Stone circle is a category of monument that does not, in its definition, and despite what you might think, have a stipulated time period. There is no point beyond which a stone circle is no longer a stone circle. A circle of standing stone will always be a stone circle. I have written about this elsewhere in a short piece called Stone circle (21st century). These are some of my words:
The implication that we might consider building a stone circle as an active living tradition is not as daft as it sounds. You are unlikely to travel much distance by road in the UK without passing a roundabout with a stone circle inside it, while megaliths seem to be default landscaping elements when a gap in a new development needs to be filled.
Recently I visited two stone circles which very much belong to the 21st century (this century, not the BCE one). I encountered one by accident, the other by design. This reinforced to me that there are, in effect, endless permutations and purposes to the simple act of arranging stones in a roughly circular setting. (The circle thing is a bit of a misnomer if you are looking for geometrical perfection.) There is a kind of magic to this simple concept, transforming both the materials used, and the space defined, into something altogether different through a bringing together and re-arrangement of some geological raw materials. Under the correct circumstances making a stone circle might also change the maker, while there may be a hope that the stone setting will affect some or all potential users.
Megalith creation might be an act of decoration, of convenience, even of whimsy. Or it could be deadly serious, done with the purpose of remaking a place, engaging with people, offering a service, perhaps enhancing wellbeing.
This is what one might call stone-circling: verb, the creation of a stone circle. At any time in the past, present, or future for whatever purpose. It doesn’t get much more niche, or vague, than that.
During a recent visit to Mainsgill Farmshop on the A66 in the north of England, I noticed by chance when looking out of the upper floor window a bloody stone circle! My views of this monument shifted as I moved from window to window, creating a series of surreal vignettes, a juxtaposition of gift shop nonsense with a neatly organised circle of stones.
Framed – a triptych of stone circle views from a gift shop
The origins of the stone circle at Mainsgills Farmshop are not precisely known, its construction sometime before 2010.
This is a confection, a jumble of farm detritus, with random gateposts and, perhaps, lintels, gathered together and set in a circle. A stone lies recumbent in the centre, and picnic benches intrude on the northwest side.
The monument itself has its own page in the Megalithic Portal, categorised as Modern Stone Circle. Editor Andy Burnham quotes Andy Farrington who noted that this monument “is made up of old farm gate posts and has been built in the last 5 years as a tourist attraction for visitors to the farm shop and tearooms”. This would date this monument to the years before 2010, and since then the expanding farm shop has begun to encroach on the fringe of the circle as this photo of the monument, below, taken by Farrington in 2011, suggests.
This stone circle seems to me a superficial gesture to rurality in a highly commercial environment, part of an attempt to make this place as farm-like as possible. Slightly ruinous barns, muddy roads, animals, the faint whiff of shit in the air – are all part of the farminess of Mainsgills Farmshop. One can almost imagine a brainstorming session where stone-circling was conceived of as another layering of authenticity.
This contrasts with another modern stone circle I visited recently, this time as part of my Death BC project. This circle is equally recent in terms of its construction and also sits within a business premises, but could not be more of a contrast.
The stone circle at The Lost of Village of Dode, Kent, is part of a different set of transactional rural practices, built with marriage, death and other life landmarks in mind. The church itself was sealed shut during a bout of the old Black Death back in the 14th century. It was brought back to life by Doug Chapman in the 2000s, who lovingly restored the building. An income stream was found through this becoming a wedding venue, and things have evolved further since. The church itself is stunning.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Doug for the project about his barrow columbarium, built during lockdown.
This partially overlaps Dode’s stone circle, known as Holly Henge. This is – despite the name – a stone circle consisting of seven stones set in a circle with a single stone towards the middle. This was added to the church grounds as the services provided here expanded. It is now used for hand fasting and baby naming ceremonies, and memorial services. The additions of the barrow means that the major rites of passage in life can now all be marked at Dode.
Those marketing Dode make much of the potential prehistoric depth of these kinds of interactions with stone circles.
The Handfasting ceremony has its roots on Ancient Celtic Tradition and dates back as far as 7,000BC.
Traditionally a handfasting involved a couple, holding hands which are bound by cords and declared that there is only one life between them; much in the same way as vows are made now. The couple would then exchange a gift, most commonly rings or a gold coin, broken in half; a token of their love and commitment.
Where better to continue this meaningful tradition that at Holly Henge, the stone circle of Dode. To declare the significance of your relationship and future journey together, witnessed by your guests and the centuries old stone that has seen so much of the history of our world. (from Dode website, link above).
It is interesting that an appeal is made here not only a timeless human tradition, but also the timelessness of stone – the stone is ancient, and so therefore the stone circle has an ancient quality. These are appeals to perceptions of prehistory rather than any reality we can prove archaeologically but why should that matter? Doug’s stories about his time at Dode and online testimonies show that this, for many people, all works.
This says something about the mutability of the stone circle form and the spiritual benefits that stone-circling can bring. Yet my earlier example, bereft of emotion, shows another side of stone-circling – the creation of atmosphere. At both Mainsgill and Dode, the stone circle serves a purpose to evoke a certain kind of atmosphere – of the rural in one case, the pagan in the other. Stone circles therefore can be – and perhaps always have been – deployed to create a temporal jump, recalling some imagined, wished-for, past to serve a specific purpose. In that sense, stone-circling retains its important social purpose even today, and what’s more, folk relate to this, they buy into it, there is an unspoken contract that we all sort of know what stone circles mean. That is real power.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would very much like to thank Doug Chapman for showing Andrew Watson and I around Dode and for being interviewed. Thanks also to Andrew for accompanying me on the visit and helping with the interview and logistics on this project. Photos in this blog post with no attribution were taken by me.
One of the little-known pleasures of researching prehistory is excavating archives. This is because the material remains of the past can only tell us so much. Whisper it, but understanding prehistory sometimes requires an engagement with the written word. From antiquarian accounts and field notebooks, to scheduling and planning documentation, to personal archives and media repositories, there is a wealth of information out there that can tells us about the most recent history of even the most ancient of sites. Documents, photographs, sketches, and even letters can be as informative as a nicely excavated posthole or a sherd of Grooved Ware when it comes to forming our prehistoric narratives. Research into any prehistoric site must include consideration of the historic in order to fully contextualise that site.
In his recent book A Contemporary Archaeology of London’s Mega Events (UCL Press, 2022), Johnny Gardner has set out a persuasive case for the methodological toolkit of the contemporary archaeologist to include visits to archives and oral histories, as well as more traditional field skills such as excavation and survey. I would extend this to prehistoric archaeology. Making sense of how a site appears to us now and the range of tangible evidence likely to have survived can only benefit from consideration of historic engagements with these sites; the story of how the site came to be in its current incarnation did not end when the last Neolithic person trudged away at the end of a ceremony. Site formation process documentation is not just about understanding sediments, erosion, or animal burrowing. In the archaeological record nothing stays static for long and humans can’t help themselves.
This post has been prompted by the recent passing to me of some very special photos of the Cochno Stone, a rock art site in West Dunbartonshire that I have been researching since 2015. (Watch this lecture I gave in 2021 for the story so far.) This made me reflect on the journey I have been on searching archives, gathering images, and speaking to people about this site and other rock art panels next to Faifley. I’ve also been doing some writing about this and I’ll update this post with links when they come to fruition. I also did an online lecture on this theme in August 2022 for Kilmartin Trust Museum, which should be available to view here soon.
The point I want to make here is that good prehistory, like any other investigation of the past, can and should happen in libraries, collections, archives and living rooms, otherwise we risk limiting ourselves.
To help make this point I would like to look at photography and the research context for these images. So I’m going to look at two aspects of the Cochno Stone story through the lens of archival material: the painting of the stone by Ludovic Mann in 1937, and events in the years around its burial in 1965.
Material being used here includes the Ronald Morris archive; HES / RCAHMS / Glasgow Life / West Dunbartonshire Council archives; and material held by private individuals. The Ronald Morris archive was my first port of call very early on in the process. Morris was a solicitor turned rock art aficionado, the godfather of amateur rock art archaeology in the UK for many. He was active in the field between the 1960s and 1980s, but he didn’t ever see the Cochno Stone, his first visits to Faifley coming a couple of years after the 1965 burial. I was hopeful though that he might have acquired some photos of Cochno on his visits or through his network of local contacts. So I have spent a couple of sessions looking through his extensive and largely uncatalogued archive held by HES at John Sinclair House in Edinburgh.
The archive contains a series of record pockets, one for each rock art site in Scotland. The Faifley record cards are a treasure trove of information on the sites at Auchnacraig and Whitehill with photos, sketches, fieldwork notes, letters and so on, most of which did not make it into Morris’s publications. Other sources of material will be introduced below.
Clearly significant archaeological events such as those discussed in this post should be documented well, one would think. But in fact, they are not. There are many photos of the Cochno Stone – try googling it – but in fact these have rather limited scope and tend to fall into one of two categories. There are a tranche of black and white photos that probably date to the years immediately after Mann painted the stone in 1937. These photos tend to show parts of the site, which has been helpful in making sense of the detail of Mann’s paintjob although some areas of the stone have never quite been captured.
The other type of photo are from the time of our excavations at the site in 2016, when the whole stone was uncovered for 10 days. Some of these are ‘official’ photos as it were, taken by me and other team members, and then shared online. Others were taken by visitors to the site, while there is some officially sanctioned HES photography on the canmore page for the site including images taken by their high-spy piece of kit. (This has over 50 photos of the site, a great cross section and well worth checking out.)
But I have been aware for several years that there are gaps in the photographic record for this monument. There are, so far as I can tell, no photos that have come to light yet that show the Cochno Stone before Mann painted it. We only have sketches from the half century between ‘discovery’ in the late 1880s and 1937. Until recently there was only one photo I had seen of the stone actually being painted. And there is real dearth of imagery from the period in the run-up to the burial of the stone in 1965 – a time when one would presume based on our excavation observations that the stone was at least partially grown over and Mann’s paint had largely faded into memory. So we have really good photographic coverage from 1937 to 1950, and 2016, but almost nothing between 1888 and 1936 or 1950 and 1965; clearly between 1965 and today the stone has been buried and beyond the realm of photography for all but a fortnight.
There is a real research imperative to tracking down photos from these gaps in our coverage, as these would, one hopes, shed light on the, say, the process of painting, and the changing condition of the stone through time. So I have spent quite a bit of time searching in archives for photos that might fill these time gaps, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to be passed photos and slides from others who know of my research interests. This has allowed the gaps to gradually be filled albeit it slowly and in limited quantities. However when a new photo comes to light it is almost always a thrill, but often poses more questions than it answers. This also catalyses further research, whether that be returning to the excavation archive itself, or going to a library.
