how subversive its message actually is. There is no doubt this carved stone will provoke shoppers and commuters as they pass by – exasperans transeuntes – but what message will they read into the scenes depicted?

As Campbell notes, “The depicted scenes conflict with the originals as a means of eliciting an emotional response in the viewer … inviting them to consider different dynamics and new dimensions from the contradictory perspectives of local Iron Age peoples who had a different experience of events than the Roman military personnel that typically frames the narratives of existing scholarship” (2021, 23-4). It would be interesting to do some research around how this carved stone is consumed and what message punters take from it; as ever, texts of any kind convey messages that are difficult to control. There is also an assumption that the reader of this stone has a familiarity with the other distance sculptures and their imagery that are being subverted.

This is an interesting intervention and an innovative way to re-present an often mythologised and misunderstood period of the past of this part of Britain. As a means to challenge colonial narratives I think it is partially successful although it presents a white – and still largely male – version of this story and simplifies some complex issues. This is inevitable given the format that has been chosen to convey the message. Perhaps the contextualisation around this could be stronger, and more scenes that convey non-violent relationships would also have helped.

Heritage is at its best when it discomforts us and forces a re-evaluation of what we think our past was, and so in many ways this carved stone is a success at telling a story about the ancient beneath our feet – antiqua sub urbana. How the stone is consumed by locals and visitors remains to be seen.

Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post owes a lot to Dr Louisa Campbell who brought the Falkirk stone to my attention and shared her expertise with me. Her papers were also very helpful (full references below). Louisa, Jo and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project gave me permission to reproduce images in this blog post for which I am grateful. I would also like to thank the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project and Emma McMullen for help in writing this post.

Sources mentioned in the text (all are open access and available online via links or googling):

Brophy, K 2020 Hands across the Border? Prehistory, Cairns and Scotland’s 2014 Independence Referendum. In Howard Williams, Pauline Clarke and Kieron Gleave (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Archaeopress. Download here.

Campbell, L 2020 Polychromy on the Antonine Wall Distance Sculptures: Non-destructive Identification of Pigments on Roman Reliefs. Britannia 51, 175-201.

Campbell, L 2021 Flipping the Script on Colonial Narratives: Replicating Roman Reliefs from the Antonine Wall. Public Archaeology DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2021.1961438

Todd, M 1985 The Falkirk hoard of denarii: trade or subsidy?, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 115, 229-32.


Seaside rock

Hanging around outside a gents toilets may not seem the most obvious way to do archaeology but needs must. That’s exactly what I did on a recent visit to Southerness, a beach with benefits south of Dumfries.

In many ways Southerness is a throw back to British holiday resorts of old, with its holiday park, amusement arcade, dingy pubs and garish fish and chip shops. Super-sixed plastic ice cream cones are propped outside cafes and it is possible to buy small buckets, spades, fishing nets, flippers and multi-coloured sticks of seaside rock. So it was the last place I expected to stumble upon potentially previously unrecognised rock-art. As part of a wall outside the gents toilet behind the bins.

As Jan and I stood enjoying the sun and our ice cream cones, I noticed a red sandstone block in the wall that had multiple small circular depressions on its surface. After a closer look I felt I could not rule out the possibility that these were cupmarks and that this was part of a larger panel that had been broken up during quarrying. Thankfully I always travel with a scale!

As you can see from these photos, there are no other stones with this pattern, which one could argue suggests that this is not a common natural erosion pattern for this rock. On close inspection the ‘cupmarks’ had regular edges, consistent shape and depth, and did not look natural. Checking along the wall I came across one other piece of rock like this, which had the same characteristics.

I am no expert, and it would need someone from Scotland’s Rock-Art Project (ScRAP) to come down and visually check these two stones and ideally survey the rest of the wall (which is actually quite extensive), but my sense is that there is a decent chance that these are remnants of a prehistoric carved stone that was quarried for wall material. When the wall was built and from whence the stone came from would be interesting to find out, an avenue for future research in the council archives and old maps.

