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.
This is not a blog post about the concrete super-structure that holds together and supports the wrong-headed reconstruction of a central cairn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Each says the same thing:
former All Saints Church burial ground
the MANCHESTER METROPOLITAN
improved the square in 1995 for the benefit
of both its students and the general public.
This is still consecrated ground
PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT
Cycling, ball games and the consumption of
alcohol are not permitted, dogs must be on a
leash and litter placed in the bin provided.
This introductory text acts as a gentle warning to park-users and dog-owners, but also as an ode to the park. There is a poetic quality to this potted history, which hints at the protracted and special nature of this places which derives directly from its past use.
This is consecrated ground. PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT.
The dead were laid to rest here, and this was once a sacred site. It isn’t any more, and yet this park cannot escape its past or the rites that were once carried out here. There are bodies beneath the grass and stories to be uncovered beneath our feet.
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.
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.
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.
On 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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
>> 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.
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.
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’.
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.
Has this spaceship just landed, or is it about to take off? Are these our instructions to achieve escape velocity: or colonise planet earth?
>> 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 –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From these high points of the site it was easy to appreciate the major changes here since our last visit almost two years previously.
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.
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.
>> 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.
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 Timessuggests 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.
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.
“What a great welcome, fabulous atmosphere and amazing journey into past myths and legends. ” Mrs W, aged 68
“Tales of joy and tales of fright await the avid listener. And when the excitement of the park becomes too much, visitors can enjoy relaxing refreshments at the Viking Foodship. The Mysterymall Gift Shop has many beautiful and unique souvenirs to take home as a reminder to this truly amazing experience.”
While in Ballachulish on New Year’s Day with friends, I took the opportunity to visit a series of standing stones arranged around and within a car park next to the A82 main road. These spectacular grey granite megaliths do not appear to be ancient – and indeed they are not – so what is their story? Why were they built and when?
The curious answer to this question revolves around the rise and fall of a short-lived tourist folly. This place was once Highland Mysteryworld, a bizarre and tacky tourist attraction that was built as part of the economic development of the area in the 1990s alongside a hotel and leisure complex. Despite considerable investment in this venture, it went bust in the following decade, and the building it once inhabited is now a water sports business.
Yet traces of the visitor centre and infrastructure survive, something that became increasingly evident as we wandered around the car park and paused to touch the austere megaliths. Like much urban prehistory, traces of this place jut awkwardly into the current landscape. These are little more than ghostly clues to a rather inexplicable tourist attraction that, if the lack of its presence on the internet is anything to go by, left almost no impression on those who visited.
My one visit with Jan in the late 1990s holds various memories, none of them particularly positive other than that is formed one part of an otherwise spectacular day out in the Glencoe area. No photos appear to exist in our pre-digital archive, but we do distinctly remember an aggressive character who called himself the ‘wee fecher’ (sic). This irritant consisted of a member of staff hiding behind a wall panel. As we walked past, this poor soul thrust out their elbow, upon which was attached a rubbery ugly mask, which gave only a weak impression of a living being, and shouted at us as we innocently tried to pass. A limp textile body hung below this thing to complete a frankly unimpressive effect.
There, I purchased the only material remnant I have of this visit – a key ring in the shape of a megalith with the Highland Mysteryworld logo on it. This fell apart some time ago but for some reason I have retained it, although it was not to celebrate the experience. Rather like my Tomb of the Eagles fridge magnet, or unsharpened Bede’s World pencil, or unused Vindolanda rubber, it forms part of a dubious collection of mediocre-heritage-attraction-tat that lurks in a back corner of a kitchen drawer, awaiting some future event when the whole lot is finally emptied into a bin bag.
What was Highland Mysteryworld?
“The theme park will transport guests back in time, with the rich smells, bustling noises and sightsof Scotland in ancient times.”