When I started work on the Cochno Stone, finding out more about the painting in 1937 was a primary aspiration. The painting of the stone by Ludovic Mann and with help from George Applebey is one of the defining moments in the biography of this monument. Notes in Mann’s own archive so far have revealed only circumstantial evidence for what Mann did and why he did it. Speaking to George Applebey’s son, also George, also revealed little on what happened in that summer of 1937. Mann’s work at Knappers / Druid’s Temple that summer completely overshadowed his time at Cochno, to the extent that almost no newsclippings could be found that even showed the paint never mind reported on the event. This is surprising as Mann was very much an influencer and serial media user at the time, as I have written about elsewhere. My attempts to work out what Mann was up to can be found elsewhere (Brophy 2020). Suffice it to say that this eccentric act has in its origins in Mann’s obsessions with prehistoric eclipses, cosmology and metrology.
The actual act of painting, which must have taken quite some time and been very complex, is even trickier to make sense of due to a lack of documentation. One photo in the public domain supposedly showed Mann himself painting the stone. This was published in Ronald Morris’s 1981 book The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway). The caption for Plate 111 notes, ‘L. M. Mann painting in the carvings about 1937’ and the photo was taken from the J Harrison Maxwell collection.
This doesn’t really look like Mann is painting (is it even Mann?) so this is probably a posed shot once the job has been completed and this is certainly one of the most detailed photos of this feature of the site. It reminds me of a rather better-known image, again probably posed by Harrison Maxwell, this one featuring Mann and Applebey. This digital version held by HES was scanned back to front by RCAHMS for some reason, the correct version is also included for reference.
During preparation for The Mann the Myth conference in Glasgow in 2019, Glasgow Life curator Katinka Dalglish passed me a photo she had found in the Mann archive they hold that does actually show someone painting the surface of the stone. At first I assumed this was Mann himself but his hair is not the same as the chap who is definitely Mann in the above photo. Here coloured paint is being applied (probably red, maybe blue) using a course brush and messy paint tin. The stones and white sheet / paper may relate to a rubbing being done of the stone at the same time.
Then in May 2022, I was emailed a selection of scanned photos. These photos had been sent to a Mrs Bowie of Clydebank by Ronald Morris in 1979. In turn these had been passed to committee members of the Clydebank Local History Society, Dave Carson and then Sam Gibson. It was Sam who kindly sent me the scans. One of these immediately blew me away: another paint job shot.
This remarkable photo shows another team member – a woman this time – working on the stone, probably painting a cup-and-ring white. Here, the paint tin is clearer, with some on twitter suggesting this might be Crown brand. A brush sits beside the paint, and the brush is slightly less coarse than the one branded by the unknown man above. This suggests that painting the stone was more of a team effort than I had initially presumed. But who are these members of the painting team?
One last look: 1964
The Morris archive contains a folder for the Cochno Stone (aka Whitehill 1). It is disappointingly thin (as he did not actually see the site) but did contain some fascinating photos from 1964 and perhaps 1965.
There are tantalising notes and photos regarding a 1964 excavation carried out by the University of Glasgow’s Horace Fairhurst. This is accompanied by an incredible series of photos showing four middle-aged men on a large rock surface, examining the stone and even lifting flaps of carpet-like turf expose the symbols beneath. There is some confusion in the published work of Morris and his notes as to whether this is actually the Cochno Stone or a neighbouring site that has since been ‘lost’.
What the third of these photographs clearly show is that the Cochno Stone was by 1964 apparently largely free of the paint that Mann had applied, this having weathered away after almost 30 years of exposure to the elements. This photo also shows quite clearly that the edges of the stone had begun to grass over, something we had suspected during the 2016 excavation. The stone was stained on the fringes and the paint survived, suggestive of these areas of the monument having been protected from weather to an extent.
So far I have been unable to find any written record of this piece of fieldwork or established the nature of what Morris called an excavation at this time. Horace Fairhurst (1908-1986) was a geographer cum archaeologist, and the first head of Archaeology Department at the University of Glasgow in the 1960s (a post I currently hold). His most significant research related to medieval and post-medieval settlement in Scotland and the archaeology of the island of Arran. This may well have been an opportunistic piece of work carried out at the request of Morris, and seems to have been at most ‘having a good look’ at the site.
Very recently another set of photos came into my possession that were taken around the same time, perhaps even during this fieldwork episode. My colleague Nyree Finlay found a small number of slides showing rock art sites within the archive of our now sadly deceased colleague, Alex Morrison. Two of these slides were taken of the Cochno Stone in 1964 and crucially are in colour. These photos have presumably never been seen outside the lecture theatre – until now. I am not sure if these photos were taken by Alex – he graduated in 1964 and so may have accompanied Fairhurst on a visit to the site as they shared rural settlement research interests. Unlike the black and white photos above, here the scale is a shooting stick, rather than a measuring tape.
These stunning images are very helpful in understanding what the Cochno Stone looked like in 1964, less than a year before its burial. Grass and weeds have encroached onto the fringes of the outcrop. Almost no traces of Mann’s paint survives. But perhaps most noticeably, the surface appears covered in scrapes and scratches of the kind one might associate with a lot of people walking on the stone and in some cases marking it: some letters are visible scraped into the stone surface as well as hints of the more deeply incised graffiti we found in 2016. The wall surrounding the stone seems almost ruinous in places with parts of this lying in weeds around the stone although the style survives on the north side. Finally, there is apparently a fence around the entirety of the stone, something I had previously not been aware of.
Within months the stone was buried. Perhaps this brief interlude of interest in the Cochno Stone by some archaeologists from the University of Glasgow was instrumental in the burial, or the visit occurred for the purposes of documentation before the the stone was covered over. This has yet to be established.
The Morris archive includes another significant image which seems to show the location of the Cochno Stone not long after it was buried. The triangular feature on the skyline is part of a metal fence atop the wall around the Cochno Stone and so this picture seems to have been taken from the south-south-west. Rubble or wall remnants appear in the foreground. If this photo was taken by Morris is might have been on a visit to the area in 1968; not all of the stone appears to have grassed over however at this time. Another note: this image seems to be from a proof, but was this photo ever published?
The photos and records I have been fortunate enough to consult over the past few years have been transformative in my understanding of the 20th century story of the Cochno Stone. Yet even for the recent past gaps in knowledge and understanding remain, gaps that to an extent can be filled by talking to people and learning from their memories and experiences. Taken together, these very historical means of knowledge generation – archives, files, photographs, interviews – can help us to piece together the modern biography of prehistoric sites and their study. In turn, this final piece of the biographical narrative of such sites that stretched back thousands of years can be more fully understood. And the last chapter is almost always essential reading in any book for a good reason.
There is much more to unpick here. More photos and files remain to be consulted, and there are people to speak to. Excavating this kind of knowledge will probably be more useful in helping us to understand Faifley’s rock art than anything I could do with a trowel or a microscope. These are human stories, regardless of whether they were being written in stone 5,000 years ago or in 1937, or 1964. So my plea to prehistorians is – look to history!
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the staff of the HES search room for looking out the Ronald Morris archive for me to consult. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Nyree Finlay and Sam Gibson for providing me with some of the materials discussed above.Thanks very much to Michael Gannon for scanning the Morrison slides for me.
I have written a chapter on Ronald Morris’s archive in a book published to celebrate Stan Beckensall’s wonderful life and career in September 2022. The book is being edited by Kate Sharpe and Paul Frodsham and my chapter is called: Digging into the Ronald Morris archive: a Kilmartin Glen case-study. Full details as soon as I have them.
The other reference in the text relates to my own writing on Mann’s paintjob in 1937: K Brophy 2000 The Ludovic technique: the painting of the Cochno Stone, West Dunbartonshire. Scottish Archaeological Journal 42 [email me if you want a pdf of this article]
I also appreciate the invite to speak as part of the Kilmartin House Trust lecture series in summer 2022. The topic was using the Ronald Morris and Ludovic Mann archives. There was a great and well-informed audience of almost 90, and Ken McElroy created this disturbing image to market the talk. It must have worked!
This post reproduces a short provocation that I gave during the last workshop of the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded Scotland’s 3rd Millennium Archaeology workshop series. Abbreviated as 3M_DO_2019 (#3M_DO), this event took place in Edinburgh on 10th December 2019. The workshop series, organised by Alex Hale of Historic Environment Scotland, and co-organised by Antonia Thomas, UHI, and myself, had the aim of ‘contributing valuable archaeological perspectives to the political, economic, and environmental challenges facing Scotland in the present day.
The final workshop was a chance to reflect on the three previous workshops, and consider future directions for contemporary archaeology in Scotland. These issues are yet to be resolved, with a final event delayed by Covid-19, but we hope to produce an output, or outputs, from this workshop series in the coming months. I would like to thank Alex and Antonia for inviting me to speak at the final workshop, and Gavin MacGregor for support and inspiration.
My brief was to summarise thoughts on workshops to date, and future directions and issues, and I called my provocation Facing Our Dystopian Future. Some of the ideas and even words in this short presentation have been used in earlier blog posts. Links to sources and related material have been added to the text where you might want to follow up on these snapshots and I have slightly edited the text in places where it was rubbish.
When these workshops started, I was not sure if archaeology was part of the problem – or part of the solution.
Of course, it is both.
And not only can archaeology affect change for the good, but it can also document change as it happens.
We are uniquely positioned to document material history and future site formation processes.
As Simon Sellers wrote in his novel Applied Ballardianism, archaeologists see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’.
It is time to rethink what an archaeologist can be and should do. This is what this workshop series has been about.
During this Brexit Age everyone is seeking the comfort of the past. Nostalgia is in abundance. There is more nostalgia than we need. Supply has out-stripped demand.
Some wish for a fantasy Britain, of the 1950s, or perhaps the 1930s. Others seek the comforts and strictures of the Victorian era. Steampunk memories.
Still others seek the relative golden hour of Blairism and the years around the turn of the millennium.
But where will this nostalgia lead?
And is there any comfort to be had in the past? Or is this a delusion?
Welcome to Brexit Britain, where practices, materials, lifeways, are inexorably becoming prehistoric.
Our dystopia is not that of the Orwellian vision of Big Brother. Or Huxley’s Brave New World.
Our dystopia is that of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, of Will Self’s Book of Dave, of a regression to prehistory.
We need to be ready for the Second Iron Age – and who better to prepare us for this task than archaeologists?
Middens are indicative of accumulation and disposal, rise and decline. They are the ultimate material expression of consumption.
Middens mark the rise, fall, and will indicate our return to, prehistory.
Middens are contingent on abandonment, emergent in every place that humans exist, from a deserted military island to the urban core.
Middens passively grow, while awaiting collapse.
Middens are our cultural scar tissue, which we cannot help but touch.
Cairns of calcium and carbon. And plastic.
Because middens are not just of the past. Everywhere around us are middens-in-waiting, potential-middens, partial-middens, middens-in-hiding, proto-middens.