I was heartened also that when I tweeted about this discovery, Joana Valdez-Tullett, an actual rock-art expert with ScRAP, could not rule these stones out this being prehistoric. However Hugo Anderson-Whymark’s (National Museum of Scotland prehistorian) response urges caution, which is fair enough. I’m not sure however that I agree that these marks could have been made by limpets (see here for info and images) but that does not mean we can rule of a natural (or non-prehistoric) causes.

I guess the other thing that makes me confident about my identification is the similarity of the closely-spaced small cupmark design to other panels in the vicinity. In particular it immediately reminded me of High Banks, a wonderful linear outcrop near Kirkcudbright c 24km to the west.

High Banks photographed in 1970s? (c) RCAHMS and now HES

This is an absolute cracker of a rock-art panel that I last visited with Julian Thomas during a day off from excavations at the Holywood cursus monuments in 1997. Carved across a linear group of outcrops some 30m in length, it consists of scores of closely packed cupmarks, some set in parallel lines, as well as other motifs such as cup-and-rings and grooves.

This remarkable panel was replicated as plaster casts which are now propped up outside The Stewarty Museum in nearby Kirkcudbright (a town better known to some as the location of some scenes from the 1973 movie The Wicker Man), a carved stone identity parade.

In themselves these wonderful casts are an urban prehistory pleasure to enjoy, but I won’t dwell on them here as fine words have already been written about these by others such as Gavin MacGregor. Gavin describes this ramshackle collection of carved stones (real and casts) thus:

I quickly looked outside to see a nest of carved stones sheltering together through the ages: piled up in front of the casts, quern stones and fonts, Medieval cross and prehistoric rock art reworked as architectural elements of later buildings.  A glass and steel framed disparate assemblage of esoteric forms revealing : a compelling urge to collect and display over the ages?

Inside the museum is a lovely historic record to accompany the casts, again here I am indebted to Gavin from whose blog I have taken this image.

He also noted that the panel itself had close connection to the artist Edward Atkinson Hornel, who probably first found the rock-art site in 1887, two years before the museum outside the casts are now propped was established.

The aforementioned Hugo of National Museums of Scotland carried out a 3D scan of the cast and was able to compare this with the original, which had been donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1892 before going back to the south-west again. Once again I am prompted to note that there is a wonderful research project waiting to be done on casts (and rubbings) of cup-and-ring marked stones, the value of which has been demonstrated by wonderful research on carved stone replicas by Sally Foster and Sian Jones.

Working version of the scan, tweeted by Hugo in March 2020 (c) NMS

So the Southerness stones are not out of character for rock-art in this part of Scotland, and it is also not unique to find a carved stone built into a wall. Joana Valdez-Tullett very kindly sent me a list of such sites suggesting this practice has been going on for 2000 years. Some of these are cup and cup-and-ring marked stones built into the walls of Iron Age structures such as souterrains and brochs. These include Kildrummy, Tealing and Leckie – clearly deliberate acts of inclusion which suggest a fascination with the past in this period.

However, there are closer parallels to Southerness in Scotland in terms of inclusion in post-medieval and modern walls. Here are the five examples identified by Joana; all images are from the ScRAP website. In four cases these are large stones that must have acted as wall foundations, so there is pragmatism at work here but perhaps also some stone dyker aesthetics.

Kinmylies, near Inverness, Highland: a stone with 26 cupmarks and three ‘dumbbells’ set near the base of stone dyke.

Glasvaar 4, near Ford, Argyll & Bute: built into a garden wall, a stone with multiple carvings. Nice! One of several carved stones in this location, but the only one wall-bound.

Others are similar. Kilmahumaig 1, near Kilmartin, Argyll and Bute, is a stone with a large carved basin set into a wall in the grounds of a fancy house, while Druim Mor 2, north of Dingwall, Highland, consists of a cracking block with 24 cupmarks on it near the base. The wall denotes the edge of a Christmas tree plantation, so paganism is alive and well in this location.

Helmsdale, Highland: a rather different – urban – setting, and this one reminds me a lot of Southerness. The cupmarked stone is part of a wall, a former building, on Stittenham Road. It is a stone that has been broken from a larger panel, with 16 cupmarks, some of which may be natural. I’ve driven through Helmsdale many times over the past few decades but not stopped to look at this before; I will next time.

