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55 / 45

21 Feb

You might think that prehistoric monuments and things that happened thousands of years ago have nothing to do with contemporary political debates about identify, nationalism and borders. You may well also agree, as I do, with Niall Sharples who wrote over two decades ago that “the archaeological record of earlier periods should not normally contribute to the discussion of a nation’s identity”.

But not everyone thinks like this.

Prehistoric monuments can become the plaything, for innocent or sinister reasons, of those who wish to make claims about national boundaries, ethnic or national identities – or to influence your vote. Such appropriation of the prehistoric past is always troubling in my opinion, although it could be argued that there is a sliding scale of badness at play here. At the (far right) end of the scale we have a recent iteration of the mission statement of the British National Party (from the 2000s, now removed from their website) which stated: “We enthuse with pride at the marvels of architecture and engineering that have been completed on these islands since the construction of the great megaliths 7,000 years ago”. Papers in the book pictured below warn against such corruption of prehistory for political ends: we should always be vigilant for such occurrences and expose them.

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It is with interest then that appeals to the ancient past have become embedded in the discourse of Scottish independence, a process which concluded in 2014 with a vote of 55% to 45% to retain the status quo, but which inspired widespread political debate and continues to resonate strongly today.

I became aware of how this can manifest itself even in that most banal of places, the TV archaeology documentary. There is no doubt that nationalistic passions were released by the BBC TV programme Britain’s Ancient Capital: secrets of Orkney, broadcast on the BBC in January 2017.

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Social media responses to this show included ‘the BBC is scandalously pushing…Neil Oliver’s tendentious, ludicrous and anachronistic British unionist line’. The well-known political persuasion of lead presenter Neil Oliver (clue: it’s NO, not YES) has been taken by some viewers as a driver behind the ‘Britain – not Scotland’ narrative evident in the programme, Oliver being accused of ‘shrill British patriotism’ and of being a ‘British patriot’ (which may or may not be an insult depending on your perspective). Although I was publically critical of the content of this show, I happen not to buy this politicized critique of the show, with my reservations about this programme rooted more in its repetition of the tired old tropes of Neolithic studies in Britain.

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It came as something of a surprise to me to find out last year that a cairn had been constructed in 2014 right on the border between England and Scotland, a cairn that was an explicit rallying call for British unionism, a monument for those who did not want Scotland to become independent from the UK in the aforementioned referendum that took place in September of that year.

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This is a ‘Scottish’ cairn: it is called The Auld Acquaintance Cairn, a Rabbie Burns name, located on the Scottish side of the Border, a reconstruction of a Bronze Age Clava Cairn. But it had a ‘UK’ team of builders and cheerleaders, invited to come from all corners to help in its construction, emerging into the world through shared labour, motivations and symbols, to create a whole that was stronger than its parts, Better Together.

It is a NO monument, not a YES monument.

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NO or ON? (source: The Times (paywall))

It was built by the 55 for the other 45.

But. Despite being infused with unity and togetherness, constructed with good intentions as well as sweat and tears, I fear that its existence has, and continues to have, the potential to be divisive, festooned as it is with symbols and words that could be interpreted by some as divisive, even offensive.

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Built in the months leading up the referendum in a frenzy of fear that YES might win, it could be argued that this is a cairn that has served its purpose. But, since the conclusion of that debate, the cairn has become something of a monument to victory, a celebration of something not being lost, a vindication but perhaps also a warning from the past, literally a folly.

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The Auld Acquaintance Cairn was the brainchild of the polymathic Conservative MP Rory Stewart. The project to construct the cairn over summer 2014 was in part crowd-funded through an organisation called Hands Across the Border, whose website offers an archival (pre)history of the cairn. It is in a location that is cupped by a the gentle meander of the River Sark, the border between Scotland and England, but sits in the shadow of a placeless shopping mall.

The cairn was constructed in the period June to August 2014, and is a spectacular monument, consisting of some 130,000 stones.

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Laying the foundation stones of the cairn, summer 2014 (source: North News & Pictures)

Volunteers and visitors were encouraged to bring to the location stones from wherever they were from, thus ensuring the cairn was constructed of stones from across the UK, and beyond (with for instance a fragment of the Berlin Wall included). It is claimed over 10,000 people added a stone or helped with building the monument, with dry stone dykers doing the fiddly bits. Visitors were also encouraged to paint messages onto the stones, giving the cairn a colourful appearance which still survives several years later.

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The cairn during construction. The flagpoles in the background are now gone (souice: available in various cropped versions online, happy to update if this is your photo).

Various ‘celebrities’ spent time helping build the cairn or visiting the monument: Scotland’s only Tory MP David Mundell was there when the foundation was laid, grizzled explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes made an appearance on 28th July, and actor Joanna Lumley put in a shift three days later. “Historians Simon Schama, David Starkey, Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, the ‎philosopher AC Grayling, Field Marshal Sir Charles Guthrie, and the writer Alain de Botton have all contributed stones to the cairn” (Cumbria Crack) as has the famous mountaineer Doug Scott CBE (Cairn Builder Extraordinaire?).

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Fiennes (source: Hands Across the Border)

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Lumley (source: Sunbeam Music)

The cairn was a focus for events such as barbeques, teddy bear picnics, public shows of emotion, and a music festival called Brit Rocks! A poem – Cornerstone – was written for the cairn by Charlotte Higgins and carved onto two flat square slabs which were placed within the interior chamber. And apparently, some No voters and those who supported their campaign but who could not vote (i.e. anyone not living in Scotland) camped on the cairn overnight as the results of the referendum came in.

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Source: Hands Across the Border

A large map was erected on site where visitors could mark where they and their rocks had come from, although the map appears to have had no room for 80% of Orkney, all of Shetland or much of western Ireland. Europe’s not there, natch.

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Source: Trip Advisor (link below)

As the cairn was being constructed, a short film was made about the project by The Economist. In the film, Rory Stewart described the monument as ‘a model of our country’ and the only physical manifestation of Better Together evident in the UK at that time. More emotively, he suggested that Scotland and the Rump UK were rather like a couple whose marriage was on the rocks and that one partner only needed to say ‘I love you’ to reconcile the partnership. (Was he really saying that the UK was basically just like a very unhappy marriage that neither partner should leave?) The Project Manager Angus Aitken went further, calling the cairn a ‘geological love letter to the Union’, that far into the future would stand as reminder of a time when the people of the UK came together through the medium of dry-stone walling.

Then – the referendum happened and the NO / Better Together campaign won. The border upon which the cairn sits remained softer than an egg that had been in boiling water for 60 seconds, and all inhabitants of Scotland were encouraged to pull together and move forward.

Hand Across the Border state on their website: “Now is the time for everyone to reconcile their differences and create a stronger better Britain.”

Whether this is better facilitated by the retention, or destruction, of the Auld Acquaintance cairn, depends if you are one of the 55 or the 45. Like megaliths, divisive political debates can have a long afterlife.