Highland Mysteryworld was a cheesy visitor centre experience celebrating the myths and folklore of Scotland’s Highlands, situated in a pinky-grey building in the grounds of the Isles of Glencoe Hotel. Inside were celebrated, through dioramas, models, animatronics and people dressed up in costume all sorts of ‘characters’ and stories from Highland mythology. These included the aforementioned ‘fecher’ as well as witches, hobgoblins, mermaids and the like. Visitors followed a twisting pathway that allowed lots to be crammed into a relatively small space. And there was a apparently an auditorium shaped like a stone circle (of which I have no memory), as well as a shop and café.
A puff piece in the Herald newspaper dated 26th April 1996 (which is so journalistically poor and credulous that it can only have been a barely amended press release) told the story of the Mysteryworld soon after it opened. It notes that the neighbouring hotel, and the Mysteryworld, were a two-phase development on the site of an old slate mine and thus enhanced the landscape – a dubious claim given the spectacular nature of this location.
The advert, sorry, serious tourism piece, continued: “Like all the best ideas, this one came from the private sector”. Hmmm. The blurb continues, with no sense of irony,
“Highland Mysteryworld is a bold initiative, costing upwards of £1m initially, and although popularly described as a theme park, is a gentler exercise designed to recreate the Highland environment of times long past. It is based around aspects of life from ancient Celtic and Viking folklore with its myriad myths and legends. Charming and romantic today, these were at the very heart of life in the old Scottish way of life when superstition was rife and the elements were accorded great power to influence day to day existence.”
What could visitors expect to see? Well, there was a film show for a start.
“In the Astromyth Theatre, the audience will hear Calgacus the Pict explaining the secrets of the elements, sun, moon and stars. The theatre is built to resemble a stone circle and has some dramatic sound and visual effects. The presentation takes about 20 minutes, well within the boredom threshold of the younger members of the family.”
Sorry for the extended quoting. This stuff is hilarious.
How might one finish this spell-binding trip?
“…at the end of the day, browse for interesting artifacts in the Mysterymall or enjoy some fine food in the Viking Foodship, where real warriors serve up the grub and pillage your empty plates.”
(Who writes this stuff? Can I shake their hand?)
“Highland Mysteryworld is hotly tipped to become one of Scotland’s top ten tourist attractions and is open daily, 10 am till late. The cost is £4.95 for each adult, £2.95 for children. You can get a family ticket for £12.”
Highland Mysteryworld went bust in the early-2000s and is now the home of Lochaber Watersports.
The leaflet for this attraction, which I managed to find the front page of online, perhaps gives us some hints as to why this genius idea failed. It proudly boasts: ‘See Legends Come Alive’. This is overlain on a picture of a small child shitting herself as a horrific Lovecraftian dribbling green monster looms over her shoulder. Below is an image from a new attraction for that year, ‘The tomb of the ancients’ which appears to consist of a sinister monk leering over body parts while parents clutch their kids save they become incorporated into the bone pile. That will teach them to have a minimum 20 minute attention span.
The name of the attraction is written in crazy runes which, along with the megaliths in the car park, hints at the bizarre melting pot this attraction undoubtedly was. It represented something of a conflation of thousands of years of stuff into one simple marketable package. This confusion reminds me of the technological mash-up in the movie Westworld, where robot cowboys re-enact the tropes of the Wild West. Perhaps Mysteryworld should have been the third part of a Michael Crichton trilogy (that also included Futureworld) where the salivating green monster, the little fecher and the death monk all gain sentient knowledge of their animatronic state and take matters into their own hands.
Maybe that’s why the place closed?
Upon parking in the Isles of Glencoe Hotel car park and surveying the various standing stones within and around the car park it quickly becomes clear where a lot of the initial £1 million quid budget went – on erecting at least a dozen very large pink-grey granite standing stones. These are big as well, in the order of up to 2.5m high each; with below-ground components of up to 1m, presumably set in concrete – this represents a lot of granite. These are scattered around the edges of the car park, and between some rows of parking spaces, while two smaller stones still flank the entranceway to this leisure compound.
