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The mall and the mound part 2: The monument

29 Dec

In my previous post, I introduced the story of the shellmound in Emeryville, California. This site, sacred to the Ohlone Indians and with thousands of years of occupation, use, tradition and burials, was gradually denuded by the requirements of modern urban living, from the construction of a funfair atop the mound in the nineteenth century, to the extensive destruction of the site to create a level space for industrial uses in 1924. Excavations at this site in the early decades of the twentieth century confirmed that this site was not merely a massive midden site, but also a place of ritual and burial, with hundreds of burials, many with grave goods, identified. (Maybe this could have been established by talking to locals of Ohlone heritage?) But these invasive excavations were rescue and salvage digs ahead of development which all happened despite the feelings of the local community.

The second part of my Emeryville posts brings the story up-to-date, and reveals that little seems to have been learned from the lessons of the past.

Mound map

An amazing map showing various incarnation of the shellmound location (source)

 

The Mall

After decades of industrialisation and decline, the location of the shellmound underwent another dramatic transformation with the construction of a shopping mall between 1997 and 2002. This included further archaeological evaluation, and the realisation that despite everything that had happened here, elements of the shellmound – and human remains – still survived in situ. Environmental evaluations also confirmed that the land had been poisoned with heavy metals: it was ‘a singularly vile toxic brew left behind by the acid vats of an abandoned paint factory’ (source).

Reports suggest that there was uneasiness amongst those working on the site. Archaeologists requested permission to carry out a comprehensive excavation ahead of the development, but this was not permitted. Building workers were traumatised and many still refuse to use the mall to this day, given that human remains still lie underneath the shops and car parks. Hundreds of burials were simply reburied in the same location and sealed beneath a protective layer upon which the mall was to be built. I have read that some human remains had to be destroyed because of the levels of chemical pollution in the bones, making repatriation impossible.

abalone pendant 1999

Abalone pendant, found during 1999 excavations (source)

There is no doubt that this process was problematic and contested, and split opinions amongst archaeologists working ahead of development. Local archaeologist Allen Pastron said at the time, ‘The portion of the shellmound that I saw in 1999 was largely intact’ and he quit the project due to the continuation of the construction. On the other hand, another archaeologist working in the project, Sally Salzman Morgan, argued that change is inevitable and needs to be accepted. Yet the contested nature of the project is also evident in her acknowledgement that ‘We did find a lot of intact burials. It’s too inflammatory to say how many there were. But most were disturbed.’ I have been unable to find a report on the archaeological work undertaken as the Mall was being built.

Attempts were made to preserve the shellmound, stop it being damaged further and / or designating this as a protected sacred site. But in the end the local Council went ahead and approved the replacing of the industrial complex with the Bay Street Shopping Mall.

 

The mall

The mall itself is a typical Dawn of the Dead type of place, corporately shiny and trying too hard to be cool. The website for the mall states:

Combining retail, entertainment, hospitality and residential uses, Bay Street Emeryville invites customers to escape into a casual village designed for strolling, shopping and having fun. The character of Bay Street Emeryville is drawn from the rich history of its bayside site as a place where people have gathered for decades to live, work and play. Designed as an eclectic urban village set in an industrial landscape, Bay Street Emeryville uses architecture, lighting, landscape and environmental graphics to create a unique, contemporary atmosphere.

Remember, this is a shopping mall.

Bay_street_shopping_mall_emeryville

Bay Street shopping (creative commons licence)

And there is no mention of the hundreds of dead bodies beneath the feet of shoppers, most not even in their original graves – although I guess that is not a good look. The heritage of this place is mentioned however and it is worth quoting at length what the Mall’s website says as this is the (a) corporate response and statement on what came before the mall, and (b) a list of stuff that has been done to compensate for all of this unfortunate business, even although the word ‘compensate’ is not mentioned, and I suspect for many these reparations are inadequate.