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Source: Cumberland News / (c) STUART WALKER

On a visit to the cairn in 2015, a year after it had been completed, Ian Jack recounted in The Guardian how the cairn was less noble in appearance than in aim. The banality of personal messages painted onto little stones was a little too much for him. He noted, “A monument intended to celebrate beautiful generalisations – political unity, friendship between peoples – has been altered (an old-fashioned aesthete would say damaged) by the intrusion of the specific and the everyday.” The solitude of the cairn was also noted (ie no one else visited while he was there), but so too was the noisy traffic flying past on the nearby M74 (the article calls it the M6, what this border zone of the motorway is known as in England). This sense of loss and disappointment is shared by a few (but by no means most) visitors to the cairn who have recorded their impressions on Trip Advisor (‘#4 of 5 things to do in Gretna’). One visitor called the monument ‘a mis-managed pile of stones’ which is actually quite a good definition of cairn.

The cairn was also vandalised that year, with Stewart saying at the time, “I respect that nationalists will continue to put forward their own arguments, but I fail to see what these vandals hoped to achieve by targeting the cairn at Gretna, other than to manifest their bitterness and resentment for the way in which the Scottish people ultimately chose to vote last year.” (Cumbria Crack). This vandalism appears to have included the daubing of ‘offensive slogans’ on the cairn, the breaking of one of the poem stones in the cairn interior, and removing the noticeboard next to the site and throwing it into the River Sark. This noticeboard floated down river, and was found on a beach a few months later by a dog walking former local MP, who returned this back on site for a photo shoot.

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Source: News and Star / (c) JENNY WOOLGAR

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Source: Daily Record (link below)

Was this a ‘nationalist stunt’? Graffiti on the cairn stones, reported on by The Daily Record, would suggest some political motivation for at least this aspect of the vandalism, with phrases added to the monument such as “Nicola Sturgeon is coming to get ye!” and “Don’t blame me a voted Yes”. In a poll, 54% of Record readers found the graffiti offensive, 46% did not (number of participants unknown) which mirrors almost exactly the result of the referendum.

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When I visited recently with Jan, I was surprised how tidy and well-maintained the cairn is, almost three years after construction started. I was also surprised that there were no signs to tell visitors where to park or how to walk to the cairn, the only indication we were in the right place being a pair of plain noticeboards beside a gate in the car park of the Old Toll Bar Café, the first or last chance for refreshments in Scotland depending on your direction of travel across the Scotland – England border located 100m to the south on the red sandstone bridge over the River Sark. The noticeboards explain briefly the history and ethos of the cairn and advertise some internet links of varying currency, and also include sketches that were prepared when the cairn was being planned.

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The noticeboard text is explicitly political. It is noted that the cairn “is a testimony to the United Kingdom”, situated right on the current border, but in a place that was once neither Scotland nor England, but rather ‘Middleland’. As far as I can tell, this is a tenuous-to-mythical historical convenience, promoted in the writing of Rory Stewart for instance on his website. Here, he argues that there is ‘nothing natural’ about a border between England and Scotland, and that the fact there is a border at all simply relates back to the Romans drawing straight lines on maps for their own convenience. (It’s amazing how some of the most potent legacies of colonialism can be traced back to the gratuitous use of such an innocent piece of stationery, the ruler.) Stewart argues that Gretna and the cairn sit in what used to be a Middleland, an ill-defined ‘upland’ zone between Edinburgh and Sheffield with heartlands in Northumberia, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.

This frontier zone is the focus of Stewart’s most recent book The Marches (Jonathan Cape, 2016), where he recounts walking along parts of Hadrian’s Wall with his late father as well as a solo long distance walk across Cumbria. I have not read this book, only reviews, but it seems to fit well with a man who is passionate about the Borders and the borders and borders that should not be borders, restless to understand how the past, and landscapes, can help people define themselves. The Middleland theme is played out in this book too: it is an upland rural landscape (although it is far from all being upland and rural) “… a land naturally unified by geography and culture for 2,000 years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers”. It all sounds a bit W G Hoskins to me.

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Before Scotland and England, and amidst the periodic enforcement of a border here by ruler-wielding praetorians, Stewart in his website musings suggests that this area belongs to a misty-eyed time when there was “no single English ethnicity, or Scottish language”, and people on either side of what we now see as a border “married each other…wore the same clothes, ate the same food, lived the same life…and sung the same ballads about their exploits”. And yet why chose these specific traits to suggest cultural similarity? Why select certain centuries in the past and then set them up as a norm? This Borders romanticism would be less of an issue had it not been an explicit driver for the loud cairn construction campaign, drawing on the ancient past to legitimize modern political decision-making. In fact, it could be argued that Stewart misunderstands the nature of identity, mistaking shared actions, material culture and pragmatic accommodations for shared hearts and minds. Stewart’s arguments echo long-running discussions about the Dalriadan Scots in Ulster and Argyll, where archaeological and historical evidence has been used to argue for, and against, modern political boundaries. Such claims and connections can be dangerous, contested and illogical – on both sides of the argument.

More troubling still, the cairn builders seem to suggest that the political unity that a Yes vote in the referendum threatened has its origins in prehistory. The noticeboard goes on to say: “A cairn is a traditional northern English and Scottish marker in the landscape”, going back as far as the Neolithic. (Stewart repeats this in the short film linked to above.) This is nonsensical and a dangerous argument to make: are we now to define modern identities due to shared Neolithic monument traditions? Again, this reminds me of arguments related to Ireland. Matthew Stout (1996) has written about archaeologist Emyr Esten Evans’ ‘Ulster exceptionalism’, an attempt to demonstrate that megalithic tombs in Northern Island were different from those elsewhere on that island, with obvious political motivations. And cairns are not just found in Scotland and northern England – they are found across Britain and Ireland, and if anything you could argue there is an east-west divide. Furthermore, cairns come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and dates – it could be argued they are a very human thing to do.

Most ludicrously of all, the design template for the Auld Acquaintance cairn is a Clava Cairn, a monument style that is found almost exclusively in Inverness-shire. Very regionalised traditions in prehistory were commonplace and do not lend themselves well to narratives of British or UK wide continuity. And so all we need to do is select which monument types fit our argument depending on what boundaries we want to break down, or defend.

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The design for the Auld Acquaintance cairn. Source: on site noticeboard

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A Clava cairn. Source: Visit Scotland. (c) Paul Tomkins.

Back to our visit. We went through the gate and walked the short distance to the neat and tidy cairn, which has lost the fringe of slates and stones that were evident when it was first constructed. A noticeboard was located here too, although the aforementioned map which had stood on the site in 2014 showing where the component stones had come from, had been removed. I was immediately impressed with the scale and quality of the construction: this would have taken a lot of work, supporting claims from those involved in building that this was a project that meant something personal to them.

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The cairn material consisted of many different types of rock and stone, with some of the stones brightly painted, with unsurprisingly a preponderance of red, white and blue. Personal messages with names, thanks and so on were commonplace, as were union flags.

