For the next issue of History Scotland magazine, I have written an article on Scotland’s urban standing stones. In this blog post I want to expand on the rich story of one of those standing stones, the Lang Stane in Aberdeen. At the end of the blog post there can be found links to posts I have written about some of the other stones mentioned in the article.
Hidden in plain sight, only the throw of a fish supper away from Union Street in Aberdeen, stands the Lang Stane, a most peculiar example of urban prehistory. This angular standing stone is squeezed into a niche in a wall, looking remarkably like a human corpse that has been crammed into a coffin, buried alive. The stone has a kinetic, restless energy, as if at night it tries to escape from the confines of its premature burial. Inscribed – branded – across this stone cadaver in what I assume to be the torso area is the word LANG STANE in capital letters, with a suggestive slight pause between the two halves of its name, the deep breath taken before the coffin lid closes. Curious linear marks run across the stone, mostly natural erosion lines – wrinkles – but some hint at rough treatment at some point in the stone’s life – scars.
Is this actually a prehistoric standing stone? If it is, clearly something happened between 2000 BCE and AD 2000 that caused the stone to end up in this unorthodox setting. It’s shape has led some to suggest that it was once part of a recumbent stone circle, commonplace in North-east Scotland, although it is unknown what happened to the remainder of this monument, most likely a victim of more interventionist farming practices and early urbanisation in the post-medieval period. Canmore offers little more than a description of the stone, largely drawing on a brief note from Wyness’s 1965 book City by the grey North Sea: Aberdeen, a surprisingly rare mention of this stone in a book about the city.
The stone is shown alone in the 1746 Map of the Burgh of Aberdeen by G&W Paterson, here a solitary stone near a windmill; it sits poised to be swallowed up a tidal wave of urbanisation coming from the east, beside the track that would become Union Street. When the inevitable happened at some point after this map was made, according to Wyness, the stone was “built into the niche at the rear of Messrs. Watt and Grant’s building” and the street named Langstane Place. The niche is on the corner with Dee Street, named for the river, not the Tudor alchemist.
Appropriately for Aberdeen this stone is made of granite, and so it blends in with the background stonework and niche, three shades of grey. This is a big lump of stone, measuring 1.8m height, 0.68m breadth and 0.3m thick. It is pointed at both ends, more so at the bottom, which has a slightly green tinge. We have no way of telling which way up this monolith stood in any earlier incarnation in a stone socket; for all we know it is propped upside down, a cruel fate indeed. Little more can be said about this stone now, and I don’t think any form of direct analysis of the stone itself could shed more light on the story; this has moved from the purview of prehistorians to those who like to dig in archives.
The stone is enjoyed by some regardless of how old it is or how it got there despite the unpromising surrounds. A series of wonderfully strange photos can be found online showing the stone in various compromising situations. In the Megalithic Portal, The Captain documents the stone is “now presented in an alcove behind Burger King …. The poor thing seems neglected amongst the bins and street signs, but at least it is still here.” This is reinforced by a Google Street View image that looks like the work of Cold War Steve. Why not create your own versions?
There is a really lovely blog post written about the Lang Stane by the author Ailish Sinclair, who includes the stone in her historical novel Fireflies and Chocolate (GWL Publishing, 2021). She suggests the stone was moved to the niche in the 1960s but this must be a confusion with the published note on the stone by Wyness. She also notes a “faint six pointed star just below the text” carved onto the stone although I confess I could not find this on my visits to the stone. She also notes, “I like to pay the stone a wee visit when I’m in the vicinity, all tucked away and squished into its alcove as it is. There’s no scenic rolling hillsides or lush forests for the Lang Stane as enjoyed by its contemporaries!”. Such standing stones are indeed in unfamiliar surroundings, their present setting having been occupied perhaps for only 5% of the lifetime of the megalith.
I visited the Lang Stane twice in preparation for this blog post and the magazine article. I was of course drawn to the incongruity of the stones and its context, an unintentional masterpiece of urban juxtaposition. It sits on a curving street corner in the aforementioned bespoke niche, raised slightly from the pavement level on a sort of kerb, but not the kind of kerb that was in common use in the Bronze Age. Above it is an antiquarian road sign with a portentous finger pointing up the street and over the head of the stone.
The niche itself is in many ways as interesting as the stone itself, as I also found to be the case at the London Stone. It is defined by clean rectangular grey granite blocks, with shaped blocks forming an arch. The tidy look is somewhat let down by a metal cable concealer running vertically just to the left of the stone and a downpipe beyond this has caused unsightly water stains to form on one side of the niche. No history has been written about the niche, nor do blueprints or architect’s drawings exist (so far as I know) to show if and how it has developed through time. However, this old archival photo (source) suggests that at one point like so many urban standing stones this one was caged or held in position, in effect pinned down to avoid resurrection. And there was a much larger niche at this point too, coarser in stonework, wider in girth; indeed the different stonework suggests that this is a different niche, although presumably in the same location. Hints in the current stonework suggest there have indeed been modifications here.
I could see no offerings behind or beneath the stone, and nothing was draped from it, although surely from time to time football scarves are wrapped around it. The stone shares this streetside location with bins – a lot of bins as most of the images above show. Graffiti can also be found nearby: SAVE TREES FREE SPIRIT according to a 2007 photo on the the Megalithic Portal. This is a city centre edgeland, a place of smells and oozing liquid, a visceral street corner location, no place for a standing stone. But exactly the kind of place where we do need standing stones.
Diagonally across from the stone is a carry-out food place called Langstane Fish & Chips. This ensures a regular supply of punters walking to and fro to collect kebabs, sausage suppers, burgers and pizza slices. The standing stone is an irresistible place to eat beside, with the ritual consumption of food likely the kind of thing that happened around this stone millennia ago.
I started this blog post with the observation that this stone reminds me of Victorian photos of open caskets, the public display of bodies, memento mori. This postmortem photography was very popular for a while, a means to memorialise the dead on film. In some cases, the corpse was arranged as if asleep to give this impression in the photograph. Sometimes this was done publicly with the bodies notorious criminals, to show that they were indeed dead, and to kill myths and legends there and then, yet unintentionally creating a legend nonetheless.
This process, quite alien to us now, as alien in many ways as erecting a standing stone, captures for me some of the more ghoulish elements of urban prehistory. The Lang Stane sits on display, exposed, and for all intents it plays dead as drunks stagger past, and tourists trace the contours in the granite with their fingers. Photographers are drawn to it, not for the beauty of the stone but the weirdness of its setting, and like the dead it can do nothing except accept how it has been posed for our benefit.
But the Lang Stane, like other urban standing stones, does not ask for our sympathy, but might benefit from our thoughts, our concern, our whispers, a little care. It is resilient and will no doubt outlive us all. At least it is still here.
‘Weep not for me my parents dear, I am not dead but sleeping here‘.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan who accompanied me on both visits and took the night-time photos in the blog above.
Links to blog posts about some of the standing stones in my Historic Scotland article (details of this article will be added when it is published):
This blog post is a collaborative effort between journalist and author Jimmy Thomson and myself. It concerns the phenomenon that I have taken to calling USAs (Urban Solstice Alignments). Jimmy is the Sydney-based polymath who first brought this concept to my attention, leading to an earlier blog post I wrote on the topic, What would we do if the sun died?, which focused on the most famous USA in the USA (and indeed the world), Manhattanhenge. In this new post, we’ll focus on the logistics of finding and making sense of urban solstice alignments through both analogue and digital means. By searching for the phenomenon, will we destroy its magic?
How to find your own Manhattanhenge by Jimmy Thomson
I have been promising the Urban Prehistorian for more than a year to write something about how to discover your own Manhattanhenge in a town or city near you. Now, I should make it clear that I am neither a geographer, cartographer, astronomer nor a mathematician. I’m a journalist, author and travel writer with all the lack of useful skills that implies.
Manhattanhenge is a phenomenon that occurs when the rising or setting sun appears between the high-rises of New York and shines directly down its East-West aligned streets. People travel to New York to see it, and it occurs on two days in both May and December, so it’s a big deal (to some).
But given that it’s just the rising sun appearing or the setting sun disappearing between buildings or even the sides of a steep valley, surely this must occur elsewhere. And it does, although possibly not as spectacularly as in New York or, indeed, Stonehenge. In fact, you may be able to find one near you and this is how to do it.
Firstly you will need to identify a long straight road that drops towards the horizon and has no obstructions (like buildings) at its farthest end. To get the full effect, you the sun to appear on the horizon where the diffraction of light through the thick layers of the atmosphere has greatest effect. Basically, we’re probably talking about somewhere over water or flat land.
You don’t want the street to be perfectly aligned East-to-West as that would only work close to the equator. The best streets in NYC for viewing Manhattanhenge are on 118 degrees, which is full 28 degrees south of East.
Then you will need Google Maps and two free online apps called SunEarthTools and another named Mapping and Distance Tools. There are other online apps that will do what we want here and if you can find them and get them to work, go for it. Basically you want one app that will establish the compass direction of the road line, and another that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise at that point on the horizon.
So first we identify a likely location – a long straight road, dropping to the horizon, with high sides and no obstructions. This is where Google Maps comes in handy as you can use the 3D satellite view to check for obstructions and the height of the buildings along the sides.
For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen Hooker Boulevard running down to Mermaid Beach (the thin while line in the centre of this image above, from Google Maps), in Broadbeach in the Gold Coast area of Queensland, Australia.
Why there? Because I know that whole area has a lot of high rises that go all the way down to the beach. It ain’t Manhattan but a quick scan of Google maps confirms that the road is straight and runs roughly East.
The next thing is to use Mapping and Distance Tools to draw a line from where you might view the phenomenon to where the road runs out.
The display in the top left corner will give you the azimuth or compass direction that this line follows.
In this case the road runs straight down a line heading 79 degrees from North.
Then we move on to the SunEarth app where we can fiddle with the times and dates to find out exactly when the sun will rise on or near that point on the horizon.
This tells us that the sun will rise there at a few seconds before 6.04 am on April 16, this year.
Now, the sun doesn’t go straight up, it also travels north or south as it rises, so you might want to adjust by a day or so to get the best effect when the sun has fully risen. SunEarth will show the variations hour by hour. So there you go.
Find some canyon, concrete or otherwise, pointing roughly East-South-East in the Northern hemisphere, or ENE south of the equator, and start working the map apps to find the optimum date, and you have your own Manhattanhenge.