As it happens, I was fortunate enough to document a stone with a single cupmark built into a garden wall at Auchnacraig 1, West Dunbartonshire, during my excavations there in 2019. This was spotted by Gavin MacGregor during a visit to the site and is another aspect of the connection between 20th century garden landscaping and rock-art in this locale.

Joana also included in a list she sent me rock-art on gateposts, sitting beside walls, and stones found on estates that may once been included in walls. The latter case is Kirkdale House, Dumfries and Galloway, where a small shack has been constructed that contains six carved stones of various sizes and forms. This collection is located west along the coast from Kirkcudbright.

Wonderful sketch of the Kirkdale group, from the ScRAP record for this site.

So being moved and stuck into a wall is a rare but not isolated phenomenon in other words so on this basis we cannot rule out Southerness being genuinely prehistoric in origin.

What is seaside rock? Wikipedia defines it as ‘a type of hard stick-shaped boiled sugar confectionery most usually flavoured with peppermint or spearmint’ but perhaps the most notable thing about this tooth-breaking sweet is the presence of words that run along the entire length of the sticky stick. There is something magical about this, and the process by which this happens is remarkable and surprisingly physical (although I guess this is now probably all done by robots and machines).

Of course rock does not have to be bought or branded at the seaside, although it often is. Rock-art is the same of course, sometimes located on the coast but not always. The writing that runs through the heart of a stick of rock – SOUTHERNESS – tells us something of the character of this product and where it came from (even if it were not made there). In the same way, the crowded cupmarks evident at High Banks and Southerness 1 and 2 (as I will now grandly call them) speak of the character of the region, symbols of such power and tenacity that they ran through the heart of communities like words in a stick of rock. They are distinctive, and deeply embedded.

The two sandstone blocks at Southerness may contain hollows made by people in the third millennium BC, or they may simply be strangely eroded rocks that fortuitously look like they are artificial. If rocks do erode like this along this coastline then perhaps this was what inspired the distinctive look of High Banks? If rocks with this erosion pattern were spotted in the Neolithic, would it have been possible (or even necessary) to see them as either cultural or natural? This distinction was probably not as clear in prehistory if it existed at all.

I am content for these two stones located outside a holiday camp toilet block to be retained in the ‘possible’ file for the time being, and perhaps some future research or fieldwork will shed more light on their origin. Regardless of whether these are prehistoric carved stones or not, they are very much urban prehistory. Go and have a look for yourself and let me know what you think.

Sources and acknowledgements: I am deeply indebted to Joana Valdez-Tullett for her comments on the Southerness stones and also for providing me with a list of rock-art with wall associations in Scotland. The data in that list was brilliant and much appreciated. Thanks also to Hugo Anderson-Whymark for his thoughts.

This blog contains images and details from the work of Scotland’s Rock-art Project, the National Museums of Scotland, and Gavin MacGregor – due credit for these have been included in the text or captions. These images are reproduced with much appreciation and admiration to my talented colleagues.

In the shadow of the Wall

During this third lockdown Jan and I have been travelling around locally quite a lot for walks to visit Roman sites associated with the Antonine Wall, creating some resources for teaching. Having lived in Airdrie for 15 years, it comes as something of an embarrassment to say that I have never fully appreciated that I live, metaphorically at least, in the shadow of the Antonine Wall. This is not something that has ever impacted on my urban prehistorian activities, although on reflection it seems that there is a chronological case to be made that Roman sites should fall within my purview. After all, when the Romans were in the place that we now call Scotland, everyone else belonged to Iron Age cultural traditions. I have blogged before about Roman sites in urban contexts, notably South Shield Roman Fort Arbeia, albeit in the context of this being constructed bang on top of a prehistoric settlement site. Maybe this urban-Roman thing is an itch I now need to scratch. And so this brings me to this blog post which is more of a muse than a focused piece of writing, so please do indulge me.

The street names around South Shields – Vespasian Avenue, Julien Street – came flooding back to me on a recent visit to Bearsden on the north side of Glasgow to visit the Roman bathhouse there. We parked on Roman Road, and at the junction with Roman Drive, turned left. Then we ended up at Roman Court, just across the road from the Antonine House Care Home.