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One of the stones was painted red and referred to a place neither Scotland nor England: Ulster. Taken together with the Butcher’s Apron graffiti shown above, this demonstrates that political gestures, no matter how well meaning, will be appropriated for all sorts of different (or tangentially related) agendas, old scores being settled, old wars being refought. If you make claims to deep time, expect others to do so as well.

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Another contained a message for our post-Brexit times: THE PEOPLE SPOKE FOREVER, the idea that a decision has been made, and everyone should now get together and make it work. A decision that cannot be overturned or even argued with. Maybe it is a warning. As with everything about this megalith, it depends on who you are: the 55 or the 45.

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Another stone was decorated with a more primeval symbol – a prehistoric cup-and-ring mark. Using the logic of this cairn we perhaps need to abandon more national boundaries, as these symbols can be found across many EU countries.

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There was evidence that some messages were becoming less focused on the ethos of the stone, with an Orcadian flag (which itself was defaced by vandals in 2015), and stones with messages written by tourists visiting the monument on holiday. There is a growing sense of the routine about this monument, and as time passes it will be more and more difficult for Hands Across the Border to retain the meaning of this cairn despite their aspiration for this to be a permanent reminder of the NO vote.

The interior of the monument was entered by a narrow corridor lined by smart red sandstone blocks, topped with stacked slates, and with gravel crunching underfoot.

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At the end of the passage was the circular central chamber with high walls, 2m tall, enclosing and restricting views of the outside borderzone. Inside, a yellow stone slab was propped up against the back wall, containing one half of Charlotte Higgins’ poem; the other stone, broken in 2015, was only partially restored. The relative peace and solitude of the interior of the cairn, surrounded by beautiful stone work, and words which spoke of wars and memorialisation, was the most impressive and sombre element of an otherwise garish monument. Powerful or exploitative? It all depends. 55 or 45?

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We wandered back out, and away from the cairn. There was a low hum caused by a tanker spewing wood chips into a metal container beside the cairn. The surrounding field was scrubby and untidy, a ghostly and abandoned camp site with electrical power fittings for caravans jutting from the ground like gravestones. These were arranged around a derelict and boarded up toilet block. Ahead, we saw a massive blue sign on the northbound side of the M74. It was a giant metal flag, the saltire, adorned with the words ‘Welcome to Scotland’ with some tiny YES stickers stuck to it. Lying twenty or so yards from this sign was a discarded and broken placard, the one quarter or one eighth remnant of a very different roadside message that once said NO THANKS. Right on the border, on the banks of the Sark, YES and NO not so far apart after all, both little more than a blur in the eyes of motorway-hypnotised drivers speeding past, even in the slow lane.

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By strange coincidence, on the day of our visit, the front cover of The National newspaper was concerned with borders too. This is a Scottish paper that describes itself as ‘The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland’. The headline read: ‘TRUMP WON’T CROSS HADRIAN’S WALL: State visit will not include Scotland’. Behind this lay a weird montage of Hadrian’s Wall with the disembodied heads of Donald Trump (no hair) and Nicola Sturgeon (with sun rays shining beatifically from her chin like a golden beard, glowing in anti-Trump hirsuteness).

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Scottish nationalists can play this game too in other words – here we have the misuse of the ancient past to make a political point about modern borders. Here, we have the common mistake of likening Hadrian’s Wall to the Scotland – England border, the straight line across Britain’s middlelands that Stewart was talking about. Here we have in one gloriously daft image the old myth that Scotland somehow repelled the Romans while England did not, and that this division is ancient and meaningful when it comes to defining modern identity. It is not and it does not, but that will not stop prehistory and our ancient past being used again and again in this ongoing debate. It was no surprise to me when I found out while researching this post that Rory Stewart was also planning a referendum-focused human chain of tens of thousands of people along Hadrian’s Wall in 2014, showing that this boundary is endlessly exploitable to people of all political beliefs.

It is almost too easy to use prehistory as a lesson from which we should learn – and yet, all we are doing is projecting our own concerns and concepts onto the mute archaeological record back to a time when these words and ideas would have made no sense. Often for the best of intentions. I have sympathy with this tweet from only a few days ago (at the time of writing) and yet there are so many assumptions at play here that just I don’t know where to start.

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In the Channel 4 TV sketch show from the 1990s, Absolutely, there was caricatured Scottish nationalist character played by Jack Docherty called McGlashan. He was a failed writer who continually pitched ideas for anti-English and pro-Scottish plays to his long suffering posh (English? Scottish?) agent. One of the plays he comes up with is called Nip Nap Shite (‘well, you’ve certainly got an eye for a title’). In this play, the SNP (then a party a million miles from government) stand a candidate called McGlashan in a general election against then Tory MP John Major. “He’s so brilliant and Scottish, right, he wins with a 50,000 majority”. In another and much shorter sketch, McGlashan cycles up to a very non-descript Scotland-England border crossing. He looks around, crosses into England, shouts some abuse and then quickly cycles back into Scotland again. The border is quiet, the road empty.

Here we have Scots comedians laughing at ourselves, our complex identity in relation to England and the UK, our fascination with borders and seeing how far we can push them, for a laugh. The same issues of identity that Rory Stewart has been wrestling with – them and us / them or us? The 55 or the 45? Or just the 100?

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The Auld Acquaintance cairn. Built on a border that is not a border. Made in a style neither local nor logical. A monument to British unionism drawing on a mythical ancient past to inform modern political identity. A place that is about uniting that can’t help but divide. Borders and boundaries that still confuse to this day – soft / hard, busy / quiet, first / last, 55 / 45. It all depends.

But one thing I am sure about – should auld acquaintance be forgot that megaliths and Roman walls should never be used to legitimize political arguments, to support the construction of walls, to make claims of identity, or to tell us how to vote.

Sources and acknowledgements: I have throughout this blog made use of information about the Auld Acquaintance cairn from the websites for Hands Across the Border and Rory Stewart (links in the text) – these have both been accessible and useful sources, and have helped document a most remarkable project.

Images used from these sources have been credited as such. I have attempted to give a source for more or less all images used above: no source means the photo is mine. The Marshes book cover is widely available online, as is the Orkney BBC TV show screengrab.

The book pictured at the top of the post was published by Cruithne Press in Glasgow in 1996 and is well worth a read. The Niall Sharples quote and Matthew Stout example both derive from papers in this book.

I did not provide a link to the BNP website. If one wishes to find the current cached source of the quotation from their old manifesto, google the phrase. I’m not doing it for you.

This post benefited from the insights of Steve Driscoll and Dene Wright, and Jan who accompanied me on the visit to the cairn.  