This can work just as well for sunsets although obviously you change the principal direction from East to West.
This may now be factored into holiday planning as well as potential romantic first dates for geeks, especially if you go for sunsets.
Most importantly, you may also have acquired a new appreciation of how clever the Mayans, Egyptians, Druids (if indeed it was them) and all the ancient standing stone cultures were.
The ubiquity of USAs suggests this is all a big coincidence but that doesn’t invalidate the experience that some people have of this phenomenon by Kenny Brophy
In a recent study of the levels of entropy of urban networks, Geoff Boeing suggested that ‘networks such as streets, paths, and transit lines organize the human dynamics of complex urban systems. They shape travel behavior (sic), location decisions, and the texture of the urban fabric’ (2019, 1). However, what if another organisational factor was at play here – the sun?
The alignment of straight urban streets towards solstice sunrises and sunsets as discussed by Jimmy is a recognised international phenomenon. There are actually quite a few of these, almost all with the suffix -henge, making of course a conceptual connection with Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in England that is commonly thought to have solar elements built into its architectural organisation. (Perhaps we should call this particular effect Stonehengehenge.) These events generally happen on a day or two each year, and sometimes draw crowds of early risers wearing sunglasses.
And so in North America, we have Manhattanhenge, in New York, but there is also Chicagohenge, Montrealhenge, Torontohenge, and Phillyhenge (Philadelphia). It is perhaps not surprising that the best-known examples of this phenomenon are in North America. Boeing’s study concludes that, ‘on average, US/Canadian study sites are far more grid-like than those elsewhere, exhibiting less entropy and circuity’. This is certainly the case for Manhattan, Philadelphia and Chicago. Boeing’s data shows why there is a Manhattenhenge but not a Bostonhenge.
Furthermore, opportunities to witness such events seem to be increasing: the equivalent in Washington DC is called ‘DC Henge week‘ reflecting the inherently non-precise nature of aligning the sun and skyscrapers, and this can all work for sunsets as well as sunrises, doubling the equinox fun. These events are perfect for instagramers and tweeters, wonderfully hashtaggable.
Further afield, there are USAs in Australia (Melbhenge) and has been made clear above, Jimmy has found one on the Gold Coast. There would seem potential for a Sydneyhenge but this one does not seem to have got much traction online. This might be a chance for Jimmy to get something started in that city, and often a -henge event can take on a momentum of its own once someone points it out and gives it a hashtag.
What is the value in the identification of such solar alignments? The phenomenon is often flagged up by city planetariums (planetaria?) as a tool to raise awareness of an interest in the skies in general, as is the case for New York and Chicago. Dr Rebecca Allen of the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Melbourne has argued that, ‘Melbhenge is a great time to explore how our modern landscape reflects the efforts our ancestors made to track the motions of the heavens’ suggesting a deeper educational value akin to the aspirations behind the construction of the Sighthill stone circles in Glasgow by Duncan Lunan. There is a sense that these experiences are not so much educational as primal. Jackie Faherty, an American Museum of Natural History astronomer, has suggested that, ‘Daily life in the 2000s does not have the same connection to the solar system that daily life hundreds of years ago did. Moments where we get to see an interplay with the sun or the planets with our everyday experiences such as a city grid are a reflection of how the human experience is complemented with a connection to the bigger picture of the cosmos’ (USA Today). Maybe it just makes us feel small and insignificant, an effect cities already have on some people.
One of the most pressing questions I suppose that some of those who witness a -henge USA are surely, ‘are these deliberately built into the city design’? Or ‘is this just all a big coincidence’? One way to look at this could be around the statistical probability that in a large urban network there would not be at least one street that aligned towards a solar solstice event.
This is explored albeit perhaps not from the point of view of the latter sentence in a website called On solstices and city planning designed by Demeter Sztanko. Here is presented street plans of hundreds of cities and big urban areas across the world showing where solstice alignments occur. This data comes from some kind of algorithm that has been focused on Open Streetmap: Sztanko describes his work as ‘pure math’ (The Guardian). I suppose this shows that by looking hard enough and by asking the right questions, -henge events are commonplace and everywhere. One does not need to focus on one street in one city as Jimmy suggests when one could algorithm an entire country. I do not mean to downplay the complexity of this piece of work as it presumably needs to take into account the location of the city in relation to the equator as well as the street plan, but it does show how USAs happen accidentally, an unexpected (and more often than not un-noticed) outcome of building a city. This website also fails to demonstrate causality: just because a pattern is evident does not mean that it is significant or deliberate, something Sztanko acknowledges. ‘Unfortunately I don’t know whether these alignments are intentional or just happen to be such on statistical basis’.
I suppose the sheer quantity and banality of the data ultimately points towards this being a unexpected byproduct of urbanisation. To illustrate this, I used this website to explore a city close to where I live – Glasgow. There is indeed a Glasgowhenge. In fact, there are potentially many of them in the area, due to the northwest-southeast trend of many streets. Most of these are short stretches of road and one would have to carry out some fieldwork to establish if they have the correct criteria for working as a -henge event as set out by Jimmy earlier on. Some are interesting from a coincidence point of view, such as Kenmuirhill, Mount Vernon, which runs close to the location of a Bronze Age cemetery that was excavated in the 1920s by Ludovic Mann. A short stretch of Cochno Road, near the Cochno Stone, also fits the bill.
But there are essentially no possible solstice alignments in the city centre, the grid layout of much of the city north of the Clyde running in the wrong direction. Furthermore, in Boeing’s data, Glasgow is no Chicago when it comes to grids and entropy.
Having said that, there is more than one type of Glaswegian prehistoric urban alignment if Harry Bell is to be believed, his network of aligned sites somewhat more free-form and not dependent on either street layout or the movement of the sun.
A combination of the high-level data at mapping level, followed by fieldwork at the right time of the year, would no doubt illuminate some fun experiences to be had some mornings or evenings in some cities around the world. This is probably enough to be getting on with.
USAs are derived from two different overlapping human urges – pareidolia (seeing patterns in things) and an obsession with the sun. In USAs this becomes entangled with our concepts of time and the calendar, and desire for urbanisation. In that sense if it is fascinating contemporary human phenomenon. What is remarkable about the song and dance, the branding, the crowds, the sunglasses, and the search for meaning is that in almost all cases this is meaningless in the sense that whatever we think we are experiencing was never intended to happen. This does not invalidate the experience of a USA but it does suggest that we are making this stuff up as we go along and reading our own meaning into the experience. As Boeing notes, cities can be ‘planned or unplanned, ordered and disordered’, and the same could be said about stone circles and henges.
There is nothing wrong with any of this, and searching for a -henge in the streets of you city, or on the screen of your laptop, is not in itself futil. Reading too much into whatever you find might well be, but then that is what makes us human, and connects us to the original henge builders from millennium ago.
Sources and acknowledgements: I must thank Jimmy Thomson for writing part of this blog post and encouraging me to think about USAs again. This blog post also makes reference to this academic paper:
Boeing, G 2019 Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy. Applied Network Science 4: 67.
Punching the word crannog into the satnav in my phone reveals several possible destinations within relatively easy drive of Glasgow, and none of them involve time-travelling back to the Iron Age (ha ha). (Come to think of it, there is a certain allure to a four-dimensional satnav.) There are in fact six streets in Scotland that have crannog in their name, and I have visited all of them in the preparation for this blog post. They are located in western Scotland, in largely coastal locations as one might expect, although it is not immediately obvious in all cases why crannog has been chosen to name the thoroughfare. These streets have different chronological origins to, spanning a century or so. They represent a Way, a Lane, two Roads, and a Court. There is no pattern that connect these locations (other than that they are all in the southwestern quarter of Scotland) but what they do indicate is an ongoing desire to presence prehistory in urban settings. Anyway, let’s explore these crannog roadways in the order that I visited them and find out their stories.
Here is my fancy location map!
Firstly, a brief definition. The recent Historic Scotland membership magazine defined crannogs as ‘artificial islands mostly found in lochs’ and these have been found in Scotland to date from the Neolithic to the medieval period. Hundreds are known in northern Britain, but for the most part nowadays they are visible only as overgrown small islands or lost to landscape change over the past few centuries. I have blogged about crannogs before, such as the crannog that erupted out of Kilbirnie Loch due to the dumping of iron age slag in the late nineteenth century, or the muddy excavations at Lochend Loch that inspired a children’s playpark to be constructed in 2017. If you would like to experience a crannog in the future, I highly recommend supporting the Scottish Crannog Centre near Kenmore, Perth and Kinross; their crannog tragically burned down on the very same evening that I originally posted this online and so will now need public support more than ever.
Now if you have a car, tune your satnav, and within a few hours be standing next to a road sign that says crannog (assuming you live in Glasgow area). Tweet your satnav crannog selfies!
Crannog Lane, Oban, Argyll and Bute
This Obanian lane is hidden behind an increasingly large retail park that is in turn located near the new Cal Mac ferry terminal where one might depart to islands such as Mull and Tiree. The area is dominated by an assortment of industrial units with Crannog Lane being a cul-de-sac running off Lochavullin Road.
The latter name indicates the watery past of this location, with this area being largely under water in the past. Indeed the crannog the lane is named for was found during draining operations of Loch a’ Mhuillin in 1888. It was located just to the east of where the lane now is, a place occupied by a business called Oban Garages.
The crannog itself was documented by the wonderfully named Rev F Odo Blundell in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1913. In his own words:
Sadly the photo was not reproduced with this article and little else is known about this site although its memory lives on in the street and business names of this coastal town. In canmore it is further noted that, “A stone structure measuring about 26 metres by 16.2 metres was found to be resting on a platform of horizontal timbers consolidated by a number of upright piles. During examination of the site, a number of human and animal bones were recovered” but the source of this additional information is not given.
It seems that it is not just the crannog that won’t go away.
Urbanisation is not half as clever as it thinks it is.
Crannog Way, Kilwinning, North Ayrshire
When driving from Lanarkshire to Ardrossan to get an early ferry over to the island of Arran it is a no brainer to drop into Kilwinning to visit Crannog Way. That is exactly what I did one sunny spring morning although I almost missed the ferry due to a massive roadworks-caused traffic jam on the south side of the town. The trusty satnav was fired up and guided me to my destination in a mellifluous corporate tone.