The Ohlone heritage of this place is mentioned in utopian and simplistic terms, almost as if these people were children:

One day, a group of people, the Ohlone, arrived at the Bay. They stopped to gather oysters and mussels to eat. These were easy to collect from the marsh along the shore of the bay. There was also a large creek where they could drink fresh water. The edge of this creek was a great place to camp. When the tide was low, anyone in the village could gather oysters from the gravelly bottom of the bay or use a stick to dig clams out of the mud of the tide flat. This was a great place to live, with plenty of everything people might need: water, food, space, and the materials to make shelters. The Ohlone decided to stay and call this place home.

Curiously, the shellmound is mentioned under the heading ‘Today’:

Over time, the Native Americans inhabiting the site created an elevated landmark known as a “Shellmound” that they used for daily activities as well as a burial ground. By the late 1920’s the upper Shellmound had been demolished and the site transformed with industrial development.

These two sentences are self-serving, suggesting that the main damage to the shellmound occurred long before the shopping centre came along and attempting to legitimise the Mall’s construction in this location. Great pains have been taken to suggest that the Mall and activities that it hosts are little more than a continuation of activities that had happened in this location for thousands of years (except the burial of the dead). Such claims were made, for instance, in 2002, by the Emeryville Vice-Mayor Nora Davis who argued the ‘mixed-use’ nature of the Mall (shops, cinemas, restaurants, public spaces and art) was simply an idea previously invented by Native Americans. As an editorial at the time in The Berkeley Daily Planet stated (tongue in cheek):

Much like Native Americans once gathered at the Emeryville Shellmound to exchange goods, she said, Bay Area residents will come together at Bay Street to shop — at stores like Banana Republic, Gap, Pottery Barn and Victoria’s Secret. But while Native Americans relied mainly on a shellfish diet, modern shoppers will have restaurants like Pasta Pomodoro and Prego to choose from.

This editorial also stresses the extensive plans for reparation from both the city and the developer, although I am not sure how many of the ambitious plans actually came to anything. A promised website about the shellmound and the archaeological work that was undertaken may have existed once, but I can’t find it.

Back on the Mall’s website, there follows information on memorials, art and information in and around the mall and district that have been installed: an ‘interactive educational experience that invokes thought and understanding about the lives of the Ohlone people’.

Certainly, there have been art projects and installations in the area that reflect the heritage of this place as well as its contested nature. For instance, a park was established in 2004 with pieces by artist Sheila Ghidini. This includes a trilithon-like archways, one with a map of the area inscribed upon it, as well as information panels. Orange dots mark the actual location of the shellmound.

b-2-ohlone4-start Sheila Ghidini

bayst-pano_3-v3-big

Source: Sheilaghidin.com

This park was commissioned by the developers, and specifically designed to ‘honor the Emeryville shellmound’. It includes 10 ‘polished granite slabs…each….includes sandblasted text and images which note significant moments in [Ohlone] civilization, from a deadly measles epidemic to their first contact with Westerners.’

According to Megalithic Portal contributor symbionspacesuit, other aspects of the shellmound have been presenced in different ways locally, including a ‘metal arch  suggesting the profile of shellmound’ on a wall in the Mall itself, and material culture from the shellmound being displayed near toilets beneath a nearby IMAX cinema.

There are also some street names that reflect the past use of this location, such as Ohlone Way and Shellmound Street.

shellmound street

Source: Megalithic Portal

However, the most visible attempt to make good the ongoing hurt caused by the mall’s construction is the Shellmound Monument.

 

Monument

Due to the controversy caused by the construction of the mall and the perceived desecration of large numbers of burials, it was decided by the authorities to build a monument to the dead and the shellmound, which is located outside the mall at a road intersection and overlying Temescal Creek.