Selfish walks

21 Jan

What is the nature of the narratives that we write as archaeologists? What status do our accounts about the past have? I have long characterised my own writings about my chosen area of expertise, the Neolithic period, as being fictional accounts of an ancient past that we have no direct experience of. These fictions rely on research, evidence and facts that act as a framework for what I say about Neolithic monuments and lifeways; these in effect offer resistance to flights of fancy and nonsensical accounts of the past, although I have been accused of producing both of these in the past, my defence being that we cannot write about the past without writing about ourselves. One of the key reasons that archaeological accounts of the past have – let’s be generous – a fictional element, is that they are mediated through the present. Our archaeological engagements happen today and thus we must account for the circumstances within which we investigate remains of prehistory, although there is precious little of this kind of introspection in archaeology.

A good example of this is ‘landscape phenomenology’, which has been used to help make sense of Neolithic monuments, settlements and landscapes ever since Chris Tilley published his seminal but flawed book A phenomenology of landscape in 1994. This book offered the first comprehensive foray by Tilley into experiential fieldwork and one of the first uses of the philosophical concept of phenomenology in archaeology. Phenomenology is concerned with processing and understanding perceptual and bodily engagement, trying to make sense of phenomena by how we encounter them. So the description of our experiences of things is more meaningful and helpful than merely describing things in themselves; this should be an involved, not detached task. This is typified by an approach to Neolithic landscapes that is embodied and carried out on foot on the ground as opposed to a detached analysis based on maps, air photos and site plans.

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Tilley achieved the remarkable sleight of hand of moving from ontological philosophy to archaeological fieldwork method. Thus, experiences one has today such as walking through a prehistoric enclosure, approaching a dolmen, or surveying the wider landscape from the entrance of a chambered tomb to see what can and cannot be seen, could be meaningful data in the study of how people in the Neolithic experienced and used those things and why those monuments were built where they were. This approach has many flaws and critics, but has been much imitated as a method over the past two decades in no small part because, as Jo Brück says, it is cheap and anyone can do it. To paraphrase Andrew M Jones, it is the theory that has launched a thousand student dissertations – including mine.

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Map of a phenomenological walk around the Stonehenge landscape undertaken by Tilley, Barbara Bender and a baby (Bender 1998)

Tilley argued that taking his experiences in the contemporary landscape (all of his fieldwork happens there of course unless he has a secret time machine) and transposing his own personal observation, knowledge and insights derived from these walks back 5000 years can be done because of our shared human physiology, and the consistency of the ‘bones of the landscape’. (See what I mean about archaeology-as-fiction?) Issues of historicity and trees can be overcome so it seems although archaeologists from John Barrett to Andrew Fleming have voiced serious reservations. For my own perspective, I have always been a recreational user of phenomenology, but have never hooked. My first ever published piece of writing was back in 1998 in the now defunct magazine 3rd Stone where I felt confident enough to offer some tentative misgivings about how beneficial walking along Neolithic cursus monuments was although these related more to refining the method than destroying it (in much the same way as Frankenstein kept trying to make better monsters through the Hammer film series rather than just giving up after the first one and admitting it was a pretty bad idea all along).

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Landscape phenomenology of the kind proposed by Tilley and others has as one of its explicit aims the imaginative recreation of the Neolithic landscape (except for all those troublesome plants which we can’t say much about with any precision), and this means that somehow the contemporary landscape has to be filtered out of the equation, in the same way as an augmented reality app might do so on a smart phone. In other words, the very context within which all archaeological engagements happen – the present – is subordinated by the past in the present, which is really just the present when you stop and think about it. It’s almost as if to carry out landscape phenomenology one has to don a pair of x-ray glasses that can see through the actual AD2017 and back to a version of 3017BC. I happen to think that augmented reality in this case means diminished reality and no amount of phenomenology hats can disguise this.

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Augmented reality is diminished reality (photo source: VR Scout)

Tilley called this ‘imaginative self-transposition’ which sounds a bit like a course you could do over a weekend at a lodge in the country somewhere, but is in fact the process of imagining away the present – the roads, field boundaries, planes overhead, car noises, funny smells – to get to the past, or rather the past as imagined by the archaeologist carrying out this process. Thus, we have the emergence of the selfish walk as archaeological fieldwork method, where, as Julian Thomas has put it, ‘the investigator bases their interpretation of a place or object on their unbridled subjective experience’. I actually don’t have that much against acknowledged subjectivity in fieldwork – I am a fiction writer remember – but I do disagree with screening out the context within which archaeological engagements happen. Because we have to understand the nature of our encounters to begin to understand the significance of those encounters; how reliable what we have to say about the Neolithic is contingent upon this.

Little wonder that Tilley has also stated that ‘a megalith in an urban environment does not seem to work’ because the more urban a place is, the more sensory and physical stuff landscape phenomenology says that we must filter out. It might be more correct to say that trying to draw conclusions about Neolithic activities, movements and monuments is harder in an urban or industrial setting, but then that depends on what you are up to in the first place.

If your interest is how the past and the present intertwine, if your concern is what multifarious and denuded ways prehistory appears to us in contemporary settings, if you are passionate about exploring what we can say about contemporary prehistoric landscapes – all concerns of mine – then in a sense it is easier to do this in an urban setting, as this jars more violently with social and disciplinary preconceptions of what prehistory was like. It electro-shocks a reaction, which can be one of intrigue or horror. But here’s the thing: it isn’t really prehistory, no matter with how much determination Tilley and others might walk along, or up to it, and experience it. Prehistory has gone, it’s over, done with. The less prehistoric a place or landscape feels, the more likely that prehistoric remains in that context will tell us something meaningful about our engagements with the past in the present and the conditions within which archaeological knowledge emerges. Some humility and honesty go a long way here.

It might also tell us bugger all about the past, but I am comfortable with that, plenty of archaeologists do that shit.

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Walking along the route of a Neolithic cursus. Maps are the tools of psychogeographers, not the enemy.

In fact, a much better way to deal with prehistoric monuments in a landscape context is to use psychogeography which Guy Debord famously defined as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. What better means could we use to explore how urbanisation has impacted on our ability to see and make sense of prehistoric monuments and activities? Psychogeography as a practice is not concerned with filtering out the present, but rather it embraces it as a necessary condition of being concerned with the past in the first place. The imposition of an urban grid replaces what went before, and thus necessitates actions that presence what went before in the present. Here, the urban change has to happen in order for the need, the want, to emerge. It goes without saying that urban prehistory demands urbanisation to have occurred.

The use of mapping in psychogeography as a means to plan or record walks and journeys accords far better with the reality of our urban encounters than vain attempts to forget maps and yet have to draw them anyway to report on our discoveries. Maps are not detachment, they are a record of the world that exist to be subverted, not ignored. Maps are the tools of psychogeographers, not the enemy. The dérive is a far more effective way to encounter prehistoric sites and monuments than knowing-a priori-assumption-laden walks between cairns and stone circles. Psychogeography can adequately allow for outlandish encounters and weird juxtapositions, celebrated as an inevitable and beautiful outcome of human palimpesting of the land, whereas landscape phenomenology can only lead us to bemoan things getting in the way, breaking up the experience, blocking views, generally ruining the megalithic aura and – well, just being annoying reminders that everything is really happening now, in the present, and not in the past. Psychogeography is not as half as visually dominated as landscape phenomenology is. And so on.