Upon arrival in a large housing estate on the north side of town I was annoyed to note that there was only one street sign to indicate that this winding street was called Crannog Way. In fact the only sign was in the side of a house. After some swithering I parked round the block and walked towards the house determined to somehow discretely photograph the house (people do not like their houses being photographed as I have discovered over many years of doing this kind of thing). I was able to stand across the road and pretend I was looking at my phone while I actually was taking a photo. Cunning!
I think I got away with it. I would not be so lucky next time (see below). After exploring a little around the various cul-de-sacs that form this suburban street, I headed back to the car where I was hoping the weird guy who was staring at me from his door when I parked had gone away.
Just round the corner was a bus-stop and it was nice to see that Crannog Way featured here and then I wished I had got the number 27 to this spot just so I could have asked the driver for a return to Crannog Way and avoided the dreaded weird guy glare.
The reason for this Crannog street name did not seem as clear for Kilwinning and it did for Oban. So I sent out a tweet to ask for help. A helpful reply by @abstractnarwhal pointed me in the direction of a crannog on Ashgrove Loch about 2km to the west of Crannog Way. The latter is now little more than an irregular mound of stones in a small loch that was once a much bigger loch; it was found during draining of this area in 1868 and excavated by Smith. For some reason this small body of water is depicted on current OS maps as Stevenston or Ashgrove Loch, hinting at some conflict or indecision.
Archaeologist Tom Rees of Rathmell Archaeology who is a total Kilwinning expert noted that there were ‘tons of crannog sites hereabouts’ including at Todhills. In fact there are only a few crannogs in the vicinity of Kilwinning; in his excavation report on Ashgrove, Smith notes that he felt there were five other crannogs in that loch alone and maps certainly suggest this was once a bigger body of water but no evidence for any of these now survives. The Todhill site mentioned by Tom is located about 2km to the south of the street. This site was documented again by Smith in his 1895 book Prehistoric Man in Ayrshire, in effect a series of large and rough oak beams found during the construction of a railway bridge.
The crannogs that surround the western side of Kilwinning represent a curious group of sites to name a street after but then there are only so many names to go around. There is perhaps an informal heritage theme in this estate, with Foundry Wynd and Forge Vennel nearby. It is also nice to see mention of the Ashgrove Crannog on a local heritage website accompanied by this nice reconstruction drawing (I think this is by Alan Braby).
As I walked back to the car, anxiously consulting the ferry timetable once again, I passed a funny little pile of stones and a cairn, careless lazy landscaping that I have long since stopped considering of interest. I climbed back into my vehicle, glad to see the weird man was gone, and the only weird man left in the area was me sat in my car with my hard-earned photograph.
Crannog Road, Milton, West Dunbartonshire
I was itching to get to the third one now, and the opportunity came when I had to make a rare trip into the University library, from which it was only another nine miles or so drive along Great Western Road to Crannog Road in Milton. Now, this is a place that has big crannog credentials, being located on the north side of the Clyde and less than a kilometre to the east-north-east of Dumbuck Crannog. This famous crannog was excavated in 1898 by the dynamic team of John Bruce and William Donnelly (who had three years previously undertaken the first scale drawing of the completely cleared Cochno Stone, explored in an earlier blog post).
Once again I set my controls to the heart of Crannog Road and headed off, annoyingly having to drive a couple of miles beyond my junction due to a pesky central reservation. I wheeled up a narrow suburban street called Colquhon Road weaving between parked cars, swung a left and then parked up just below a sign pointing back downhill to the right and Crannog Road!
I walked down, once again aware that I appeared to be behaving suspiciously and followed the road down a steep slope and then to the right along to a block of flats. The road mostly runs parallel to the A82, overlooking it and with fine views over the Clyde. It had houses only on one side and I tried my old ‘casually looking at the phone whilst taking a photo’ trick when I saw a house with a nice slate Crannog Road number sign. Sadly I was rumbled and a guy bounded straight out and asked if I needed help with anything. To be fair he did actually believe my bizarre explanation for standing outside his house taking a photo and I re-assured him the photo was for my archive, not publication on my blog. We left things on good terms but I suspect he thought I was daft.
The chap had not heard of Dumbuck Crannog but knew that a lot of old stuff had been found in the vicinity. In fact in its day this crannog was a big media story, firstly due to the high profile excavations, followed by a scandals surrounding apparently faked finds. All of this is documented in a wonderful book by Hale and Sands called Controversy on the Clyde (2005, downloads can be found via a wee google) and I recommend you check it out for a slice of Scottish archaeology strangeness.
Anyway, I headed on to the block of flats which to my delight are called Crannog Court, even with a nice pink metal sign back down at Great Western Road level that I must have driven past dozens of times without noticing. So much urban prehistory is like this: we just drive past, eyes fixed on the road (to be fair that is the safest way to drive).
This is not the first building here to be named for the crannog. Canmore documents a house here called Crannog Cottage. Indeed some of the houses here are known as Crannog Cottages on estate agent websites – ‘rarely available on the open market’ – which perhaps makes them sounds more alluring as a purchase option. Buildings are shown here on the 1862 1st edition OS map (pre-crannog of course) and a couple of these buildings are still standing including a pub.
As I walked back to the car, I stopped at a bus-stop and sure enough, as with Kilwinning, Crannog had made its way onto the bus timetable. Or had it? In fact an egregious spelling mistake means that buses all now stop at Cranning Court….
Crannog Road, Court and View, Lochfoot, Dumfries and Galloway
My epic series of visits ended with a trip to the motherlode of crannog street names, a cul-de-sac complex on the western edge of Lochfoot, a village just outside Dumfries. As it happens I was passing during a short holiday in the area and it was a pleasure to pull up the car as the satnav announced ‘you have now reached your destination’. Here can be found three short residential streets with crannog in the name and I wandered up and down this perfectly charming area for all of three minutes discretely taking photos of the street signs like a naughty train spotter. The crannog streets were deathly quiet, and not even a curtain twitched.
To the south, across the main road, lies Lochrutton Loch; centrally located within is a crannog. This is one of a number of islands and structures within and around this loch, but is the only one which is actually a crannog. A cracker too.
This crannog is a large tree-covered mound, some 40m across, 3m high, and was subject to excavation in 1901 – 1902 and also detailed survey in 2002. The excavation was undertaken by J Barbour and published in the Transactions of the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society volume 17 (1905). Wooden supports and structures were noted, and objects dating from pre-1300AD found. Detailed survey of the crannog as part of the South West Crannog Survey (SWCS) project showed the huge potential for this site to contain well-preserved organic materials including worked wooden supports and troughs.
The SWCS team noted (to add some local colour to this account) that, “Freshwater oysters were living all over the mound, suggesting that the water is of good quality, notwithstanding local reports of slurry-dumping” (Henderson et al 2003).
Back in the car, and satnav switched off, I reflected on what I had learned at the end of my ‘epic’ travels across western Scotland to visit all the Crannog streets, while trying not to draw any conclusions from the fact that every Crannog street I visited is a dead end. I suppose I was surprised there were so few, but also encouraged by the sometimes tendential nature of associations being made between urban streets and prehistoric sites in the vicinity.
Stuff from prehistory is resilient, and continues to have a presence in our contemporary landscapes despite indignities including excavation, draining, forgery and bad spelling.
Acknowledgements and sources: Thanks to those who I mentioned above who gave me help tracking down the crannog stories for each location on twitter. Three canmore images appear in the Crannog Road section, one showing an air photo of Dunbuck Crannog from 2005 (c) HES, one an aerial view of Lochrutton and Lochfoot from 2016 (c) HES, and the other showing visitors to the crannog excavations, from the J Harrison Maxwell collection.
I mentioned the following sources in the text:
Blundell, F. (1913). Further Notes on the Artificial Islands in the Highland Area. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 47, 257-302 [available free online]
Hale and Sands, A and R. (2005) Controversy on the Clyde, archaeologists, fakes and forgers: the excavation of the Dumbuck Crannog. Edinburgh.
Smith, J. (1894) On a stone crannog in Ashgrove Loch near Stevenston’, Archaeological and Historical Collections of Ayrshire & Galloway, vol. 7, 1894(at least I think that is what this journal is called).
Henderson, JC, Crone, BA & Cavers, MG 2003. A condition survey of selected crannogs in south west Scotland. Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 77, 79-102.
Juniper Green is not just the colour of posh jumpers and fancy cars. It is also a rather well-heeled suburb on the south side of Edinburgh, within earshot of the city bypass motorway which roars past immediately to the north. The initials of this place, JG, are only one Ballard short of JG Ballard, which interests me. What interests me even more is that this is a place where the dead were uncovered in advance of moneyed urban development – houses, suburban streets – in the nineteenth century. Escaping the noxious smells and over-crowding of Edinburgh city was done at the expense of disturbing the dead, a price the middle classes were no doubt happy to pay. Yet this is also a story of a community rediscovering a prehistoric heritage and the positive impact that this had, including the permanent memorialisation of this in the form of a standing stone.
Before we continue I should note that this blog post contains photos, and drawings, of human skeletal remains.
The story of what was found has already been unpicked by legendary archaeologist Alison Sheridan for the Juniper Green Bronze Age history website and so only needs summarised here by way of context for what actually drew my attention to the Green. This account draws heavily on Alison’s expertise and I am indebted for her supplying additional information to me.
As usual, it started with a tweet. In this case from Alistair McGowan, alerted me to a standing stone beside some tennis courts which had carved onto its surface amongst other things a human skull and an urn.
This hazily reminded me that a friend who lives nearby had mentioned this to me a while back. This was all becoming irresistible and so I planned a visit during a necessary work trip to Edinburgh before Lockdown 3 started with no intention of being socially distanced from this monolith…..
First, some background.
The first cist burial was found in 1851 in a place that might have been a leveled burial mound. Within this well-made stone coffin was a crouched inhumed male individual and a Beaker pot. The skull, which was documented to have been laid on a flat stone pillow, was purchased along with the Beaker by the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. What happened to the remainder of the skeleton is not clear.
The location of this find has been the subject of some detective work, with Alison Sheridan noting:
The exact findspot of this cist had been uncertain until recent sleuthing work by Professor Beevers allowed it to be pinpointed. We knew, from ancient accounts, that the cist had been found “not more than ten yards” [around 9 metres] from the Edinburgh-Lanark road. Professor Beevers found notes of a talk given by J J Malloch, the Headmaster of Juniper Green School, to the Colinton Literary Society in 1927. In an aside, reference was made to the Bronze Age bones that had been found in Mr Cattanach’s garden. In the 1920s, Mr Cattanach lived in a house called Viewforth; the house is now the butcher’s shop, and the garden of the house lies very close to the Lanark Road. The National Grid Reference of this location is NT 196686.
