Prehistory is frequently justified but not always ancient. In this ghost story for Christmas, I am going to take you on a journey from the walls of a pub, to the pop charts and a board game, via the portal of a crop circle.….
Imagine now that I am the ghost of urban prehistory, taking you by the hand, flying out of the window and up, up and away into the snow. Below you, once you get control of your faculties, emerging from the mists of time and space is a familiar stone circle. Stonehenge! But thankfully we are not stopping there, not just yet, our engagement only as tangible as the ghosts passing through in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor. Soon below us emerges a much larger setting of stones, recognisable as Avebury due to the fact that it is occupied by the living as well as the dead. Then Silbury Hill whizzes past, momentarily mistaken by you for the defunct mound at Marble Arch at London. Atop the mound nestled in the depression lies a sleeping deer. Pausing only momentarily to fight off a pigeon, there below looms the lengthy grandeur of West Kennet, a long streak of megalith, then things become a blur of whiteness, chalk ups and downs.
You awake with a start. You have in your hand a pint of foaming nut brown ale and the sky – or rather the ceiling – is dancing, Rich vibrant colours assault your senses. The Southern Lights, Aurora Stonehengis.
Your are in the Barge Inn, Wiltshire, located near the village of Honeystreet and on the bank of the Kennet and Avon Canal. The walls here are adorned with a wonderful mural that showcases the very best of the local Neolithic archaeology along with some crop circles and other weird and wonderful things that occupy the spaces between archaeology and arcane-ology.
The mural is the work of artist Vince Palmer, the ghost of urban prehistory tells you as he puts another pint on the table you appear now to be sitting at. The beermat, you notice just before it is eclipsed by the glass, is a Scarfolk Brexit pastiche, ‘Britannia’s Folly’. The mural is sometimes known as the ‘sistine chapel of crop circles’. It was painted in 1997 ‘on the day Princess Diana died’ went on your ghostly drinking partner, quoting from the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald newspaper. The walls are adorned with crop circle imagery and artworks showing Stonehenge and Avebury, and crop circle enthusiasts used to meet here to compare notes and new discoveries.
Suddenly the ghost is gone, and you are left alone to gaze upwards at the ceiling, an inverted and fantastical prehistoric world. You need a better view of this.
The mural and the crop circles set off all sorts of connections in your brain, your cells lighting up like Christmas lights on a bush. Lying on the pool table you notice a discarded copy of the Fortean Time magazine issue 413 (Christmas 2021). Flicking through it in your hyper aware state, beer bubbles on your breath, you land on a weird article by the Rev Peter Laws on boardgames of a Fortean nature. A two page spread focuses on one of the most bizarre of all such games, in a piece entitled A boardgame from an alien? It is a board game about crop circles and …. Stonehenge.
Taking another sip of your Hopback Brewery’s Crop Circle ale, the story unfolded in front of you like an abandoned cardboard origami dog. During the filming of a BBC / Japanese TV documentary on crop circles in 1990, six crop circles appeared in a field near where filming was happening (in Wiltshire?). This was a moment of high excitement for Project Blackbird, with definitive evidence being sought for the crop circle phenomenon that was accelerating at that time.
Within these circles were found, amongst other things, numerous board games pinned down by sticks, this cardboard diversion called Crop Circle: Mystery Adventure Board game.
The imagery of this board game contains several references to Stonehenge. The box has a stylised complete version of the monument amongst the complex imagery on show, with the promise of a ‘revelation of the ancient wisdom’ on the roll of a double 6. Inside Stonehenge formed the centrepiece of the board itself, being depicted in plan form, with baked in solar alignments.
Laws notes that, “In the game players become druids or aliens who must place the altar in the centre of a miniature Stonehenge made of blocks” so to that end there were little blue wooden (?) Stonehenge megalith building blocks as well. Board Game Geek documents that this game also included a treasure hunting element and had different covers through time. They note, “This may be the strangest game you have ever seen!”
The crop circles within which the board games and other objects had been placed in the dead of night were essentially crap and clearly some kind of prank. One of the team members involved in Operation Blackbird got a note delivered to them the next day, with a claim of responsibility for the crop circle board game prank from the JAMMS. Of course this is a reference to the Justified and Ancients of Mu Mu, also known at the time as the internationally successful band The KLF.
