Urban prehistory can be transformational, but it can also be mundane, generating little more than footnotes. When all is said and done, the discovery of ancient pots and precious bones is just another part of the relentless tireless digging in that humans have always done, extracting, replacing, destroying, creating. The ground surface is a gateway to the past but also a pointer to the future and our own bodily and material mortality.
On Wednesday 25th of March 1885, during road construction works in a field and the creation of the leafy suburb of Kylepark in the Lanarkshire town of Uddingston, two large ancient pots were found within a foot of the ground surface. “Both urns, in accordance with a not unusual practice, had been merely placed in the earth mound downwards over the bones they were intended to protect” (Duncan 1885, pg. 337).
A few days later, the then Honorary Secretary of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, J Dalrymple Duncan*, visited to take charge of the site and he carried out what must have been a fairly rudimentary investigation of the findspot, just a stone’s throw from the River Clyde. Before he arrived some human bones had also been found, and so Dalrymple “had the ground dug up for a considerable space around the spot, when after some search we were successful in discovering a few small portions of a third urn” (pg. 337).
JDD collected together the fragments of urn that had already been found, to be passed to Joseph Anderson of the National Museum of Antiquities. For one of the urns was damaged by a pick axe, the other had been squashed by a construction tramway inadvertantly laid over it. The third urn survived only as ‘trifling portion’.
The human remains were analysed by Professor Young of Glasgow University and Professor Buchanan of Anderson’s College. They could not say much with certainty but suggested that there were at least two people represented, perhaps an older short man, and a slighter younger person, “inextricably mixed together”.
And so the road was completed, and the houses constructed, what was once a riverside field, now sandstone homes, gardens, and trackways. The wheels of time moved on, with the location of this remarkable discovery – what we would now know to be a 4,000 year old burial site – settling in to its comfortable middle class future.
The interpretation of this modest discovery was associated with the Bronze Age by Dalrymple, and noteworthy as, “the first instance … of one of these having been brought to light in the immediate neighbourhood of Glasgow” (pg. 340).
In 1904, a local history book was published called By Bothwell banks: some chapters on the history, archaeology and literary associations of the Uddingston and Bothwell district, written by George Henderson and architect J Jeffrey Waddell. This documented for the most part the medieval and later history of this area, with Bothwell and Uddingston being neighbouring towns on the banks of the Clyde.
The first three pages of this narrative explore what the authors call the ‘earliest times’ and they make note of the discovery of the urns and bones at Kylepark, as well as – in a footnote to this footnote – mention of another Bronze Age discovery at Viewpark to the north in the early years of the nineteenth century. The discovery at Kylepark was loosely connected to local folk traditions.
Looking back to these ancient days, the authors cannot help fall back on colonial narratives of the uncivilised, exotic nature of these prehistoric folk. The river would have had,
“banks luxurious with vegetation of almost tropical growth, overshadowed with gigantic trees, with its waters as yet unsullied by civilisation, would be as well stocked with the lordly salmon as any river in Canada”.
They continued, “…hunting and fishing would have occupied their days, varied only by such gentle relaxation as tribal war” (pg. 2).
Such narratives recall the fantastical writing of Ludovic McLellan Mann in his 1937 book Earliest Glasgow: Temple of the Moon. Earliest man “watched with awe and eagerness the great mammalia striding across the meadows and through the woodlands” (pg. 1). Mann will appear again in our story before the end.
There is a curious conflicted view of colonialism within the Henderson and Waddell narrative, who on the one hand treat prehistoric people as if they were a lesser, different species, and on the other hand bitterly note the ‘iron foot’ of the subsequent Roman invaders of Strathclyde. There seems to be a recognition that in ‘civilising’ someone, you change them and their environment in not altogether positive ways. Yet there is also a strand of continuity from these folk, with a note that the nearby location of a church means that this ground was “hallowed … by many forms of worship”. And of course these Bronze Age dead – whose bones were picked over by Professors – were pagans.
The houses were constructed, the road established, middle classes became entrenched, people slotting into types just as surely as the pots that were found at Kylepark. The three vessels were studied at a visual level, being drawn (see above) and characterised – two urns, one of the encrusted type, and one Food Vessel. These were distributed widely, held across two museums in Glasgow and Edinburgh, where they still reside today in cardboard boxes in environmentally controlled museum stores.
X.EA 108 Encrusted pottery urn with band of raised zigzags and bosses on upper part, from Uddingston, Lanarkshire, Middle Bronze Age. Clay; band of raised zigzags and bosses on upper part (source).
This and the other vessels have from time to time been of use to archaeologists.
In 1933, Ludovic Mann addressed a fieldtrip of the Glasgow Archaeological Society and the Scottish Ecclesiological Society in Bothwell, close to the Kylepark discovery. There he outlined an outlandish argument that the current location of St Bride’s Church in Bothwell was indicative of a prehistoric sacred landscape on a par with Stonehenge. His theories were developed in story in the local newspaper The Hamilton Advertiser a week later, a story Mann was so enamoured with he had made into a pamphlet.
The detail and contextualisation of Mann’s lecture and demonstrations that day will be the subject of a more detailed examination (link to be added when this is published) but suffice to say that of course the Kylepark discovery was surely of interest to Mann’s theorising. “Bothwell must have been a very notable place in pre-Christian times…” (pg. 3) and it is probable that the urn findspot was included on a large map Mann brought for the occasion and used as the basis for an illustrated talk at the Clyde Hotel (now the Bothwell Bridge Hotel). This was a sacred landscape in ancient times, according to Mann, aligned on the solstices and organised around careful measurements of distance and time. Narratives spun on a Saturday afternoon after tea, nothing more.
There is nothing at Kylepark today that would make one know that this had been a place of death, rites, subsistence and salmon abundance. Just another sandstone suburb on the fringe of Glasgow.
There is no documentary evidence of the reaction of the workers who found these objects, or how they reacted to the arrival of a posh amateur archaeologist to take control of their site, view the pick-smashed base on one urn, dig into the field for bones and more. Just another day, another inconvenience, perhaps an anecdote to be shared with friends and family.
These are all footnotes.
* James Dalrymple Duncan as called in this paper is better know as James Dalrymple Gray of Dalrymple, founder of the Dalrymple Lecture series held annually at the University of Glasgow. He was the son of Rev Thomas Gray Duncan and Mary Dalrymple. He changed his name – Pitt-Rivers style – for family inheritance reasons. I am indebted to GAS archivist James Mearns for clarifying this. Obituary
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to the staff of special collections at the University of Glasgow, and Jim Mearns.
The following sources were consulted and quoted above:
Duncan, J D. 1885 Note regarding cinerary urns recently discovered at Uddingston’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 19, 1884-5, 337-40. Online here
Henderson, G and Waddell, J J 1904 By Bothwell banks: some chapters on the history, archaeology and literary associations of the Uddingston and Bothwell district. Glasgow. You can see this whole book, digitised, online here.