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What happens when the polluter can’t pay? The sad case of Station Brae

2 Mar

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.

Lauren meeting Steve Timoney UHI

Lauren discussing Balfarg henge with Dr Steven Timoney, UHI, during the placement

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.

Drybridge cursus canmore_image_SC00842714

Drybridge cursus from the air in 1977 (c) HES canmore_image_SC008427

Wet Drybridge extract

Pictures of a walk KB did along the Drybridge cursus in the late 1990s (source: Brophy 2000)

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’.

Excavation photo

Station Brae excavation site viewed from the east. This image is from an unpublished draft report on the first stages of the excavation that came into our possession.

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.

Station Brae location map

The urban location of the Station Brae site

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.

Map from Brophy 2006

X marks the spot. A map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland. Station Brae is immediately to the west of Biggar Common on the coast (source: Brophy 2006)

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.

PSAS 2007 map

Station Brae did not make it on to my terrible 2007 map

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.

Dundonald Castle from the air

Dundonald Castle (photo: Richard Hughes)

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.”

Neolithic pit

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.

Back again.

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.

Villages of Britain image


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.

Station Brae

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.

Interim report title

This is the only detailed information I could find about the site, an interim report from mid-way through the excavations, obtained via an anonymous source.

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?

Timber hall

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.



Lost world

27 Jan

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.

conference logo jpgThe 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.

Flint Crescent low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

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.

Playground photo 1

Neolithic house planThe 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.

Playground photo 3

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.

Panorama low res

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.

Lost world low res

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.

General view low res

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.

Neolithic house low res

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.

Gap in the mound low res 1

Gap in the mound low res 2

Upon looking back at old photos, this gap was created by the removal of a large wooden structure that used to be here.

wildside designs photo

The park when first constructed: the wooden structure in the middle of the mound has gone leaving the gap that can be seen in my own 2018 photos (Wild Scot)

The circular earthwork setting, based on the Neolithic roundhouse plan, also appeared to have several somethings missing in the middle.

Then and now

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 former timber setting

Remnants 2

The former log seats 

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.

General view 2 low res

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.

Tunnel low res

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.

Reach out low res

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.  




The mall and the mound part 2: The monument

29 Dec

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

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

Mound map

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


The Mall

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

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

abalone pendant 1999

Abalone pendant, found during 1999 excavations (source)

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

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


The mall

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

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

Remember, this is a shopping mall.


Bay Street shopping (creative commons licence)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b-2-ohlone4-start Sheila Ghidini



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

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

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

shellmound street

Source: Megalithic Portal

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



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

Aerial view of the monument SFGate

An early photo of the monument before it grassed over properly

Shellmound_Emeryville_the monument

Source: Creative Commons licence

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


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


Source: East Bay Times



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

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

Places you can no longer goFactories and mall cartoon

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

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


Chris Walker for the Indian People Organising for Change

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

save west berkeley shellmound

Source: Tom Lochner, East Bay Times

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


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

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

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

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

The mall and the mound part 1: Un-fair

15 Dec

Friday 24th November 2017.

Black Friday.

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


Words that are designed to shock.

From twitter 2017 protest image

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

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

This is what happens when urban prehistory gets serious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Shell midden in Maine detail photo

Maine shellmound detail (NY Times)

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

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

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



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

Shellmound and fairground Uhre 1907

The shellmound and dance pavilion (from Uhre 1907)

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


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


Excavations and the paint factory

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

Excavation trench 1902 Uhre 1907

1902 trench (from Uhle 1907)

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

Chert flakes Uhre 1907

Chert flakes found in the shellmound (from Uhle 1907)

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

Emeryville_Shellmound1 being levelled 1924

The desolation of the shellmound (1924)

Two views of the mound in 1924

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

Schenk report title

Extract from Schenk 1926

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

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

Shell beads and discs

Shell beads and discs from the mound (Schenk 1926)

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

Grave goods and burial associations

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

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

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


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

To be continued.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Houses upon houses

30 May

There has been a lot of media and social media reaction to the new planning legislation proposed in the recent Queen’s speech, namely the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill. This Bill appears to be based on the premise that archaeological evaluations and other similar mitigatory processes which happen after planning permission has been granted are in some cases holding up development, or being exploited for financial ends, perhaps even regarded by some as frivolous. And so the idea is that this stage of the process could be by-passed in order to deliver the government’s aim to “deliver one million new homes, whilst protecting those areas that we value most including the Green Belt” – and creating lots of new jobs / apprenticeships. Blah blah blah of course they would say that, maybe even with a straight face.