This location is now a delicatessen on Lanark Road, formerly the long-lived Scott’s butcher’s shop at number 574-6. Lockdown rules mean that sadly I have to rely on Google Street View to illustrate this location. Sad face.
Almost half a century later, in July 1898 during ‘building operations’, a cist was disturbed although it contained only ‘bone dust and soil’. Three ceramic vessels were recovered, two Food Vessels and an inverted cinerary urn. Fred Coles notes in 1899 that six weeks later another pot was found at this site but ‘it soon disappeared and its whereabouts is not known’. In other words, he could not find out upon whose mantelpiece or sideboard this ancient vessel now sat.
This discovery was made along Woodhall Terrace, again here depicted using the google maps rather than the sweat of my own fieldwork efforts.
The locations of both of these discoveries are marked on this wonderful map of Juniper Green that was produced as part of the some serious celebrations in 2007 to mark the 300th anniversary of the suburb. Indeed it was this occasion that saw the local community begin to take note of their prehistoric heritage. The map (by Natasha Stewart, part of a leaflet that can be downloaded here) is enlivened by lovely sketches of some of the finds from these sites.
As noted, the Juniper Green 300 celebrations were the catalyst for a renewed interest in the history and heritage of this place, and the residents were clearly enthused by the information that there had been a ‘Juniper Green man’ living here 4,000 years previously, to the extent that some of them were able to see his skull up close and personal during a visit to the National Museum of Scotland, hosted by Alison Sheridan. Because as fortune would have it, the skull had recently been scientifically analysed for a major project on Beakers. There is no such thing as coincidence.
This is not the first time that the skull of this male individual, a man of 40-55 years old, has been subject to analysis. It features in the book Crania Britannica: Delineations and Descriptions of the Skulls of the Aboriginal and Early Inhabitants of the British Islands: with Notices of Their Other Remains. This epic trawl of human skulls, phrenology and craniology was published in 1865 so this skull was fairly freshly out of the ground and into the pages of this unnatural selection in short order. The book documents that this was a rounded (brachycephalic) skull, and was unusually heavy and thick-walled.
The principle of this book was very much that humans could be ethnically characterised by the shapes of their skulls, and as the title suggests, a major element of this was to demonstrate the racial superiority of western Europeans as opposed to those who had the misfortune to be colonised by the British Empire. Prehistoric skulls were very much part of this narrative, identifying traits that could be compared across skulls found in the Victorian world. The research and narrative contained within this volume would be best described as ‘scientific racism’, building on the earlier Crania Americana. Researcher James Poskott has noted how important such volumes were in allowing “racist theories [to] gain credibility”.
This is a way of thinking that I thought had been condemned to the prehistory of archaeology but recently I realised that differentiating between skull shapes is still a thing. I noticed that the late Euan Mackie’s 1977 book The Megalith Builders included a reference to skull shapes of Neolithic people and Beaker users as being different, an idea I thought had long since been abandoned. Upon tweeting this I found out that this kind of argument is still being made. For instance in chapter 6 of the 2019 epic Mike Parker Pearson et al. monograph The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society). I don’t really know what to make of this frankly, but this kind of skull shape data is no longer couched in racist terminology. Nowadays reasons for skull differences are sought in cultural practices such as ‘cradle-boarding’, applied to children to modify skull shape. Indeed Daniel Wilson in his 1863 book The Prehistoric Annals of Scotland (pg 272) suggested this had happened to the Juniper Green man.
The much more recent analysis this skull underwent was part of the Beaker People project, which included radiocarbon dating the head bone, and also carbon, nitrogen, strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotope analysis. This showed that this man (whom Alison called Mr J Green!) had a diet dominated by meat rather than fish. He was probably local and died in the period 2350-2130 cal BC (right at the cusp of the Copper Age and Bronze Age).
The fresh information on these ancient burials was viewed with excitement by local people. At the time of the radiocarbon dating in 2007, then owner of Scott’s Butchers, Colin Hanlon, told The Scotsman, “It’s a huge shock that there were people here all that time ago. The whole community is alive with all this at the moment – everyone’s talking about it. We may arrange something to celebrate that it was here that the village’s oldest resident was found.” There is no doubt that Alison Sheridan played a part in this revival of interest, being described as inspiring by local community group JG Diggers.
There was now momentum. Following on from the 300 year celebration, a monument was erected in the suburb, the one that started this whole thing off for me. In a report on this in The Scotsman on 9th March 2010, this was described as ‘a giant green monument’ (??). This is a slightly confusing description but has some useful detail: “The rectangular monument features carvings of a water wheel, a pot, a skull and a juniper branch, representing aspects of its history” and that it is a “seven-foot structure”. It is not wildly green but made of a greenish slate hence the weird headline. And some of that seven feet is below the ground surface. However what is clear is that the motivation for this was another indication of the sense of pride and awe locally about the depth of time that people had lived in this place.
Local Val Hawkins noted, “so people have been living in Juniper Green since the Bronze Age at least, which was more than 4,000 years ago.” The monument itself was unveiled in front of a crown of 200 people. The standing stone itself – which in effect is what it is – was sculpted by sculptor and stonemason Ian Newton, made of Westmorland slate. The design was by local artist Mick Brettle.
It is located on the corner of Baberton Avenue, Belmont Road and Woodhall Terrace, on a grassy slope beside some tennis courts. I visited this wonderful monument on a chilly December day in 2020, during a slightly lesser set of lockdown restrictions. I was struck by the powerful nature of the carvings on the front side of the stone, the heritage of Juniper Green carved in stone, including the skull that has been mentioned so often in this post and the cinerary urn found in 1898.
The detail on the skull and pottery vessel is wonderful. The skull stares impassively towards the west with a watchful alert eye. The pot has lovely texture on it, decorative strokes and a kinetic form, a suitable vessel made to hold the dead. The 1851 and 1898 discoveries are both shown here together, a tangible symbol of a place with an ancient heritage, conflating time and space into a new symbol for this town at the cusp of the third millennium (AD). From their time to ours. The rear of the standing stone is blank, a canvas upon which the current and next generations might hew their own destinies, document their stories.
This is a fascinating story of a community re-discovering their prehistoric heritage and embracing it. With the enthusiasm and communication skills of Alison Sheridan, this became a potent combination of local pride and – yes – wonder. This is also a celebration of her wonderful and inspiring career, this being only one of many pebbles she has tossed into ponds only to stand back and watch wonderful ripples surge outwards. One need only view her recent Rhind lectures to reflect on a career well spent as not just an academic but also a public prehistorian.
In Juniper Green there was surprise that these jumbled bits and pieces of pots and bone could be so old. Awe that Juniper Green was not just an occupied place for 300 years, or even 3000 years, but 4000 and more. I have it on good authority that enthusiasm remains and Mr J Green’s old head might yet reveal more secrets of who he was and even what he looked like. It reminds me of a great novel I read a few years ago written from the viewpoint of Oliver Cromwell’s decapitated head, Marc Hartzman’s The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: a memoir (Curious Publications, 2015). This skull has been on a journey since being recovered from the ground, passed through many hands, sat in quite a few boxes and storerooms, and more adventures may well lie ahead.
This is a tale that might be played out in many other towns, villages and suburbs across Scotland which have an equally rich heritage but which await the revelation of deep time to happen. The Juniper Green example shows that prehistory can inspire social gatherings, creative acts, conviviality, and local pride. In this case, the prehistoric story of this place is now available to read online, and traced in the contours of a standing stone barely a decade old.
This is the power of urban prehistory.
Sources and acknowledgements: I am indebted to the work of Alison Sheridan on these discoveries and the clear presentation of those results in the Juniper Green 300 website, which was my main source of information here. Alison also kindly supplied some supplementary information.
Other source used:
Coles, F R. 1899 ‘Notices of the discovery of a cist and urns at Juniper Green, and of a cist at the Cunninghar, Tillicoultry, and of some undescribed cup- marked stones’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol. 33, 1898-9. Page(s): 354-8.
The skull is SK12 in Mike Parker Pearson, Alison Sheridan, Mandy Jay, Andrew Chamberlain, Mike Richards & Jane Evans (2019)The Beaker People: Isotopes, Mobility and Diet in Prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society).
The Beaker can be found here (in print, not literally!): Clarke, D L. 1970 Beaker pottery of Great Britain and Ireland, 2v. Cambridge. Page(s): Vol.2, 519, no.1710 and you can view a sketchfab 3D model of the Beaker here.
For anyone interested in some darker research, see Davis and Thurnam, J B and J. 1865 Crania Britannica, 2v. Page(s): Vol.2, vi pl.15. Wash your hands once you are done please.
There is something Neanderthal in the suburbs of Paris. Or at least there was.
Line 3 of the Paris Metro terminates in the west at Levallois. So what?
This observation, which I can’t believe I had not thought harder about in the past, led me to an interesting story at the cusp of archaeology as a modern discipline and a new candidate for the label of the first urban prehistorian. It also made me realise that archaeologists often take for granted the familiar labels that we use, and often don’t stop to think about the historiography of these terms and from whence they came.
Levallois is a name most archaeologists should be familiar with, as it is describes a reductive technique used by Neanderthals to make flaked stone tools back in the mists of time. There is a good deal of discussion as to the significance of this method of making tools – to what extent does this indicate the agency of Neanderthals and their ability to think ahead and in abstract terms tens of thousands of years ago? Is this a technique that was recognised, shared and duplicated across a wide geographic area (not restricted to Europe), or is this simply our characterization of a narrow aspect of the archaeological record? Such ‘types’ are the bred and butter of archaeology, for good and for ill.
The attribution of a site name to a type of material culture, architectural style or craft technique has a long tradition in archaeology, although not all terms have had the longetivity of Levallois and often we find modern and more boring ways to describe stuff we find in the archaeological record. My favourite example, now sadly rarely used, is the British late Neolithic pottery style Rinyo-Clacton Ware aka Grooved Ware, only really now known beyond prehistoric archaeology through the name of a Russell Hoban novel. (As another aside, one of the best future urban prehistory novels ever written is Hoban’s Riddley Walker.)