Living is an act of maddening middening.
If we must stumble into this prehistoric dystopia, then let us offer ourselves, the archaeologists, as expert tour guides.
We are not just over-producing nostalgia. We also have an abundance of plastic. Plastic has outstripped demand, and gone beyond need.
The focus on single use plastic and the Anthropocene will be defining issues by which archaeologists can demonstrate the effectiveness of our techniques but also the efficacy of our critical thinking.
Plastic democratises archaeology because everyone can become collectors of it. We have our own hoards, our own deposition strategies, our own stratigraphies and contexts.
Beach combers document the madness of what we have done. The frustrating pointlessness of what we use plastic for. The sea spews up our iniquities and shortcomings on daily base, each tide revealing a new charge sheet.
But our typologies need to be more sophisticated than ‘blue plastics’ or ‘toy soldier plastics’. We need to arrange plastics that are found according to their potential for re-use and recycling. We should be considering moral categories for plastics that are collected too.
And as archaeologists we should be part of the conversation about the how we can put less stuff into the archaeological record, to compress our material footprint, and shrink future assemblages.
We need less single-use archaeology.
As archaeologists we are especially well place to document processes of collapse, entropy, decay, dissolution.
We know that nothing last for ever, that even the most enduring structures will return to their constituent parts.
Our job now is to reflect on recording the mighty structures of today in expectation of their inevitable crash tomorrow.
I was told once by a planning officer during a public inquiry related to Orcadian windfarm development that had wind turbines been erected in the Neolithic, the local tribes would have bowed down and worshipped them.
What seemed ridiculous to me back then, now seems an essential insight.
Wind turbines on Orkney are just another incarnation of the grey upright megaliths erected in prehistory. The turbines are the true Heart of Neolithic Orkney.
They are our source of salvation. We put faith in them. They will ensure our future wellbeing and fecundity, while staving off disaster.
They stand watch over us to remind us of what we have done – and what out futures may become.
How can we have anything but awe for these mighty structures? We have a duty to document them now, and after the collapse, surveying the future ruins of our civilisation.
Underwater sources of power are potentially more powerful than the on-shore farming of wind. But fishing for energy, sinking machines to the depths, does not provide the visual fix that we need to ensure that something is being done. That we are protected, and that our future is seen to being protected.
This is our equivalent of Neolithic pit deposition, putting significant objects beneath the surface to work for the benefit of the community, interceding with the gods on our behalf. It is an act of faith, of sacrifice.
Underwater machines offer the hope of safety but ultimately, when dystopia comes, what is left will be picked over by underwater archaeologists. Measurements will be taken, objects recovered from scatters across the ocean floor. Pipes and tubes will have become occupied by crabs, encrusted with barnacles. Conservators will have to deal with salt-rust and corrosion.
We will probably document a futile gesture that was at least untroubled by sea water level rise, except for the destruction of the secret bunker that controlled it on a nearby beach, an achilles heel built into the system.
Water will gradually seep into the mechanisms of these underwater machines, causing malfunction, the source of power also being the means of their destruction.
We are on a collision course with the sun.
In his book The Crystal World, JG Ballard writes about an environmental crisis where everything in the world gradually turns to crystal. This was one of a series of early novels that he wrote with a focus on climate emergency and the ways that humans are changing the world. He wrote these books half a century ago.
Ballard foretold the future, using his creativity to diagnose society’s pathologies, and make portentous prophecies about the outcomes. As with archaeologists, he observed human – material interactions, and he was especially interested in how people entangled with machines.
Human-machine interactions are a key aspect of contemporary archaeology, as fundamental as human-ceramic or human-megalith relationships are key for prehistorians.
Our insights should allow us to become advocates and activists for what we need to do to avert dystopia. We need to become prophets of the contemporary past.
In summer 2019 I visited Crystal World near Innsbruck in Austria. Ostensibly this is a showcase for the Swarovski crystal makers.
This is a deeply Ballardian experience. The main focal point of the whole gated compound is a huge green passage grave with the face of a Green Giant. From this earthwork mound poured a stream of recycled water, vomited into a placid pond.
Entry to this passage grave is affected behind this saliva-fall, where a straight passage opens up ahead, with golden walls. Walking along this passage brings you into a chamber, where amongst other things are displayed skulls of crystals, and a lifeless figure propped onto the back of a gem-adorned horse.
Inside this Green Giant passage grave, a series of disorientations and otherworldly experiences can be had.
This is a thoroughly retro-futuristic experience, at its heart cold crystal consumerism dressed up in art installations with Ballardian names: Emotional Formation. Transparent Opacity. Chandelier of Grief. Into lattice sun. Crystal Dome. The Mechanical Theatre.
These are the arenas in which the hypermodern are enacted. These should be our fieldwork destinations. These passage grave utopias.
Always start your investigation at the green, grassy mound, for this will be the nerve centre.
In the 2007 book Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape Sefryn Penrose and colleagues considered the archaeology of modern structures, buildings, and landscapes of England. Places that defined modern consumer and leisure behaviour featured highly – shopping malls, theme parks – but also places of transportation – railway stations hubs, airports, motorway intersections.
This Ballardian vision of what archaeologists should be studying and researching is inspiring and suggests that we should collectively be shifting our gaze from the past to the contemporary past.
The contemporary past is where the past now resides, all of it, and we are making new pasts on a daily basis.
One of the categories of place that was considered in this book is Television landscapes.
Recently I spent some time at Salford Quays in Manchester, a canal-side space station dedicated to the recording and broadcasting of television programmes. The skyscape was dominated by huge corporate logos – BBC, ITV, Granada Studies.
Bladerunner meets Coronation Street.
Moving through this landscape, amidst glassy broadcast buildings, felt like being on a reality TV programme. I assumed that I was being observed by cameras from various angles, monitored in a way I found uncomfortable. Groups of people sat in a park, ate in expensive bars, and I could not tell if they were merely visitors to the area, or extras in a film documenting my visit.
In the Blue Peter garden I noted memorials and monuments to dead pets, children’s TV as Pet Semetery.
Salford Quays and other places like it offer blurred experiences, neither reality, not the product of a team of creatives. I felt myself flickering in and out of solidity, almost as if I was being pixilated, about to be broadcast like Mike TV in the Chocolate Factory.
Penrose wrote of the television utopia, the Teletubbies set:
The mythological fantasy land of Teletubbies (1997), devoid in reality of preternatural greenness and baby-faced sun, was embedded incongruously in Warwickshire farmland. Field boundaries were marked by hedgerows that shielded camera operators, tracks and multi-coloured bouncing beings before the field was ploughed back to farmland – as if the teletubbies had never actually existed.
These colourful alien beasts with television screen stomachs and antennae ears are of course the perfect vector for the televisual age, and by gazing into their oblong glass bellies we can see our own futures being broadcast back at us on a loop.
The Teletubbies occupy a monumental landscape, focused on a grassy dome which is reminiscent of the Green Giant passage grave at the Crystal World.
Children must be used to seeing prehistoric structures. In the show In the night garden, the creature Makka Pakka lives in a riverside dolmen. It is almost as if our television producers and creatives are subliminally preparing our children for their dystopian future, but in a metaphor for Brexit Britain, this is being sold as a utopia.
This accords with Penrose’s observation that this is a landscape of deceit and deception.
Goodnight children and don’t have nightmares.
We have our own equivalent of the centrally placed grassy mound phenomenon – the now defunct Archaeolink Prehistory Park near Aberdeen.
Here we have the ruination of a set of ruins, a visitor attraction that was utopian in so many of its ideals, but has now become an overgrown dystopia.
Like the ruinous Bangour Hospital near Livingston, Archaeolink is about to be sold for housing development.
Houses will eventually be built on top of where a roundhouse once stood, although as documented by Gavin MacGregor, this had its door hanging off as early as 2013. The hearth has not been lit for some time.
Various urban explorers have been to this place, broken in, and carried out photographic and documentary surveys.
In some cases, they are literally archaeologists, in other cases they act like archaeologists, documenting the ruination and decay of this place. Urban decay, as with plastics, democratises what we do, and encourages diverse forms of archaeological engagement with the world.
This is a ghost village of confusing temporality. Everything has gradually slipped into a state of disrepair, with stuff left lying about as if the place was abandoned overnight. Timber posts are strewn about like limbs. Roofs have fallen in. The green mound has grassed over, and its glass façade is boarded up, looking like something from the set of an Italian science fiction movie from the 1960s rather than a defunct visitor centre.
Archaeologists document decay, although are not usually able to see it in real time as is the case at Archaeolink.
We must be the biographers of all emergent ruination.
I recently visited the Temple of Mithras in London.
Located beside the now buried stream of Walbrook, this Mithraeum has gone through various incarnations since its discovery in the 1950s. The most recent being funded by Bloomberg, with the Temple relocated to its original location beneath a golden office block.
This is a place that stinks of money.
A display of artefacts found during excavations ahead of the construction of this office compound includes a Roman table and stylus dated to 8th January in AD 57. This records the earliest written evidence for a financial transaction in Britain.
A reference point for visitors to visualise the stratigraphic depth of the Temple is the Bank of England, which is situated a few minutes’ walks away horizontally, and 7m vertically.
Before going down to the gloomy basement within which the Temple can be experienced, one has to pass several huge golden artworks.
Central to the myth of Mithras is the slaying of the bull – the tauroctony.
A sacred secret killing for the approval of the sun god sol. Eyes averted, hand wet with blood, creation in death. The myth remade in temples underground by lonely men trying to become gods.
In our archaeological practice, are we willing to get our hands dirty, to slay the bull, to take on the structural forces that shape and constrain us all today? Or will we be complicit and happy to remain within the bosom of capitalism?
What is contemporary life but an accumulation?
What are humans but constant accumulation and deposition?
Rubbish in, rubbish out.
We live on the dirty edgelands of the future.
We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.
Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.
And when our machines have collapsed or been overwhelmed by water, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens, our broken machines, our single-use plastic, and bulls slayed by overwhelming circumstances.
Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds. We should not depend on there being archaeologists of the future age, just curious and liberated animals.
It is all accumulating today.
We cannot be bystanders in this formation of the archaeological record.
Oh, Edmund… can it be true? That I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest Green?
This post has two points of departure.
Firstly, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word bling in the context of prehistoric metalwork. This is a common enough trope used by archaeologists and the media. But is this really the correct word for how these objects functions in prehistory, or merely a characterisation of objects as being shiny, precious things – even if the objects in question were neither of these things in the Iron Age or Bronze Age?
Perhaps also there is an element of (inverted) snobbery here, of disparaging gratuitous wealth displays, and the appropriation of a word in mainstream discourse that would appear to be more at home in the urban dictionary. Take the case of the so-called Prittlewell Prince, whose early medieval grave was found in 2003 during road-widening in Southend: in the media and amongst archaeologists (from the Time Team to British Archaeology magazine) this individual became widely known as the King of Bling.