Aerial view of the monument SFGate

An early photo of the monument before it grassed over properly

Shellmound_Emeryville_the monument

Source: Creative Commons licence

The monument consists of a mound-like grassy knoll, and I have tried to make sense of what it actually represents in more detail. The slice cut from the mound seems to be showing sedimentary stratigraphy with shells embedded in the sandstone slabs. There is also a waterfall, maybe representing the bay? On one side of the mound is a strange looking structure which apparently is meant to be a traditional Ohlone basket. Some big random stone ball / bollards are arranged in an arc at the front of the monument.

BayStreetBasket

Ironically, this monument has become the main focus for the annual Black Friday protests against the Mall and the treatment of the dead.

/METRO

Source: East Bay Times

 

Hope?

I invite you to close your eyes; imagine the mall isn’t under your feet but you have ground. And that you’re some place that was here a long time ago, and that you’re going to take a walk and understand what was here before you. Source: Corrina Gould, in an audio walking tour of the shellmound location called An Unsettling Sound.

This is such a difficult situation and a salutary one for me as I blithely blog about how great it would be if we could replace prehistoric sites destroyed by development with street names, artworks and information boards. The Emeryville shellmound shows that this does not always work and in some cases cannot work, because if offers only the slimmest of reparation. These images from the Atlas Obscura sum things up better than I could: this is a place you can no longer go. Or if you do go, expect the experience to be consumerism.

Places you can no longer goFactories and mall cartoon

But should we have no hope? The annual protests, maintained by Corinna Gould, with hundreds attending, and many more boycotting the shopping mall, are a vibrant reminder of the value of heritage and community cohesion. The reparation attempts, no matter how piecemeal they appear, will raise awareness of Ohlone heritage to some visitors to this location. The compelling and tragic story of this place will make some people care. Perhaps at some point the dead will be treated appropriately as has happened in other instances in the region.

And perhaps lessons can be learned. There is an ongoing dispute related to a similar urban Native American site nearby, the West Berkeley shellmound. Here, there has been a good deal of debate about where the mound’s boundaries are and if new developments such as a ‘155 apartments, about 30,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, and a six-level parking garage’ (source) will impact on shellmound remnants. In this case, Corinna Gould and others have got together to propose an alternative vision for the development that celebrates the heritage of this location rather than obliterating it.

ohlone-village-site-concept-1a-aerial1

Chris Walker for the Indian People Organising for Change

In this case, at least, those with a stake in this place other than developers have a chance to make the news, shape the agenda, protest and make their case creatively before the worst actually happens. The case is currently under review (as of December 2017).

save west berkeley shellmound

Source: Tom Lochner, East Bay Times

I started this two part blog post with some introspection about my urban prehistory project, caused by Colleen Morgan’s excellent question to me in York. Having thought a lot about this over the past six weeks, it is clear that what the sad case of Emeryville tells me is that as a heritage professional, I should not assume that my tool kit will work for all occasions, and that I need to let go, talk more to communities and learn from them. They are after all experts in where they live, and I am not. There is also a need to be more pro-active and celebrate the prehistory of places before urbanisation sweeps it away. In 2018, that is exactly what I intend to do.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: as with the first post on this topic, I have leaned heavily on online sources for much of this post, mostly newspaper articles, which have been the source of the various direct quotations in the post. Quotes in this post from Allen Pastron, Sally Morgan and Rosemary Cambra all came from a 2002 editorial in The Berkeley Daily Planet. I am grateful for the supportive comments and permission to use images from local website The E’ville Eye News.

I would also like to thank Andy Burnham of the Megalithic Portal for pointing out to me the excellent webpage they have on the shellmound, with information provided by user symbionspacesuit which includes the map location linked to above. 

The monument picture comes from this weird website, while the aerial view of the monument is widely available online. All other images in the post have the source credited in the caption, and if anyone wants images removed or different copyright statements added, please contact me.

If anyone can point me towards a report on the archaeology undertaken in advance of the Mall’s construction, or the website about the Ohlone heritage of the Mall location that is referred to in the Mall’s own website, I would appreciate it.

