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Shadow of the stone

27 Dec

Granny Kempock Stone (Gourock, Scotland): Top Tips Before You Go from TripAdvisor

“If you’re interested in anything historical, this is for you. 

There is something eerie about being near this stone….perhaps it’s the witchcraft that it’s suposedly linked to?!

We only stopped off at this for a matter of minutes, but worth it, if you like this type of thing.”

Andrew W, Trip Advisor

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The avenues and alleyways
Where the strong and the quick alone can survive
Look around the jungle 
See the rough and tumble

Sometimes we must creep around the avenues and alleyways to find truly ancient things, rake amongst the bins for the rubbish of the ancient past that refuses.

Sometimes we need to seek out the rough in order to make the tumble way back into the past.

But…..sometimes the stories of standing stones become more interesting when they become urban.

kempock-stone-from-below-low-res-with-writing

Gourock, Inverclyde, is perched on the edge of the firth of Glasgow’s river, at the end of the line, and the beginning of so many journeys to the islands, doon the watter. Here, there are avenues and their are alleyways, wynds and braes, urban sandstone cliffs and serpentine staiways. Here be the Kempock Stone.

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This remarkable megalith, as so often with urban standing stones contained within a cage for whose protection it is not clear, is a well kent character locally, reflected in for instance a playful iron sign located on a roadside about 100m away.

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A sign that reveals the affectionate local name for this standing stone – Granny Kempock Stone. The stone is said to have the appearance of an old hag standing looking out to the sea, and folk myths have become attached to this stone like limpets, with the modern reference point for most stories drawing almost exclusively from an account of the Kempock Stone which appears in the Rev David MacCrae’s 1880 book Notes about Gourock, Chiefly Historical. This account tells of the mostly historical life of this prehistorical monument.

notes-about-gourock-low-res

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Maccrae’s account of the Stone is almost the only source we have for the association with the eponymous granny (who might have been a witch), and a series of Lovecraftian rites that were once (and may still be) performed around this stone. It is worth reproducing key elements of that account here (and pictured is the original, above). Macrae’s lurid and tabloidesque description of the stone and its possible functions through time are at stark odds with the middle class designed garden context within which it sat even in the late nineteenth century.

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He notes upon walking up to the monument that “you behold, standing erect, a remarkable block of grey mica schist, that might (had Gourock been near Sodom) have passed for the bituminous remains of Lot’s wife.”

His feverish historical account then turns to darker matters still (at least for a man of the cloth as the author was) – the pagan activities and beliefs that this megalith provoked both in the ancient past, and the uncomfortably near past.

“It is supposed that the Kempoch Stane marks the site in Druid times of an altar to Baal; and that it was wont to gleam, more than two thousand years ago, in the light of the Baal-fire, with the blood of human sacrifices flowing round its base. [Hmm, wonder if there is potential for phosphate analysis around the base of the stone?!]

However that may be, the Kempoch Stane was for many centuries an object of superstitious awe and reverence. The very ballast for ships from Gourock Bay was judged sacred in old time for its connection with the “Kempoch Stane”. Marriages in the district were not regarded as lucky unless the wedded pair passed around the “Lang Stane” and obtained in this way Granny Kempoch’s blessing.

It was chiefly in connection with the winds and the sea that the Kempoch Stane was regarded with superstitious dread. Standing forth on the top of the rock….Granny Kempoch must have been a marked object to ships sailing up or passing down the firth; and would look like someone placed there to rule the winds and the waves, and watch the ships as they came and went.

At one time, according to tradition, a monk made money by giving his blessing to sea-going ships, on this spot. Another tradition tells of a withered hag, reputed to be a witch, who for years dwelt beside the mystic stone, dispensing favourable winds to sea-faring men, who secured her favour by suitable gifts before sailing from Gourock Bay. But long before, and long after, the witch’s day, the sailors and fishermen were wont to take a basketful of sand from the short and walk seven times round Granny Kempoch, chanting a weird song, to ensure for themselves a safe and prosperous voyage” (MacRae 1880, 5-7).

cover-of-macrae-book

This incredible account of a scandalous standing stone that was exploited for sex and money was derived from, one would imagine, local tales, with no written sources provided. Perhaps Macrae made some or most of it up, not beyond the realms of possibility for a Victorian clergyman with an interest in antiquarian matters. But it is a narrative that has endured, and a plaque located next to the corner of the cliff-top pathway that the Stone itself occupies reproduces in full generous extracts from Macrae’s account, perhaps appropriately set within a halo of rusting screws.

plaque-low-res

This account renders Baal as Baai, but otherwise evokes the almost spell-like enchantment of Macrae’s words, a rap sheet against this misunderstood lump of rock. (Incidentally, given how close the stone sites to the edge of an old sea cliff, the act of moving around it would actually have been more perilous than it sounds especially is one were in a hurry or a drunken sailor.)

Perhaps these words were also carved on the curious cream-coloured marble plaque adhering to a stone walled structure that sits right beside the Kempock Stone, a touch which gave the whole setting a cheesy Hammer horror feel.

the-marble-thingy-low-res

I was unable to get close enough to this weird feature – which looked rather like a heavily weathered grave slab covered in tidy tiny (but inhuman?) writing – to read its surface. It added to the sense of mystery of this tiny portion of Gourock.

Archaeologists have done little to nothing to resolve any of this mystery and this is perhaps because our traditional tools – survey, excavations, careful recording, scientific analysis – are almost powerless in the face of a single standing stone. 

The National Monuments Record of Scotland has little to say about this standing stone, which has NMRS number NS27NW 5. Field notes for the stone from the 1960s record the size (6 feet tall, 2 feet across) and petrology of the monument (mica-schist) as well as repeating some of the points made by Macrae. And that is it. Nothing else of archaeological note to help someone wanting to make sense of this stone other than the vague assertion on the metal sign on-site that it was Bronze Age and erected around 2000BC which is, frankly, a stab in a millennium long bit of dark.

The NMRS fieldworker’s account adds one further detail though, another layer in this intriguing story set in stone, which adds depth and historical incident to Macrae’s biography of the Baal-stone.

In 1662, Mary Lamont, who was burned as a witch confessed to having attended a meeting when it was intended to throw the stone into the sea.

Huh? That must be the lamest confession ever made by a witch – basically attending a meeting that was convened for the discussion of the fate of an ancient monument. No doubt she appeared in the minutes of the meeting as ML and made the tea and biscuits at the end of the night.

In fact, the story of Mary Lamont, or Marie Lamont, was far more complex than the NMRS gives it credit for and, inevitably, rather tragic.. Of Innerkip (now Inverkip) near Gourock, Mary was 16 when she confessed 13 articles associated with witchcraft and consorting with the devil presumably in less than legally fair surroundings. She claimed the devil had given her his mark, and a new name – Clowts. Thus convicted, she was burned at the stake, with the locals apparently taking pity on her and throttling the young woman before the pyre was lit.

screen-grab-from-film

From a nice little film about Mary Lamont, Clowts and the Serpent (embedded below)

Her confession related to the Kempock Stone was, perhaps fittingly, the thirteenth and last. That she danced around the megalith, ‘plotting to cast it into the sea in order to destroy ships and boats’ (Clowts and the Serpent).