Secondly, I find almost all museums boring. Unless they are museums of weird things, or deeply strange, I am left cold by glass cases of inanimate objects, little text panels, maps, and assorted accompanying artwork and imagery. Museums of course can be deeply contested and problematic places, but for me I see them, usually, as reliquaries for cold dead things that we value today and see as representative which they may or may not be.
Museums confuse me with their fixed categories and compartmentalizations, their maze-like floorplans, the disorderly arrangement of things, the missing objects replaced by little loan cards, weird coffee, lockers with non-returnable coin slots, how much coinage to drop into the donations slot at the doorway. They are places of little stresses that I do not enjoy.
I realise how that both of my initial points of departure are contingencies related to the contemporary setting of the museum, that they exist to showcase prehistory (or whatever) in our own terms and not the terms of those who made the stuff (or whose bodies we display). They are places that for me have little sense of pastness, like big shops where nothing is for sale (except in the actual shop).
But on the other hand, as a recent visit I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford did remind me, museums can be fine repositories of urban prehistory. There are few places where urban prehistory exists in such a concentrated form, albeit it in a deeply fragmented and stylised arrangement. If you happen to want a hit of prehistory and are in a city or town, heading to the local museum is as good as a way as any to ensure that you your desire is fulfilled, your lust sated for the good stuff. Although I would argue that museum displays are really just a kind of methadone for prehistory addicts.
On the same weekend as I made my trip to the Ashmolean apres breakfast a conference was being held in Chester on the topic of The Public Archaeology of Treasure. This is one of a series of excellent student conferences organised by the tireless Prof Howard Williams of Chester University, some of which have resulted in publications including papers by students, and generously co-edited with students too. Howard has discussed the conference on several occasions on his brilliant Archaeodeath blog eg before the event and after.
The hashtags for this conference were / are #archbling and #blingarch and this is one of the things that I reflected upon as I sat on a lovely smooth wooden bench in the Ashmolean after failing to find a temporary exhibition of works by the artist Philip Guston that I was actually quite interested in visiting.
Because the European prehistory gallery that I had spent some time on at that point sure was full of bling, gratuitously so. But what intrigued me was how much of this bling was, er, green. Not gold, not silver, not even bronze, but green. Not always shiny, sometimes rather dull. And curiously the idea of green bling made a lot more sense to me because this opened up the category of bling to non-metallic materials. For instance, Neolithic jadeite polished stone axes, of the deepest green. Or wonderful ornate beads of glassy faience, in pale greens and turquoises.
Bling was on my mind for another reason as I pondered a vast wall of busts in the stairwell of the museum. That weekend I had been attending and participating in a continuing education conference on the topic of Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland: prehistoric and Roman. Organised by Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill, this is part of an epic series of conferences on historic matters. I was talking about cursus monuments of course.
Speakers used the word bling a lot over the course of the weekend. My notes for a great talk by the wonderful Dr Seren Griffiths showed that she used the phrase WEIRD BLING but I can’t recall the specific context.
On the Saturday evening, an excellent talk by the National Museum of Scotland’s all-knowing Dr Fraser Hunter on Iron Age stuff was frequently punctuated with the word bling, usually in relation to some shiny piece of metal like a carnyx, a torc, or a lunalae. (I am not confident about the correct singular or pluralisation of any of those words.)
Curiously my notes from Fraser’s talk included a sketch of a weird Iron Age spoon, and a pair of these caught my eye as I wondered about the European Prehistory gallery at the Ashmolean, taking in the sheer green-ness of it all.
The more time I spent in this gallery, the more green stuff I saw, in all sorts of shades, depths, tones, and materials. Lumps of malachite (nuggets of the purest green?), glassy beads, stone axes, torcs, axes, little metal things that I had no idea what they were, and the pair of bronze spoon-things. In fact it seemed to me that there was more green bling than gold bling or silver bling or even brown bling.
Obviously some of this stuff was not green back in the day. A chemical reaction has taken place. Metal corrodes to a coppery haze and loses its original colour over time. A lot of this stuff is green with age: unlike wood, here green does not depict youthfulness and flexibility. But quite a good deal of this stuff was green all along, with for instance the rich greenness of the stone azes brought to the fore by relentless polishing. Here green was the origin point, not the inevitable outcome. Green-ness was worth climbing the Alps for, perhaps even dying for.
And of course a lot of the bling found with the ‘King’ at Prittlewell had, with age, green-ed like this drinking horn fitting and hanging bowl.
My own experience of green bling came with the discovery of a dagger grave in a cist at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross, 2009. The first indication we had of the grave goods was a shaft of green poking from the beige cist floor, almost as if the dagger was a new growth, appropriate amidst a grave that contained rich evidence for Meadowsweet flowers (white bling). The dagger, once all the brown stuff had been cleaned from it, was revealed to be a wonderful green jagged shard of copper alloy with a whale tooth and gold pommel atop. Now, let’s not get started on whale bling.
So if we must use the word bling, and given the word has been used by the Howard Williams and Fraser Hunters of this world, then I guess we must, then let us at least rethink the parameters and temporality of what we mean. Let’s celebrate green bling, if nothing else because it is one of the most common forms in which urban prehistory appears to us, minty fresh, today.
Sources and acknowledgements: the quote that starts this blog post comes from the Blackadder Season 2 episode Money, and was, or course, uttered by Lord Percy.
I would also like to thank Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill for inviting me down to Oxford to take part in the conference.
This blog post contains selected extracts from a paper I gave at the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (SPMA) ‘congress’ at the University of Glasgow. More details on the session, The archaeologies of now, organised by James Dixon and Sefryn Penrose, can be found at the end of the post.
For a decade now, I have been exploring various ways that my interest in prehistoric sites in urban places might intersect with a Ballardian worldview. English author JG Ballard’s fiction and non-fiction writing is often characterised as prophetic and dystopian, covering themes such as climate change, consumerism, middle class isolationism and violence, auto-erotica, hidden pathologies, and the excesses of supermodernity. These teased at my brain, something awaiting unlocking.
There is no better indication of the crashing together of prehistory and our modern urban world than roads and cars competing for the same spaces as standing stones. Sometimes this can take on a visceral form, such as a documented attempt in the 2000s to drive a car over the reconstructed Bronze Age barrow at Huly Hill near Edinburgh.
The images above show the outcome of a collision between a BMW and Bedd Morris standing stone in Dyfed, Wales, in October 2011. The stone was broken, and the toppled half initially removed for safe-keeping before later being reinstated. This crash resulted in a small excavation which recovered material culture from the stone socket and two C14 dates. This was not the first time this has happened, the stone being situated on a bend on a fast country road. This event is doomed to be repeated multiple times as if on a loop.
To pursue my Ballardian pathology, I purchased a copy of Simon Sellar’s book Applied Ballardianism on the mistaken belief that it was a textbook or academic treatise about the application of JG Ballard’s ideas in the humanities.
What I got was something very different and yet it unlocked something in my brain that I am still trying to come to terms with: Ballard as a way to rethink our engagements with the material outcomes and traces of the ancient past in the present. A Ballardian archaeology.
Ballard’s obsessions with gated communities, boundaries, social disorder, antisocial behaviour, subversion and urban decay are all obsessions we should have as archaeologists. His focus on urban edgelands and dystopian developments mirror the working environment of many in the heritage sector. These are our desire lines to the past.
The place where the thin line between past and present is at its thinnest is in the urban environment, a point of singularity, starkly shedding light on the condition of being an archaeologist, performing as a prehistorian, rooted in the present.
I have gradually come to realize that urban prehistory is nothing if it is not Ballardian.
Ballards’ writing offers for me the clearest and most coherent means to understand the juxtaposition between past and present which dominates archaeology. All our encounters with traces of the past – material and otherwise – happen in the contemporary, the modern. The past and present meet at a stark and jagged edge, a tear, that for a moment gives the illusion of a past that still exists in a degraded form.
Prehistory offers a heightened state of time-consciousness.
These points of fusion – wormholes that lead nowhere – are the places where the magic happens. The powerful intersections between the ancient and the supermodern occur in places that Ballard would recognize and frequently wrote about – motorway intersections and roundabouts, suburban gated communities, industrial estates, shopping malls, golf courses and leisure centres.
Our encounters are here, in the shadow on the destruction machine.
These renegade essences of the past offer uncomfortable glimpses into the nature of our consumerist society: our prehistoric heritage is routinely damaged, or destroyed, often surgically excavated, to allow development to occur and to maintain our consumer commuter society.
Some of the most fascinating engagements – our weird rituals – with prehistory in the contemporary happen in relation to travel infrastructure projects and that is what I want to focus on here.
Roads and the car. Railway lines and stations. Airport runways and terminal buildings.
These are all places and things that could be described as supermodern, and thus require special consideration.
In order to apply Ballardian logic to prehistory, we must accept that we are now in the age of Hyperprehistory.
Hyperprehistory is a concept that describes the role of prehistory in the supermodern environments we live in today. Supermodernity, as defined by anthropologist Marc Auge is ‘the acceleration of history’.
It is a period of what he called excesses: factual, spatial and self-reflective over-abundance. Gonzalez-Ruibal has gone further and suggests that the super (or hyper) modern includes also material abundance.
An outcome of this is an increased and dynamic world of things and places, which serves and perpetuate these excesses. It is within these processes that prehistory has become entangled.
The supermodern is physically defined by non-places, parts of the landscape that are irrational, ahistorical and that have no identity. These primarily consist of places of transit and consumerism. This concept echoes the work of the geographer Edward Relph who argued that we have created urban spaces that have a sense of placelessness, bereft of emotional attachment. Our urban cityscapes consist of impersonal places where transactions are carried out and facilitate movement to another place, often another non-place.
Hyperprehistory reflects the intimate connection between urban development, the needs of our consumer society, and the material traces of prehistoric lifeways. It suggests that in the creation of non-places, we often encounter prehistory.
And hyperprehistory also contains within it the potential to place non-places, to add emotional attachments where there are none, to replace surface gloss with the depth of deep time.
We should expect to find prehistory in urban places and in association with transport infrastructure. We should actively seek it out, rather than despair on its ruination.
I always look at roundabouts. They are a legitimate fieldwork target.
Ballard wrote that high rises constructed around his hometown of Shepperton resembled the megaliths of Stonehenge.
There is no such thing as coincidence.
How can we derive meaning from such encounters? What is the social value of hyperprehistory in a supermodern urban world?
One of the most captive audiences you will ever have (except for audiences who are literally captives) are those on public transport, whether on trains, planes, trams or omnibuses. That is why so many commuters spend much of the journey blankly staring of a window picking their nose. They have the disbenefit of having even less agency that car drivers.