Three large stones sit atop a grassy mound overlooking the car park, a megalithic triangle.
And then there is the building itself. Remarkably, the façade of the bland building in which the attraction was once housed still retains the large logo of the Mysteryworld.
This is the same motif that is evident on my key-ring and recalls of course rock-art, being essentially a cup-and-ring variation with a little M (or W, or both) appended to the end of the spiral.
The steel frame of the door still remains although now is has WATERSPORTS written on it. The entrance itself is entirely different as the photos above demonstrate. I pressed my face up against the brown glass doors that are in place now, peering into the sports HQ to see if any internal vestiges of the Mysteryworld still remain in situ. But all I was able to see was an untidy desk and a lot of empty boxes lying around.
In the forecourt of the entrance area other traces of the Mysteryworld were evident.
Underfoot was a huge iteration of the logo created from carefully arranged grey and beige cobbles, a threshold of sorts, perhaps marking the moment when visitors were transported back in time, a patio-wormhole.
Three little stone heads sat nearby, gurning and making faces: cheeky Highland mytho-heads. The impression they gave me was of three stone giants struggling in quicksand, buried up to their necks in this tourist blandscape. One of them appeared to have spat a cigarette from his mouth in surprise.
Our visit to Highland Mysteryworld was surprising as more of it survived than I would have thought possible, especially considering it was open for less than a decade and it closed 13 or 14 years ago. Those staying at the hotel or using the car park or adventure playground today may well wonder what these enigmatic bits and pieces represent – something of a mystery to most of them I would imagine, ironically.
On the endurance of megaliths
Even on 1st January there was a steady drift of visitors and tourists wandering around Ballachulish and this megalithic-car-park. Many looked confused, walking between the cold hotel and the cold co-op, past closed public toilets and random landscaping megaliths on the other side of the A82.
The pictured example above is one of several slate standing stones that lies within the tourist hub of this village, and at least these megaliths reflect the quarry that this retail zone exists within.
Ghostly traces of the Mysterworld abound, and these require some explanation for visitors, although in reality there is none. Signs have been amended rather than replaced, editing out the Mysteryworld as a concept. This was fleetingly a place of commerce, a place for coach parties to stop and a place for the consumption of a mythical mashed-up past, a place for investment and the attraction of visitors to actually spend money and not just look at the wonderful views or walk in the mountains.
This dead theme park.
Surviving only in stone.
Megaliths, a building, cobbles, carved heads.
Car park flankers.
One silvery metal sign the exception.
This ghost place, now an archaeological site that does not exist in any lists of archaeological sites.
These rootless, restless megaliths, now an archaeological site that does not exist in any lists of archaeological sites.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan, Helen and Erika for wandering around a car park with me on a freezing cold public holiday! Almost all information about Highland Mysterworld came from the Herald article mentioned above (including link) and a few travel blogs and touristy webpages, all of which appeared to regurgitate the Mysteryworld’s own publicity material – these are the source of the unattributed quotes in the post (such as this blog) including those at the start. The two photos of the outside of the Mysterworld when it was open are from here and here. The photos of the interior are both sourced from a blog Steph’s animation blog.
Yet when I recently visited for the first time, it became apparent to me that the landscape, both urban and rural, has a prehistoric quality to it.
This is an island that is defined by extremes of stone, and this has thrown up (in some cases literally) strange and beautiful arrangements of rocks. But not all of these megaliths are natural – there are standing stones, dolmen, stone circles too, commonplace in laybys, parks, street corners and on roadsides and pavements. This is immediately apparent on the road leaving the airport, with huge stone blocks with stone heads – stone people – looming over the road sides of Keflavik.