Nathan Schlanger has noted that this Parisian suburb has gained ‘everlasting archaeological notoriety’, as if often the fate of obscure places where a technology or style of object was recognised for the first time.
However, it is not clear exactly when the first Palaeolithic stone tools were recovered from sand quarries in the Levallois-Perret area, but it was probably in the 1850s. At this time Paris was an expanding city surrounded by quarries and urban development.
Matthew Pope and David Herisson via the medium of twitter suggested that Victor Commont ‘first described’ the Levallois technique, decades after these initial discoveries.
But the earliest publication of the tools themselves was by Jules Reboux. The images below appear to be from the first ever description of these lithics, which came out in 1967. (This is dated 1951 in an online source but this appears to be too early.) Here, Silex Tailles means knapped flints (thanks Becky Wragg Sykes!) and the title of the pamphlet notes the ancient, geological context from which they were found. The specific reductive preparation of the flints was noted here, but it was not yet called Levalloisian.
These initial discoveries were courtesy of excavation and fieldwork by Reboux in the 1860s and 1870s. He was a geologist and antiquarian / archaeologist who lived near the edge of Paris at the time, and Schlanger suggests his work in the likes of Levallois and Clichy was akin to proto-rescue archaeology. In fact he appears to have been the first urban prehistorian.
He wrote in 1866 (in French I assume), ‘dedicated research has for long been undertaken in distant lands, when we have under our own feet, in Paris itself, the most certain proofs of the ancient stone industry’.
Apparently Reboux spend years visiting quarries, monitoring building sites, and surveying railway cuttings, all around Paris and collected thousands of worked flint tools and objects.
There seems to have been a good deal of innovation around Reboux’s work at, and about, Levallois. Schlanger suggests that one of the sand quarries at Levallois was also the location of one of the earliest documented episodes of ‘comparative experimental flint-knapping’ during a fieldvisit lead by Reboux on 30th August 1867. And Reboux published, in 1873, a stratigraphic section of a quarry at Levallois, one of the first drawings of its kind in an archaeological context ever attempted.
It isn’t clear when the objects found at the quarries at Levallois became the objects upon which all similar stone tools were compared in terms of their manufacturing process, although Victor Commont wrote about Levallois tools and debitage in the 1910s, noting differences with other Palaeolithic stone tool ‘industries’.
Commont was credited with bringing the study of the Palaeolithic in northern France into the ‘scientific era’ by Tuffreau. Like Reboux, although decades later, he was an observer of discoveries in quarries, in this case near Amiens, and studied the Quaternary from his home in Edinburgh Street.
The term was further refined and given its classic modern characerisation through new discoveries and experimental flint-knapping in the early to middle twentieth century. Much of this hands-on and intellectual heavy lifting was undertaken by Francois Bordes. A significant figure in Palaeolithic archaeology in the twentieth century, Bordes was responsible for refining our concept of the flake method of Levallois in notable publications during the 1950s such as ‘Technique Levallois et Levallois ancient’ in L’Anthropologie 56 (1952), and in his 1961 book Typologie.
Lewis Binford even had a go at the Levallois in various famous studies around the same times as Bordes, and the concept, and what it tells us about Homo Neandertalensis, is still a very important aspect of Palaeolithic archaeology across the world.
Sadly I have reached the depth of my knowledge about this technique and I have little sense what the current state of play in Palaeolithic studies is with regards the Levallois so apologies to colleagues working in this field! Unless someone wants to write a fictional story called something like Monsieur Levallois comes to town I am unlikely to learn any more.
However, there is one thing left for me to do. It is clear that a visit to Levallois itself by Metro is needed to bring this narrative to a satisfactory conclusion and I’ll do this next time I’m in Paris. I’ll remember to pack a cow….
Sources and acknowledgements: I’m indebted to the many Palaeolithic experts who responded to my plea for information on twitter (link in text above) and directly to emails. Thanks especially to Nathan Schlanger and Dene Wright who helped me via email, as well as the following tweeters.
David Herrison = @david_herisson
Joseba Rios-Garaizar = @jorios
Matt Pope = @MatthewPope
Becky Wragg Sykes = @LeMoustier
Helen Loney = @Worsted2
Apologies if I missed anyone, and these good folks cannot be held responsible for how I have mangled their responses and pointers to sources of help….and most of the quotes in this post have benefited from the translation skills of others such as Schlanger.
The following academic sources were also consulted in preparing this blog post:
Pettit, P. 2009 Francois Bordes. In R. Hosfield, F. Wenban-Smith & M. Pope (eds) Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859-2009, pages 201-212. Lithic Studies Society, London.
Schlanger, N. 1996 Understanding Levallois: Lithic technology and cognitive archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6.2, 231-54.
Schlanger, N. 2013 One day hero. Jules Reboux at the crucible of prehistory in 1860s Paris. Complutum 24.2, 73-88.
Tuffreau, A. 2009 Victor Commont. In R. Hosfield, F. Wenban-Smith & M. Pope (eds) Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859-2009. Lithic Studies Society, London.
A sense of the mining landscape that was nineteenth century Paris can be gained by reading this fascinating blog post about Paris’s historic gypsum quarries (Written in Stone blog). This was also the source of the Montmartre quarry picture.
The source of the Levallois technique drawing is another interesting source (find it here): Monnier, G. (2012) Neanderthal Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge3(10):11
Illustrations (unless source given in the caption)
Hoban and Typologie book covers – widely available online
Stone tool drawing – this was reproduced in Schlanger 2013, but the original drawing was published in 1867 in the following place:
Reboux, J. 1867 Silex tailles associes a des ossements fossiles dans les terrains quaternaires de environs de Paris. Congres international d’archaeologie et d’anthropologie prehistorique, 2e session: 103-9.
Stratigraphic section from the quarry at Levallois – again this was reproduced in Schlanger 2013, but the original drawing was published in 1873 here:
Reboux, J. 1873 Des trois epoques de la pierre. Bulletin de la societe d’anthropologie de Paris 8, 523-31.
Victor Commont from Tuffreau 2009.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Dene Wright for information on the Levallois technique.
Monnier, G. (2012) Neanderthal Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge3(10):11
Fact check: the letter that forms the basis of this post and my Lennoxtown visit was published in The Scotsman newspaper. As with many other Ludovic McLellan Mann observations, there is no corroborating evidence for the presence of this Knowe, nor its folk and archaeological significance. If such a mound existed, its contours have not troubled mapmakers. And it is commonplace to find that prefabricated houses from the 1940s were not ‘temporary’, even if this mound was. The ruinous ground behind the three bungalows on a natural rise was once occupied by the Free Church of Lennoxtown, which was used as a drill hall for “D” Company, 7th battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War, and a school also once stood upon this acclivity.
Isn’t is about time we started to mark the locations of prehistoric sites and discoveries in ways that are visible, informative and accessible to local communities and visitors?
It is factually correct to state that the presence of prehistory in your village, town, suburb and city is not a secret. There are online platforms that can tell you this, such as Canmore in Scotland and Coflein in Wales. However, the information contained in these national (and equivalent regional) databases is encoded in archaeological terminology, while site entries often lack detail, depth and / or images to make the information more accessible to a curious member of the public. They are also portals that currently do not work well on smart phones and depend on decent wifi or 4G, not as available in suburbia as you might think.
One way that would be effective at easing the burden on people finding out this stuff for themselves would be an urban prehistory plaque scheme, my preferred colour being brown, not blue [although I have not tested this colour yet]. This simple device, mirroring schemes in other parts of the UK focusing on famous dead people, is familiar and easy to interact with. In my proposal, urban prehistory locales would be marked with a circular disk a foot in diameter containing just enough information to let curious passers-by know the headline information required. This would be high-level and simple but would contain enough information to (a) demand further investigation and (b) blow minds (at least for some). Digital add-ons may become necessary, but the analogue disks would be a good starting place as my recent guerrilla activity on this front suggests…..
The concept of plaques is a familiar one, but it is not a modern invention. The first scheme was proposed in London in 1866 believe it or not, and is the oldest of its kind in the whole wide world. (If you don’t believe in alien life, its the oldest such scheme in the Universe.) Run by the (Royal) Society of Arts, then London County Council, then Greater London Council, and since 1986, English Heritage, these blue info-circles are London-only although many other local authorities and organisations have since adopted similar schemes. The plaques usually mark a building with a connection to a famous person who has been dead for at least 20 years: ‘the intrinsic aim of English Heritage blue plaques is to celebrate the relationship between people and place’. (There is an excellent online resource, Open Plaques, which curates images, locations and stories of plaques from all over the place, well worth checking out.)
There is something immediate and accessible about plaques. They are spatially situated in the correct location someone famous lived and / or died (and less often, where events of note took place or an earlier building once stood). They are reassuringly analogue and do not depend on wifi or a mobile signal although this does not preclude follow-up research later. In some cases, they can surprise and even delight, as when I completely accidentally stumbled upon this Wheeler blue plaque when I was heading for a Cochno Stone meeting in London a couple of years ago.
But can we do more with plaques than just celebrate the rich, famous, mostly men? Could plaques be used to tell stories of what happened in a place, rather than simply who resided where and when? And can we push this back deep into prehistory?
Mike Pitts made a strong case (in the July-August 2012 British Archaeology magazine) for a plaque scheme that does not simply focus on famous recent people such as archaeologists and antiquaries, but also the dead found on excavations. (‘Let’s celebrate the anonymous people who made Britain’ is the sentiment, although I’m not so convinced by this jingoistic tone.) Nonetheless, this is a well-argued polemic and was accompanied by the mocking up of ‘Ochre plaques’ as he called them, in each case located where a ‘famous’ prehistoric dead person had been found…
These are very effective, and got some good feedback at the time and also when Mike recently re-posted them on twitter in response to my own musings on the subject. The focus here on the famous dead fits in with the broader aspirations of plaque schemes although in truth even the ancient dead whom we give nicknames are still unknown, while in some other cases multiple burials and events might also be plaque-marked.
A good example of how this might work is this surprisingly detailed plaque that is situated in a car park in Christchurch, Dorset.
This is part of a local HLF-funded ‘unofficial blue plaque’ scheme, the Millennium Trail, of which are there are many across England and indeed beyond. This series of plaques is accompanied by a map and leaflet available locally.
In the spirit of experimentation I recently carried out a couple of field visits to urban prehistory sites – plaque attacks! – having prepared in advance a rather low tech and mocked up plaque for the occasion. I confess I used dark blue for these early experiments, to provoke a reaction by subverting the familiar format, but will, like a judo person, aim to step up to brown in the future.