What have the Romans ever done for us? They gave us plenty of ideas for street names.

I have blogged before about the power and potential of street names to capture the archaeology of a place, although usually I have reflected on this in relation to developer-funded excavations at housing estates such as Cowie and Glenrothes. The documentation of the use of Romanised street and business names was one element of an AHRC funded project called Tales of the Frontier (2007-2009). Howard Williams has written about heritage street names too, for instance in relation to Wat’s Dyke (and see Williams 2020) so I won’t say anymore about this although it is a theme that this blog will return to from time to time.

Bearsden Roman bathhouse is a site I have seen photos of many times before but not visited. It has always struck me as the most urban of sites, with pictures almost always taken from the south showing the footings of the bathhouse with brown suburban flats looming over them, residents in the upper floors having a perpetual aerial view of this site. This is the aforementioned Roman Court, private residences which looked to me like they could have been used in a episode of Poirot. Although they are unlikely to be Christie-detective vintage if this 1979 photograph is anything to go by.

The geometrically-shaped flats seem to complement the regimented nature of the bathhouse itself, both spaces that need to be traversed in the correct order of things within the bounds of social convention. The bathhouse itself was something of a disappointment, with only occasional glimpses of the depth of remains and the hypocaust beneath. I prefered the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh, another recent visit.

Both of these bathhouses are stranded in space and time, with the forts that once accompanied them now lost, in the case of Bearsden beneath urban sprawl, in the case of Bothwellhaugh lost to the inundation of Strathclyde Park loch. The latter was so disturbed that the whole bathhouse was dismantled and rebuilt in 1975 in a location that would not be underwater. This was Antonine but set far back from the Wall and frontier, and now sits near the entertainment complex that is M&Ds, ‘Scotland’s theme park’, a venture now lost to the Covid flood.

Another day, another bathhouse, this time in a more standard rural location at Bar Hill, albeit it with spectacular views of the Kelvin Valley that might have occupied the tired soldiers as they dis-robed and prepared for the tepidarium. This structure is barely legible compared to the others, largely succumbing to grass and HES landscaping, but with the usual series of spaces of increasing warmth present and correct. It would not be fair to say that the Romans were predictable, but the presence of Mediterranean style principal’s houses in northern Britain as at Bar Hill and Rough Castle forts does suggest something of a lack of flexibility, maybe also an unwillingness to bend to local weather conditions, the kind of stubbornness that wins you, and the loses, empires.

Photo: Jan Brophy

Bar Hill is also a site that has re-assuring quantities of concrete, setting out the floor plan of the buildings, in a way that very much reminded me of the presentation of Doon Hill Neolithic timber hall in East Lothian, two sites separated by 4,000 years but now with a shared brutal educational aesthetic.

Bar Hill
Doon Hill

I’m sure plenty of concrete lurks within the fabric of the bathhouse in Bearsden, holding it together, binding together the ancient and the twentieth century. There is a synchronicity between the evolving form of these Roman sites and the demands of our modern world that very much interests me, and this had led to the Antonine Wall and its accoutrements having a fleeting presence across Scotland’s central belt, whether escaping in the parks of Falkirk or popping through a crack in a cemetery in Bearsden.

And it to Bearsden we return, to some modest prehistoric activity that is located in the shadow of the Wall, but dates back thousands of years before the relatively fleeting Roman presences in Caledonia. Ahead of the construction of a modest housing development (in size, not in terms of house style) on the very eastern fringe of the town a cluster of prehistoric pits were found by GUARD Archaeology Ltd in 2017-18 and the results of this work were published in the Scottish Archaeological Journal in the early months of this year (Kirpatrick 2021).

Development location outlined in red, and the cemetery and Roman remains (Google maps)

These humble and unspectacular holes in the ground could not contrast more with the might of the Roman wall that passes through a cemetery just a few hundred metres to the north, a cemetery that appears to have been laid out in the shape of a Roman soldier’s head (or is this my imagination?). These pits barely need a formal academic journal publication and yet I am glad they have, and they are sure to be of interest to members of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, which produces this journal.