There is also something deeply prehistoric about the belief systems of the Icelanders, whether the over-played-for-the-tourists stuff about faeries and little people, or the Norse sagas and stories of gods, men and giants. The land has been ripped apart and reborn by prehistoric and geological forces, shaping the people just as much as the people shape the land with stories, place names and monuments. Little people live in the stones. Giants and gods fought with stones. People became stones, and are stones. The stones lived too once as well, oozing down the side of volcanoes, spewed across the land, swept up in flood waters, scraped and shaped by ice. Here, prehistory is a living condition, not a distant past, not even a real past, just an ever-present quality the land seems to have.
The standing stones that I saw often reflected the grain of the land, dark grey basaltic blocks with square or pentagonal or hexagonal profiles.
Cairns have been built on hilltops and roadsides of orange-hewed lava, or carefully constructed from small balanced flat stones.
Rocks are still on the move, continually being re-arranged and juxtaposed, put to use – to memorialise, to pin information boards on to, as boundary markers, to decorate hotel forecourts and car parks. In some cases it is unclear if the stones are in situ and have been utilised where they were found (a kind of expedient architecture), or if they have deliberately been erected.
But in some cases formal monuments appear to have been constructed, such as the German Memorial on the edge of the town of Vik. Here, a stone circle with central monolith has been constructed on the edge of a black sand beach, with the objective of remembering seamen who died on one or more German fishing boats off the coast of Iceland, and to thank locals for trying to help.
The nine external stones, graded for height, are grey hexagonally cooled magma columns, similar to those illustrated above, while the central block is a vibrant orange sandstone boulder, with metal plates attached.
But perhaps the most dramatic and perplexing megalithic monument I spotted in Iceland was in the surprising surroundings of a small fishing town on the southern coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula, Grindavik. On driving through the centre of town, it was clear that there were a lot of mounds and standing stones by the roadside, concentrated mostly on roundabouts and at road junctions.
On one side of the road was something altogether more coherent and remarkable – an extensive reconstruction of a passage grave, complete with a dolmen at the entrance. I spent some time wandering through this complex of stone walls, earthworks, standing stones and passages marvelling that such a structure should be built here, in a country with no prehistory (in a technical sense), and certainly no tradition of megalithic passage graves. No signs or information were evident anywhere to explain what was going on here – this was a most unexpected megalith.
In Grindavík, on Reykjanes in Iceland, a modern interpretation of a pagan temple has been erected. While it’s not clear that the designers and builders of this modern temple had any special insight into how pagan temples were built during the Norse era, it is fun to see all the motifs from the various temple descriptions brought together into one structure.
It seems clear that the passage grave has been built in a Nordic tradition, with walling for instance reminiscent of Danish passage graves, although some aspects of the monument reminded me of Neolithic tombs in Brittany as well. The reconstruction seems to conflate various different megalithic monument elements (and not just Neolithic tombs): there are forecourts, recesses, orthostats, a stone cist, standing stones, mounds, cairns, a trilithon and facades – and a very narrow long and low passage I could not get through. It was a right jumble of all sorts of things in other words.
The monument lay open and exposed, bisected by pathways and pavements, with a road running along one side. Weeds grew from the paved surfaces, and graffiti was evident on the dolmen or trilithon setting. This was an altogether unremarkable place, typically quiet for Iceland, and this faux tomb almost – almost – did not seem out of place and time.
And so my visit has changed my mind-set.
Iceland does have a prehistory.
Iceland is prehistoric – in the nicest possible sense of that word.
This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than the recent project to build Arctic Henge, on the north coast of Iceland at Raufarhöfn (I did not manage to visit). This huge monument was planned in 2008, and is yet to be completed, and combines aspects of pagan religion with geology in a very Icelandic way. The project website states:
Similar to its ancient predecessor, Stonehenge, the Arctic Henge is like a huge sundial, aiming to capture the sunrays, cast shadows in precise locations and capture the light between aligned gateways. The ambitious series of circles and stacked basalt columns were placed according to a complex system based on old Norse mythology. Utilising the ideas of a pastor named Kolbeinn Þorleifsson (who believed dwarves corresponded to seasons in the Edda) there are 72 stones, each one representing a different dwarf name. There are also four gates corresponding to the four seasons, and a range of other symbols to explore. Along with the outer circle, the final henge will be a massive 52 metres in diameter.