My two case-studies are in a sense classic urban prehistory sites – Bronze Age burials that were found during urban expansion in the form of road building, and were subsequently destroyed (although in very different circumstances). Importantly, in neither case is the location of this discovery marked in any way, almost nothing is known about the sites, and in at least one instance the nearest resident was completely unaware of the story. These are unremarkable urban streets with a hidden, remarkable secret, that if known might change the way that (some) people view the place that they live, but hopefully not in an Amityville Horror type of way.
Succoth Place, Edinburgh
In May 1901, during the construction of a new road to the west of the city centre, Succoth Place, running off Garscube Terrace, workmen came across a stone cist that contained a fine prehistoric urn. This was taken into the care of the architect D Menzies and then collected a few days later by archaeologist Fred Coles who subsequently helped investigate the site and wrote up a brief excavation report. The urn was recovered from the cist by the foreman after the cap stones had been broken to make way for the pavement kerb. Further damage to the cist itself revealed, remarkably, that this was a rare double-compartment cist, with two burial cells separated by a single upright central slab. Coles assisted with clearing out the second chamber, within which was a second urn. Both are what we would term Food Vessels and belong to the early Bronze Age.
Nothing else was found in either cist compartment, other than ‘minute fragments of bone, which, on the gentlest handling, crumbled away’. An undignified and dusty end.
Both Food Vessels were later accessioned to the National Museum, and that was the end of the whole business, with presumably the remnants of the cist being wrecked to allow road-building to continue, the whole site having been excavated in a rather crude fashion which was the norm for that time.
In early May 2018, almost exactly 117 years after this discovery, I visited Succoth Place with Glasgow PhD student Denise Telford in the rain armed with my cardboard urban prehistory plaque.
As ever with such trips, careful planning was required, and the friend of the urban prehistorian, the ragged annotated folded A-Z, was employed to get us there safely and efficiently.
The leafy suburbs of this part of Edinburgh, near the Water of Leith, looked rather dreich in the downpour, and we sheltered under overhanging vegetation from time to time as we wound our way up to the top of a hill (via Garscube Terrace) crowned with massive lavish sandstone mansions and a private school. The friendly lollipop man helped us across Henderland Road, just in case we should be crushed by a massive 4×4.
We reached the Garscube and Succoth soon enough. Despite the distinguished and peaceful surrounds, subversion was evident: the street sign has a runic addition in tiny letters, creating the memorably Shakespearean phrase Succoth My Nob Pl(ease).
Coles recorded that the cist was found 60 feet from the junction and so we headed there, with the location where the Bronze Age dead had once lain being mercifully free of the indignity of parked cars.
There was nothing here to mark this burial place, and I am fairly sure that the inhabitants of the big houses here know nothing of this either. There was nothing left to do but mark the place with the plaque, which had been carried here in an old-school 5p Morrison’s carrier bag for protection from the incessant rain. In error, Denise snapped 118 photos of me holding the plaque of which the best one is reproduced below.
There was little sense that this was anything other than a posh suburb and certainly there was no room for the remembrance of the dead – the dead whose bodily remains crumbled to dust in order for sandstone mansions to be reachable by horse and cart in as much comfort as was possible at the time. Let’s not be emotive and say that this part of the city was built on the (tiny) bones of the dead, but it was, and perhaps this needs to be remembered, out of respect for the deceased, who did not even have the dignity of a ghostly presence or their own plaque. Until now.
As John Mahoney’s character in the movie Barton Fink so memorably implored drunkenly: ‘Honey, where’s my honey?’.
Morar Road, Crossford, nr Dunfermline
Let’s travel to Fife, just across the River Forth from Succoth and all that, to the location of another Bronze Age urban cist that was knackered in order to facilitate urban expansion. In this case, the cist was destroyed before an archaeologist was even able to look at it – and this happened in 1973!!
During construction of roads for a new housing estate called Keavil on the south side of the town of Crossford on 13th November 1973, a stone coffin or cist was found. The workers on this construction project thought that the collection of flat slabs was ‘some sort of old land drain’ and destroyed the structure to make way for the road the next day. A Mr A Hall was able to recover one thing from this burial, a fine complete Food Vessel pot, which suggests that the destruction of the cist was perhaps not as cavalier as reported, and perhaps the workers could have stopped when this was found rather than when it was all too late. So much for rescue archaeology.
A sober note was made of this unfortunate event in that year’s Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, while a drawing of the vessel and a brief accompanying narrative was published as an addendum to the excavation report of a cist cemetery found at Aberdour Road, Dunfermline (a site I blogged about back in 2012).
The contractors on this build, Geo Wimpey and Co, ‘kindly’ handed the Food Vessel over to the local museum and got on with making roads and money.
Armed with this sorry story, preparations for my second plaque attack were formed a week after the Succoth escapade. Using my time-honoured cheapo approach I created a similar plaque to the previous effort but this time with amended and simplified my logo. I had to contend with a greasy stain on the cardboard transferred from a kitchen surface the work was carried out on.
I visited this location with Glasgow PhD student Andrew Watson, on the way back from another urban prehistory-related fieldtrip to Fife. Andrew map-read me into the estate via a series of colourful streets (none of them Cist Street which might have been the least Wimpey could have done): Hunt Place, Katrine Drive, Western Avenue and then Morar Road and Affric Way, together representing a confusing mixture of street types for no discernible reason. And then we were there, in a quiet suburban road lined with blue bins and puddles.
The kind of place where twenty is plenty.
Andrew and I quickly set up a sophisticated photo shoot, marking the location that the cist was found and destroyed, 1m below the current road level, in a memorable fashion.
As we struggled to get to grips with the placelessness of this place that had once been a sacred burial spot that must have had an abundance of place, the owner of the house outside which we were messing about came out to see what us ‘boys’ were up to. We explained out business and he was amazed that such a thing had been found outside his house, as it was being built, and he assured us he would tell every visitor this exciting revelation (although he also said he hardly got any visitors so this may not be a strong method of dissemination). He declined the chance to have the plaque (an original and unique piece of art one might argue) hung on the front of his house however.
Knowledge exchanged, he walked back inside, and by god I think he had a spring in his step.
This sobering encounter with an old man ended our photo session, and I must say I don’t think Andrew was taking this as seriously as he could have been.
The cardboard plaques that I have made and taken to places that hold rich prehistoric secrets is a device that has started conversations and created complex experiences for all involved. These places of death and burial remain unmarked although digitally their story has now been told again, perhaps for the first time in decades or more, and this is how such plaques could act as easy gateway drugs into the hard stuff of prehistory.
Truth be told, we cannot just expect people to find out about the prehistoric events that may or may not have taken place when their houses or schools or roads were being built or improved. We – archaeologists, heritage professionals – need to be evangelical about this, pro-active prehistory-pushers, talking to people and braving the rain to find ways that tell the lost stories of ancient bones and bits of pottery. Circular information panels may or may not be the best way to do this, but we have nothing to lose by trying to follow the advise of Mike Pitts.
Let’s celebrate the ancient dead as well as the modern rich and famous. Let’s tell stories of deep time, generate wonder and surprise, and change the way that people see the places that they live.
I wonder – where will the next plaque attack be?
Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Denise and Andrew for accompanying me on these fool’s errands that I do from time to time, and for the stimulating conversation both provided; there ideas have filtered into this post. Thanks also to Mike Pitts for allowing me to use images, and drawing on his own ideas; please join the Council for British Archaeology if you want to receive regular copies of British Archaeology magazine. Thanks also to the many positive comments I got about the UP plaques on twitter.
The report on the Succoth Place discovery can be found in a paper by Fred Coles, ‘Notice on the discovery of cists containing urns at Succoth Place, near Garscube Terrace, Edinburgh’. This was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 36 (1901-02). The Food Vessel and cist image in the post above were both sourced from that paper.
For information (limited) on the Morar Road cist site, see pages 130-1 of Close-Brooks, Norgate and Ritchie (1974) ‘A Bronze Age cemetery at Aberdour Road, Dunfermline, Fife’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 104. This was also the source of the pot drawing for this site. This journal is open access.
The Christchurch blue plaque was first posted on twitter by Annie-Leigh Campbell, while the map / booklet image related to the Millennium Trail in this town came from a website called Dorset Visual Guide. The quote about the purpose of the London blue plaques near the start of the post comes from the official EH site about them, linked to in the same paragraph.
This blog post has been written with Lauren Welsh, who thanks to the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow, was a paid intern on an urban prehistory placement in June 2017. I asked Lauren to come up with an idea for a blog post, and she suggested we visit and investigate an amazing urban prehistory site in her home town of Dreghorn, North Ayrshire….Station Brae.
Never heard of it? Read on to find out why.
NB In this post, my contributions are in italics.
During the summer last year, I was lucky enough to undertake a placement as the Urban Prehistorian’s Intern. This was a fantastic opportunity and I learned so much about what happens behind the scenes when planning community archaeological events and outreach to keep the public informed.
Whilst on this placement I undertook some of my own research into Community/Public Archaeology and I must admit it left me a bit bewildered about how this branch of archaeology is treated.
Where I live, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by lots of archaeology from many different periods. My biggest interest lies however, within prehistory and so focused my research on this. Before I began my research, I was aware that there was a prehistoric monument found in the village next to mine, it is known as the Drybridge Cursus.
However, when I started investigating in more detail I found that this was not the only substantial and interesting find from prehistory in this area.
In 2003/04, archaeological investigations were taking place in my little home village of Dreghorn, in advance of a new housing development at Station Brae. This work took place just before 53 houses were built by Wimpey Homes next to Dreghorn cemetery. The excavations were reported on in Discovery and Excavation Scotland. It was suggested that the excavations had found a ‘probable timber hall’ which is ‘comparable to those at sites such as Balbridie, Crathes, the Claish, and smaller examples at Balfarg and Raigmore’. Like the structures that are mentioned, the Station Brae structure is thought to date to the Neolithic Period. The site is also described as the prehistoric remains at this site as being in a ‘density and scale seldom seen in Scotland’.
This site is clearly a rare find but the only information in the public domain about this important site is the DES article. This goes on to mention that there were a number of archaeological finds that accompanied this impressive timber hall structure. From lithics and Grooved Ware to Carinated Bowls and kilns, this site has a lot of interesting prehistoric archaeology which is often lacking from prehistoric sites. Evidence for later prehistoric activity, and an early medieval settlement were also found here.