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The mall and the mound part 1: Un-fair

15 Dec

Friday 24th November 2017.

Black Friday.

A large group of protesters gather outside a shopping mall carrying banners with messages that push against the prevailing capitalist mood of the day.

#blackfriday

Words that are designed to shock.

From twitter 2017 protest image

Source: posted on twitter by @LiLightfoot on 24/11/17

For one day, shoppers at the Bay Street Mall, Emeryville, California, are asked not to spend any money in the mall, not to shop.

This is what happens when urban prehistory gets serious.

This is what happens when it really matters to people on an emotional and personal level.

This is what happens when colonisation, urbanisation and planning decisions are the cause of historic and long-lasting hurt.

Over two blog posts, I want to relate the remarkable and troubling story of the Emeryville shellmound, a sacred Native American Ohlone settlement, ceremonial and burial site that now lies beneath the aforementioned shopping mall.

It is a story that involves poor decision-making, a failure to listen, misunderstanding, racism, secrecy, prehistoric and historic archaeology, urbanisation, and a cast of archaeologists, planners, shoppers and a disenfranchised tribal community, all wrapped up in fumbling attempts at reparation.

The reason I want to write about this site is because its very existence was unknown to me (and probably most of you who are reading this) until I was asked a tough question by Colleen Morgan at the end of a talk about urban prehistory in York in October 2017. After my rambling lecture, Colleen asked me a very interesting and provocative question. It was about the potential problems that could be caused by the incorporation (or otherwise) of prehistoric sites into urban developments in places where there were indigenous communities who may contest the process. She cited the example of ‘Shellmound Mall’, Emeryville.

This was timely, coming a month before the annual Black Friday protest in Emeryville to demonstrate anger and frustration at the way that the indigenous shellmound and burial site had been dealt with in the local planning system that led to the construction of the the Bay Street Mall from 1999 onwards. My account of this sad story is necessarily written from a detached perspective, for which you will have to forgive me, as I am not likely to be able to visit anytime soon on my feeble research budget. This means there is more reliance than usual on online sources of information, images and academic publications (all sources are either noted in, or at the end of, the post).

This is an important story because there can be no better illustration of the fact that around the world today, urban prehistory can have a much deeper resonance that we could ever imagine in a European context. But this does not mean we cannot learn lessons about the place of people and heritage in the planning process, and the complete inadequacy – in some cases – of measures such as excavation and memorialisation to compensate for loss. I’ll reflect more on lessons learned at the end of post 2, but here I want to introduce the site and take the story up until the 1920s.

 

Shellmound

Shellmounds are midden sites that existed in huge numbers in North America once, focal points for deposition for centuries or more, stretching back thousands of years into prehistory. A recent review of such ‘midden’ mounds in the American Southeast suggests that there has been a shift in the perception of these sites amongst archaeologists over the past two decades. There is now a:

recognition that…..some, if not most, of these shell structures were specifically created ritual landscapes rather than the daily discard of victuals. A subsidiary tenet of this focus is that shell is and of itself was (and is) ‘symbolically potent (Saunders 2015, 2).

The precise nature of the social roles these structures played is unclear, but they were not rubbish dumps. Luby and Gruber (1999, 100) have argued for instance that shellmounds were places of ‘mortuary feasting….sites of frequent festivity, dance, costume and music…essential to the symbolic and mythological life of pre-contact peoples of the San Francisco Bay area’. When recently discussing shellmounds in Maine, Dr Donald Soctomah, historic preservation officer with the Passamaquoddy tribes, told the New York Times that the ‘shell middens are a link to the past’ that tell stories.

Shell midden in Maine detail photo

Maine shellmound detail (NY Times)

Despite the sacred significance of these sites, they have all too often simply been regarded by archaeologists and developers as rubbish heaps which makes little sense if, for no other reason, than some have been shown to be burial sites. All too often they have been denuded by the actions of coastal erosion, colonists and, more recently, developers. Centuries ago the shell-rich material forming the bulk of these mounds was quarried by Europeans for lime, fertilizers and animal feed (NY Times). Urban development continues to threaten mounds, with Emeryville an especially troubling example of this process.