It is interesting that the iconic Stonehenge is evoked here, just as it is in the trilithon that crowns the Grindavik passage grave. In both cases Icelanders appear to be looking to other parts of Europe for prehistoric inspiration. Yet all they need to do is to look around them, to their own landscape and their own post-pre-history.
I did not expect to think about prehistory when I was in Iceland and yet it seemed I was confronted by it constantly, in the art, the land, the people, the stories, and the stones.
Panopticon: ‘a building, such as a prison, hospital, library, or the like, so arranged that all parts of the interior are visible from a single point’.
Stone circle: a prehistoric panopticon.
This is the story of a stone circle that is trapped – stuck in concrete, cornered at the end of a dead-end. A stone circle that has suffered more than most due to the encroachment of suburbia and urban expansion, and yet despite this, still exists, albeit it in a heavily moderated and modified form. It still matters. This is the story of a stone circle that we should not give up on, even although a decade ago it seemed that everyone had. This is the story of the greystanes of New Scone, the Sandy Road stone circle.
The stone circle is tucked away, almost out of sight, at the end of a short road, hemmed in on all sides by houses and the familiar trappings of urban furniture – cars, lamp posts, kerbs, hard core, wood chippings, generically boring plants, doors, door steps, windows, window ledges, hanging baskets, low walls, grey bricks, grey paving stones.
Greystanes in Greystanes.
The stone circle is inconspicuous, disguised as an abstract piece of landscape gardening, like a group of artfully and craftily arranged boulders, sitting amidst grey-white pebbles and bright pink, purple and yellow heathers. Ankle high vegetation and knee high stones. A process has occurred that has transformed this stone circle into a circle of stones. It has been cul-de-sacked.
I visited this stone circle, known as Sandy Road, in Scone, Perth and Kinross (NMRS number NO12NW 28) a few months ago. I have to be honsest and say that I felt uncomfortable during my visit. The monument seems to be completely surrounded by windows, holes with eyes, viewing platforms through which to watch strangers like me armed with cameras and small photographic scales and notebooks.
Curtains twitched, dogs barked aggressively, letter boxes rattled.
Woof woof. Stranger danger. Megalithic meddler. Weirdo. What is he up to?
I am alone, but not alone, being watched by house dwellers and passers-by with their shopping bags, being sensed and sniffed by dogs. I felt that I had invaded the senses of this place and caused a disturbance.
The stone circle in New Scone was first documented in detail by the redoubtable Fred Coles, who wrote abou this ‘remarkable’ monument in 1909 as part of one of his wider reviews of standing stones in the county. (Gavin MacGregor has blogged about some nice work Coles did a few decades earlier in SW Scotland in relation to cup-and-ring marks.) When Coles visited the Scone area, the circle still lay outwith the boundaries of western side of the town, beside Sandy Road, and a fir tree plantation. He recorded nine stones, seven of which were in situ, in a slightly elliptical setting 22 or so feet across. As well as drawing a lovely sketch of the stones, Coles also included in his report a photograph taken by a local man, Mr William Small. (An intriguing footnote records: ‘Mr Small is interesting himself in the skilful use of his camera in connection with the megalithic remains to be found in the districts adjacent to Perth.’)
Coles’ insightful comments on the stone circle came when the monument was untroubled by anything other than the activities of forestry workers. This was viewed a few decades later as being the cause of the loss of an supposed second small stone setting adjacent to Sandy Road. However, no firm evidence has been found to confirm there were two stone circles, with scattered boulders on the surface likely causing mid-identification – confusingly some of these boulders are part of the current display of the monument.