So, returning to my first point, I draw a very firm line between the two types of archaeological narratives that I write. Some are indeed fictionalised versions of the Neolithic, and are intended to offer my expert interpretation of the chaotic mass we call the archaeological record. Others are far from fictional – they are serious, factual reportage on encounters I have with prehistoric sites and monuments in the contemporary landscape. I don’t have to make that stuff up because it really happened to me. Nothing Neolithic ever happened to me, and if you have ever seen the huge polished stone axes they were knocking out and hitting one another on the heads with back then you wouldn’t want it to happen to you either. Urban prehistory can and should be a serious business because the traces of prehistoric actions are more useful to society if we understand how people encounter them today, than how they were encountered 5000 years ago.

Crap, this was supposed to be a blog post about me walking along a cursus monument in East Lothian. I’ll do that next time.

 

My thoughts in this post have greatly benefited from various conversations with Andrew Watson, although he may not agree with my conclusions!

The Stonehenge VR image came from the VR Scout Stonehenge webpage.

Academic sources referred to in the text:

  • Brűck, J 2005 Experiencing the past? The development of a phenomenological archaeology in British prehistory, Archaeological Dialogues 12, 45-72.
  • Barrett, J. and Ko, I. 2009. A phenomenology of landscape: a crisis in British landscape archaeology. Journal of Social Archaeology 9(3), 275-294.
  • Bender B 1998, Stonehenge: making space, Oxford: Berg
  • Brophy, K 1998 This is not phenomenology (or is it?): experiencing cursus monuments. 3rd Stone Magazine 30, 7-9.
  • Fleming, A 2006 Post-processual landscape archaeology: a critique, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16, 267-80.
  • Jones, AM 2007 Review of The materiality of stone, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17, 229-31.
  • Tilley, C 1993 Art, architecture, landscape [Neolithic Sweden], in Bender, B (ed) Landscape: politics and perspectives, Berg, 49-84.
  • Tilley, C 1994 A phenomenology of landscape, Oxford: Berg.
  • Tilley, C 2008 Phenomenological approaches to landscape archaeology, in David, B & Thomas, J (eds) Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, Leftcoast Press.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fleet beneath my feet

30 Nov

‘We are treading upon our ancestors’ (Peter Ackroyd, London Under)

‘At low tide, the Fleet outfall can be seen by standing in front of the empty bridge piers, and looking down’ (Tom Bolton, London’s Lost Rivers: A walker’s guide, pg. 113)

 

London is the place to go for long walks and drink beer.

It is a city to go underground and read.

Beer and books, books and beer.

beer-and-book-1

Beer and books.

Words and tunnels.

Glass tower blocks and dark dirty corners.

reflections-low-res

London is a city of turmoil and change.

It is topographically, topologically, geomorphologically, hydrologically dynamic.

Yet it never changes.

double-yellow-low-res

In London, I walk. I always feel as if the surface of the ground is wafer thin, a membrane. I sense – I fear, I hope – that it would be the easiest thing in the world to let myself fall through, tearing myself and my temporality apart, lose myself in the quick sand of time and the seductiveness of the past. The ancient past.

I imagine as I drip through the pavement pores, feet first

that a Bronze Age archer grabs my ankle and pulls me down

that a Roman citizen tugs on my ragged trousers and cheap shoes

that hunter-gatherers, distracted from the hunt, come to gather me up

grid-low-res

The weight of time, the deep time of London, is a force I can barely withstand and whenever I am in London it comes for me, it hunts and gathers me, it farms me, it smelts me and it colonizes me.

Because London is a city on the edge, a lawless and fluid border zone between past and present.

subway-sign-low-res

London is the gaping maw of prehistory, daring us to forget but not allowing us to, polluting and intoxicating with its weird hot breath.

lower-robert-street

The pavements beneath my feet are almost translucent. Walking in London is to walk on a gossamer-thin reality, the certainty and hardness of the present diminished. As I walk, I feel my feet begin to sink into the concrete and tarmac, and my walking becomes laboured. I look behind me and see a line of footprints – my footprints. Footprints that I have left behind and that I cannot erase. Nor can I escape. They will be able to follow me, the dead, although I have the consolation that I have left my mark in this place. ‘We are treading upon our ancestors’.

footprints-low-res

What more can be said about London?

What more can be written about London?

How deep can we go? How deep should we go?

How about as deep as we can and as far as we can.

Deeper than anything a guidebook can tell you.

beer-and-book-2

I write these words as I sit in a café. I look up from the page. Around me are signs. A road sign points to LUDGATE CIRCUS. An office block is called FLEET HOUSE. A pub is called THE ALBION. A side street called BRIDEWELL LANE, named for a Holy Well.

THIS IS PREHISTORY.

wheeler-sign

How is it possible to write the histories of London and Londoners? History is only part of the story, and a very small part at that. History was brought to London by the Romans, whose ancient city walls were located near where I sat and wrote. I am acutely conscious that I am situated outside the walls of LONDINIUM. I am still in prehistory. I am one of the barbarians, the blue-bodied woad-wearers, I am indigenous, I am a native. There are people everywhere even although it is barely 8am and the sun is barely up.

Iron Age commuters.

Iron Age dispatch riders.

Iron Age cars and buses and taxis and lorries.

Yet – are we not all Homo Sapiens Sapiens? That is all I can see around me in the shadows.

temple-station-low-res

Nearby too, the Roman temple atop Ludgate Hill, now St Paul’s Cathedral, must have been a pagan, pre-Roman, pre-Christian place. Before that it was a mound by a river. It has been coveted, transformed, appropriated, converted and contested. Only last night I ate a pizza and drank wine there. This heathen hill was Romanised by the Romans and Christianised by the Christians and commodified by the capitalists – all in the name of capital in the capital.

And before that, where I sit now, supping caffeine, was under water, in the Thames.

So now I sit, tired, but elated and focused.

The Fleet beneath my feet.

 

 

 

Houses upon houses

30 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cowie a walk map

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

General street view low res

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

Oops. Source is Atkinson 2002. No offence meant.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Neolithic village low res

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

houses upon houses map

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

Roundhouse 2 low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

Ochre low res

Flint Cres low res

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

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

Suggestions welcome....

Suggestions welcome….

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

Local children paid a visit to a pre-history park, Archaeolink, and many of the ideas they got from this visit as well as information about the pre-historic Cowie site itself have been built into the design of the park, which includes shelters, cooking and seating areas, and a raised beach, as well as mounds, tunnels, slides and a climbing wall. The children’s involvement in the design development has meant that the design concept which underpins the site layout contains elements which the children understand and which feel familiar to them. 

Playground photo 1

Playground photo 2

Playground photo 3

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

Flint Crescent low res

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

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

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

Neolithic village fake sign low res

Sources and acknowledgements: I have mentioned and linked to my sources in the text above. For context, this post was written between 25-30th May 2016. The excavation report for Chapelfield, Cowie is freely available online – full details are: John Atkinson 2002 Excavation of a Neolithic occupation site at Chapelfield, Cowie, Stirling, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 139-192. The first two playground photos were sourced from the wildside.scot website (link above) and this was also the source of the extended quotation used in my post, while the third photo was posted by the Free Play Network and attributed to Stirling Council Play Services.