More captive still are those who have to pass through and / or spend time in travel hubs, from the humble bus stop to suburban railway stations right up to massive international airports. These placeless places not only have designated waiting / lurking areas, but are also replete with connecting passages, walkways and tunnels. In other words, all sorts of spaces that become venues for consumption, as advertisers and those who own these transit hubs recognise the value of having a bored audience just where you want them.
JG Ballard commonly wrote about such transactional commuter spaces. He noted in an essay on airports for instance that Shepperton was not a suburb of London, but of Heathrow Airport. He wrote:
I have learned to like the intricate network of car rental offices, air freight depots, and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world. Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than a mythical domain of village greens, cathedrals, and manorial vistas.
Ballard would I suspect have been delighted that the expansion of Heathrow Airport in the 2000s created prehistoric landscapes: great primeval forests within which hunter-gatherers thrived and great beasts roamed, geometrically rigorous cursiform vistas, farming landscapes swollen with fecundity. The additional terminal building, an expansion of this sky-city (as Ballard has called it), in its construction passed from non-place to place and back to non-place again.
The hiatus in the middle was the invigoration of excavation, a kind of ecstasy of data gathering.
Heathrow Airport is a place of deep time and shallow lives lived. Ballard noted: I welcome the landscape’s transience, alienation, and discontinuities.
Ballard has also noted that:
At an airport like Heathrow the individual is defined not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40 years, but by the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on a screen.
A flickering screen is the medium by which the prehistoric eruptions that accompanied the construction of the terminal building are communicated to the trapped commuters. Enforcedly at leisure, numbly holding onto their travel documents to enable even the most minor of purchases in Boots and WH Smith, holidaymakers and business people offer the required captive audience.
The stasis of the departure lounge is used as a vehicle for the presentation of a short film about the excavations that took place in advance of the construction of Heathrow Terminal 5. This video, and associated online content, had subtitles rather than sound, a visual essay in deep time.
This short film can also be viewed on any device via youtube, where you can provide your own soundtrack.
In 2018, I stumbled upon an explicit attempt to ‘culturally contaminate’ a ‘non-place’ while travelling from Milan to Milan Malpensa airport via train. The railway station at Terminal 2 contained a detailed exhibition on prehistoric lifeways, material culture and burials. This exhibition is located in that most placeless of places, a concourse between two travel hubs.
The purpose of this bland tunnel-space would be impossible to determine should one be blindfolded and led here. The exhibition space had the qualities of a hospital and an airport waiting space, illuminated by shiny surfaces and energised by the low hum of escalators and the mechanical whirr of elevators.
The material on display was discovered during excavations in advance of the construction of the railway line between Terminals 1 and 2. These objects and this information were revealed because of an infrastructural need, a direct result of supermodernity.
The exhibition has the explicit aim of making a place of this non-place.
The railway station has been chosen as the place to exhibit the finds … making them accessible 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for a very large audience. Passing through the exhibition, even the most hasty and distracted traveller will notice the presentation of a wide selection of finds … accompanied by immediately comprehensible communication.
It is almost as if JG Ballard had written the text to accompany this commuter museum, this intercity exhibition.
Amongst Ballard’s writings include the novel Millennium People, and the collection of essays and reviews, A user’s guide to the millennium. But I increasingly find myself wondering – what millennium was he writing about?
If this pathology has a name, it is archaeology.
Prehistory is the scar tissue of the past.
Hyperprehistory is our framework for navigating ourselves through the coming millennium, whatever it may bring.
Archaeologies of Now session
A twitter moments summary of the session, posted by James Dixon, can be found here.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank James Dixon for inviting me to take part in this fantastic session, and for the positive feedback my paper got. Thanks to the other speakers for stimulating papers.
I would like to thank Brian Kerr for allowing me to use his photo of me giving the paper.
Image sources, where known, are noted in captions. The first photo of JG Ballard (BBC4 still) comes from an article about Crash in The Reprobate. The second (Shepperton) was sourced from an article about Ballard in The Spectator. In both cases, I don’t think this is the original source of the photo.
The Huly Hill photo source is unknown. Sadly I don’t think it is one of my photos – it is too good!
The Ballard quotations in the post come from an essay he wrote called ‘Airports: the true cities of the 21st century’ which can be found here. His comment about Stonehenge came from a Guardian interview.
This paper was also referred to in the post: Gonzalez-Ruibal, A 2014 Supermodernity and archaeology. In C Smith (ed) Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, 7125-34. New York: Springer.
My paper was also summarised in this twitter thread.
Twitter version of the paper I gave at the @SPMA#PMAC2019 session Archaeologies of Now. My paper was called 'Hyperprehistory: unleashing the deep time of non-places' and was in essence an exploration of the possibility of a Ballardian archaeology….#hyperprehistory 1/ pic.twitter.com/WGFsirdPwW
It is a cliche to say that archaeological sites are fecund with the ghosts of those who occupied, lived, worked, cried and laughed in those places in the past. Even the most unremarkable ancient place is likely to have been passed through by countless living but now dead humans and animals. Mute witnesses whom we cannot call to account. Spectral presences that haunt our efforts to write their stories with all of the constraints of the archaeological record and our imaginations.
These phantoms of the past are always present as we visit archaeological sites (as we clinically call them), just invisible from the corners of our eyes. The dead are knocking once, twice, if only we would listen. Warping the thin rood screen between now and then, past and present, and bending the wind to their will. Light cannot pass through them, and forever their ancient haunts will be opaque to us, clumsily accounted for in our narratives, our excavation reports, our notes. Archaeologists are amateur ghost story writers with neither the elegance nor the critical ambiguity of MR James.
Urban prehistory sites suffer more than most, and at this time of the year in particular. The harsh entombment of concrete and tarmac, brick and gabbion, combine to dull the kinetic urgency of the dead users and makers of prehistoric places with the misfortune – the curse – to haunt places now occupied by a different strain of zombie: commuters, shoppers, drivers.
Only school children and certain sensitive individuals remain attuned to the specific frequency that prehistoric ghosts broadcast via. Sometimes the past bleeds through though, as if in a seance, and becomes a matter of record. Twisted clues offer fragmentary accounts, uneasy truths, partiality. We place our trowel on the ouija board trench surface and hope that a spirit will animate it, write the story for us, shatter glass.
Archaeologists act in advance of urban expansion and development as ghost-busters, using highly sensitive equipment to pick up the wavelengths of the spirits of prehistory, then extracting those spirits by way of storage bags and boxes that are transported far away from the site and blessed with the obscure rituals of the trinity of lab analyst, the archivist and the curator. We do everything but consult with priests, and can be found in libraries furtively flicking through a dusty grimoire.
As archaeologists we often state our case ‘in all seriousness’ and yet this is simply to cover up our fears, and insecurities. We laugh off the uncertainty of the past, the questionable proofs of prehistory, supported by the safety net of out ontologies which when analysed have all the supportive qualities of the spiral staircase in the library in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Like many a Poe-inspired mansion in a Roger Corman movie, everything may end up in a suspicious but cathartic conflagration. All of us wish to be Quatermass, to discover our own Pit, and with it our fate and destiny.
We must embrace the ghosts of our ancient past, strain to listen to what they have to tell us, get everything on tape, play it back over and over again to hear their story until it stretches and snaps. For we ignore them at our peril.
an accumulation of scree at the base of a cliff or steep slope
an ankle bone
The pressure of my thumb caused just enough 0.7mm graphite to ooze from my pencil. Sitting on a train, breathless, fumbling in my bag for the book. Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. This crumpled paperback that had become the roadmap for my increasingly eccentric visits to places in heavily urbanised or industrialised places with obscure prehistoric predecessors. This was no longer enough, I came to realise after writing 116 posts for my blog. I needed new kicks, fresh experiences, the hard stuff.
I opened Sellars’ book up at random pages and saw continual relevance to my own condition, just as the unreliable narrator of this fever-dream of a novel had also done. I began to scribble in the margins, automatic writing. The sections of the book that I applied marginalia to appeared to be random but were perhaps not. Bunker Logic. Scar Tissue. Emergence.
This book was the archaeological fieldwork guide that I had always wanted. More profound than Barker’s Techniques of Archaeological Investigation. More informative than Drewett’s Field Archaeology. More grounded in reality that Hodder’s The Archaeological Process. More emotionally charged than the MoLAS archaeological site manual (3rd edition).
I came to realise that as a rulebook for surveying the deep time in our world one need do no more than read the complete fictional works of JG Ballard, Applied Ballardianism and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology.
Through this psychogeographik grimoire, I had found my hard stuff. The hard stuff of life.
Middens are indicative of accumulation and disposal, rise and decline. They are the ultimate material expression of consumption.
Middens mark the rise, fall, and will indicate the return of, prehistory.
Middens are contingent on abandonment, emergent in every place that humans exist, from a deserted military island to the urban core.
Middens passively grow, while awaiting collapse.
Middens are our cultural scar tissue, which we cannot help but touch.
Cairns of calcium and carbon.
In the Mesolithic of Oronsay, hunters and fishers would bury human finger bones in their shell middens.
In the Neolithic of Orkney, farmers would use midden material to insulate their houses.
But middens are not just of the past. Everywhere around us are middens-in-waiting, potential-middens, partial-middens, middens-in-hiding, proto-middens.
Living is an act of middening.
A Gruesome Inventory
The kitchen-midden was discovered on the far side of the small estuarine island of Inchkeith in 1870 at the base of a slope. This artificial organic talus consisted of cooking-debitage, eating-scree, of unknown date and origin. The midden was monumental in its scale, up to 3m high, thick with greasy charcoal.
Baskets of bones were removed from this midden for analysis back in Edinburgh. The scientist tasked with the analysis of these bits and pieces produced a gruesome inventory, scraped from the pages of an anatomical manual, notes from an animal autopsy.
Basi-occipital and basi-sphenoid fragments of grey seal skulls. Mastoid process and temporal fossa of sheep. Head of the ulna of a sheep. Fourth cervical vertebrae of a pig. Head of left tibia of an ox. Cannon bone of hind foot of bos. Toe bone of bos. Parts of jaw, and several teeth, of horse. Jaw bones of the rabbit. An assemblage of alien species.
Many shells were found too, listed in the analysis like an incantation. Tapes pullastra. Purpura lapillus. Pecten varius. Ostrea Edulis. Pecten maximus.
It was concluded after this analysis and repeat visits to the island that, ‘there is no evidence as to the period when these rejecta were first cast forth’.
Cast Forth in the Forth.
Hunter Street. There is no such thing as a coincidence so I told myself as I cut up from the Barrowlands Ballroom and headed towards the urban prehistory. I turned onto Hunter Street, folding a map and stuffing it into my back pocket. Across a railway line, over an abandoned tunnel. Ahead of me now were the rusty skeletal remains of warehouses, the Victorian city excarnated, exposed as if on a osteoarchaeologist’s slab.