The dates of use of what is now known as the Emeryville shellmound (also known – only to archaeologists – as mound No. 309) stretch back anything from 800BC to 3000BC, depending on the source (the earlier figure appearing more likely). It continued in use until the start of the eighteenth-century AD. This enormous expanse of time in use explains why the mound got so massive by the colonially enforced end of its use-life, growing incrementally into a circular artificial hill, some 110m in diameter and 18m high, with smaller ‘cones’ atop and nearby. The monument was essentially a combination of a huge pile of domestic debris and a sacred burial site, used by a Native American group called the Ohlone Indians who lived, and still live, around San Francisco Bay. It was one of hundreds of such mounds that once existed here.

Excavations in the 1900s, 1924 and 1999 showed, as we shall see, that the mound consisted of masses of shells (such as clam, mussel, oyster, cockle), stone and bone tools and objects, jewellery, pottery, carbonised material – and huge quantities of human remains.

 

Un-fair

In the nineteenth century (AD) the monument was swept up by urbanisation and soon became subject to associated demands for space and leisure activities. From the 1870s onwards, the shellmound became incorporated into an amusement park called, unsurprisingly, Shellmound Park. As well as the usual rides and attractions one would expect with such a facility, a dance pavilion was built on top of the mound.

Shellmound and fairground Uhre 1907

The shellmound and dance pavilion (from Uhre 1907)

The Park was owned by Joseph S Emery and included a ‘rifle range, trotting park, beer garden, band shell [band stand?], and a shady thicket of trees that drew picnickers, all resided beside what remained of the towering Emeryville shellmound’ (source). The same source suggests that the ‘notion of dancing on an Indian burial ground was considered as a thrill that would attract visitors’.

640px-Emeryville_Shellmound_Park_entrance

Oakland (California) Public Library (in the public domain)

 

Excavations and the paint factory

The shellmound was subsequently excavated by a team from the University of California  lead by John Merriam and Max Uhle in 1902.

Excavation trench 1902 Uhre 1907

1902 trench (from Uhle 1907)

An extensive excavation report was published by Uhle on the dig in the journal American Archaeology and Ethnology (volume 7, 1907) and had throughout an unfortunate tone that could be described, charitably, as patronising. (Page 19 announces ‘No traces of cannibalism have been detected’. Not bad for a ‘tribe of low grade civilisation’. Bloody hell.) Settlement evidence, bones, shells and so were found in large quantity, as were a ‘huge range of ‘primitive’ objects’. It was also discovered that the site had also been used for the burial of human remains with 10 bodies found. However, the whole tone of the paper was orientated towards this basically being a huge rubbish heap that people lived on in unsavoury conditions.

Chert flakes Uhre 1907

Chert flakes found in the shellmound (from Uhle 1907)

Two other excavations followed before 1910, and the Park limped on until the early 1920s when it went bust and the land was sold, to soon be replaced by factories and industrial plants which stood here until the 1990s. The dramatic and brutal remodelling and leveling of this landscape in 1924 is captured in a series of dramatic photographs taken at the time. The mound material was literally bulldozed and extracted as if this was a quarry.

Emeryville_Shellmound1 being levelled 1924

The desolation of the shellmound (1924)

Two views of the mound in 1924

Excavations carried out as this devastation was wrought uncomfortably found significant evidence of the sacred nature of the shellmound. The remains of over 700 burials were found during these ‘salvage’ excavation (or recovery operation as seems more likely to have been the case).  A report on this work, by W Egbert Schenk, was published in 1926 by the University of California, his team having taken advantage of the ‘destruction’ to ‘collect fresh data’. Indeed, the opportunity afforded by the dismantlement of this amount was received with a degree of relish.