This tragic story, the full truth is which is lost in the mists of time, is unlikely to have involved any real magic or witchcraft, nevermind the very devil himself,  but it has cast a potent spell over modern perceptions of this standing stone in a way I have rarely encountered for any other megalith. What is more, Mary’s story inspires creativity to this day. Bloggers behind the Inverclyde myth and folklore website, Tales from the Oak, have been involved in the production of graphic novels such as Identity, which was HLF funded and developed from working with local school children to celebrate their heritage. This included the tale of Mary Lamont and the Kempock Stone.

tales-from-the-oak-graphic-novel-extract

A page from the Identity graphic novel

Perhaps a higher profile attempt to tell the story of Mary was a STV children’s TV show from 1987 called Shadow of the Stone.

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This show was a tea-time-at-the-weekend kind of thing, and is best remembered now as the big break for actors Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming.

henderson-and-cumming

Shirley Henderson and Alan Cumming on the set of The Shadow and the Stone. Photo believe it or not (c) Alan Cumming himself

The plot revolves around a 1980s’ school girl who, through the medium of the Kempock Stone, develops a strong and supernatural connection with Mary Lamont. The writer of the programme, Catherine Czerkawska recently described the plot:

Shadow of the Stone is a spooky tale of witchcraft, possible possession and burgeoning adolescent sexuality, all set in picturesque Gourock and Greenock on the Clyde. A young girl, Lizzie, becomes fascinated by the story of Marie Lamont, who was burnt as a witch in seventeenth century Scotland. Lizzie has a troubled family background and thwarted ambitions to sail, so when a yachtsman arrives from America, having navigated the Atlantic alone, Lizzie develops a crush, not just on him, but on his beautiful yacht. 

The power of the stone can be seen here in rather simplistic brush strokes as a conduit to the past, enabled by touching or hugging the stone, as Shirley Henderson seems to be doing here. (Note the signage for the stone, now gone.) The megalith acts as a literal touchstone with deeply encoded messages that only a kindred spirit to those who once danced around the stone can access. Forbidden knowledge, dangerous and confusing to adults (i.e. men).

shirley-henderson-at-the-stone

This programme makes the connection once again between this stone, and the sea, and women, and sexuality, and fertility, threads which run through all of the stories about Granny Kempock.

Alan Cumming, on his own website, reminisced briefly but fondly about working on this show.

Also made by Scottish Television for the ITV network,Shadow of the Stone is a six-part series about a girl and her alter ego from a century ago who had been burned at the stake as a witch. I played her boyfriend Tom, her boyfriend in both time zones. 

He notes that in every scene he was involved in, his character was said to be ‘lurking’ and this sums up nicely the role men have had in the story of the Kempock Stone – sleazy, exploitative, sadistic, judgemental. It is often said in folk myths that to be turned into stone was a common punishment for witchcraftery and covorting, and it is perhaps no surprise that the modern cutesy name for the stone derives from the apparently physical similarity between the stone and an old woman, or crone, or hag, or gran. Yet there is nothing about this stone that suggests it looks more like a man and a woman.

Mhairi Robertson's depiction of Granny Kempock, reproduced with permission

Mhairi Robertson’s depiction of Granny Kempock, reproduced with permission

 

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I visited the stone on a mid-December Saturday, parking down by the waterfront where the denim-grey waves pounded against megalithic sea defences, the fusion of stone and water occurring at a point that I was unable to adequately determine – in the same way as it was now almost impossible to tell where the sea began and the Clyde ended. Fusions of horizons on the horizon, creating fluid boundaries that barely exist. I turned my back to the roaring river to look inland and up to the urban horizon where past and present blurred, another fusion and confusion.

the-sea-low-res

Through the car park, up some stairs, not using a map, working from memory, I skipped across the main road – KEMPOCK STREET- and randomly turned left. Almost immediately I came across the entrance to a narrow alleyway that led to some steps. An iron sign bridged the alleyway – KEMPOCK STONE. Names pointing me in the correct direction, propitious omens for success. Over the avenue, up the the alleyway. Up the steps, to my destination.

kempock-steps-alley

kempock-steps

All the while I was climbing up a cliff face, sandstone outcrops overhanging gardens on all sides. At the top, I turned right and immediately saw….her.

kempock-stone-2-low-res

The standing stone was in a curious location, perched on the cliff edge and set within a compound of strangeness, with a stumpy stone tower with marble slab beside it, and an ornate gothic green fence around it, some upright post adorned with corrupted fleur de lis. Unsurprisingly, the megalith was caged.

caged-stone-low-res_li

A closer look at the surface of the stone showed that three sides of if were adorned with carved initials and symbols. I was unable to see the fourth, dark, side of the stone. My notes, scrawled with cold hand and blue pen, documented these markings as best I could, subsequently let down by a botched scan on the work photocopier which it is now too late to rectify.

scan-of-notes

Amidst the markings, aside the usual mixture of big initials and dates, and some bold lines and delineations, were what appear to be at least two mason’s marks.

the-symbols

Reproduced from wikipedia under a creative commons licence (see list of sources at end of post)

Reproduced from wikipedia under a creative commons licence (see list of sources at end of post)

Perhaps here we can see the hand of men in the story of the stone at last, and we can also assume that the fence around the stone and the constructions around it were likely to have been a male domain when this work was undertaken. Superficial scrapes in the deep surface of this stone, nothing more.

mason-mark-image

Around the base of the Kempock Stone was a collection of offerings (or perhaps I have been studying Neolithic pit deposition for too long, and this was just rubbish). And there was a hole in the stone, of which I can find no discussion anywhere. It was respected and perhaps even incorporated into one especially grand carving, a large ‘shield’ containing big writing and the date 1815.

hole-and-offerings-low-res

I took one last look at the stone and its bizarre mashed up contemporary setting, yards away from net curtains and tenement doors, and then wondered at the view from and past the stone, expansive and thrilling. If this is the original setting for the standing stone, it is breathtaking, and the connection with the sea, and the salty tasting air, is satisfying and obvious.

I walked out onto Bath Street where the nice iron Granny Kempock sign had been installed, defiantly beside the local church and a dog shit bin.

the-sign-from-behind-low-res

By the time I reached the bottom of the hill I had almost completed my loop back to the start of my short urban walk, when I came across a rather creepy nativity scene in a small park. Here, offerings were being placed around a crypt, but perhaps the motivations behind this story were little different to the stories of deposition and ritual at the standing stone up the road, acts with the intention of paying respect to awesome forces, whether that be god …. or the sea.

creepy-nativity-scene

KEMPOCK PLACE. THE KEMPOCK BAR. Names, names, names.

the-kempock-bar-low-res

My walk had come to an end. The Kempock Stone had been revealed to me, although I had not yet had enough, and continued to sneak up alleyways into gardens for one last look at the dark, western, side of the megalith from below. I peered between bins and through wet washing like a megalith junkie, eager for one more hit of Granny K. A clear view remained beyond my grasp, but the peculiar and spectacular location of the stone was evident.

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Urban standing stones are rarely as accommodating, or have such rich biographies, as the Kempock Stone. The stories, myths and people who have an association with this stone, whether witch, mason, sailor, school girl or granny, give a richness of narrative that we rarely, if ever, get for the prehistoric incarnations of such monuments, and even excavation would scarce furnish us a fraction of this level of detail. It is the modern biographies of prehistoric monuments that maintain these stones, not the work of archaeologists or fence-builders or heritage managers. We should cherish and celebrate these stories, told in the Shadow of the Stone.