The sign of the Hunter was affixed to a street light that had beside it a rusty totem pole, its evil twin, pock-marked with corrupted spirals and corroded cupmarks.
Two drunks in navy shell suits kept appearing during my walk, as if they were being projected for my benefit on a loop by some unknown projectionist. One of them spoke to me tenderly, momentarily breaking the fourth wall, confusing me for his partner in grime, before realising his mistake and flickering out.
I was looking for hunters in the city, middenscapes in the shadow of the industrialised Tennants’ Brewery, makers of liquid gassy capitalism. From my perspective as I entered Barrack Street it seemed that the aluminium pipes that emerged from the brewery were connected directly to the Necropolis, Glasgow’s city centre cemetery, and for a moment I speculated that this must have been for the exchange of fluids. Through the beer haze I could also see the outline of Glasgow Cathedral, one of Ludovic Mann’s ancient Glaswegian pagan places, his Temple of the Moon. There is no such thing as a coincidence.
Back on Hunter Street (confusingly re-appearing) I reached my destination. A block of modern flats and some old brick-built industrial units on Duke Street where a shell midden had been found during construction works in 1985. Ancient oyster shells had been found on the spoil from the job, and identified too late as being of archaeological significance. In prehistory, I reminded myself, everyone was swallowing oysters all of the time, as they were, as in Victorian times, not simply the preserve of the rich. The shells were then dumped in a pile, calcium cairns, middens.
The industrial unit was orange and glowed in the late afternoon sun, raking across the facade and revealing ghosts – ghost signs, phantom lettering, a typeset palimpsest of failed and out-dated businesses. The building was dominated by a monstrous sign: JAS. D GALLOWAY. TYRE DISTRIBUTORS.
I wondered around the block onto a different section of Barrack Street (I was becoming spatially disorientated). I passed a pub – the Ladywell, suggesting an ancient spring or holy well once stood here. On the wall of a neighbouring car repair shop, an occult symbol had been crayoned onto a white-washed wall. Was it a spiral, or a malformed cup-and-ring mark, or a reversed number nine – or a shell, a mollusc, a midden-component?
A constellation of coincidences? I reflected on the words written by Marion Shoard and quoted by the fictional headcase Philip in Applied Ballardianism. Urban edgelands allowed us to see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. In essence, socially fundamental constructions, materials and infrastructure often become restricted to urban edges. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
In prehistory, those conflicted spatially dangerous fundamentals were middens.
under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow layers of practice the stratigraphy of a lifetime of generations of meals of daily routine of repetition and habit and routine and the accumulation of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow under the people under the streets pressing against the walls of the basements pressure toe bone of bos parts of jaw and several teeth of horse jaw bones of the rabbit tapes pullastra purpura lapillus countless rejecta under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow calcium carbon cairns
The Island of Dead Birds
Inchkeith today is a very different place from the island where the kitchen midden was recorded in 1870. Militarisation began in 1879 and continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century transforming this small rocky eminence through the construction of concrete bunkers, control buildings and the infrastructure of ammunition supply.
This was a defensive, reactive place, but never saw action.
After this brief flourishing, the island has more or less been abandoned to nature (with most of the personnel withdrawn in 1943) like some kind of social experiment.
Quite by chance, this island of precaution has become an emergent prehistoric landscape with its own monuments, its own concrete vocabulary, its new middens.
The porcelain cairn –
The fallen megalith –
The shit-stained monolith –
The island has its own sacred geometry, ghost paths and leys –
Bunkers abound, underground spaces for the containment of ammunition and men. The walls are burdened with a sinister anatomy of coat hooks and shelf supports.
Animals have become complicit in re-making prehistory, the island covered in bird-build middens, accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds.
Now, in its abandoned state, this concrete island is becoming something … other.
Nests within nests by nests
Scattered cartilages and cartridges
Shells upon shells under shelves and on skulls
Pips amidst pipes and petrification
Calcium cairns. Concrete cairns.
Broken bunkers and bones
Talus Talus Talus
“Abandoned on the sand of the littoral like the skin of a species that has disappeared, the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military history…. (Virilio 2014, 46).
What is urbanisation but an accumulation?
A midden with prehistory as its dirty edgelands, if not in space then certainly in time.
We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.
Living on our own islands with our own futile defences, bunker mentalities, surrounded by lots of shelves.
Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.
And when our megaliths have collapsed, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens and our single-use plastic.
Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds.
We are tomorrow’s urban prehistory.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Gordon Barclay for inviting me to spend a day visiting various fortified islands in the Firth of Forth, amongst them Inchkeith. The few facts about that island that appear in the narrative above come from Gordon’s excellent handouts to accompany the trip and he appears in one photo striding towards an anti-aircraft gun position.
The account of the kitchen-midden found on Inchkeith in the 1870s is (you can find it online by googling the title of the paper): David Grieve 1872 On the discovery of a kitchen midden on Inchkeith, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 9, 452-55. The jumbled list of animal bones in my post is adapted from this paper.
The limited information available for the Barrack Street / Hunter Street shell midden can be found in the canmore entry for the site here, and Sloan recorded in the 1985 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (pg 46):
“Deposits of oyster shell were reported from approximately this location during housing development in 1982. Although reported too late for active investigation a sample of shell was recovered from builder’s spoil; remains in the possession of the Committee for Early Coastal archaeology”.
This could be a Mesolithic site, but it could also be medieval, or anything in between. We choose our own myths about the past.
Ludovic Mann’s moon temple writings are included in his 1938 short book Ancient Glasgow: Temple of the Moon.
I must finish by paying a debt of gratitude to Simon Sellars for his brilliant novel Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018) for inspiring aspects of this post, and leading me to the chapter Edgelands by Marion Shoard (quote from this in the blog post) in Jenkins’ book Remaking the landscape (Profile Books, 2002). Sellars also led me to the majestic Bunker Archeology by Paul Virlio (my version being published in 2014 by Princeton Architectural Press). The image from that book was sourced from the Amazon page for this volume and a credited quotation appears above as well.
The definitions that start this post were adapted from wikipedia.
It is my pleasure to introduce a guest post, by Dr Helen Green, who has recently completed a ground-breaking and important PhD thesis on the topic of ‘Renewable Energy and the Historic Environment: An Analysis of Policy and Practice in Scotland’. Helen is a post-doctoral researcher who, amongst other things, is currently advising the archaeology department in Glasgow (where I am based) on our impact case-studies for the next REF (Research Excellence Framework 2021), and so this blog post comes from a place of being immersed in the process and scrutinising potentially impactful research such as ‘urban prehistory’. REF involves a lot of crap for academics, but at least the requirement to evidence the impact our research has on society concentrates minds and gives a certain credibility to such activities. There are some nice things written here about the stuff I do, but ultimately Helen’s message is that there is a strategic context for this type of public engagement research, and academic checks and balances are in place. I am delighted that Helen sees potential in my work…..
Urban Prehistory and Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy
by Helen Green
With this guest contribution I would like to take a step back and consider the work of the urban prehistorian from a slightly broader perspective. In particular, I aim to contextualise it, and outline its importance from a strategic point of view: where we are going as a discipline, and what we are aiming to accomplish together. To this end, I want chip in a few thoughts about how urban prehistory sits in relation to Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, a sector-wide collaboration aimed at focusing and integrating the work we do to support the contribution archaeology makes to society.
Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy
Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy was launched in 2015, with the overriding aim of fostering inclusion and collaboration in Scotland’s archaeology. It was produced in response to issues, such as a sense of fragmentation in the sector, but developed into a forward-looking, collaborative framework for trying to improve archaeology’s contribution to society. The committee is chaired by Prof Steve Driscoll from Archaeology at Glasgow University, but includes representatives from across the world of Scottish archaeology, including Historic Environment Scotland, Archaeology Scotland, local council archaeologists, the commercial sector, and the third sector. Delivering the Strategy’s aims is a crucial strand in the work we do in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow.
Perhaps the Strategy’s most central and challenging aspiration is to work towards ‘a Scotland where archaeology is for everyone’. However, the Strategy also outlines several more specific aims, which include ‘delivering archaeology’, ‘encouraging greater engagement’, ‘enhancing understanding’, ‘caring and protecting’ and ‘innovation and skills’. I want to consider how urban prehistory and related work is making an important contribution to fulfilling these aims, through a focus on engagement in particular and the ethos of inclusion in general.
Urban Prehistory Encourages Greater Engagement
A strategic aim identified in a Historic Scotland report in 2012 (see sources) stated that one of the priorities of any strategy for the sector was to look at ‘how the output from archaeology can be made accessible even more readily and quickly for the purposes of education and interpretation and public display as well as for academic consumption’.
For a long time, the main outputs expected from archaeological fieldwork and research, other than a few shiny monographs and webpages, were dry factual ‘data structure reports’. Even when these are helpfully made freely available on portals such as this one, these are technical documents that are largely inaccessible to non-experts. Academic publications are also problematic, written for an academic audience, and often stuck behind a paywall. There is a great deal of interest in archaeology in Scotland, and some excellent work is being done to make fresh research and excavation reports accessible, through outreach and social media for example, but much more can always be done – and for this reason the Strategy aims to encourage the sector to do better on this issue.
The first aspiration in encouraging greater engagement in the Strategy is:
To encourage creative and collaborative archaeological activities, developing better ways of engaging people with the process and results
One example of this kind of approach is Burning the Circle, a public engagement project held on the island of Arran three times since 2013, which involved the construction of timber monuments to give insight into the process of their creation, which prehistorians such as Colin Richards argue may have been more what they were actually all about, than the finished ‘product’. This is then followed by ‘ritually’ burning them down, to better understand how the archaeological record is formed – and at the same time, to create a spectacular and memorable experience for the general public, which may even reflect an experience people shared thousands of years ago.
This work has been carried out by the urban prehistorian in collaboration with organisations, such as Northlight Heritage (in the form of Gavin MacGregor), the National Trust for Scotland, and Arran Ranger Service, and widely publicised with the results shared on social media (@TeamBuildNBurn) and blogs. This innovative way of doing things results in not only a fascinating and engaging experience, but this experience may well echo that of people in prehistoric Scotland, who were surely just as fascinated with timber and fire as anyone.
This activity is having other impacts, for instance opening up conversations about ways that people living on Arran could benefit more from the amazing prehistoric monuments and archaeology they have around them. Changing the ways people think about the places they live, and providing opportunities for social benefit = research impact. As the photo above shows, building prehistoric-style monuments is also a great outdoor learning experience, utilising the ‘green gym’.
Other creative and collaborative work of the urban prehistorian has included guided walks in Glasgow, Kilbirnie and Crieff, aimed at bringing to life monuments and prehistoric traces in urban settings that are often no longer visible, informing people and challenging them to see these urban landscapes in different ways. Details of these walks have then been published on the UP blog, bringing these sites and places to more people.