Urn

6 Feb

If R really did mark the spot beneath the tarmac – beneath the car park – where Richard III was found….

Richard III car park photo

….then what might be find beneath the tarmac elsewhere….

urn 3

….beneath our feet and our traffic and our infrastructure?

urn 2

The ancient dead also endure…..

urn

….beneath our cities, our towns, our houses, our gardens and our car parks.

 

Note: Cremation Urn (noun): a ceramic vessel, typically dating to the Bronze Age, used for the collection and storage of cremated human remains. The cremated bones were often sealed inside these large bucket-shaped pots by a skin or hide lid. Cremation urns were generally buried in pits, often upside down. The majority of Bronze Age cremation cemeteries found in the 20th century were uncovered due to urban expansion and road building.

Source: the Richard III photo was sourced from the Bailiwick Express.

The Cochno Stone exposed

27 Sep

Between 7th and 9th September 2015, the Cochno Stone was revealed for the first time in 51 years – albeit only for 36 hours.

The results of this small-scale excavation are simple, yet exciting.

It is important that the results of the work we did, and the recommendations I am making for future work at the Stone, are made as widely available as possible. And so my full report on the excavation can be found below in this blog post.

For other accounts of this brief, but important, excavation, there are some excellent sources online:

Devil’s Plantation blog – Dig for victory

Factum Arte blog and photogrammetry

Clydebank post story

Adventures in Dowsing podcast (Aid047) – Revealing Cochno

My previous blog post on this subject – A matter of trust

Facebook group campaigning to uncover the Cochno Stone

 

The Cochno Stone: an archaeological investigation

Phase 1 report

Summary

The Cochno Stone, West Dunbartonshire, is one of the most extensive and remarkable prehistoric rock-art panels in Britain. It was however buried by archaeologists in 1964 to protect it from ‘vandalism’ associated with visitors and encroaching urbanisation. A proposal has been developed to uncover the Stone, and laser scan it, to allow an exact replica to be created and placed in the landscape near where the original site is. In order to do this, it was felt that an initial trial excavation should take place (Phase 1) in order to assess the condition of the Stone and the nature of its burial. This work was undertaken in early September 2015. The Cochno Stone was found to be buried less deeply than claimed, and the wall surrounding it appears to have partially collapsed or been pushed over. The Stone itself was uncovered and rock-art, as well as 20th century graffiti and damage to the Stone, was recorded. Recommendations for the next phase of the project can now be made and the future plans for the Stone opened up for dialogue.

 

Background to the project

The Cochno Stone (aka Whitehill 1; NMRS number NS57SW 32; NGR NS 5045 7388), West Dunbartonshire, is located at the foot of the Kilpatrick Hills on the north-western edge of Glasgow, in an urban park in Faifley, a housing estate on the north side of Clydebank. It is one of up to 17 panels of rock-art in this area (Morris 1981, 123-4) but by far the most extensive. The outcrop measures some 13m by 8m, is covered in scores of cup-marks, cup-and-rings marks, spirals and other unusual motifs. The surface is undulating, sloping sharply to the south, and is a ‘gritstone’ or sandstone. It was buried for ‘protection’ from vandalism in 1964.

Image 1: extract from Harvey's 1880s sketch (source: Harvey 1889)

Image 1: extract from Harvey’s 1880s sketch (source: Harvey 1889)

The Cochno Stone was first documented by the Rev James Harvey of Duntocher, who came across the incised outcrop in 1885. Harvey explored beneath the turf around the Cochno Stone and some other examples in the area to test their extent, and then published his results in volume 23 of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS). He included a detailed description of a profusion of classic and unusual rock-art motifs across a large sandstone block (which he called Stone A). Harvey concluded his largely descriptive narrative with this hope:

Evidently the district in which these sculpturings have been found, lying as it does on the pleasant slopes of the Kilpatrick hills, and commanding an extensive view of Clydesdale, had been a favourite resort of these ancient rock-engravers; and it is my hope that, in the course of time, with a little labour, more of these mysterious hieroglyphics may be brought again to the light of day, and perhaps the veil that shrouds from us their meaning may be withdrawn (Harvey 1889, 137).

 John Bruce produced a review of other rock-art sites in the region which was published in PSAS in 1896, and here he included a new sketch of the stone by W. A. Donnelly, this time showing (apparently) all of the stone rather than one part of it. There are some notable differences here from Harvey’s depiction (above) of the triple cup-and-ring mark arrangement. Donnelly’s drawing was the basis for Ronald Morris’s own sketch plan (see image 7) although Morris was dismissive of its reliability based on his own observations (1981, 124).

Image 2: Sketch of the Cochno Stone by W A Donnelly (dated 1895), which was reproduced in slightly different format by Bruce (1896) – image 3 - then rationalised by Morris (1981) – image 7.

Image 2: Sketch of the Cochno Stone by W A Donnelly (dated 1895), which was reproduced in slightly different format by Bruce (1896) – image 3 – then rationalised by Morris (1981) – image 7.

 

Image 3: Bruce’s version of Donnelly’s sketch, reduced in detail and context (Bruce 1896)

Image 3: Bruce’s version of Donnelly’s sketch, reduced in detail and context (Bruce 1896)

Bruce did not re-tread Harvey’s account but rather focused on unusual motifs found on the Stone:

Two features which had not hitherto been observed, viz., a cross within an oval border and a sculpturing resembling two pairs of footprints, which, curiously enough, show only four toes each, both being incised in the rock, casts of which can now be inspected, prepared by Mr Adam Miller, Helensburgh (Bruce 1896, 208).

Image 4: The enigmatic four-toed petrosomatoglyphs, with ‘old penny’ for scale (Morris 1981)

Image 4: The enigmatic four-toed petrosomatoglyphs, with ‘old penny’ for scale (Morris 1981)

Some international parallels for these symbols were found and they were considered as being contemporary with the prehistoric rock-art as opposed to modern editions. However, it is as likely that the cross and petrosomatoglyphs are much more modern additions. The fate to the casts is unknown sadly.

Soon the stone became something of a tourist attraction, and a wall with at least one style was constructed around it at some point to control entry. The few photos of the Cochno Stone (such as image 9) – mostly from the 1930s – show visitors walking over the stone, usually from learned societies, and this may well have contributed to damage to the Stone which subsequently led to its burial.

The Stone became the renewed focus for archaeological attention in the mid-1930s when Ludovic Mann took an interest in it, located as it was relatively close to the remarkable Knappers prehistoric site on what is now Great Western Road (Mann 1937a, 1937b). Mann infamously ‘painted’ the motifs white to make them clearer, apparently for a visit of the Glasgow Archaeological Society in 1937 (Ritchie 2002, 51). Mann added his own speculative grid as well (see image 12) and it likely that other motifs he painted onto the rock were fanciful on his part. Some black and white photos of the Stone at this time suggest two colours were used.