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Sources and acknowledgements: The lyrics that start the blog are from the song Avenues and Alleyways, written by Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, and most famously performed by Tony Christie. I would like to thank Fiona Watson for information about the stone, and Gourock-based artist Mhairi Robertson for kind permission to reproduce her wonderful and evocative drawing of Granny Kempock. The image showing the graffiti possible mason’s mark on the Kempock Stone was reproduced under a creative commons licence via Wikipedia – By Mgordon42 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, while the image showing mason’s marks was sourced from Edward D Galvin (1987) A History of Canton Junction. Finally, I have used the photo of Alan Cumming and Shirley Henderson without actually asking permission from Mr Cumming, an actor of some repute, who I am sure is far too busy to be dealing with unsolicited messages from bloggers asking for permission to use obscure photos from the collection of Mr C himself and first published on his extensive, entertaining and authentic blog. I hope that’s OK with everyone.

 

 

 

 

Under the flight path

19 Jun

As we drive across a motorway intersection, through the elaborately signalled landscape that seems to anticipate every possible hazard, we glimpse triangles of waste ground screened off by a steep embankment. What would happen it, by some freak mischance, we suffered a blow-out and plunged over the guard-rail onto a forgotten island of rubble and weeds, out of sight of the surveillance cameras? [JB Ballard, Introduction to Concrete Island]

dawn low res

The perceived wisdom is that it is not a good thing to always be under the flight path of an international airport.

Or adjacent to a busy motorway intersection.

Although I suspect this was a state of affairs that would have please JG Ballard with his Shepperton home.


plane and megalith low res

 

But that is the fate of one of the strangest and least understood prehistoric monuments in central Scotland – Huly Hill, located in the village of Newbridge just to the west of Edinburgh.

 general view low res

 

The monument sits right beside a busy road intersection, where the M9 and M8 motorways meets, along with the A8 and the A89. There is a small service area just to the south of the Huly Hill which includes a petrol station and a MacDonald’s. Industrial units abound. Just to the north are a series of luxury car showrooms.

Like the protagonist in Ballard’s Concrete Island, Maitland, this monument is trapped amidst the infrastructure of the car. But with added airplane noise. And the central conceit of that novel has strange parallels with Huly Hill: by stumbling off the motorway, it is possible to become marooned in a very different kind of place, an enclosure with its own rules, temporality and ruins.

 

Air photo screen grab

The close proximity of multiple roads and places for purchasing Mercedes motorcars is not the only way that Huly Hill has become entangled with cars. A much more violent encounter has been recorded in this online account, an incident in 2001 where an attempt was made to drive a vehicle across the central barrow.

vehicle damage photo

(c) Cairnpapple Archaeological Research Association (CARA)

This shocking act of violation would have, one imagines, resulted in smashed front wings, bent bumpers, a twisted bonnet and climaxed with radiator fluid spilling all over the earthy lip of the mound – a megalith-motorcar mounting.

Around the same time a burnt out vehicle was dumped beside the standing stones, a sacrifice to some insane pagan car god, cremated and melted and tagged, offered in mitigation for the scarification of the burial mound.

burnt out vehicles photo

(c) CARA

The constant hum of cars all around, and the frequent roar of steeply banking planes overhead, is a product of the gradual wrapping of the site within the trappings of modern transport infrastructure and urbanisation over the past 100 years.

Yet it was not always like this.

In fact, Huly Hill (NT17SW 8) is a remarkable monument which surprisingly little is known about consisting of a setting of three standing stones, with a circular barrow or cairn off-set within this stone setting. It was described in the Statistical Account of 1794 as ‘circular mound of earth’ with surrounding standing stones, and in the 19th century was known locally as The Heelie Hill. Crude investigations by Daniel Wilson into the centre of the cairn in 1830 apparently revealed only ‘a bronze daggerblade, a heap of animal charcoal, and small fragments of bones’. Fred Coles carried out a ‘survey’ of the monument in 1899, and was unable to ascertain the true extent or location of this excavation, or the fate of the contents found therein.

Fred Coles' 1899 survey of the standing stones

Fred Coles’ 1899 survey of the standing stones

At the time of his visit, the monument still had a rural setting, and Coles offers this detailed account of his visit:

The Heelie Hill, as this Cairn is locally called, can easily be reached by taking the first turn to the left after quitting the train at Ratho station on its north side. As one walks westwards, the first object to arrest the eye of the antiquary is a great monolith, over 9 feet in height, in a field close to Lochend farm.

He noted that the standing stones and round mound did not appear to relate to one another concentrically, and produced a very useful survey plan to make this point.

The plan of Huly Hull drawn by Fred Coles, with a section through the central cairn / barrow

The plan of Huly Hull drawn by Fred Coles, with a section through the central cairn / barrow

Coles also mentioned in his description of the mound the presence of a low wall surrounding its base, which most certainly was not prehistoric and so may have been an addition to the monument after Wilson’s poking about, or some other form of landscaping / tidying up.

Thereafter, there is little sense of any attempts by archaeologists to understand this site further, with two geophysical surveys, one in the 1970s and one in the 2000s, failing to add anything else to our knowledge of Huly Hill other than to confirm there does not appear to have been a more populous stone circle in this location or a ditch surrounding it. We do not even know what it was that Wilson found: a dagger, or spearhead have both been suggested. But it likely that this was a Bronze Age burial mound with attendant standing stones, which may have been earlier components of the complex.

Not that any of this meager information is available to local people or casual visitors. A noticeboard that introduced the site that once stood here was removed many years ago.

the missing noticeboard low ref

Missing information board. Missed opportunity.

 

It is clear is that urbanisation and modern infrastructure began to envelope this monument as the twentieth century went on. This is indicated by the gradual increase in size of Newbridge shown across the 1st and 2nd edition OS 6 inch maps. (These maps also show nearby railway lines and a main Glasgow – Edinburgh road, so this has not been a quiet place for quite some time….)

1853

1853

 

1893

1893

 

6 inch OS map from 1955

1955

A new chapter of the biography of Huly Hill was metaphorically written when it found itself under the flight path of Edinburgh airport. This airport started life as a military base in 1916 before becoming a commercial airport in 1947 although initially flights over the prehistoric monument would not have been frequent. However, located about 500 m to the WSW of the main runway at Edinburgh, Huly Hill has planes flying low over it either taking off, or landing, depending on the prevailing wind, what seems like every few minutes.

landing plane low res

As well as the airport expansion, the Newbridge junction next to Huly Hill has expanded several times in the past few decades, as a major hub in the motorway network, where the M8 and M9 meet. The junction here was first established in 1970 around the same time the motorways were opened, and underwent a massive expansion in 1997 to accommodate the sheer volume of traffic.

Edinburgh Airport viewed from the west, with the Newbridge Junction bottom centre. Huly Hill is just out of shot.

Edinburgh Airport viewed from the west, with the Newbridge Junction bottom centre. Huly Hill is just out of shot.