Archaeologists identified various features associated with human activity in this housing plot, which was at the time a field. This included a group of six shallow pits some of which contained decent quantities of burnt hazel nutshells. Two larger pits were found towards the northwest of the excavation area (numbers 003 and 005) up to 1.65m across and 30cm deep, and nearby a small posthole (009) was found, containing flakes of quartz and quartzite. The former may have been used as a polisher. Radiocarbon dates showed that these features belonged to the sixth to fourth millennium cal BC (late Mesolithic into early Neolithic). Environmental evidence points to a woodland setting. Here we have evidence of a few instances of occupation of this location, with the lighting of fires and preparation of food, nothing more. These are the ghosts that walked this land when the Romans arrived with their disciplined building machine over 3,000 years later, and we might speculate that during wall building operations, the soldiers disturbed similar pits and postholes, churning hazel nutshells and stone tools into the fabric of the border of the Empire, colonizing even the rubbish of the ancestors of the locals.

Of course I had to visit, and so after exploring the bathhouse, Jan and I headed up to Crieff Avenue, the incongruous name given to this development’s single road (why not Campsite Crescent or Quartz Quadrant?). Like so many new housing developments, the place did not yet look worn in, and residents watched us suspiciously as we invaded their weekend peace.

Of course there was no indication that this self-contained little suburb on the urban fringe was once a location where holes were dug, fires were lit, and leather was polished. Why should there be? Bearsden has a heritage that is dominated by the Romans, to the extent that even here there seems to be a touch of their architecture in a children’s play park set up at the centre of this development. I am sure that there is similar wooden playground furniture in a park in the centre of Kirkintilloch, noticed on another recent walk. There are certainly genuine Roman-themed playgrounds across central Scotland thanks to the World Heritage Site delivery team for the Wall, one in each of the five council areas that are straddled by this frontier. But then on Crieff Avenue there is also a wobbly thing shaped like a seal and a cluster of random boulders, so perhaps I am starting to read too much into things. This stuff starts to get to you.

View towards where the two large pits and a posthole were found, with Roman fortification playpark (maybe)

Spending a brief time in this estate-within-an-estate, I confess there was little sense of pastness or heritage here. This small development has radically transformed this location to the extent that former vistas have become impossible to experience, while older neighbouring houses that once had rural views now look onto shiny new houses with butterscotch walls. The excavation images from the report and site archive offer an archival insight into what this place used to look like, how we used to live. There is no point however in bemoaning the uniformity of contemporary housing developments and playparks; I am sure in the Mesolithic one pit looked pretty much the same as any other pit.

Before and after. Arrow shows the same building gable end. Left from Kirkpatrick 2021, right from my visit

This Bearsden visit prompted me to look back on another old urban prehistory project, my quest to find and make sense of a giant head / boat that was eventually tracked down to a scrapyard on the Clyde. During some research into this, I acquired from my parents an old programme for the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival from my parents. This included description of Roman elements in this gargantuan garden-themed event, also on the south bank of the Clyde, namely The Antonine Garden, partially based on the Bearsden bathhouse. So far as I can tell, some of the stonework here was from the actual fort and bathhouse.

Image from the Glasgow Garden Festival programme (1988), original (c) Mitchell Library GC f607.3441443 GLA

The blurb accompanying this image noted that the ‘design emphasised the transition from Roman to Pict’. Other Roman bits and pieces were included here which is nice to know, but having visited this event many times as a 15 year-old I have no memory of this whatsoever.

Weirdly, the Antonine Gardens were then transferred to near Burnbrae Roundabout in Milngavie, another posh suburb of Glasgow near Bearsden. This was the fate of many elements of the Festival which are scattered across Scotland such as the aforementioned giant head or the huge garden tools visible from the M80 at Cumbernauld. This includes a replica mini distance slab and some nifty landscaping in a place that is essentially a busy traffic intersection. The reconstruction of this replica stone-by-stone has curious echoes of the movement of the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh.