Image 5: Note the carved P H (Morris 1981)

Image 5: Note the carved P H (Morris 1981)

There was clearly a growing concern from this point onwards that the Stone was under threat, from visitors walking on the Stone, but also vandalism. A hint of this is evident in the rare image (pre 1937?) above showing a carved P H on the surface of the Cochno Stone beside the remarkable triple cup-and-ring arrangement shown in Harvey’s original sketch (image 1).

And thus in 1964, the stone was buried, although the circumstances of this act remain shrouded in mystery.

Morris (1981, 124) offers this account:

Morris 1981 text

The vandals were later identified in the same book as ‘from near-by towns’. Others repeated this story over the years since, naming Glasgow University as the driving force behind the burial and suggesting up to 1m of soil covered the Stone. Euan MacKie (in MacKie and Davis 1988-89, 127) noted that the Stone has been “buried for some years for its own protection” although a recent email conversation with Euan suggests he was not privy to the act of burial itself. Therefore the details of the burial of the Stone, and potentially other rock-art panels in the vicinity, requires further research.

 

Phase 1 overview: research questions and methodology

The first phase of work was carried out in order to allow a small section of the Cochno Stone to be exposed, under conditions akin to an archaeological watching brief. This small-scale excavation was viewed as being vitally important in establishing some baseline conditions ahead of the proposed more extensive phase 2 of the project.

Research questions and objectives underlying this small-scale intervention were as follows:

  1. What condition is the Cochno Stone in? Has the overlying topsoil had a detrimental effect on the stone? Could any damage be reversed or stopped?
  2. How deep is the topsoil? What is the nature of this material (soil, turf, stone content)? How easy is it to remove from the surface of the stone?
  3. How clearly visible are the motifs and can these be matched to previous drawings and records? How accurate are the old drawings we have?
  4. How was the stone buried and what happened to the wall that has been pictured around it?

This work was undertaken over three days, 7-9th September 2015, with a small team of students from the University of Glasgow; also present were Ferdinand Saumarez Smith of Factum Arte, and Richard Salmon, stone sculptor, who was on hand to assess the condition of the stone. The process was documented by film-maker May Miles Thomas.

Image 6: The current situation of the Cochno Stone, photographed a few weeks before excavation commenced

Image 6: The current situation of the Cochno Stone, photographed a few weeks before excavation commenced

In advance of the excavation, weed and vegetation clearing was required to allow access to the site and trench location. A small trench 4m by 1m was opened by hand on the north side of the stone, with turves, and the topsoil removed by a combination of mattocks, shovels and spades. At this end of this process, the site was re-instated through the replacement of soil and turves.

 

Results

A trench 4m by 1m was opened by hand on the north side of the stone, with long axis north-south. The trench ran from the northern extent of the stone (in the form of the remnants of the boundary wall). Due to the unreliable drawings of the stone that exist, the exact location of the trench in the context of the stone remains unclear.

 

Image 7: The red box indicates the approx. location of the planned trench, and the green box may be roughly where the trench actually sat in relation to the stone, with a void in the northern half of the trench (Stone drawing is Morris 1981 version of the original Donnelly sketch).

Image 7: The red box indicates the approx. location of the planned trench, and the green box may be roughly where the trench actually sat in relation to the stone, with a void in the northern half of the trench (Stone drawing is Morris 1981 version of the original Donnelly sketch).

 

Image 8: Plan of the trench, North to the right

Image 8: Plan of the trench, North to the right

Image 9: The Stone being daubed in white ‘paint’ by Ludovic MacLellan Mann in the 1930s. Note the style in the wall on the left of the image (circle); this was partially revealed during our excavations, which may well help tie down the trench location more closely when more photos become available © RCAHMS

Image 9: The Stone being daubed in white ‘paint’ by Ludovic MacLellan Mann in the 1930s. Note the style in the wall on the left of the image (circle); this was partially revealed during our excavations, which may well help tie down the trench location more closely when more photos become available © RCAHMS

 

Image 10: General view of the trench from the north, with planning going on in the foreground

Image 10: General view of the trench from the north, with planning going on in the foreground

 

Topsoil

The topsoil that the stone was buried in was mid-brown clay silt with infrequent pebble inclusions, and for the most part had the character of re-deposited plough soil. The occurrence of brick fragments, rusted metal nails, broken ceramic and glass in this soil layer suggests that this was transferred from a field nearby rather than derived from the immediate vicinity. The soil varied in depth from 0.5m towards the top of the stone, to 0.7m at the south end of the trench, which suggests the 1m depth occasionally quoted may only apply to the southern downhill portion of the stone. No indication was found of anything placed between the stone and the soil.

Image 11: The topsoil had a high clay content and was tough to remove

Image 11: The topsoil had a high clay content and was tough to remove

The wall

It is clear that the drystone wall which surrounded the stone is still there, albeit in a ruinous state. The top of the wall had been pushed, or fallen, over, but the lower section of the wall appears to be intact. Remnants of a stone style were also discovered, some of which was visible on the ground surface before the excavation commenced (and can be seen in image 9, above). This raises concerns that the wall was pushed onto the stone during the burying process and it may be that the stone itself has been damaged by this. We did not remove the wall rubble to assess this due to time constraints. But there did not appear to be a layer of topsoil between wall rubble and stone surface, only material that had trickled beneath.

Image 12: This 1930s photo shows the wall clearly overlying the edge of the Cochno Stone (source: The Clydebank Story, a now defunct website)

Image 12: This 1930s photo shows the wall clearly overlying the edge of the Cochno Stone (source: The Clydebank Story, a now defunct website)

 

Image 13: The collapsed wall, viewed from the south, showing rubble overlying the stone. The yellow arrow indicates a worked semi-circular stone that once topped the wall

Image 13: The collapsed wall, viewed from the south, showing rubble overlying the stone. The yellow arrow indicates a worked semi-circular stone that once topped the wall

The Cochno Stone

The stone was revealed in the afternoon of the first day of work, at varying depths beneath the surface and running beneath the wall rubble in the northern end of the trench. After the surface of the Stone was reached, heavy tools were removed from the trench and we continued to clean down to the Stone surface using trowels and then soft-bristle brushes. Water was poured on the Stone to assist cleaning and a water pump was used to remove excess water. The Cochno Stone was recorded via a sketch plan (image 8) and a photographic render produced by Factum Arte (image 14) which shows most clearly the motifs that were uncovered.

Image 14: Render of the stone generated from photography © Factum Arte

Image 14: Render of the stone generated from photography © Factum Arte

Six or seven cup-marks were evident, two of which had rings around them (one two, the other possibly three) and a further faint putative ring was identified at a third cup. The marks were all deeply incised and quite coarse in quality (cups up to 25mm in depth and 50mm in diameter), and in remarkably good condition given the burial of the stone and previous exposure for several thousand years. It was possible to determine small pecking marks in and around at least one cup-mark, suggesting the means of producing the marks may be revealed through further analysis. It may also be possible to identify phasing between one cup-mark and adjacent cup-and-ring mark which appear to overlap, as was the case at nearby Greenland (Mackie & Davis 1988-89).