 

 © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

 

Therefore, this  ancient, prehistoric ceremonial and burial monument is being crowded out by the trappings of the modern world, in the middle of a vortex of fast-paced and loud commuters, wrapped by noise and neon lights. It seems so far removed from the rural location that this must once have been that it takes an effort of will to imagine what this monument might once have been like: a place of death and memory. Now it is place of lorries, fast food wrappers and paint.

more graffitti at Huly Hill

standing stone 2 low res

There have been other modern interactions too. Last year I visited Huly Hill to find a group of travellers had moved into the space between the central barrow and one of the standing stones. The caravans and four wheel drives made a car park of the monument, and I was threatened by one of the inhabitants when I tried to take photos of planes flying over the site. There was clearly also tension amongst the locals about this development, although when I passed a few weeks later, the site had been cleared, and another transient phase in the life of Huly Hill was over.The ebb and flow of urban life continues, regulated by the needs of our consumerist and consuming society. Yet who is consuming Haly Hill?

traveller site low res

The Visit Scotland website has this to say about Newbridge:

The settlement of Newbridge is just to west of Edinburgh Airport, offering great views of incoming aircraft and access to the M8 and M9.

No mention of the prehistoric cairn or the three standing stones that sit in a green space within this village. Only the proximity to ways and means to leave the place, or the opportunity to watch machines of mass transport go by.

In Concrete Island, all that Maitland can do with a growing sense of futility and frustration is watch cars go flying by, their drivers staring at the road ahead and paying no attention whatsoever to an increasingly dishevelled character waiving at them for help.

single standing stone low res

I don’t usually bemoan the state of urban prehistoric sites. I am all about positivity, about seeing the potential in places with deep-time regardless of the inherent rubbishness of some of them, and about accepting changes that happen to what we blithely call the archaeological record as being the normal way of things since prehistory. However, Huly Hill does trouble me.

graffiti low res

This is a monument in a prime location: thousands of drivers and passengers must see it every day from the luxurious viewing position of their cars. It has a local urban population, some of whom walk past the standing stones and barrow frequently. It is right next to a busy bus stop and clearly visible from the McDonald’s restaurant across the road. Even a casual glance up while pumping fuel will allow drivers to catch a glimpse of a standing stone or two. Airplane pilots and co-pilots see it frequently, and maybe some passengers grab a glance as well. This must be one of the most visible prehistoric monuments in Britain.

Yet as archaeologists what have we done to tell people about this monument, encourage visitors, protect it against further decline and in general used it for the common good?

Nothing.

It is a partially re-instated mound with a modern-ish wall around it. The standing stones may or may not be in their original locations. A new noticeboard and some signs would cost money. There are roads and cars and lorries and noise all around. The landscape context has been compromised. It is under the flight path….. I can hear all the excuses now.

But actually, how much time and effort would it be to raise awareness of Huly Hill and do interesting things there?

I’ll just need to do something and find out.

He had now gone beyond exhaustion and hunger to a state where the laws of physiology, the body’s economy of needs and responses, had been suspended. He listened to the traffic, his eye on the red disc of the sun sinking behind the apartment blocks. The glass curtain-walling was jewelled by the light. The roar of the traffic seemed to come from the sun (JG Ballard, Concrete Island).

The Tebay Three

6 Apr

This is the first in a series of three blog posts inspired by the Spirits of Place symposium held in Calderstones Park, Liverpool, 2nd April 2016.

 

Three service stations.

Three standing stones – The Tebay Three.

One journey by car from Airdrie to Liverpool.

Drawn by the spirit of a place.

-which is under lock and key.

-which is behind glass.

The Calderstones megaliths.

 

Point of departure

notes

Annandale Water

Annandale Water 1

Annandale Water 2

tube postcard 2

Annandale Water 3

Tebay East

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The Tebay Three, condemned to stand guard over a picnic area and access road to overflow car parks.

Three ‘standing stones’ arranged in a tight circle – a symbolic community, perhaps, but one of a very different era…. If the roof claims silently, ‘I am not a building’, the columns, portico and standing stones counterclaim ‘…but I am still a monument’, a monument incomplete, a monument barely human that yet accommodates the human (Austin 2011, 219-220).

Travels in Lounge Space, Samuel Austin’s PhD thesis.

Tebay megaliths polaroid

More of a triangle than a circle. Enclosing a tiny space no larger than required for one adult to squeeze into, standing in an upright cist, shielded from the incessant back and forth of cars. Insulated from the motorway in a time capsule made of quarried stone.

Tebay 1

Tebay 2

tube postcard

Tebay 3

Charnock Richard

A chocolate box masquerading as a postcard, retrieved from the other side of the bridge….

Charnock Richard 1

Charnock Richard 2

…and an erroneous plural….

tube postcard 3

Charnock Richard 3

….before carefully gathered debitage is assembled.

Debitage cropped and low res

Calderstones – arrival

The final postcards posted – on Druids Cross Road.

post box low res

Then into the vortex of Calderstones Park –

Calderstones Park postcard

And megalithic Liverpool –

megalithic liverpool postcard

South Liverpool –

druid temple postcard

Finally arrived.

calderstones pagoda postcard

#SpiritsofPlace

Sources and acknowledgements: Spirits of Place was dreamt up and organised by John Reppion, and my interest in Calderstones was very much inspired by his definitive article on the urban prehistory of this part of Liverpool, here reproduced in The Daily Grail. The ‘druid temple’ postcard is based on a photo from that post. The Calderstones postcard was sourced on ebay and by the time you read this will probably have been sold. The text in red pen on the back of my sent postcards is adapted from Georges Perec’s ‘Two hundred and forty-three postcards in real colour’ (1978).

Penis town

27 Nov

penis town 2 low res

 

Tumbleweed on the main street

And drunks abound

Another Sunday afternoon

In penis town

 

Two pubs and a co-op

Green, blue and brown

Open all hours

In penis town

 

A ghostly man hangs out of a window

Looking up and then down

He returns to drilling plaster

In penis town

 

Cock-topped tollbooth, slim shaft cross,

standing stone with bulbous crown

The past re-created

In penis town

 

Blue pain road splatter

Graffiti down town

Dog shit collectors

In penis town

 

Cyclists pause by the stone

They dismount with a frown

One of them goes shopping

In penis town

 

The stone drips efflorescence

A sickly white gown

Wrapped around its girth

In penis town

 

The mighty shaft leans

Like a megalithic clown

Crying tears of laughter

In penis town

 

Grey skies and grey stone

Grey tarmac on the ground

Blue plastic bag man staggers

In penis town

 

High Street, Main Street

Adjective and noun

Tracing words with your feet

In penis town

 

Passers-by glare at the stone

Pacing round and round

Nothing new to see here

In penis town

 

Tumbleweed on the main street

And drunks abound

Another Sunday afternoon

Always penis town

 

(c) Crown Copyright RCAHMS image number DP00203

(c) Crown Copyright RCAHMS image number DP00203

 

Facts and figure

1. The Stone of Mannan, or King Robert’s Stone, is a composite standing stone consisting of a single whinstone boulder connected to a tall megalith by an internal metal support and external mortaring.

2. It is located in Main Street, Clackmannan, the county town of Clackmannanshire. Clack Mannan means the Stone of Mannan

welcome sign low res

3. It has NMRS number NS99SW 6 and National Grid Reference NS 9111 9188.

4. There main component of this megalith, the upright standing stone, is apparently little more than a 19th century sourced plinth which support the really old bit, which is the smaller stone on top – the actual Stone of Mannan.