The second strategic objective in encouraging greater engagement is:
To maximise the role archaeology can play in learning for people of all ages, benefiting from everyone’s contribution towards valuing, understanding and promoting our past
One neglected archaeological resource in Scotland which the urban prehistorian has helped bring to light is the remains of the past found in the construction of Scotland’s schools. Often the grounds of a school have hidden traces of a very different world in that site’s past – the potential is clear for an immensely valuable educational resource for use in those schools, literally on their doorstep.
Preliminary research by GU student Mar Roige Oliver has identified over 60 new-build schools in Scotland (post-2000) where excavations and evaluations in advance of construction found archaeology.
But teachers, even if they were made aware of these discoveries (which they almost never are), cannot always make use of this resource by themselves, and archaeologists can and should facilitate better communication and start to explore how these discoveries might impact on the life and fabric of new schools buildings and communities. This was the subject of a lecture Kenny gave recently.
It is sometimes said that archaeology is a largely middle-class pursuit – it shouldn’t be, and, potentially, engaging children and young people through learning could instil a pride in, and passion for, local heritage in more people in society.
A good example of what can be done is the urban prehistorian’s engagement with Ally Beckett of Northlight Heritage, who worked with SSE and the teachers at the school to help build a timber circle in the grounds of Strathearn Community Campus based on Ally’s excavations at Pittentian. Within a short space of time, the circle was already in use for learning, teaching and performance in the school – embedded in the life of the community and as this photo below shows, it looks as good today as it did when built in 2015.
The strategy’s final objective for greater engagement in archaeology in Scotland is:
To increase and improve the presentation and interpretation of archaeological information
Staying with the idea of schools as a central part of communities, and a fruitful place for engagement with archaeology, an excellent example of encouraging greater engagement by improving the presentation and interpretation of archaeological information can be found in the campus with the timber circle, Crieff High School. Here, a new information panel was designed by the urban prehistorian and Steve Timoney (UHI Perth College), to presence and celebrate hidden prehistory in and around the grounds. In this case, the archaeology is the cropmark Broich cursus monument, remnants of which still run beneath the school buildings and playground. (Cursus monuments are an enigmatic and little-known type of Neolithic monument (dating to the fourth millennium BC), in most cases ploughed flat and known only from aerial photography.)
This is part of the ongoing creation of an archaeology trail (the timber circle mentioned above was phase 1), an innovative project drawing on cropmark evidence, pre-school build excavations and historical records, to bring ‘invisible’ archaeology in and around the campus back to life. Despite the massive impact that these sites and monuments once had on prehistoric communities, little remains to be seen nowadays, and so without the work of archaeologists not only studying these academically, but helping to presence them in the heart of communities, the cursus monument and other monuments of Crieff would be all but unknown. It takes imagination, and persistence, to bring these back to life, but having a cursus beneath one’s town or village can alter perception of a place by adding a real sense of deep time.
During the unveiling of this new noticeboard, Eila MacQueen of Archaeology Scotland said that this initiative (two further boards and a trail are forthcoming) will share the ‘wonderful story’ of the Broich Cursus with both the local community and visitors. She also noted that the creation of this trail fulfils all five objectives of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, so this shows I’m not alone in seeing this work through the lens of strategy.
Acknowledgements / sources: the HS source that was mentioned in the text regarding aspirations for the strategy was Historic Scotland (2012) A Review of the Archaeology Function (no longer available online). For more on Scotland’s cursus monuments, see Brophy, K. 2015. Reading Between the Lines: The Neolithic Cursus Monuments of Scotland. London: Routledge. And Colin Richards’ work on stone circles can be found here: Richards, C. p4-5 Interpreting Stone Circles. In C. Richards (ed.), Building the Great Stone Circles of the North, 2-30. Oxford: Oxbow Books. The information on school archaeology came from Kenny Brophy and Mar Roige Oliver. You can follow post-excavation progress for the Carnoustie excavation by following @CarnoustiePx on twitter.
‘The half-light, with its glimmer, had always had for him a curious historic reality, as though the world in this quiet hour turned itself into a stage whereon all that had once been could once more be, but invisibly now and therefore magically. The word ‘magic’ was as professionally real to him as the word ‘atom’ to a physicist. He knew his learned theories. But, unlike the physicist, he had to translate his concepts in terms of human behaviour’.
the asymmetrical arrangement of hollow spaces
“…it would drain him through death to the negation of stone; and even then, he would not be the stone, he would be the darkness”.
the architecture of containment
approach with caution
wear protective clothing
invited participants only
inside and outside
“The upended stone was about three feet high, a small ‘standing stone’ or orthostat…These upended stones or orthostats would go right round the cairn forming its containing wall or peristalith. There were theorists who said that the great stone circles themselves were but a later development of this peristalith which kept back the cairn – or kept in the dead’.
systematic investigation of a death chamber
a steady hand
‘Then, as always in such fluid fancy, a knot formed about the one solitary fact, namely that the cairn was a great tomb; and instantly, as if his mind were indeed a radioactive substance emitting thoughts of an inconceivable swiftness, he completed the destruction of the world by atomic bombs, saw the cairn of Westminster Abbey and a future race of archaeologists opening it up’.
ideological demands for absolute decommission
preservation by record
“The evidence would disclose
that this had been
a chambered tomb of the Pre-Atomic age”.
A Tripartite tale: some notes
The long quotations contained within this post were written by Neil Gunn(1891-1973), the Scottish author who grew up in the small village of Dunbeath, about 40 km south-south-east of Dounreay, Caithness. He wrote a series of evocative novels about the transformed and transforming Highlands in the middle of the twentieth century. All the extended quotations in this post come from his 1948 book The Silver Bough. This book tells the story of an arrogant academic archaeologist based in central Scotland who spends a summer on the northwest coast of Scotland in the fictional town of Kinlochoscar excavating a prehistoric megalithic tomb encased in a stone circle. (This is the best book I have read about an excavation other than Peter Ackroyd’s similarly themed First Light.) Nuclear matters are a recurring theme: Gunn was by all accounts disturbed by the dropping of atom bombs on Japan in 1945, while his archaeologist protagonist was active at a time when that profession was on the cusp of being transformed by science, and in particular the radioactive science of radiocarbon dating. In many sense, it is a novel about individual, disciplinary and social ‘loss of innocence’ to coin archaeologist David Clarke’s memorable phrase.
A Neolithic chambered cairn, Cnoc na h-Uiseig, is situated right next to the former nuclear power plant of Dounreay, near Thurso, Caithness, on the north coast of mainland Scotland. This monument is largely ruinous, and was investigated by Arthur JH Edwards in 1928. Excavation of this ‘horned cairn’ showed it to contain various internal chambers, and recovered from the interior were sherds of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery, a perforated bone object, a sandstone axe and the remains of at least five individuals. The site has been much damaged by its location near twentieth century infrastructure, notably a nearby (now defunct) airfield, and in 1964 OS field workers noted that, ‘This chambered cairn, a grassy mound, has been mutilated large-scale construction work and is now slightly rectangular in shape, measuring 22.0m E-W and 17.5m transversely, by about 2.5m high’. It has for many decades been contained within a square fenced enclosure. This tomb was located well within the blast zone and almost impossible to visit for that reason. There are a number of other prehistoric and later heritage sites within a notional exclusion zone.
Dounreay nuclear power plantwas established from 1955 onwards, and had three nuclear reactors. For decades the plant lived in uneasy equilibrium both with the population of the county of Caithness, but also the ruinous Neolithic megalith on its fringes. The plant was famous at times for unorthodox practices involving the disposal of some nuclear material, while there were often tales of radioactive particles on the nearby beaches. This was not an environment conducive to megalith visitation. Closure and decommissioning of the site began in 2005, and is expected to take over two centuries to entirely return the site to its former state. Since its closure, the nuclear plant has undergone a gradual decommissioning process, brought to my attention recently with the inclusion of a glossy brochure about this in the pack for a conference I was attending in the county. Here, we see the act of un-polluting the land, reversing the radioactive decades, as a triumph of technology carried out by robots and scientists wearing protective outfits straight out of science fiction. The decommissioning process has brought with it a longish tail of employment, and some funds to support community projects including those related to heritage and archaeology, although as yet this has not included re-excavation of the chambered cairn.
The end of the Dounreay decommissioning project is anticipated to be in AD 2300. By that time, the chambered tomb will be over 6,000 years old.
It is becoming post-atomic.
Sources: Edwards’ excavation report can be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 63 (1928-29), the paper being called, ‘Excavations at Reay Links and at a horned cairn at Lower Dounreay, Caithness’. There is a very nice introduction to Gunn’s The Silver Bough by Dairmid Gunn, in the 2003 Whittles Publishing edition which shed some light on the motivations behind the book. The timescales for the complete decommissioning process for Dounreay came from this article in the The Engineer Magazine.
Material culture and other items related to Dounreay can be viewed in an exhibition in Caithness Horizons, Thurso.
Photo and image credits: All of the black and white images related to the chambered cairn are reproduced from the Edwards’ excavation report. The photo of the excavator at work (actually on a nearby site, not the chambered cairn) comes from a poster produced by Headland Archaeology entitled, Lower Dounreay: an archaeological landscape. The photo of Neil Gunn comes from the website about him linked to in the text.
The rest of the images, from top to bottom:
Half-built reactor (B&W) Charles Hewitt / Picture Post / Getty, via The Times
Isn’t is about time we started to mark the locations of prehistoric sites and discoveries in ways that are visible, informative and accessible to local communities and visitors?
It is factually correct to state that the presence of prehistory in your village, town, suburb and city is not a secret. There are online platforms that can tell you this, such as Canmore in Scotland and Coflein in Wales. However, the information contained in these national (and equivalent regional) databases is encoded in archaeological terminology, while site entries often lack detail, depth and / or images to make the information more accessible to a curious member of the public. They are also portals that currently do not work well on smart phones and depend on decent wifi or 4G, not as available in suburbia as you might think.
One way that would be effective at easing the burden on people finding out this stuff for themselves would be an urban prehistory plaque scheme, my preferred colour being brown, not blue [although I have not tested this colour yet]. This simple device, mirroring schemes in other parts of the UK focusing on famous dead people, is familiar and easy to interact with. In my proposal, urban prehistory locales would be marked with a circular disk a foot in diameter containing just enough information to let curious passers-by know the headline information required. This would be high-level and simple but would contain enough information to (a) demand further investigation and (b) blow minds (at least for some). Digital add-ons may become necessary, but the analogue disks would be a good starting place as my recent guerrilla activity on this front suggests…..