By 1961, the immobile stone circle finally clashed with creeping urbanisation, with the point of fusion being a trowel and then machines of the building trade. The expansion of New Scone on its western side, growing along Sandy Road, resulted in the circle coming under serious threat. This resulted in a series of traumatic events in the life of the monument. Firstly, the site was excavated by Margaret Stewart in 1961. She discovered a cinerary urn in a pit in the centre of the circle which contained a few cremated human bones; this was subsequently radiocarbon dated but with unsatisfactory results. In 1963 the OS recorded that the stone circle sat ‘in the middle of a council housing estate in the course of construction’. And then, by 1965, an OS fieldworker noted, ‘These stones have been temporarily removed. There are seven stones, which have been numbered and are to be cemented in position.’ And so the circle went into storage, only to be returned to the cold grey grip of concrete later that year, moving in at the same time as the new residents.
What then? The circle was by now just another garden feature, a folly in a cul-de-sac which had at least been named after the monument: Greystanes. And a noticeboard was erected at the end of the road, to explain to residents (and visitors) what this megalithic curio was.
Yet there was clearly some kind of decline, and a lack of management of the monument. The noticeboard was removed at some point (I am not sure when, but it is certainly gone now). The stone circle itself became overgrown with vegetation, at first trees, and then shrubs and weeds.
The monument has of course been substantially tidied up since then, although upon close examination, it still bears the scars of its removal, storage and replacement. Cracks and splits in some of the stones suggest that some were broken during these invasive procedures, and subsequently glued together with some kind of synthetic adhesive.
There are also hints at other contemporary urban interactions. On two stones, yellow paint has been daubed onto them, on one in the form of a rough square, the other no more than a casual brush stroke.
This is what happens in urban places, with graffiti evident on other structures in the nearby park, such as this skateboard ramps, bins, trees, signposts and this obscured sign, another lost Scone noticeboard.
And recently, the circle has come under minor threat from a very modern source – underground wiring related to, presumably phones, cable TV or broadband. Watching briefs were carried out by archaeologists in 2009 and 2012 because of works associated with ‘repair of communication equipment’ and the ‘repair of malfunctioning communications equipment’. Nothing of archaeological significance was found, and the monument suffered no further damage.
This stone circle, then, has suffered much in the name of progress and suburban utility, our convenience being at its inconvenience. But this is not to say that the circle is an irrelevance. A few years ago archaeologist Mark Hall (of Perth Museum and Art Gallery) brought the urn from the museum back to the stone circle where it was discovered, in a show-and-tell session with the local residents, and there was a lot of interest. This was a fantastic thing to do, and the response shows that there is a real desire from the community to learn more about this monument – and this is likely also reflected in the much tidied and regenerated appearance of the Greystanes as opposed to a decade ago.
So perhaps I got my visit all wrong. It could well be that the Greystanes residents were not spying on me, but intrigued by my presence, maybe even proud that a visitor had come to their street to see their stone circle. Urban stone circles can continue to be useful to us today if we use them, look after them, make them look nice, and occasionally remember that they are indeed ancient places, despite the heather and concrete and all the other trappings of contemporary urban life.
Those who are lucky enough to live with a stone circle at their front door have ringside seats overlooking prehistory.
Sources and acknowledgements: I must firstly thank Mark Hall for letting me know about this site, explaining his activities there, and sending me – and allowing me to reproduce – some of the photos used in this post. The photo of the site before excavation, the image of the urn and the final photo, with Mark sitting on one of the stones, are all copyright Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland and reproduced with permission. The urn is on display at the museum. The images of the overgrown circle, and the noticeboard, came from the Megalithic Portal pages for the site, and were posted there in 2006 by user ‘Cosmic’. Fred Coles’ description of his site, and his illustrations, come from his article ‘Report on stone circles surveyed in Perthshire (Southeast District), with measured plans and drawings’ published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) volume 43 (1909) from page 127 onwards – you can find this article online for free if you google for it. Information on the recent watching briefs and the OS accounts of the circle came from the CANMORE page for the site. Margaret Stewart’s excavation report was published in 1965 in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Perthshire Society of Natural Sciences, volume 11, pages 7-23.