The Stone of Mannan being played with in Celtic times (detail from noticeboards that used to stand next to the Stone)

The Stone of Mannan being played with in Celtic times (detail from noticeboards that used to stand next to the Stone)

5. It has moved at least once, in 1833, from the preposterously named Lookabootye Brae (this is Scottish for ‘Look About You Steep Road’).

6. In 2005, The Times reported: ‘A plan to move an ancient phallic stone said to contain the spirit of a Celtic god has been abandoned by councillors after locals threatened to stage a sit-in around the monument. Councillors confirmed last night that they had shelved a proposal to shift the Stone of Mannan just five yards from its site in the Scottish town of Clackmannan after furious opposition from local women’.

7. On March 26th 2006 The Daily Record claimed: ‘A giant stone penis is to be repaired at a cost of more than £160,000. Work starts today on the crumbling 2500-year-old Mannan Stone, which stands on a plinth in the centre of Clackmannan’

8. Conservation and consolidation work was carried out by stone conservators NBSC in 2007, the work consisting of: ‘Removal of ferrous fixings and OPC mortar, structure consolidation of subjects. Removal of biological growth, salt efflorescence, impact damage residue. Replace ferrous dowel and treat oxide jacking, treatment of plaque fixings, and treatment of delamination’.

9. A plaque on the tollbooth wall beside the standing stone reads: ‘The stone of Clack, originally placed at the foot of Lookabootye Brae, was sacred to the pre-Christian deity Mannan and is a unique relic of pagan times. It was raised on the large shaft in 1833’.

placque low res

10. This is a monument that has suffered confusion and indignity. But after all these years, after all the maltreatment, it remains erect.

graffiti low res

Sources and acknowledgements: there is further information on the Stone from the local Community Council webpage. There is also a lot of detail about a proposed project by Andrew Gryf Paterson available from this website but I am not sure if this came to anything. But it is fun. And powerpoint slides on that website are the source of the sketch of the Stone of Mannan in Iron Age times, which itself came from noticeboards that used to stand next to the Penis Stone. The RCAHMS copyright image is a drawing by J Drummond from 1861, part of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland collection.

 

 

 

 

 

Oh Stones of Scotland!

6 Oct

Oh stones of Scotland!

When will we see your likes again?

Probably next time there is a lot of money swimming about to find quirky ways to celebrate some kind of important event or date, like the millennium of Scottish independence or something. 

view from road low res

 

The introductory bit

How quickly can you travel around Scotland?

360 degrees, from region to region, council area to council area, local authority to local authority.

Shetland, Orkney, Highland, Moray, Aberdeenshire, City of Aberdeen, Angus, Perth and Kinross, City of Dundee, Fife, Clackmannan, Falkirk, City of Edinburgh, East Lothian, Midlothian, West Lothian, Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, North Lanarkshire, City of Glasgow, East Renfrewshire, Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, East Dumbartonshire, West Dumbartonshire, Stirling, Argyll and Bute, Western Isles.

Step by step.

Slab by slab.

Stone by stone.

Round and round the stones of Scotland.

the stones of scotland low res

notice low res

 

The bit about the monument

The Stones of Scotland, located in Regent Road Park near Edinburgh City Centre, was created by artists George Wyllie, Kenny Munro, Lesley-May Miller and Stuart Rogers ‘of the Paul Hogarth Company’. In a leaflet for the monument produced by the Edinburgh Geological Society (available online as a pdf) as much is made of the political dimension as the geological logic of this artwork. There is an explicit connection with the new Scottish Parliament which the stone circle ‘commemorates’ and overlooks – although it was officially ‘opened’ on 30th November 2002, St Andrew’s Day, two years before the parliament building itself was opened. But there appears to be a general appeal for Scots to involve themselves in the democratic process rather than any party politics evident here.

Leaflet to accompany the monument with an emphasis on poetry and geology

Leaflet to accompany the monument with an emphasis on poetry and geology – and strongly connects the new Scottish Parliament with the stone circle

Wyllie died in 2012, and during his late burgeoning career as an artist, created some memorably artworks in Glasgow, such as the ‘straw locomotive’ dangled from one of Glasgow’s Big Cranes, and the huge nappy pin that now sits in the location of the former Rottenrow maternity hospital (which happens to be the end point for my central Glasgow Urban Prehistory walking tour). This monument, in a different city, appears to have been a project which Wyllie was especially passionate about and followed on from a previous numerically and thematically similar collaboration he undertook in Ireland called Spires for Hibernia.

George Wyllie (source: The Guardian)

George Wyllie (source: The Guardian)

 

Spires for Hibernia (George Wyllie 1994) (source: George Wyllie Foundation)

Spires for Hibernia (George Wyllie and Kenny Munro 1994) (source: George Wyllie Foundation)

The Stones of Scotland is a stone setting consisting of a circle of 32 squat or flat stones of varying geological type, each sourced from one of the Local Authority Areas in Scotland. These are supposedly representative and indeed some have a familiar ring: the grey granite of Aberdeen, the red sandstone of East Ayrshire, gneiss from the Western Isles, Andesite from West Dunbartonshire and so on. Each stone has a wee metal sign next to it which names the Council area the stone is from (but does not say what the stone actually is geologically, for that you need the leaflet).

City of Aberdeen

These stones are set in a ring of grey granite chips (like the kind you can get from a garden centre) and around this, defining the edge of the monument, is a ring of grey-silver metal, hard up against a single cobble setting. When I visited, sun bathers lay extended out from the monument in a downhill direction catching the last rays of the low autumnal sun.

The circle and the sunbather

The circle and the sunbather, with various elements of the monument evident: monoblock, standing stones, garden centre gravel and metal edging.

Inside the circle itself is a paved area, a mixture of rectangular slabs of grey and red granites. And the monument incorporates vegetation too, with a tree in the centre softening the hard edges of the monoblock circle interior. Grass creeps through the cracks between the paving stones. One of the aspirations of the monument was to allow lichen and moss to grow on the stones themselves and at various times of the year, the monument becomes less, or more, hirsute. At the foot of the tree is yet more gravel and a white quartz-like boulder.

McDiarmid slab low res

Perhaps the most clearly political symbols here are not the stones that form the boundary, but rather two statements that sit within the circle itself, carved in stone. One is a reddish granite slab that contains a short quotation taken from a poem by nationalist writer Hugh McDiarmid (the poem that also adorns the notice at the edge of the circle pictured above). The words are appropriate for describing the process of bringing the stone circle into being, ‘gathering unto myself all the loose ends of Scotland’ – an ‘attempt to express the whole’.

footprint low res

Nearer the centre of the circle is a raised Caithness flagstone slab which has, indented on the surface, a footprint. This petrosomatoglyph (that’s the second blog post in a row I have been able to use this word!) is accompanied by another quotation: ‘whose the tread which fits this mark?’ and it is dated 2000. Of course this draws strong parallels with Dunadd, an early medieval power centre in Argyll. There, a footprint was carved into the living rock and it was here that kings inserted their smallish foot and were symbolically married to the land. The use of this symbol is evocative and democratizing – anyone can place their foot into this imprint as they gaze over towards the parliament. This stone circle is the preserve of the few, not the many.