Schenk report title

Extract from Schenk 1926

The steam and tools for this heavy work came from a neighbouring Sulphur plant, giving a sense of the heavy and horrid industry emerging in this area at the time.

As with the earlier investigations, there seems to have been no attempt to ask people of Ohlone heritage anything about the site, but the archaeologists did get some information in the form of memories from local ‘old timers’ who they spoke to.

Shell beads and discs

Shell beads and discs from the mound (Schenk 1926)

Aside from more of the same kind of stuff that had been found by Uhle et al., the 1924 excavations were notable for the huge quantity of human remains and burials found. At lower levels of the mound, inhumation and cremation rites were identified for over 40 individuals. But, remarkably, the report also notes, with amazing understatement: ‘In the cone 651 bodies were noted’, many crouched pit burials. Also, despite having a quite rigorous watching brief strategy (two observers at all times), Schenk admitted that they probably missed a lot of babies ‘on account of their small size’. (Excavations in other parts of the mound found between 30% and 38% of burials to be those of infants and almost none were found in the main cone.) Many of these burials were found in association with grave goods.

Grave goods and burial associations

Schenk 1926 – the Museum Numbers refer to codes for individual skeletons

The details are contained in the report on this work, and need not be rehearsed much further here, suffice to say that much of the recording was done visually and at times from a distance due to the industrial nature of the destruction of the mound. Scientific analysis of the few recovered skulls included a cranial study indicating the dead were of a ‘typical Californian type’; this kind of phrenological study would rightly never be allowed to happen today. These human remains are still in a museum store, and have not, as far as I can tell, been repatriated to the Ohlone.

This almost total destruction of this ancient mound was the culmination of decades of urbanisation, the needs of an urban population, and industrialisation nibbling away at its edges, from levelling works, to railroad and road developments. From the mid-1920s onwards the site was occupied by industrial units such as a steel works, cannery, paint factories and insecticide manufacturers, combining to eradicate most of the shellmound and poison the land.

shellmound-factory-sign

Worse was to follow though in the 1990s – the mall.

To be continued.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Colleen Morgan for prompting me to think about all of this.

Unlike many of my blog posts, this one has been underpinned by ‘actual academic research’. Here are my sources in chronological order of publication (link where open access):

Uhle, M 1907 The Emeryville shellmound, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 7(4), 309-56.

Schenk, R 1926 The Emeryville shellmound: the final report, University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 23(3), 147-282.

Luby, EM & Gruber, MF 1999 The dead must be fed: symbolic meanings of the shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay area. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9.1, 95-108.

Rogers, A & Broughton, J 2001 Selective Transport of Animal Parts by Ancient Hunters: A New Statistical Method and an Application to the Emeryville Shellmound Fauna. Journal of Archaeological Science, 28(7), 763-773

Saunders, R 2015 Archaic shellmounds in the American Southeast, Oxford Handbooks Online.

Image sources (where not given in the caption). If anyone wants to correct a source, or ask me to remove a photo, please do let me know via the comments button at the end of the post.

The photo of the Shell Mound sign and the factory behind it came from an excellent source of information about Emeryville in general, a website called The E’ville Eye. This page contains more on the story of the shellmound and info about a documentary that has been made on the subject.

Both images of the mound being dismantled are widely available online, I am not sure what the original source is for either.

 

 

 

Am I contemporary archaeologist?

7 Nov

A remarkable art installation is prominently visible in the Terminal 2 Departure Lounge of Amsterdam Schiphol airport. Schiphol Clock, part of artist Maarten Baal’s Real Time series, is a huge clock face suspended over a seating area; the backdrop consists of meandering jumbo jets framed by a wall of windows. The clock is indeed a clock, a highly functional item in a place where time is fundamentally important. But it is also a semi-transparent screen, showing on a loop and twice per day a 12-hour ‘real time’ performance consisting of a man in blue overalls within the mechanism of the clock manually painting and removing the minute every minute. The hour hand received the same treatment about four times an hour. This hypnotic performance, with around 1500 acts of clock-hand application or removal, plays with our concepts of time in a capitalist space, and forces us to engage in a highly unusual and hyper-aware manner with time moving on.

real-time-schipholclock-maarten-baas-clock-installation_dezeen_936_0

All of the artworks in the Real Time series show people absolutely trapped inside / inhabiting clocks in the contemporary, simultaneously making time but also slaves to it.