Interviews and research by Peter Laws lead him to conclude this was a fake letter and had nothing to do with Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. Yet to coin a phrase of our time, it might not have been true but it was believable. As Laws notes also, they created their own crop circle depicting their band logo. But moreover The KLF are the most prehistorically orientated band that have ever existed with mad dabblings, claims, threats, and artistic creations connected to Wiltshire’s Neolithic monuments in particular an intriguing strand of their career.
Now you are vaguely aware of another ghost, one that is substantially, er, bonier than the urban prehistorian, and likes to point a lot. This ghastly skeletal robed figure is holding a tablet and has just, so it seems, done a google search for KLF and Stonehenge. A bony finger points you to the small screen and beckons you to scroll.
It becomes clear that Stonehenge is a recurrent theme in the work of Cauty and Drummond, going back to Cauty’s time designing fantasy posters for the chain Athena in the late 1970s in the style of his more famous posters for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Like the crop circle board game, this poster included two versions of Stonehenge – a stylised ‘complete’ iteration and a plan view.
Someone slaps you on the back as they stagger past on the way to the gents, momentarily breaking this magic chain of thinking. You snap to the side, noticing a hooded figure pointing with a rather bony finger towards a previously un-noticed television set in the corner of the bar. On it is playing a frosty version of The KLF video for their song Last Train to Transcentral. A miniature film set in grainy black and white is the backdrop for a race between a police car and a train, both KLF branded. From time to time megaliths loom in the background amidst a dystopian industrial wasteland.
More connections are made. This film-set is closely reminiscent of Jimmy Cauty’s recently toured artwork Estate, an “interactive dystopian art exhibition featuring four scale-model concrete tower blocks”.
One these four blocks “appears to have functioned as a pagan religious centre” (NowThenMagazine). This contains a stone circle. Cauty told The Skinny magazine that his favourite thing in Estate was visiting “Brenda, the teenage Queen of the Iceni Tribe who lives in Iceni Heights….she draws spiral patterns and maths equations on the concrete walls”. Prehistory + crop circles = ??.
Just before you disappear down a JG Ballard High Rise rabbit hole, someone slots pennies into a jukebox that again you had not been aware of and on kicks What Time is Love followed by that daft song they did with Tammy Wynette. It was all a big joke for The KLF wasn’t it, except when it wasn’t. John Higgs’ 2012 book The KLF: Chaos, magic, and the band who burned a million pounds documents the Discordian roots of the band and their eventual demoralisation by their own excessive acts. There is a cruel side to their humour. Higgs documents a time when just to piss off Julian Cope no less, Bill Drummond threatened to flatten Silbury Hill with a bulldozer. When Cope heard this “he went white, it was a shock to see him like that actually”.
Some of the most infamous KLF acts surround their appearance at The Brit Awards in 1992 when they appeared with grindcore band Extreme Noise Terror, machine gunned the audience and dumped a dead sheep at the venue. Higgs notes, “As the band left the stage a voice declared over the PA that ‘The KLF have left the music industry’. It was only meant as a joke. They didn’t realise at the time that it was true.” What is less well known is after this event the band took their Best Band award and buried it at Stonehenge. It was subsequently “dug up in the vicinity of the mystical stone circle by a local farmer” (source).
It keeps coming back to Stonehenge. It was here that The KLF in another guise (The Timelords) played out part of a weird relationship they had with now disgraced glam rocker Gary Glitter, who appeared with them once on Top of the Pops almost by accident. The NME documented a solstice visit that in hindsight can only be viewed in the poorest of taste.
The Cope threat presaged aspirations to destroy or modify prehistoric monuments, something that becomes very clear to you when your attention is brought back to the tablet by your creepy pal who you notice has not even touched the bag of peanuts sat between you.
According to Clash Music, “After founding a digger firm called ‘K2 Plant Hire’ with Jimmy Cauty, they nearly bulldozed Stonehenge on the basis that it either needed fixed up or flattened as ‘unworkable’. After looking into hiring helicopters to repair it, they realised all the airspace around there is military controlled, so Drummond and Cauty decided to have their photos taken with Gary Glitter in front of the ancient site before flying off to the Sierra Nevada to blow all their cash making a road movie.”