stones and sign low res

 

The archaeology bit

Despite my cynicism, The Stones of Scotland seems to encapsulate some of the properties that we readily associate with prehistoric stone circles. There has been much discussion in the last decade or so about the importance of the origins of the rocks used for standing stones. Geological properties, petrological accuracy and lithological identification have become fundamental elements of studies of megalithic monuments, in no small part fuelled by the work of the likes of Chris Scarre, Richard Bradley, Emmanuel Mens and perhaps most prominently Colin Richards. The latter has for some time considered that stone circles only make sense when we consider the source of the stones themselves and the journeys these took to the point of erection. More recently, academic sparring between Tim Darvill and Mike Parker Pearson has focused on which of them has identified the most convincing sources of the Stonehenge bluestones in the Preselis. (In fact they probably have both succeeded in finding Neolithic bluestone quarries as there were multiple sources.)

colin richards book cover

One of the sources of the Stonehenge bluestones in the Preselis

One of the sources of the Stonehenge bluestones in the Preselis

But you would expect me to make this rather banal parallel. The Stones of Scotland after all is explicitly about bringing together Scotland metaphorically and literally. The act of setting these distinctly different stones in the same location is in effect creating Scotland in miniature just as Andy Jones has argued that the Machrie Moor stone circles are Arran in miniature.

Certainly, the process of sourcing the stones themselves was part of the creative process for The Stones of Scotland:

[a] creative journey was planned visiting each of the 32 regions of Scotland, involving local communities in finding a stone to represent their area in a central sculpture (from the leaflet).

I’ve had more heart-searching trying to place 32 stones than with anything I’ve done before (George Wyllie in a website about the stone circle).

In other words this monument has a spatial and temporal dimension and began to be built before construction started…just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles. The monument is a jumble of motivations, symbols, metaphors and lithographies, sources from across the landscape, with many people having played a part in the process …just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles. It is a symbol of power, of hope, of ideology, of the places it derives from, of the society which it purports to represent…just like Neolithic and Bronze Age stone circles.

But there are perhaps other similarities that are less obvious. One of the aims of The Stones of Scotland seems to be to provoke debate and encourage discussion. George Wyllie has said:

..It’s a shouting place, if you like. There is a stone there and the stone has a footprint in it. The idea is just to put your foot in the ground and say, ‘Hi, I’m Scottish. I’ve got a say.

It is supposed to act rather like speakers’ corner (except it has no corners, it is a circle) but also as a meeting place for debate: ‘a place to inspire people to meet for discussion’ as one of the creators, Lesley-May Miller, put it. In other words, this stone circle is meant to be a moot, a ting, a parliament.

Another extract from the leaflet

Another extract from the leaflet

And I think this is how stone circles may have operated in prehistory, as tools of inclusion rather than exclusion, places where voices were heard and not silenced. The porous boundaries of standing stone monuments had a very different dynamic to the solid earthworks and imposing banks of henge monuments. Participants could move between stones and see in, and out, of stone circles in ways that were not possible at other enclosures. Of course, whether such movement in and out would have been permitted is unclear, but the architecture of stone circles lends itself to inclusion and transparency, characteristics one would also like to think could be associated with our modern parliamentary democracy….

 

The last bit

But then I am a bit of an old cynic.

stones of scotland postcard

I can’t see this stone circle having that kind of galvanising effect anymore (if it ever did). When I was there (admittedly not for long) I saw little interest in the stones, located as they are in a rather quiet spot beside where the tourist buses park. (There were plenty of bored coach drivers hanging about on the pavement.) Some tourists walked past, glanced at the circle, pointed at the parliament beyond it and then moved on. Sunbathers sunbathed. Two women nearby were put through their paces by a ‘personal trainer’ in a scene of American Psycho hollowness. The circle in not indicated by any signs or included on the map of the park (a fate shared with the Sighthill Stone Circle).

IMG_4756

Park information board, with no mention of the stone circle but plenty of stuff about Victorian statues and follies.

The monument itself was adorned by an empty Tennent’s lager can which rolled about in the breeze, coming to a stop beside the medium-grained dolerite of North Lanarkshire. Broken glass was scattered across the monoblock interior and an empty pill blister pack lay beside the metal sign that said ‘Stirling’. Litter was evident too.

north lanarkshire low res

In an era when people in Scotland have become more engaged in politics and the future than at any time in living memory, The Stones of Scotland seems like a relic from the ancient past, when tangible monuments and big gestures were required to enthuse the public and remind them of their political heritage and social responsibilities to engage. The rubbish, the weeds, the casual indifference made me want to go round the stone circle and re-name all of the Council area sources with the stuff of Scotland, or at least the stuff of the mythical Scotland that the circle alludes to – haggis, Irn Bru, mince and tatties, that kind of thing. The Scotland that is overlain on the Scotland that never was, the Scotland of the SNP, Trainspotting (some of which was filmed within a mile of this location) and self-confidence / self-loathing complexity.

irn bru low res

haggis low res

mince n tatties low res

Can the hopes of a nation ever be realised through geology samples?

The search for Miliband’s megalith

11 Sep

This weekend the new leader of the Labour party will be announced.

This momentous occasion inevitably leads us to recall the demise of the previous leader, Ed Miliband. It seems likely regardless of all that he did during his career in politics, there will be one defining image that history has of him.

It is Ed, be-suited, standing in a powerful masculine pose, surrounded by groupies (aka staff) with a white megalithic limestone block balanced on a blue rusty trailer with words hewn upon it behind him – Miliband’s megalith, the #EdStone.

BBC photo of the monolith and Miliband

The tantalising possibility that this megalith could even have been erected in the garden of 10 Downing Street had Ed won that election in May prompted me to write a blog post on this startling turn of events earlier in the year.

But Ed lost. And the standing stone quickly went missing. It disappeared, a source of increasing embarrassment for all concerned (and some bemusement even before the election took place). What could have been the highest profile urban prehistoric landmark in the UK became an inconvenience. And Ed disappeared as quickly, and effectively.

Heaviest suicide note in history

Private Eye

That lump of stone came to encapsulate the failures and banality of Labour’s election campaign, a metaphor for vacuous sloganizing and box-ticking pledges that few took seriously anymore. Post mortem accounts of the election defeat featured the stone heavily, both as an image, but also as a symptom of a party hierarchy that was out of touch and misguided.

Guardian front cover 4th June 2015

So why re-visit this comical monolith now?

I watched with interest over the summer as Miliband’s megalith appeared again and again in media stories (although the story fizzled out in June), and it seemed to me that the #EdStone became a relic of sorts, treasure to be sought after, the material outcome of a political process, something to be found and analysed. It was a treasure hunt and mystery rolled into one.

Milistone newsclipping

Some of the key themes of the parodies, reflection and comedy searches that have been provoked by this inscribed lump of limestone are drawn from archaeology, not surprisingly given the megalithic nature of this political gimmick and Miliband’s misguided assertion he would erect the stone had he won the election, thus creating London’s newest standing stone.

Allusions to prehistory were easy to make (as I demonstrated in my blog post), and well illustrated by a bizarre poem performed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 news on 8th May 2015 (worth watching).

Labour hoped it would be a hinge stone

many thought it was a henge stone

it was quickly tagged an #EdStone

but now it’s just a headstone

What is a henge stone? Who knows, but the parallel was made by others.