Given that this appears to be a site that should be of national importance due to the number of prehistoric artefacts and that is considered to be a timber hall structure, it is extremely confusing that a very small amount of people have heard of it (myself included even prior to my research into the excavation).
I had known about the Station Brae site for many years, as I have been documenting evidence for Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland (in reviews published in 2006 and 2016) and have even written a paper on Scotland’s Neolithic timber halls (published in 2007). However, in all these reviews, Station Brae has proved an elusive site, and attempts in the past to get further information on the excavations – even a coherent plan of the timber hall or possible Grooved Ware associated oval structures – have got me nowhere.
Yet the site is now in the literature. In a paper published in 2006, I celebrated the discovery of Station Brae ‘putative timber hall’ via developer-funded archaeology although made a curious mistake when adding it to a distribution map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland – I forgot to add it as a dot to a map previously published by Gordon Barclay, and a penciled in x still survives on the map as evidence of this in the published version. Oops.
In a review of timber halls written around the same time, the site was again mentioned although here it was simply viewed as a possible parallel for other Neolithic timber halls, except the Grooved Ware connection was puzzling (this pottery style would be too late for such a big roofed building). However, I was working from the original DES report only and the site did not make it onto a terrible map I produced of Scotland’s Neolithic halls. This doubt fed into a much more recent review of Neolithic settlement evidence in Scotland, where I had grown a little fed up with the situation. I described Station Brae as a ‘tantalising, but as yet unpublished, discovery’ (2016, 216). Despite my high hopes for this site, it has not yet made it into wider synthesis of Neolithic settlement sites, simply because nothing is really known about it.
Given this last paper was written over a decade after the excavations, and I again failed to find out anything about the site, this troubled me. The same old DES source was all that underpinned it, and that was starting to feel a bit tired.
This is clearly a frustrating situation – but one that I am not entirely unware of, having run up against similar road blocks for various reasons, from time-limited confidentiality clauses inserted into excavation contracts by developers, to sites being published in obscure online locations in reports that require a lot of guesswork to locate via google, to publication being delayed for all manner of reasons. But this seemed a more intractable problem. And that has proved to be the case, although Lauren brought it home to me that it is not just Neolithic archaeologists that are frustrated about Station Brae….
What bothered me the most about this discovery is that it is less than 500 yards away from my house and yet I knew nothing about it (which is interesting as I have always had a keen interest in archaeology).
So, what happened? Why has there not been more done at this site to help the locals (and wider public) understand the importance of this site as well as what it helps us to understand about other prehistoric sites similar to this one?
It is certainly strange. The site itself sits in a larger prehistoric landscape. As previously mentioned, there is an impressive cursus monument located at Drybridge and is only about 1 mile away from the Station Brae site. Also, in Drybridge there is a single standing stone, although there has been no known work conducted to say whether the stone is prehistoric or not.
The next village along this route is Dundonald, where today a beautiful castle stands on top of a hill. There have been excavations carried out at the castle which date the archaeological remains back to the early Bronze Age (hopefully the subject of a future urban prehistorian blog post! -KB). There have also been excavations in Kilmarnock recently as well, where (ironically) a Neolithic ‘timber hall’ site was found in 2017 by GUARD Archaeology during development work.
A final important site to mention in this geographical area is Shewalton Moss. This is ‘bog land’ that runs to the Northwest of Dundonald and is known locally to have produced a number of prehistoric artefacts including urns, pottery, flint scrapers and polishers, hammer stones and arrowheads, indicating substantial prehistoric activity in the area (although it is proving difficult to find records of these finds).
In an article in The Herald newspaper on 19th April 2004, the significance of Station Brae was stated in a very public forum. This was at worst based on a press release, at best on an interview with the director of the company who carried out the excavations, and I have highlighted in bold some particularly juicy comments.
‘The site suggests a 5000-year-old village similar in scale to the group of stone houses at Skara Brae, Orkney.’
Tom Addyman, excavation director of Addyman Associates, who carried out the ongoing dig at the housing development, said….”We found 750-odd pieces of Grooved Ware, which is one of the largest collections in the south-west of Scotland. The area is now known as a type site for the Neolithic period, which means that all other sites will be compared to this one.”
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said: “Finding evidence at this date for settlement, in the form of building foundations and for pottery making, is extremely rare, and promises to help us understand the lives of the people who built the great ritual monuments like henges and early stone circles”.’
There are some spectacular claims here, although the comparison of all other known Neolithic sites in Scotland with Station Brae has thus far proved impossible. Mike Pitts’ aspiration for this site remains unrealised.
A drip-feed of information was put out via the media offering further tantalising details. Site director Tom Wilson was quoted by iAyrshire as saying:
“This is only one of five [timber halls] to be discovered in Scotland and we think it dates back to around 3500BC. It would be a farming community with around eight huts taking pride of place in the site. We have also found pits with pottery and a giant fence that must have circled the village. Although other Neolithic villages have been found in Scotland, this is the only one I believe has been permanently lived in. We can see where the huts and kiln would have been. The residents moved further up the hill in the winter as the land was prone to flooding. We’re really like detectives and so far we have found some important artifacts including grooved-ware pottery and a kiln that we think is the oldest found in Scotland.”
I am salivating just reading the description of what was found here. Sorry, I’ll just go and wipe my mouth.
One thing that Lauren said that really struck home was that people in Dreghorn knew that an ancient settlement had been found in the town, but that was all they knew about it. It was like the site had taken on a mythical quality of its own, which would be all well and good but underlying this is a community who have been let down. Because archaeologists came, excavated, spoke to the papers, and then went away again. And that was it.
Lauren did some research as part of the placement that suggests that Dreghorn has embraced the discovery to an extent. It has become something of a branding for this place that it is the ‘Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’. Not snappy but pretty cool. References to this (erroneous) claim can be found online in various places, for instance in the wikipedia page for the town. I guess this impression was given by Tom Addyman himself who told the now defunct Today newspaper on 27th February 2004 that:
“People have always lived here, and have wanted to live here. Can’t think of any other site that has that depth and layering of occupation.”
The Neolithic discoveries in the village have, since the excavations, taken on the status of a a thing, although based on only wafer thin tit-bits of information.
As has already been touched on, the local people (and even some not so local) seem to have heard about Dreghorn and its impressive little title. It seems strange to me that no-one has really ever done any further ‘digging’ to see why it got the title in the first place. It is just something that is accepted. The information about the Station Brae site is out there (what little of it there is) but the information that can be found about this site in the public domain should be enough for the public to start questioning ‘what happened?’ Having spoken to a few locals about this and showing them the information in the public domain, I have found that the unfortunate reality is that they view it as ‘suspicious’. They tend to feel that something strange has happened at this site. The information tells us that this is a nationally important site and yet nothing further has been done to promote this or even investigate this. I must admit, I feel the same as them, although I can also see the dangers of this way of thinking as ‘professionals’ in this field can find it hard to gain and keep trust of the public as it is.
During the placement, Lauren and I visited the location of Station Brae. This is now a grassy bank with a flat top, crowned with older houses and a garage block with an urban goal painted on it. Fine views down to the Annick Water hint at the ideal location this would have been to live 5,000 years ago, just as it is now.
There is no indication whatsoever of what was found in this area before the adjacent newer houses were constructed, either in the lie of the land, or information for passers by and residents. It is impossible to imagine a timber Skara Brae standing here once, this village before the village.
After the visit, some discrete enquiries were made. What happened here? Without divulging too much information, it appears that the excavations were far more extensive and expensive that planned, and that the money simply stopped coming. No-one could afford to fund adequate post-excavation analysis, nevermind writing up the excavations, although enough resource was available for the material culture to be inspected and safely packaged up to go into storage. None of this stuff has been mis-treated, but nor has its full potential been realised.
The site is in limbo. There is no money to cover the substantial costs of analysing a very large assemblage of material (and that is just the Neolithic stuff I know about). Specialists would have to be paid, and someone or an organisation commissioned to write it all up, a major task as I well know being in the middle of writing up an excavation monograph myself.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case and other sites across Britain have been left in the same kind of situation: excavation done, archive and materials packaged up and put into storage, no more money to write it all up, and perhaps no real motivation or will to go back and sort it all out. There is only thing worse that having to write up an old excavation from a decade or more ago – that is writing up someone else’s old excavation, and in a sector as dynamic as heritage, this is likely what would have to happen. This is comparable to academic archaeologists, who have their own backlogs (as do I) but at least we have the safety net of a contractual situation that vaguely encourages us to spend some time sorting things out, and a career-progression motivation for publication.
I want to make it clear that I am not trying to blame the excavation team or the company that undertook the excavations, which were clearly to a high standard and carried out with rigour and enthusiasm. The team did a great job of getting the media interested in the site and they cannot be held financially liable for further work that has to be done. They also clearly tried to make things happen with this site and recognised its importance.
In this case, the developer also cannot easily be cast as the pantomime villain. In an interim report written by the archaeologists that I managed to obtain when researching this situation, it was clear that in January 2004 there was already a problem. A section in the report entitled ‘Costing’ noted that ‘additional funding sources’ to cover post-ex and publication costs were being sought. It was further noted that these costs were ‘an additional and unforeseen (as well as unwelcome) burden’ upon the developer who had otherwise been helpful and accomodating. In other words, I am guessing that the whole unexpected Neolithic and Medieval settlement bombshell had the potential to destroy budgeting and profit margins in the months and years after the excavations finished and that the original tender for the work, offered in good faith, was simply inadequate to deal with the spectacular discoveries subsequently made.
But I do want to blame the system.
The polluter pays principal is great when it all works, but what happens when it all goes to shit? Who has the ultimate responsibility of fulfilling the expectations of salivating prehistorians and a local population that have been left disappointed? How do we dance sites out of limbo?
There is an ongoing discussion in the heritage sector about this very problem.
Some say we should forget the older digs, write them off, dispose of the boxes of files, and move on.
Others say that Historic Environment Scotland (or Local Authorities) should step in and provide resources for these zombie excavations to be revived, albeit almost certainly at the tax-payers’ expense.