Do some urban places attract prehistory? Can urban prehistory be utilised by contemporary society to help us remember the past? And is a standing stone a fitting civic gift to a great European city? All of these questions came to mind during a recent visit I made with Jan to a granite menhir located next to a basketball court and a block of flats in the 14th arrondissement on the south side of Paris.
The menhir was erected outside a block of flats at 133 Rue Vercingetorix, south of Montparnasse, 30 years ago. It was a gift from Brittany, the region of France most strongly associated with Neolithic standing stones, from tall and beautiful menhir, to the thousands of megaliths that characterise the multiple stone rows at Carnac. This is not a prehistoric menhir, plucked from the Morbihan and transported to Paris, but rather a modern quarried equivalent of a megalith, a shiny new megalith (more or less), a gift from one area of France to another. At the base of the stone is a plaque which carries the (now almost impossible to read) inscription:
‘Ce menhir offert à la ville de Paris à l’initiative de la Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie du Morbihan et réalisé par sept granitiers bretons. Il a été inauguré en 1983 par le président du Sénat de l’époque, Alain Poher.’
Which roughly translates to:
‘This menhir was presented to the city of Paris by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Morbihan. The work of seven Breton granite workers, it was unveiled by Monsieur Alain Poher, President of the Senate in 1983.’
There are several variants of the inscription text to be found online, with some suggesting the monolith was erected on the 13th or 18th September 1983.
What is a menhir? This is a Breton word for standing stone, and thousands of these have been recorded in Brittany, sometimes in single or multiple rows, but in other cases as majestic and free-standing monoliths. Most of them date to the early Neolithic period, older than 4000BC, although later in the Neolithic some were toppled, broken up and re-used as the roofs of passage graves and megalithic tombs. Not all met this fate, however, and some of the tallest standing stones in the world still stand in western France. The largest menhir of all, however – Grand Menhir Brisé – lies broken into three huge pieces, apparently toppled by a medieval earthquake (or less likely, a lightning strike). This megalith represents a true marvel of European prehistory, 20m in length and weighing perhaps 300 or more tonnes, dragged 10km across the landscape from its quarry site and erected in a project of crazy ambition. Most menhir are not on this scale, but still represent some of the finest examples of public monumentality from the Neolithic.
I have visited menhir before in France, mostly in Brittany, such as the example pictured above, although I have never travelled to see one via underground train before. We got the Metro line 13 to the Plaisance stop, and walked in the dreary drizzle for about 5 minutes, quickly finding the megalith. It is situated in a small grassy area, just outside the front door of 133 Rue Vercingetorix, adjacent to a basketball pitch surrounded by a green fence. Made of pink-grey granite and some 2m high, the stone has a crisp and clean appearance (more like a kitchen work-surface than megalith) although there is a skin of green lichen towards the tapered top of the monolith.
A raised area at the base of the west side of the standing stone hints at the quarrying process by which this stone was sourced, giving the monolith an approximation of the classic hog-back shape common to many prehistoric menhir such as those that form the Carnac rows. Rather like Stonehenge, this mégalithe sits within a tarmac triangle (of pathways rather than roads).
Verticality surrounds the standing stone – lamp-posts, bins, fences, trees and tower blocks, including the Tour Montparnasse disappearing into the clouds to the north. Local people wandered past carrying carrier bags, looking disinterested in the menhir with which they must be so familiar. Cars sped past on the wet road offering a drab soundscape. But is the road actually the reason why the stone was erected here? This is a place with recurring prehistoric associations.