A number of other surface additions were noted, all presumably related to activity in the late 19th or early 20th century:

  • A short section of metal pipe was found adhered to the rock surface, leaving a stain when removed; this likely ended up on the stone during the burial process.
  • White flecks identified within one cup-mark may be remnants of Mann’s white paint, but no other sign of this was identified, suggesting an organic liquid was used rather than a chemical paint. These flecks were sampled for further analysis.
  • A small red patch, about 20mm across, was noted adhering to the surface of the stone. This had the character of a paint of some kind, and adhered closely to the stone; no sample could be collected as this was so closely bonded to the stone; this could relate to another colour of paint used on the stone by Mann, or be the remnant of some kind of vandalism.
  • A large black blob was found towards the SE corner of the trench. This had the character of pitch, tar or melted plastic, and was sampled for further analysis. The irregular pattern of this deposit suggested it melted in situ or is some kind of ‘splatter’. This overlay at least two cup-marks and edges of rings.
  • Modern graffiti scratched into the rock. This was an extensive panel of writing , contained within a crude box with irregular boundary. The visible portion measured some 250mm by 300mm, running under the eastern baulk of the trench. The letters were deeply incised and most are apparent:

E F D B

B DOCHERTY

R D

J B 1905 [1945 / 1965 also possible]

Image 15: Cup-mark containing white flecks – Mann’s paint remnants?

Image 15: Cup-mark containing white flecks – Mann’s paint remnants?

 

Image 16: Writing on the stone and the edge of the black splatter / blob. 15cm ruler for scale

Image 16: Writing on the stone and the edge of the black splatter / blob. 15cm ruler for scale

During the course of the excavation, a few marks were also made on the surface of the Stone with a mattock. This highlights the softness of the stone, and once this happened, heavy tools were abandoned. One consequence of this was that we wore no shoes in the trench , and so we have to consider that even walking across the Stone may cause damage to its surface.

Image 17: Protecting the Stone before back-filling commenced.

Image 17: Protecting the Stone before back-filling commenced.

At the end of the excavation, the stone and wall were covered in a double layer of geotex, and the trench was backfilled and re-turved by hand.

 

Preliminary recommendations for Phase 2

  1. The Cochno Stone remains in very good condition despite being buried and so a project to uncover and record the Stone is considered to be feasible and of great value.
  2. The local community should be consulted at all stages of the development of phase 2 of the project and any subsequent outcomes from the Cochno Stone project.
  3. The exposure of the Cochno Stone can be done by machine, but under very close supervision and with various mitigating factors in place e.g. plastic or rubber blade on the bucket, machine stays out with the perimeter wall.
  4. The rock is very soft and therefore hand excavation should avoid metal tools where at all possible – appropriate tools and brushes will need to be identified. Consultation with archaeologists who have worked on other rock-art panels will be imperative to share best practice.
  5. It is likely that existing drawings of the Cochno Stone are inaccurate (what we found cannot be located on Donnelly’s drawing) and therefore a full and detailed new drawing is urgently required. A suitable individual to do this should be identified.
  6. Phasing of rock-art cannot be ruled out, and we may be able to establish the means by which the rock-art was carved into the rock. Methods to deal with both areas of enquiry should be developed.
  7. Initial photogrammetry suggests high resolution recording techniques will reveal more about the Stone than observation with the naked eye and therefore techniques such as this and laser scanning will be of fundamental importance.
  8. We must consider the possibility that the perimeter wall collapse has caused some damage to the edges of the Stone; the removal of wall rubble will add to the time and cost of the final excavation.
  9. A rough sample – our trench (and the P H carving on one photo) – suggests that the Cochno Stone is heavily vandalised – and the damage to the Stone will include graffiti but also paint splatters and wear from visitors walking on the stone. The removal of chemical and other substances from the Stone (if desirable) will add to the cost of the project.
  10. Ludovic Mann’s ‘paint’ has largely disappeared; but traces may still remain and so we should not discount this from project designs. Research to connect Mann’s work at Cochno with Knappers would also be of great value.
  11. The story and circumstances of the burial of the Stone – and others in the park – need to be investigated as a matter of urgency to help inform the phase 2 excavation, find other rock-art panels and add to the modern story of the Stone.
  12. Any work on the Stone should be accompanied by research within and beyond the local community for:
    1. Memories and stories associated with the Cochno Stone and other rock-art
    2. Pictures and other images of the Stone before its burial.

 

Acknowledgements

A small team of very hard working students gave up a few days of their time to work at the Cochno Stone which was very much appreciated – Liam Devlin, Alison Douglas, Taryn Gouck, Rebecca Miller, Joe Morrison, Rory Peace and Katherine Price. Helen Green visited several times with her thoughts for phase 2 and other Glasgow PhD students – Tom Davis, Jamie Barnes and Dene Wright popped in with useful suggestions. Thanks also to project partners Ferdinand Saumarez Smith and Richard Salmon for help and advice throughout the process, and May Miles Thomas was a constant source of encouragement, and documented the process. Thanks to West Dunbartonshire council for permission to carry out the work and for ensuring access to the excavation site by strimming weeds and vegetation. John Raven of Historic Scotland has offered support and advice throughout the process and ensured permission was secured to excavate this scheduled ancient monument. And thanks too for Mrs Marks, owner of the east half of the Stone, for visiting and entering discussions with us about the future of the Stone. I would also like to thank John Reppion for drawing my attention to the word petrosomatoglyph!

Most of all, thanks to all of the local people who have kept alive memories of the Cochno Stone, many of whom of all ages came and visited our dig: this project is dedicated to all of you.

 

References

Bruce, J. 1896 Notice of remarkable groups of archaic sculpturings in Dumbartonshire and Stirlingshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 30, 205-9.*

Harvey, J 1889 Notes on some undescribed cup-marked rocks at Duntocher, Dumbartonshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 23, 130-7.*

Mann, L M 1937a An appeal to the nation: the ‘Druids’ temple near Glasgow: a magnificent, unique and very ancient shrine in imminent danger of destruction. London & Glasgow.

Mann, L M 1937b The Druid Temple Explained. London & Glasgow. [4th edn, enlarged & illustrated, 1939.]

Mackie, E W and Davis, A 1988-89 New light on Neolithic rock carving. The petroglyphs at Greenland (Auchentorlie), Dumbartonshire’, Glasgow Archaeological Journal 15, 125-55.

Morris, R W B 1981 The prehistoric rock-art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway), Oxford: BAR British Series 86.

Ritchie, J N G 2002 Ludovic McLellan Mann (1869–1955): ‘the eminent archaeologist’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 43–6*

References with * are free to view online – just google the title.