General Boles twitter image

Image posted on twitter by General Boles

It was even suggested in The Daily Mail by unctuous columnist Quentin Letts that if erected in Downing Street, the stone would have become the focus for solstice rituals. With hyperbole and scattergun classical and archaeological references, he ranted:

Now the Downing Street garden would have this Mili-stone, this lump of mad masonry. The plan is said to be still not entirely certain but it will presumably go in one of those flower beds near the back gate where Samantha Cameron plants her aromatherapy herbs and where Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah used to grow vegetables. Will full-breasted Harmanite maidens and fluting-voiced New Labour press officers dance round this stone every summer solstice? Or will it one day be found covered in lichen in some back garden in Doncaster, near rusting prams, discarded lavatory bowls and boxes of never-distributed leaflets entitled ‘The Miliband Ascendancy’?

The ‘Doncaster option’ actually sounds quite realistic in light of what was to follow.

Solstice story

Daily Mail coverage of the standing stone unveiling

The search for the standing stone also had prehistoric allusions, and this had something of a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel about it, in the form of numerous parallels with the closing scene of that film where the Ark of the Covenant was deposited in an apparently infinite warehouse – assumed to be the fate of the #EdStone itself.

millibands-stone-tablet1

newshump image

raiders of the lost ark

A much reproduced image, no doctoring required, this version from The Mirror

The treatment of the stone, hidden away, was one aspect of fascination with the stone. But another was the search for the standing stone itself. This high profile campaign interested me because it had parallels with approaches archaeologists take to the study of prehistoric standing stones – there were attempts to find the source and materiality of the stone and who made it, and a strong interest in the journey it took from unveiling to its current location: where the stone was deposited. In other words, a biographical approach was taken to the #EdStone, with an apparently nationwide fascination with the story of this standing stone from birth to death and everything in between. Even I got in on the act.

letter to labour

This detective work was done by journalists, not archaeologists. The methods used in this piece of research were unorthodox in archaeological terms – multiple phone calls to stonemasons, appeals via twitter and email, interviewing Labour politicians and the establishment of a hotline and rewards for information – but the outcomes are familiar to us. A narrative emerged, clues were uncovered and interpretations made. Suggestions were even made as to how the stone could be utilised if ever found, as if it were an artefact discovered on an excavation that then had to be displayed in a museum.

And most of the time, none of this was taken particularly seriously – this was soft archaeology, tickling the underbelly of the megalith, selling newspapers and filling air time, taking the piss out of Ed and his strange idea.

Radio 4 ad

Some things were a matter of record, such as the amazingly dull location of the press launch of the stone, a car park in Hastings.

Location of the launch

Location of the launch

But much less clear was where the stone was made before it was transported to this banal location. Journalists hit the phones. ‘The Telegraph has contacted more than 50 of the largest masonry firms across UK, none of whom have admitted responsibility for its creation.’ Other newspapers phoned local stonemasons, all of whom denied having anything to do with the manufacture of Miliband’s megalith.

However, after a bit of a search, the makers of the stone were finally revealed – a monumental stone firm based in Basingstone called – believe it or not – Stone Circle.

Stone Circle makers of the EdStone

stone-circle_logoThe megalith is made of limestone, and cost around £30,00o to make (£100,000 according to The Sun). It weighs around 2 tonnes. And the man whose company made it was not revealing much other than he thought it was a stupid idea, but hey, the customer is always right.

The company’s joint director, Jeff Vanhinsbergh, said he was unable to discuss the making of the stone or its estimated £30,000 because he had signed a confidentiality clause with the Labour Party (The Telegraph)

‘I’m sure it wasn’t his [Miliband] idea and he was just doing what his strategists told him. But whoever did come up with the idea, oh dear’ (The Mirror)

The birth of the stone, and its journey to Hastings, was by now a little clearer. But where had the stone gone after its unveiling? Various media outlets reported that it had been taken to London, some arguing this was a response to the negative coverage, others that it was part of a secret post-election erection plan. The Telegraph noted:

It is believed to have been moved under cover of darkness to London, where it would have been within striking distance of Miliband’s Downing Street.

The game was afoot!

Some newspapers had a direct approach, making appeals and offering cash rewards, notably The Sun:

Where’s Ed’s special stone? The Labour party have done a spectacularly good job at hiding the 8ft PR disaster.

SunNation screen grab

Meanwhile The Daily Mail offered a crate of champagne as a reward for information on the whereabouts of this most elusive of standing stones.

In the end, the truth was rather more banal – the monolith had been taken to a grey warehouse in SE London, in an industrial estate in Woolwich. Owned by stone conservationists PAYE, it remained hidden from the sight of journalists, and this seems to have been a temporary resting place only.

Warehouse

Private Eye 1393

Intriguingly, the fate of the stone appears to have been subject to various different plans within the Labour party. An excellent retrospective assessment of the lead-up to the election and what went wrong, which appeared in The Guardian in June 2015, applied hindsight and insider information to provide this definitive overview:

The stone’s demolition, in the event of a Labour loss, had been agreed at the time it was commissioned. After the election, the party drew up two plans for its disposal: one was simply to smash the stone up and throw the rubble onto a scrap heap. The second was to break it up and sell chunks, like the Berlin Wall, to party members as a fundraising effort. The first attempts to destroy the stone had to be postponed when the media tracked its location to a south London warehouse. There are claims it has been destroyed, but even Miliband’s close advisers cannot confirm its fate.

One Edstone, no longer needed

This juicy bit of gossip hints at various possible deaths for this stone, and perhaps it has now been destroyed. This act has already been parodied in this cartoon from the Private Eye.

Private Eye 2

Clearly this could be viewed as a cathartic act for a political party in shock. It was reported in The Mail on Sunday in June that Labour MP John Woodcock pleaded for the EdStone to be taken from its place of storage and “smashed to bits in public”.

The whereabouts of this – perhaps very short-lived – standing stone remains unclear and unknown, rather like the vast amounts of pottery, stone tools and human remains uncovered by antiquarians in the 19th century which were ‘lost’ soon after discovery. Only ever on display for an hour or less, it might even be speculated as to whether Miliband’s megalith ever existed at all in any meaningful form. Because this megalith spent most of its life history being made and being hidden. This is where my clever archaeological parallels fall down, because standing stones in the Neolithic were made to create awe and to be visible to all, not concealed and a source of shame.

The resultant search for the stone came to reflect an archaeological project, with surveys, data gathering, research and digging around. The stone was given a biographical narrative, from birth to (assumed) death. It became an artefact, and multiple meanings and affordances were read into it. It became a focus for forensic attention but was treated with antiquarian disdain. And it interesting to see how often journalists fall back on archaeological tropes and prehistoric stereotypes whenever faced with anything that looks like a standing stone. (Which to be fair I do as well in this blog frequently.) In the end (is this the end?) the story of Miliband’s megalith, the #EdStone, is a warning – this idea did not fail because of the medium, but because of the preposterousness and po-faced nature of what Miliband was doing.