The plans for Neolithic modification were even more dramatic. In the seminal 1988 book The Manual by The Timelords (aka Drummond & Cauty), the plan was set out in more detail: “we originally wanted the record fronted by real daleks. we could not get permission. it was after that we came up with our car idea. we then wanted to smash the car into stone henge or have a helicopter place it on two of the vertical stones whose horizontal was missing. we thought of dragging it to the top of silbury hill, digging a hole and tipping the car in, nose first, with about four feet stuck in the ground and the rest stuck in the air, so that it looked like we had just arrived from outer space” (source: Andy Burnham on megalithic forum).
What hold did Neolithic monuments have on The KLF and their other guises? We may never know but through time these engagements moved from destructive to transactional. They tried to sell art outside Stonehenge. In 1997 psychogeographer Stewart Home wrote in The Big Issue that “the KLF are performing again and will do anything to raise enough money to purchase Stonehenge from English Heritage and use it for ritual purposes”. At the same time they tried to buy the Rollright Stones, according to Drummond in Sarah Champion’s book Disco 2000.
Was it all just a capitalist joke, a subversion of social values, an attempt to rule the world through chaos? In this sense Drummond and Cauty were shamanic figures, orchestrating their own ritual-magic, machine-gunning convention, chasing immortality, desperately clinging to the old ways, coveting megaliths.
You snap out of your early 1990s dance music trip and come back to earth with a bang. A bell is ringing loudly behind you, someone calling ‘last orders please and remember to put your fucking mask on when you stand up!’. You realise that you are still in the Barge Inn. There is a sense of time running short now and you become aware that you won’t have time to go outside to see the sarsen stone outside the pub that once had a Banksy painted on it….or did it? It is all rather confusing and a sensory overload is fast approaching.
Worse, you are starting to feel…..woozy.
A trip to the toilet seems in order and for the time being at least there are no ghosts to guide you so off you pop through a side door and a corridor, following the arrows on the walls that you hope will lead to a Stonehenge-free urinal. However a wrong turn later and you are in a annex to the building, no longer in the ancient canal-side pub, but more of a fancy youth hostel. Your eyes are drawn to a stage on the left-hand side of the space, a modest arena for musical performance although it would not have accommodated The KLF, their kit and entourage.
At the back of the stage is a mural, a weird tableaux of temporal and spatial dislocation, showing what you presume to the pub you seem to be trapped in surrounded by prehistory and pagan symbols. A standing stone in the foreground, Silbury Hill (again!) in the background, and a green man partially obscured by a stack of speakers. Things start to go woozy again, and you feel yourself drawn to the image like a fly to a venus flytrap, knowing that what lies inside is sticky but perhaps worth it. You drift towards the open door to the left of the mural, still hoping for a toilet but fearing for the worst.
The door leads to inky blackness. Bill Drummond’s voice (you assume) comes from somewhere to your right, the aural equivalent of the leather bag with hands from that MR James story, dripping from a hole in the wall into your ears. He says in a mellifluous Scottish accent: Stonehenge is a crap circle. Stonehenge is a crap circle. (Or did he say crop circle??) Then you are enveloped by what feels like a huge towel, not with arms thankfully, but nonetheless a struggle ensues in the dark…..
Then! You are safely back in your bed fighting with your bed curtains [or insert 21st equivalent] and realise that was all a dream and it happened in one night, of course it did, because of course 3AM is eternal when in the company of Timelords. You have not even missed Boxing Day.
As you wipe the sleepy residue from your eyes, your attention focuses on a wall to your left. There are two pictures hanging from the wall that you don’t remember seeing there before. Slippers are slipped on (as in put on, not a comedy stumble) and you head over for a look. Screwing up your eyes as if staring into the sun, the pictures start to come into focus, and the events of the last 1500 words come flooding back. Was it really all just a dream?
Time for another pint of prehistory, You never know what it will lead to next.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Susan Greaney and / or Jack Rowe for alerting me to the murals in the Barge Inn, and Andrew Watson for accompanying me to a recent visit there. I think all online sources and image sources have been made clear above, any photos with no credit are my own. I also want to acknowledge Peter Laws and his FT article for sending me down the particular path that this blog post ended up travelling which came as much of a surprise to me as it did to you.