Another school of thought is that the whole system needs to change. A pool of money could be gathered using some kind of Development Tax, to be allocated as and when needed to ensure all remedial archaeology work related to development projects can be centrally funded and completed. This means that tendering would become less of a lottery, projects with almost no costs could not boost profits artificially, and really expensive excavations like Station Brae would not bankrupt anyone to deal with. Used in some European countries, this system might well be a solution going forward, but won’t help deal with backlogged limbo projects, of which there are, sadly, many.
This situation is all the more painful to me because of the urban location. Here, archaeologists, the developer and the system to one extent or another have let people down – the Neolithic people who lived here once, but also the current inhabitants of Dreghorn have been ill-served, with expectations raised of their town being a place of real significance in the ancient heritage of Scotland. There is now a brand to be lived up to – but how can the proud claim of deep time be evidenced, backed up, celebrated, with the site reduced to so many box files and packing cases?
With all this prehistoric evidence cropping up in such a small geographical space, maybe in the future we will be lucky enough carry out more investigations at the site of Station Brae. It would be great if more information on these sites could become available in the public domain so that people can learn about the history of their village and the significance of the archaeology that could potentially be lying in their own back gardens!
Going forward, hopefully by raising awareness of the site, it might encourage people to look further into what can be done to pull this amazing site into the mainstream. If we can go by what is reported in the draft report we have got hold of, then the finds from this site really could potentially be used to lend further understanding to a period of time we really don’t know that much about. Perhaps a crowdfunding initiative could be set up to find the funds needed to complete the post-ex work and write up required to make sense of what has been found here. If the community could take ownership and be proud of the potentially spectacular site that has been found here, I really think it would help raise an awareness that the public really do have an interest in sites like this, just as much as those who have a keen interest in the field and period. And who knows, maybe then, Dreghorn really would deserve its title, ‘Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’, or at least they would understand why this title stuck in the first place!
Sources and acknowledgements: firstly, I would like to thank Lauren for all of her hard work over the course of the placement, and it was a treat for me to get to the Station Brae site as I had read that one paragraph about it for so long! Lauren took me straight there with the knowledge only a local can have, an expertise in this place I could never hope to have. I would also like to thank the wonderful staff at Dundonald Castle for their hospitality during my trip to North Ayrshire, and Richard Hughes for allowing his great photo of the castle to be included in this post.
I sought advice from several seasoned, wise and experienced heritage professionals in the preparation of this post, and although my sources shall remain anonymous, I would like to thank them very much.
I thought long and hard about not naming an archaeologists or other parties involved in the excavation at Station Brae. However, I hope that our post makes it clear that the system is at fault here, and not the diggers or funders. A cursory search would have revealed identities for those who wanted to find out anyway.
The DES entry that started all of this off is: Addyman, T. 2004 Station Brae, Dreghorn (Dreghorn parish), Neolithic settlement with ritualistic component; medieval village’, Discovery Excav Scot, vol. 5. [open access, google Discovery Excavation Scotland]
In the post, a couple of my old papers were referred to. In case anyone wants to follow these up, they are:
Brophy, K 2000 Wet Drybridge: a cursus in Ayrshire. In J Harding & R Johnston (eds) Northern Pasts: Interpretations of the later prehistory of northern England and southern Scotland, 45–56. BAR: Oxford.
Brophy, K 2006 Rethinking Scotland’s Neolithic: combining circumstance and context. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 136, 7–46 [open access, google article or journal name]
Brophy, K 2007 From big house to cult house: early Neolithic timber halls in Scotland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 73, 75–96.
Brophy, K. 2016. On ancient farms: Neolithic settlement in mainland Scotland, in Brophy, K, Ralston, IBM and Macgregor, G (eds) 2016 The Neolithic of mainland Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, pages 200-235.
This blog post has been written to coincide with a paper I gave at the first ever Scottish Students Archaeology Society Conference held in the University of Glasgow on the weekend of 27th and 28th January 2018. My paper was entitled Houses upon houses: the impact of urbanisation on our understanding of Neolithic settlement in Scotland and at some point in the future will be available to view on youtube. I’ll update this post with a link when that happens.
The rather lovely conference logo
As part of preparing my lecture I revisited an urban prehistory site that I blogged about in May 2016, a Neolithic settlement site that was found in advance of a housing development in Cowie, near Stirling. The blog post, Houses upon houses, was a reflection on how archaeology could as a discipline do better to utilize the results of developer-funded excavations, in terms of how we synthesize such data, but also how results are disseminated and what community benefits might accrue from exciting (and even mundane) discoveries. In the case of this housing estate, some of the roads had been given prehistoric sounding names to reflect the remarkable Late Neolithic site that GUARD excavated in 1995. This was an easy win in a sense although does not necessarily tell those who move(d) into this area exactly what was found because their houses had to be built there.
A more imaginative and substantive development happened at Cowie that also drew directly on the prehistoric archaeology but in a potentially more powerful way than the street names – the creation of a children’s playground that was inspired by aspects of what GUARD found, although when I first visited this place I didn’t actually go to the playground because I didn’t find out about it until after the event.
In my first post about Cowie, I assigned the design of this playpark to Judi Legg and Mike Hyatt, and quoted on the design process:
Local children paid a visit to a pre-history park, Archaeolink, and many of the ideas they got from this visit as well as information about the pre-historic Cowie site itself have been built into the design of the park, which includes shelters, cooking and seating areas, and a raised beach, as well as mounds, tunnels, slides and a climbing wall. The children’s involvement in the design development has meant that the design concept which underpins the site layout contains elements which the children understand and which feel familiar to them.
The co-production and imagination that went into this was impressive to say the least. The images I found online of the playpark, such as those below, showed aspects of the excavation results did indeed directly effect the design. For instance, a circular arrangement of mounds with structures inside mirrors the Late Neolithic double-skinned roundhouses found by Atkinson and team. That the material form of this – mounds and not organic structures – was not entirely accurate did not dilute the effect I don’t think.
The house that inspired the circular playground feature
The playpark itself was established a few years after the houses were built after a tragic accident there involving a child. The local community formed a group which campaigned for a safe playpark and the site – which overlies where some of the archaeology was found – was designed with the help of the children themselves, a nice example of co-production. The park cost £110,000 to build and was funded by Section 75 housing developers’ contributions, BBC Children in Need, the Stirling Landfill Tax Trust and Cowie Play Areas Group local fundraising events. Maintenance is provided by the local authority.
I wanted to close a loop, so the day before I gave my lecture I paid a quick visit to the playground which was both frosty and empty as I walked around in the beautiful and dazzling sunlight. Although I found that the form of the playground was creative and exciting, I was also disappointed to see that the site had suffered a decline over the past decade or so and some of the nice features built into the playpark were simply gone or were unrecognizable due to missing elements.
The park itself is called Lost World, which I love, and this name was cast into the sturdy metal and wooden gate into the park, which can be reached by following a narrow pathway between two houses on Flint Crescent.
Once inside the park, it is clear that this is a place that aspires for an organic look using timber and earthwork features that are unusually arranged to draw on excavation results. Boulders were also strewn around. It had a very naturalistic feel even although it channels an anthropomorphic place. The centre of the park is dominated by a curving long mound with tunnels running through it and slides adorning its sides, while there are normal and weird trees dotted around. A looping path meanders around the park and there is always something to look at. Boring it is not.
A nice little Neolithic-style house was evident and in one piece, and although it looked more like a Wessex Late Neolithic house than an Eastern Lowland Scotland one, I suspect excitable children could not care less about that! Or maybe it is a little raised granary? It looks like the playground has interpretive challenges for visitors of all ages.
As I walked around, it was clear that elements of the park were missing or had declined somewhat since the glory days of their first erection. In particular, the long mound, which I had to haul myself atop using a rope, had a huge gouge taken out of the middle to the extent that is had its own sandy stratigraphy.
Upon looking back at old photos, this gap was created by the removal of a large wooden structure that used to be here.
The circular earthwork setting, based on the Neolithic roundhouse plan, also appeared to have several somethings missing in the middle.
Upon closer inspection, remnants of the structures that had once stood here (inspired by ideas of sitting around the fireplace in the middle of a house I would imagine) could still be seen on the ground, the archaeology of an archaeological playground.
The arrangement of boulders, a hearth of sorts, is barely recognizable anymore and this is where the problem with such well-meaning endeavours sometimes arises. There is the awkward question of sustainability. I have seen this so many times before. Noticeboards get dirty and difficult to read or simply become out-of-date. Signs are removed, fall down or become obsolete. Metal constructions rust. Wood falls apart or burns. Earthworks slump or have cars driven over them. No-one has the money to fix the problems. It is unclear who should do this work. The original players in making things happen have moved on.
In other words, attempts to celebrate, preserve and educate the public about archaeological sites often themselves fall victim to the processes of entropy that the archaeological materials underwent in the past that caused the situation in the first place.
None of this is necessarily the fault of an individual or organisation but something has gone wrong and sometimes it is not clear how the problem can be fixed.
As far as I can see Cowie’s Neolithic village, their own Lost World, is in danger of becoming lost again. This is not through anything other than a basic lack of sustainability and funding which are absolutely commonplace problems not just in the heritage sector but also in the age of austerity in which we live.
Yet this is still a wonderful park and there are more ideas and imagination stuffed into this small corner on the edge of a housing estate than is normal. Perhaps the local authority can be persuaded to tidy this up properly, or maybe the community can once again lift themselves to work in a common cause inspired by social need and prehistory. Suggestions made to me both on twitter and at the conference itself suggest to me that there could be a really nice project here, both in documenting this unique playground but also rebuilding, refreshing and – something that was missing I think first time around – really explaining to park users what this is all about. I will see what I can do to help make some of this happen.
It really is a place where it is possible to feel you can reach out and touch the past. Or at least climb up, slide down and crawl through the past.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the organisation team for the conference for asking me to speak and allowing me to take an urban prehistory angle!
The excavation report for this site is available open access online. It is John Atkinson 2002 Excavation of a Neolithic occupation site at Chapelfield, Cowie, Stirling, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 139-192. The original photos of the playground with the wooden structure in the mound came from the Wild Scot website, as did the extended quotation and the information about the costs, funding and designers. The other old playpark photos came from Stirling Council Play Services and the Free Play Network. Thanks to those who suggested ideas at the conference and on twitter, I will actively be pursuing these.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
However, the most visible attempt to make good the ongoing hurt caused by the mall’s construction is the Shellmound 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.
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.
Ironically, this monument has become the main focus for the annual Black Friday protests against the Mall and the treatment of the dead.
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.
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.
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).
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.