It was all a bit silly really, disturbing given how high the stakes actually were during that week in May – as they continue to be for us all.

matt cartoon

Sources and acknowledgements: much of the information and imagery in this blog was sourced from media outlets and online sources, summarised here (all publication dates are 2015):

Daily Telegraph quotes come from stories published on the 9th May and 16th May. These are the sources of the car park photo and warehouse photos too. The Guardian also had some very helpful stories, not least a summary of the hunt for the stone which appeared on 9th May, but also a very detailed retrospective piece on the lead up to the election, published on 4th June (this provided the Guardian front cover reproduced above). The Sun’s search  for the stone can be found here. The warehouse pic is available widely online, I sourced it from another ‘where is the EdStone’ article from The Mirror; the Indy in front of the stone image came from the News Thump webpage. The cartoons above were sourced from Private Eye (Fountain and Jamieson, Robert Thomson, Mike Williams) and The Telegraph (Matt) – I hope no-one is offended by my curation of various EdStone cartoons here in one place…

 

 

Nothing BC

30 Jul

There was no prehistory in Iceland. Nothing BC.

Yet when I recently visited for the first time, it became apparent to me that the landscape, both urban and rural, has a prehistoric quality to it.

This is an island that is defined by extremes of stone, and this has thrown up (in some cases literally) strange and beautiful arrangements of rocks. But not all of these megaliths are natural – there are standing stones, dolmen, stone circles too, commonplace in laybys, parks, street corners and on roadsides and pavements. This is immediately apparent on the road leaving the airport, with huge stone blocks with stone heads – stone people – looming over the road sides of Keflavik.

Keflavik big head low res

There is also something deeply prehistoric about the belief systems of the Icelanders, whether the over-played-for-the-tourists stuff about faeries and little people, or the Norse sagas and stories of gods, men and giants. The land has been ripped apart and reborn by prehistoric and geological forces, shaping the people just as much as the people shape the land with stories, place names and monuments. Little people live in the stones. Giants and gods fought with stones. People became stones, and are stones. The stones lived too once as well, oozing down the side of volcanoes, spewed across the land, swept up in flood waters, scraped and shaped by ice. Here, prehistory is a living condition, not a distant past, not even a real past, just an ever-present quality the land seems to have.

The standing stones that I saw often reflected the grain of the land, dark grey basaltic blocks with square or pentagonal or hexagonal profiles.

Standing stone at entrance to Seltun geothermal area car park

Standing stone at entrance to Seltun geothermal area car park

Monument, Vik

Monument, Vik

Reykjavik city centre

Reykjavik city centre

Cairns have been built on hilltops and roadsides of orange-hewed lava, or carefully constructed from small balanced flat stones.

Lava cairn, on a roadside of the Kaldidalur Corridor

Lava cairn, on a roadside of the Kaldidalur Corridor

Rocks are still on the move, continually being re-arranged and juxtaposed, put to use – to memorialise, to pin information boards on to, as boundary markers, to decorate hotel forecourts and car parks. In some cases it is unclear if the stones are in situ and have been utilised where they were found (a kind of expedient architecture), or if they have deliberately been erected.

Car park entrance, Reykjavik

Car park entrance, Reykjavik

Information board standing stone, Heimaey

Information board standing stone, Heimaey

Geysir Hotel standing stones

Geysir Hotel standing stones

But in some cases formal monuments appear to have been constructed, such as the German Memorial on the edge of the town of Vik. Here, a stone circle with central monolith has been constructed on the edge of a black sand beach, with the objective of remembering seamen who died on one or more German fishing boats off the coast of Iceland, and to thank locals for trying to help.

German memorial 1 low res

German memorial 2 low res

The nine external stones, graded for height, are grey hexagonally cooled magma columns, similar to those illustrated above, while the central block is a vibrant orange sandstone boulder, with metal plates attached.

But perhaps the most dramatic and perplexing megalithic monument I spotted in Iceland was in the surprising surroundings of a small fishing town on the southern coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula, Grindavik. On driving through the centre of town, it was clear that there were a lot of mounds and standing stones by the roadside, concentrated mostly on roundabouts and at road junctions.

Road junction standing stones and mounds, Grindavik

Road junction standing stones and mounds, Grindavik

On one side of the road was something altogether more coherent and remarkable – an extensive reconstruction of a passage grave, complete with a dolmen at the entrance. I spent some time wandering through this complex of stone walls, earthworks, standing stones and passages marvelling that such a structure should be built here, in a country with no prehistory (in a technical sense), and certainly no tradition of megalithic passage graves. No signs or information were evident anywhere to explain what was going on here – this was a most unexpected megalith.

dolmen low res

The only thing I could find out about this monument online was from a webpage about Viking pagan practices, which noted:

In Grindavík, on Reykjanes in Iceland, a modern interpretation of a pagan temple has been erected. While it’s not clear that the designers and builders of this modern temple had any special insight into how pagan temples were built during the Norse era, it is fun to see all the motifs from the various temple descriptions brought together into one structure.

Grindavik reconstruction 1 low res

passage low res

forecourt low res

knackered cist low res

It seems clear that the passage grave has been built in a Nordic tradition, with walling for instance reminiscent of Danish passage graves, although some aspects of the monument reminded me of Neolithic tombs in Brittany as well. The reconstruction seems to conflate various different megalithic monument elements (and not just Neolithic tombs): there are forecourts, recesses, orthostats, a stone cist, standing stones, mounds, cairns, a trilithon and facades – and a very narrow long and low passage I could not get through. It was a right jumble of all sorts of things in other words.

The monument lay open and exposed, bisected by pathways and pavements, with a road running along one side. Weeds grew from the paved surfaces, and graffiti was evident on the dolmen or trilithon setting. This was an altogether unremarkable place, typically quiet for Iceland, and this faux tomb almost – almost – did not seem out of place and time.

passage grave sketch

And so my visit has changed my mind-set.

Iceland does have a prehistory.

Iceland is prehistoric – in the nicest possible sense of that word.

Dolmen-like sculpture, Kirkjubaejarklaustur

Dolmen-like sculpture, Kirkjubaejarklaustur

This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than the recent project to build Arctic Henge, on the north coast of Iceland at Raufarhöfn (I did not manage to visit). This huge monument was planned in 2008, and is yet to be completed, and combines aspects of pagan religion with geology in a very Icelandic way. The project website states:

Similar to its ancient predecessor, Stonehenge, the Arctic Henge is like a huge sundial, aiming to capture the sunrays, cast shadows in precise locations and capture the light between aligned gateways. The ambitious series of circles and stacked basalt columns were placed according to a complex system based on old Norse mythology. Utilising the ideas of a pastor named Kolbeinn Þorleifsson (who believed dwarves corresponded to seasons in the Edda) there are 72 stones, each one representing a different dwarf name. There are also four gates corresponding to the four seasons, and a range of other symbols to explore. Along with the outer circle, the final henge will be a massive 52 metres in diameter.

Images of the Arctic Henge, from www.arctichenge.com

Images of the Arctic Henge, from http://www.arctichenge.com

It is interesting that the iconic Stonehenge is evoked here, just as it is in the trilithon that crowns the Grindavik passage grave. In both cases Icelanders appear to be looking to other parts of Europe for prehistoric inspiration. Yet all they need to do is to look around them, to their own landscape and their own post-pre-history.

I did not expect to think about prehistory when I was in Iceland and yet it seemed I was confronted by it constantly, in the art, the land, the people, the stories, and the stones.

Reyjkavik

Reyjkavik