Visiting these gardens was the final element of my lockdown walk exploration of the bathhouse and brought home to me once again how entangled these Roman places were with the local Iron Age communities. Or as the noticeboard at the ANTONIVS PIVS garden suggests, the Picts (!?). In the weird internal logic of the noticeboard on site, their territory, ‘Pict Landscape’, is now Waitrose and Aldi supermarkets and a big car park.

To visit these gardens, I left the car (and Jan) in a nearby car park for a pub and Premier Inn. These were closed, the car park empty, a victim of Lockdown 3 regulations. It was an unsettling reminder of our current reality. Yet as I walked back to the car after visiting PIVS gardens, this deserted car park made me think of the empty forts, bathhouses and fortlets that were left behind as the Romans left after their brief occupancy of this area 1800 or so years ago. They left behind them prehistory, but this emptiness was not hopeless, but rather a void within which new opportunities would emerge, focused on a better future.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan for accompanying me on these various walks and also for allowing me the chance to contribute to her teaching despite my obvious lack of knowledge about all things Roman.

I mentioned a few citations in the text:

Williams, H 2020 Living after Offa: place-names and social memory in the Welsh Marshes. Offa’s Dyke Journal 2, 103-40.

Kilpatrick, M 2021 When Birnam Wood rises: prehistoric activity at Birnam Crescent, Bearsden, Glasgow. Scottish Archaeological Journal 43, 69-78.

Great crown of stone

Exactly a year ago, 20th March 2019. the new Sighthill stone circle was officially revealed to the media. Designed, as was the first iteration, by Duncan Lunan, this astronomically aligned stone circle has been constructed as a permanent and unique resource within the emerging new Sighthill just to the north-east of Glasgow city centre.

At the time when this new megalith began to emerge, it sat on a raised island amidst a giant muddy building site. Sighthill itself was yet to be reborn, the old variant having been more or less completely bulldozed and remediated as part of a £250 million redevelopment. The standing stones stood resplendent like teeth, their concrete foundations exposed like white gums. At the time they sat in a noisy landscape of construction, with the closest neighbour being a Mercedes car dealership, a Ballardian crash of epic proportions.

A year on, residential Sighthill is now growing slowly, although the stone circle remains (just) in glorious isolation. It still sits in a brownscape of mud amidst machines of construction, but it is slowly visually and metaphorically being lost in an urban skyline. Yet even now, driving west along the M8 into the city centre, the Sighthill’s second stone circle is a fantastic site / sight, emerging as it does on the horizon off to the left. A similar and wonderful view can be gained by the pedestrian by standing on Baird Street bridge over the motorway.

The stone circle is surely Glasgow’s Angel of the North, a great crown of stone on the horizon.

This photo essay (my rather grand description of what is basically a series of photographs) documents the time I was privileged to spend in and around the stone circle on 20th March 2019 thanks to a kind invitation from Duncan.

Duncan prepares
Media scrum
The gathering
PPE and me
Pilgrims
High vis 1
Mud bath
The mints
Megalith bagging
Camera obscura
Alignment
Photo op
City limits
High vis 2
Through a crack
Great crown of stone
Mounds and megaliths
Artist’s impression of the circle when its new urban setting is completed (artist unknown)

A trick of the light

The standing stone stands outside the shop.

The shop is situated beside the standing stone.

But which came first – the shop or the stone?

Odin stone

This is the new Odin Stone, on the corner of Junction Street and Burnmouth Road, Kirkwall, Orkney. Right across the road from Buster’s Diner and a long stone’s throw from the marvellous Bothy Bar.

It is a replica of the old Odin Stone, which once stood between Maeshowe passage grave and the Ring of Brodgar. This was destroyed by an over-zealous landowner in 1814 and apparently built into a barn.

This is a standing stone that was / is distinguished by it’s hole, through which (reputedly) arms were thrust and within which objects were balanced in ancient rites.

canmore_image_DP00038990
The Odin Stone (right) in 1807. The Watch Stone is on the left.

The new Odin Stone might have been erected to mark the launch of a fancy gift shop in Kirkwall in the early 2000s called Odin Stone. (The ‘the’ was dropped.)

Or was the shop called Odin Stone because there was already a replica Odin Stone on this street corner?

Which came first? What is the stratigraphy here?