The concept of plaques is a familiar one, but it is not a modern invention. The first scheme was proposed in London in 1866 believe it or not, and is the oldest of its kind in the whole wide world. (If you don’t believe in alien life, its the oldest such scheme in the Universe.) Run by the (Royal) Society of Arts, then London County Council, then Greater London Council, and since 1986, English Heritage, these blue info-circles are London-only although many other local authorities and organisations have since adopted similar schemes. The plaques usually mark a building with a connection to a famous person who has been dead for at least 20 years: ‘the intrinsic aim of English Heritage blue plaques is to celebrate the relationship between people and place’. (There is an excellent online resource, Open Plaques, which curates images, locations and stories of plaques from all over the place, well worth checking out.)
There is something immediate and accessible about plaques. They are spatially situated in the correct location someone famous lived and / or died (and less often, where events of note took place or an earlier building once stood). They are reassuringly analogue and do not depend on wifi or a mobile signal although this does not preclude follow-up research later. In some cases, they can surprise and even delight, as when I completely accidentally stumbled upon this Wheeler blue plaque when I was heading for a Cochno Stone meeting in London a couple of years ago.
But can we do more with plaques than just celebrate the rich, famous, mostly men? Could plaques be used to tell stories of what happened in a place, rather than simply who resided where and when? And can we push this back deep into prehistory?
Mike Pitts made a strong case (in the July-August 2012 British Archaeology magazine) for a plaque scheme that does not simply focus on famous recent people such as archaeologists and antiquaries, but also the dead found on excavations. (‘Let’s celebrate the anonymous people who made Britain’ is the sentiment, although I’m not so convinced by this jingoistic tone.) Nonetheless, this is a well-argued polemic and was accompanied by the mocking up of ‘Ochre plaques’ as he called them, in each case located where a ‘famous’ prehistoric dead person had been found…
These are very effective, and got some good feedback at the time and also when Mike recently re-posted them on twitter in response to my own musings on the subject. The focus here on the famous dead fits in with the broader aspirations of plaque schemes although in truth even the ancient dead whom we give nicknames are still unknown, while in some other cases multiple burials and events might also be plaque-marked.
A good example of how this might work is this surprisingly detailed plaque that is situated in a car park in Christchurch, Dorset.
This is part of a local HLF-funded ‘unofficial blue plaque’ scheme, the Millennium Trail, of which are there are many across England and indeed beyond. This series of plaques is accompanied by a map and leaflet available locally.
In the spirit of experimentation I recently carried out a couple of field visits to urban prehistory sites – plaque attacks! – having prepared in advance a rather low tech and mocked up plaque for the occasion. I confess I used dark blue for these early experiments, to provoke a reaction by subverting the familiar format, but will, like a judo person, aim to step up to brown in the future.
My two case-studies are in a sense classic urban prehistory sites – Bronze Age burials that were found during urban expansion in the form of road building, and were subsequently destroyed (although in very different circumstances). Importantly, in neither case is the location of this discovery marked in any way, almost nothing is known about the sites, and in at least one instance the nearest resident was completely unaware of the story. These are unremarkable urban streets with a hidden, remarkable secret, that if known might change the way that (some) people view the place that they live, but hopefully not in an Amityville Horror type of way.
Succoth Place, Edinburgh
In May 1901, during the construction of a new road to the west of the city centre, Succoth Place, running off Garscube Terrace, workmen came across a stone cist that contained a fine prehistoric urn. This was taken into the care of the architect D Menzies and then collected a few days later by archaeologist Fred Coles who subsequently helped investigate the site and wrote up a brief excavation report. The urn was recovered from the cist by the foreman after the cap stones had been broken to make way for the pavement kerb. Further damage to the cist itself revealed, remarkably, that this was a rare double-compartment cist, with two burial cells separated by a single upright central slab. Coles assisted with clearing out the second chamber, within which was a second urn. Both are what we would term Food Vessels and belong to the early Bronze Age.
Nothing else was found in either cist compartment, other than ‘minute fragments of bone, which, on the gentlest handling, crumbled away’. An undignified and dusty end.
Both Food Vessels were later accessioned to the National Museum, and that was the end of the whole business, with presumably the remnants of the cist being wrecked to allow road-building to continue, the whole site having been excavated in a rather crude fashion which was the norm for that time.
In early May 2018, almost exactly 117 years after this discovery, I visited Succoth Place with Glasgow PhD student Denise Telford in the rain armed with my cardboard urban prehistory plaque.
As ever with such trips, careful planning was required, and the friend of the urban prehistorian, the ragged annotated folded A-Z, was employed to get us there safely and efficiently.
The leafy suburbs of this part of Edinburgh, near the Water of Leith, looked rather dreich in the downpour, and we sheltered under overhanging vegetation from time to time as we wound our way up to the top of a hill (via Garscube Terrace) crowned with massive lavish sandstone mansions and a private school. The friendly lollipop man helped us across Henderland Road, just in case we should be crushed by a massive 4×4.
We reached the Garscube and Succoth soon enough. Despite the distinguished and peaceful surrounds, subversion was evident: the street sign has a runic addition in tiny letters, creating the memorably Shakespearean phrase Succoth My Nob Pl(ease).
Coles recorded that the cist was found 60 feet from the junction and so we headed there, with the location where the Bronze Age dead had once lain being mercifully free of the indignity of parked cars.
There was nothing here to mark this burial place, and I am fairly sure that the inhabitants of the big houses here know nothing of this either. There was nothing left to do but mark the place with the plaque, which had been carried here in an old-school 5p Morrison’s carrier bag for protection from the incessant rain. In error, Denise snapped 118 photos of me holding the plaque of which the best one is reproduced below.
There was little sense that this was anything other than a posh suburb and certainly there was no room for the remembrance of the dead – the dead whose bodily remains crumbled to dust in order for sandstone mansions to be reachable by horse and cart in as much comfort as was possible at the time. Let’s not be emotive and say that this part of the city was built on the (tiny) bones of the dead, but it was, and perhaps this needs to be remembered, out of respect for the deceased, who did not even have the dignity of a ghostly presence or their own plaque. Until now.
As John Mahoney’s character in the movie Barton Fink so memorably implored drunkenly: ‘Honey, where’s my honey?’.
Morar Road, Crossford, nr Dunfermline
Let’s travel to Fife, just across the River Forth from Succoth and all that, to the location of another Bronze Age urban cist that was knackered in order to facilitate urban expansion. In this case, the cist was destroyed before an archaeologist was even able to look at it – and this happened in 1973!!
During construction of roads for a new housing estate called Keavil on the south side of the town of Crossford on 13th November 1973, a stone coffin or cist was found. The workers on this construction project thought that the collection of flat slabs was ‘some sort of old land drain’ and destroyed the structure to make way for the road the next day. A Mr A Hall was able to recover one thing from this burial, a fine complete Food Vessel pot, which suggests that the destruction of the cist was perhaps not as cavalier as reported, and perhaps the workers could have stopped when this was found rather than when it was all too late. So much for rescue archaeology.
A sober note was made of this unfortunate event in that year’s Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, while a drawing of the vessel and a brief accompanying narrative was published as an addendum to the excavation report of a cist cemetery found at Aberdour Road, Dunfermline (a site I blogged about back in 2012).
The contractors on this build, Geo Wimpey and Co, ‘kindly’ handed the Food Vessel over to the local museum and got on with making roads and money.
Armed with this sorry story, preparations for my second plaque attack were formed a week after the Succoth escapade. Using my time-honoured cheapo approach I created a similar plaque to the previous effort but this time with amended and simplified my logo. I had to contend with a greasy stain on the cardboard transferred from a kitchen surface the work was carried out on.
I visited this location with Glasgow PhD student Andrew Watson, on the way back from another urban prehistory-related fieldtrip to Fife. Andrew map-read me into the estate via a series of colourful streets (none of them Cist Street which might have been the least Wimpey could have done): Hunt Place, Katrine Drive, Western Avenue and then Morar Road and Affric Way, together representing a confusing mixture of street types for no discernible reason. And then we were there, in a quiet suburban road lined with blue bins and puddles.
The kind of place where twenty is plenty.
Andrew and I quickly set up a sophisticated photo shoot, marking the location that the cist was found and destroyed, 1m below the current road level, in a memorable fashion.
As we struggled to get to grips with the placelessness of this place that had once been a sacred burial spot that must have had an abundance of place, the owner of the house outside which we were messing about came out to see what us ‘boys’ were up to. We explained out business and he was amazed that such a thing had been found outside his house, as it was being built, and he assured us he would tell every visitor this exciting revelation (although he also said he hardly got any visitors so this may not be a strong method of dissemination). He declined the chance to have the plaque (an original and unique piece of art one might argue) hung on the front of his house however.
Knowledge exchanged, he walked back inside, and by god I think he had a spring in his step.
This sobering encounter with an old man ended our photo session, and I must say I don’t think Andrew was taking this as seriously as he could have been.
The cardboard plaques that I have made and taken to places that hold rich prehistoric secrets is a device that has started conversations and created complex experiences for all involved. These places of death and burial remain unmarked although digitally their story has now been told again, perhaps for the first time in decades or more, and this is how such plaques could act as easy gateway drugs into the hard stuff of prehistory.
Truth be told, we cannot just expect people to find out about the prehistoric events that may or may not have taken place when their houses or schools or roads were being built or improved. We – archaeologists, heritage professionals – need to be evangelical about this, pro-active prehistory-pushers, talking to people and braving the rain to find ways that tell the lost stories of ancient bones and bits of pottery. Circular information panels may or may not be the best way to do this, but we have nothing to lose by trying to follow the advise of Mike Pitts.
Let’s celebrate the ancient dead as well as the modern rich and famous. Let’s tell stories of deep time, generate wonder and surprise, and change the way that people see the places that they live.
I wonder – where will the next plaque attack be?
Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Denise and Andrew for accompanying me on these fool’s errands that I do from time to time, and for the stimulating conversation both provided; there ideas have filtered into this post. Thanks also to Mike Pitts for allowing me to use images, and drawing on his own ideas; please join the Council for British Archaeology if you want to receive regular copies of British Archaeology magazine. Thanks also to the many positive comments I got about the UP plaques on twitter.
The report on the Succoth Place discovery can be found in a paper by Fred Coles, ‘Notice on the discovery of cists containing urns at Succoth Place, near Garscube Terrace, Edinburgh’. This was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 36 (1901-02). The Food Vessel and cist image in the post above were both sourced from that paper.
For information (limited) on the Morar Road cist site, see pages 130-1 of Close-Brooks, Norgate and Ritchie (1974) ‘A Bronze Age cemetery at Aberdour Road, Dunfermline, Fife’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 104. This was also the source of the pot drawing for this site. This journal is open access.
The Christchurch blue plaque was first posted on twitter by Annie-Leigh Campbell, while the map / booklet image related to the Millennium Trail in this town came from a website called Dorset Visual Guide. The quote about the purpose of the London blue plaques near the start of the post comes from the official EH site about them, linked to in the same paragraph.