The address itself recalls the Iron Age: Rue Vercingetorix. This street is named after a famous Gaulish tribal leader who fought against the Romans in the 1st century BC, eventually being executed in Rome in 46BC according to Roman historians such as Plutarch. His daring exploits caused the Romans to construct a ‘doughnut-shaped’ fortification (which sounds like an improvement on their usual boring rectangles) during the Battle of Alesia in 52BC. Appropriated as a symbol of French nationalism, the chief has appeared in Asterix books and more recently in a French movie (Vercingetorix, but called Druids in English), played by a comical looking Christopher Lambert.
Round the corner from the menhir, on the Rue D’Alesia (named after the aforementioned battle I assume) is a remarkable and huge mural of Palaeolithic cave-painting-type images on the gable end of a building, which overlooks a small park called Square Alesia-Ridder. The mural consists of very large kinetic images of animals like elephants / mammoths, deer, horses and birds. Hunting and running humans are interspersed across the mural, and other less obvious symbols are apparent: shapes made of hands and arms, criss-crossing lines, a weird teddy bear type figure, all drenched in terracotta and ochre reds and oranges. The work is signed ‘Bryan Becheri 1992’ just beside the image of a kebab outside an adjacent ‘Grec’ carryout establishment. I have been unable to find out anything more about the artist or this dramatic painting, but it offers unmistakable illusions to an even more ancient and distant past than the menhir.
This is a special place, then, but before leaving this corner of Paris that represents in different ways other French places and times, I want to consider an intriguing French explanation for menhir. This explanation was postulated by the French physician and biologist, Jean Trousier, in a short article published in volume 12 of the British Journal of Medical Psychology in 1932.
Trousier believed that standing stones were primal symbols, representative of the ‘phallus of the chief, and thence, taking the part for the whole, of the chief himself’, demonstrating that the first farmers were conversant with synecdoche. The theory developed further, however, to cover other types of megaliths, such as dolmen (passage grave tombs) and trilithons. And so the trilithons at Stonehenge were a ‘rough and simple image of the female organs’; this imagery was perfected with the deep, hollow dolmen, indicating ‘precisely the female vagina’. This argument is quite typical for its time (an idea we now rightly view as very simplistic and crude), with heavy overtones of unconscious sexual symbolism, where the erection of a standing stone could become entangled in ideas of blood sacrifice and father-figures. The article finished with a flourish, bringing us back to Paris, because Trousier argued that one could see the menhir/penis/male: dolmen/vagina/female symbolism in the modern triumphal architecture of the city with its ultimate expression the Arc de Triomphe, ‘this colossal dolmen’.
This intriguing article does not do justice to the complexity of megaliths either in prehistory or urban contexts. But there is an interesting thread in what he said. The argument that runs through Trousier’s paper is that erecting standing stones, and other related (but opposed) structures is an inherently human things to do. When a statement of power must be made, when victory must be celebrated, when an extravagant gift is given or sacrifice made, then men in power fall back on primitive, primeval symbols to mark the event. At 133 Rue Vercingetorix many of these ideas came together with the erection of a standing stone gifted from businessmen, made by artisans, to a great city, on the side of a street named after a warrior chief.
My short fieldtrip to the southern side of Paris revealed an unexpected series of prehistoric connections in close proximity to one another, each echoing a different but significant aspect of the prehistory of France from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic to the Iron Age. Paris is a city steeped in its own history of course, yet her prehistory remains for the most part hidden. Yet even then, even with all of the urbanisation, conflict and improvement, hints of a more distant past can still be found, even if these are iconic symbols of France rather than direct survivors of what once stood in place we now call Paris.
Sources: I first found out about the Paris menhir in the book Secret Paris by Jacques Garance and Maud Ratton (Jonglez 2010); this book was the source of the translated inscription at the base of the standing stone. For an up-to-date and authoritative guide to the megaliths of Brittany, see Chris Scarre’s 2011 book Landscapes of Neolithic Brittany (OUP). The Arc de Triomphe postcard is available widely online. I was accompanied on my trip by Jan.