Odin Stone shop frontage
From defunct Odin Stone website

It was a nice shop, and sold the kinds of things one would expect to find in a high-end gift and souvenir shop. I once bought a nice butter dish from there and from time to time browsed through boxes of expensive black and white prints with little intention of actually buying one.

One travelogue review described how the Odin Stone (the shop not the old or new standing stone) had the aspiration ‘to honor [the] spirit [of the Odin Stone] by representing local artists and craftspeople’ which is a curiously cynical way of describing what was in fact the kind of shop that one would have expected to do well in the new cruise ship reality of Kirkwall, a reality that has changed the character of the town over the last decade.

But sadly this does not seem to have been the case and on my most recent visit to Orkney in June 2019, the shop was gone. Probably long gone.

The standing stone – the fake Odin – abides though. And there is something rather comforting in that.

General view Odin stone 1

General view Odin stone 2

By the standards of replica megaliths, it is a hole lot of fun.

Through the Odin hole

But what’s this? A new business opportunity has sprung up. The Orkney Experience.

The Orkney Experience

The heavily painted windows make it difficult to see inside but this is clearly not a shop, more of an ‘experience’ as, to be fair, the name suggests. Cruise passenger fodder that promises OPTICAL & ORCADIAN on one window, and ILLUSIONS ARTEFACTS on the other. Beneath these bold words are pictures of a wee monster and someone running away from it, dressed like a stereotypical archaeologist. Wearing the books of a pirate.

He is running for the sanctuary of the Odin Stone.

Optical Orcadian

Illusions artefacts

Much of the imagery on the outside of this building now points towards the Norse heritage of the island, and mythology.

Norse imagery

This painted wall sign, to the side of the shop entrance, actually retains the ‘Odin Stone within the O’ motif of the Odin Stone shop, as demonstrated by the ghost sign of the old shop which still protrudes from one wall albeit with the stone viewed from different directions, inverted versions of one another.

Ghost sign

On another window of the Orkney Experience is a curious optical illusion, an Escher Trilithon, imported from Stonehenge. Beneath it, cards or CDs with standing stones on them line the window sill. A mirage of a man runs past in the rain, mirroring the optical illusions that this place seems to sell, obscuring the Odin Stone’s reflected doppelganger.

A trick of the light.

Illusionary trilithon

What is the Experience that this places sells? Entry has it’s price. I confess I couldn’t be bothered going in. It can’t be that big a place inside (the shop wasn’t) so what does £6.50 get an adult punter? Something like this according to BBC Orkney’s Huw Williams…

Huw

The Experience’s website tempts the prospective customer with this offer: ‘Come and dress like a viking, ‘visit’ a Sanday beach, or be caught by Cubbie Roo the giant’. Making a virtue of a small premises with illusions appears to be the name of the game. From various images available online, this seems to be a place with a complex combination of acrylic paintings that act as optical illusionary photo subjects, dressing up props, and real and replica objects, fixtures and fittings. Such as a Skara Brae dresser.

skara brae
From The Orkney Experience website

Not a lot of the consumer offer appears to focus on prehistory or archaeology however.  Is there no Odin Stone inside?

A magic window
A most marvelous confection
But windows are for looking through
Not for checking out your reflection (Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales)

 

The standing stone stands outside the experience.

The experience is situated beside the standing stone.

There can be no doubt.

This stone came first.

 

Sources and acknowledgements:

The old Odin Stone has National Record for the Historic Environment number HY31SW40

There is a fine account of the unfortunate fate of the original Odin Stone in the Orkneyjar website.

The 1807 drawing of the Odin Stone and neighbouring megalith is (c) RCAHMS / HES and was downloaded from canmore.

The pic of the original Odin Stone shop front came from the now defunct website for the shop – the link won’t go anywhere. 

Thanks very much to Huw Williams for permission to reproduce the photo of him with Cubbie Roo.

The lyrics towards the end of the post come from the track A Trick of the Light from the Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales album Room 29.

Finally, by way of balance, check out the wholly excellent and positive reviews (as of 17/6/19) of the Orkney Experience on Trip Advisor.

The vitrification experiment

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.

 

 

 

Lost world

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

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.