This installation was a timely conclusion to my experience of attending the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference on 3-5th November 2017 in Amsterdam. Reflections on the contemporary – and our trapped-ness or otherwise in the now – were very much to the fore in my mind over three days of stimulating lectures and conversations. Because one of the main reasons I attended this conference (and I don’t go to many conferences these days) was because I wanted to find out what temporality of archaeologist I am. My urban prehistory project has led to a shift in identity, in my academic persona, but I am not sure where I am in this transformation or how many of my peers are actually aware of this shift happening.

CHAT-AHM-1-300x225

Therefore, the question I set myself from the start of the conference was: Am I a contemporary archaeologist? Or am I still, as one delegate jokingly said to me, ‘a Neolithic man’?

Any answer to this question should begin by defining contemporary archaeology (CA). This is relatively new area of practice within archaeology, and to some extent could still be viewed as striving for acceptance from across the broader discipline. (For what it is worth I think this is a battle that has already been won.) CA is highly inter-disciplinary and thus projects and collaborations often sit at the edge of archaeology in space and time, an exciting place to be.

CHAT themselves define CA simply as ‘the archaeology of the contemporary world’. For The Journal of Contemporary Archaeology (sadly not open access), contemporary archaeology is said to be about:

archaeology’s specific contribution to understanding the present and recent past. It is concerned both with archaeologies of the contemporary world, defined temporally as belonging to the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as well as with reflections on the socio-political implications of doing archaeology in the contemporary world’.

In essence, then, CA is about bringing archaeological thinking and methods to bear on the recent past, which could be one second ago or 100 years ago. Objects of study for CA projects might not always be what you associate with what archaeologists do, or could even be viewed as the preserve of other disciplines (art history, material culture studies, heritage management, history, sociology and so on). And there are blurred lines with Historical Archaeology, Conflict and Battlefield Archaeology and Industrial Archaeology, as well as the heritage sector as a whole, which shows some of the fields within which CA might be applied. By way of illustration, at the conference I saw papers on war memorials, temporary shrines to David Bowie, indicators of Aboriginal sites in urban Sydney, the story of a seal-submarine-hunting-training base from wartime Sweden and the archaeology of buried books.

CHAT assemblage

Where do I fit into this? Am I a contemporary archaeologist? In one sense I am, because my focus of attention is the ways that prehistoric sites and material culture appear and are used within the contemporary world. My concern is not with the prehistoric incarnations of these monuments (the preserve of a ‘prehistorian’) but rather their contemporary incarnation, context and meaning. On the other hand, this is a problematic assertion. As archaeologists, all of our engagements with the past, however ancient or recent, happen in the present. A key motivation for me to take a ‘contemporary turn’ in my research five years ago was to better understand the context within which we engage with the remains of prehistoric activities. It is through this lens that we view all of prehistory. The same applies to the archaeological record associated with any period of human history. So, in that sense, I am not a contemporary archaeologist. I am a prehistorian trying to make sense of the contemporariness of prehistoric archaeology.

yes no

So I am not comfortably a contemporary archaeologist or prehistorian, neither one nor the other. My engagements are in the contemporary, but there is nothing remarkable in this observation and could be said of all archaeologists. On the other hand, there is no doubt that my interests are not really about better understanding prehistory by critically reflecting on how we do our business as prehistorians. Rather, I am doing this because I want to shed light on the place of prehistory and prehistoric sites in our contemporary world and how archaeologists and non-archaeologists engage with such places and information. It is not contemporary archaeology as such, but rather archaeology in the contemporary.

wool typology

So my own position remains unclear. And my chain or argument begs a secondary and far more contested question: are contemporary archaeologists actually contemporary archaeologists? Or are they archaeologists who struggle with the contemporary context of their body of material which just happens to be, in their case, contemporary? In other words: is their anything distinctive about the practice of CA other than how old the stuff is?

I suspect that because of the very specific ways that contemporary archaeologists claim to work (across disciplines, critically, politically) an argument could be made that this is indeed a distinctive practice. But on the other hand, the study of prehistory is all of those things too and as I have already argued, all archaeological evidence is of the present, no matter its origins and age. Perhaps the strongest argument for CA to be a thing is that too few voices are advocating for the validity of places and things such as graffiti, playparks, ruined factories, memorials, festivals, urban landscapes and public art as being objects worthy of – and capable of benefiting from – archaeological attention. CA also has a claim to be explicitly people-centred, given the ethnographic nature of some research, a commonality with urban prehistory. My sense from the many presentations that I saw at #CHAT2017 is that CA is also characterized by extreme variability and an ethos of not being precious about disciplinary boundaries, which other archaeologists could learn from.

At the end of the day contemporary archaeology has had the impact I believe of raising awareness that the ways that we think as archaeologists and the methods we adopt can be turned to the study of anything, past or present, as indicated by the common use of archaeology as a metaphor in other disciplines for rigorous and deep interrogation of things, society, ideas and processes.

The beast

Sometimes I feel trapped like the man in the airport clock, doomed to replicate and repeat actions I have made throughout my career as a prehistorian. At other times I am liberated, making time, subverting the rules, varying my practice so that no two minute hands ever look quite the same. Prehistory in real time has the beneficial quality of juxtaposition and oxymoron, a jarring quality that is shared by much CA research – but that does not make be a contemporary archaeologist.

What I choose to call myself matters not, and what others choose to call me doesn’t really matter either. But I have a duty now, five years after taking on the incarnation of the urban prehistorian, to begin to explain more clearly my ethos and what it is to be something of a contemporary prehistorian. That is my intention in the coming weeks and months.

For the time being, though, I remain, curiously undefinable and without a tribe to call my own.

Acknowledgements: this blog post benefited hugely from a lot of conversations with Helen Green over the time we were in Amsterdam, which helped me clarify my own thinking as expressed in this post. I would also like to thank those who I CHATted (ho ho) with during the conference, and for the challenging and energizing range of speakers who presented over the three days. 

The Schiphol Clock image was sourced from a Dutch online arts magazine, Dezeen

 

55 / 45

21 Feb

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

But not everyone thinks like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a NO monument, not a YES monument.

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

It was built by the 55 for the other 45.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiennes (source: Hands Across the Border)

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Lumley (source: Sunbeam Music)

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

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Source: Hands Across the Border

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

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Source: Trip Advisor (link below)

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

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

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

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

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Source: Cumberland News / (c) STUART WALKER

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

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

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Source: News and Star / (c) JENNY WOOLGAR

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Source: Daily Record (link below)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selfish walks

21 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Academic sources referred to in the text:

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Fleet beneath my feet

30 Nov

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

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

 

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

It is a city to go underground and read.

Beer and books, books and beer.

beer-and-book-1

Beer and books.

Words and tunnels.

Glass tower blocks and dark dirty corners.

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London is a city of turmoil and change.

It is topographically, topologically, geomorphologically, hydrologically dynamic.

Yet it never changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

footprints-low-res

What more can be said about London?

What more can be written about London?

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

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

Deeper than anything a guidebook can tell you.

beer-and-book-2

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

THIS IS PREHISTORY.

wheeler-sign

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

Iron Age commuters.

Iron Age dispatch riders.

Iron Age cars and buses and taxis and lorries.

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

temple-station-low-res

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

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

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

The Fleet beneath my feet.