Anyway, this new piece of legislation appears very much to be an attempt to bypass normal planning requirements in England such as dealing properly with any archaeological sites, the rationale I suppose being that archaeological work is expensive and thus gets in the way of money-making enterprises like house-building and economic development. The outcry from the archaeological profession has been loud, with for instance a petition against the legislation having over 15,500 signatories at the time of writing (30/05/16), and lots of angry tweeting going on. The petition has the rather hyperbolic opening line:

Britain has some of the most amazing and diverse archaeological remains in the world, however the new Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill announced today puts all of this at risk, leading to the destruction of our past for good.

In my opinion this kind of statement plays to the view that many have of archaeology as a profession, one of conservatism, complaining, protesting, often for motivations that seem closely aligned to protection for protection’s sake and knowledge gathering for knowledge’s sake. (I have tweeted sentiments to this effect previously regarding protests as varied as those against the Stonehenge tunnel and the housing development near Old Oswestry Fort.)

More balanced  and constructive responses are typified by that of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) which raised concerns for the viability of the heritage sector as a whole and the jobs that come with it, dependent as it is on developer-funded work, although this sector has diversified a lot in recent years. And recent media coverage appears to suggest that if anything the job market for archaeologists can’t keep up with demand, although whether this equates to floods of new good well-paid sustainable jobs is another matter (lets just say it probably doesn’t).

On the one hand I am worried that this legislation – which will apply only to England – will indeed mean the loss and destruction of countless archaeological sites in green belt locations and peri-urban landscapes. On the other hand, perhaps as archaeologists we sometimes fight the wrong battles. We should not necessarily see our profession being defined by developer-funded work alone (unless of course it is a news story about Stonehenge) for instance. These are real-world problems with very real implications for the historic environment and landscape change.

I think we need another strategy. We need to accept that as archaeologists we are part of an economy that thrives on eternal growth (a fictitious concept of course but that is the capitalist fantasy land we currently live in) and this includes always finding more things for the ‘construction industry’ to build. This is all the more pressing given that there is a housing crisis in the UK, with expectations of continual population rise in coming years from various different drivers.

Therefore, as archaeologists, we cannot just throw our hands up in horror about the crude weighting of value we see before us (economic growth v archaeological record) and fall back on out-dated notions of conservatism and activism. Rather, we need to make the case more strategically that heritage professionals can add so much value to developments and construction projects that the country as a whole cannot afford not to make sure archaeology is taken seriously as part of the planning process at all times. I’m afraid this doesn’t just mean: ‘please take note of the archaeology, it’s really interesting and we could really, really do with another box of Grooved Ware or Green Glaze in our museum store room, plus I don’t think we have quite enough grey literature yet’. Heritage and the past is not inherently valuable – being old does not necessarily equate with value for money or even public interest – and so we live in an age where ‘added value’ is required in our words and actions.

And so what I am suggesting is that we should not bemoan the Government’s actions or actively try to derail them with the trying to maintain the status quo and promote sensationalist petitions, but rather use this an opportunity to make the point that heritage professionals can and do work with developers of all sizes to add value to their projects rather than cost them money, hold them up and generally get in the way (which, like it or not, appears to be how Government ministers view our profession, and probably a lot of develops and businesses do too).

Developers need to be persuaded of the benefits to them (economically, reputationally, and perhaps also in terms of their own community engagement aspirations) to engage with the archaeology, deal with it adequately, and then make use of this for their own promotional purposes etc. This has worked well for instance with BAA and Framework Archaeology relating to Heathrow T5 construction, and just about the only time London’s Crossrail makes the news in positive terms is related to archaeological discoveries.


Cowie a walk map

I want to make this point using my own modest example. Last week, I visited a small housing estate on the edge of the Stirling village of Cowie. Here, the construction of houses in the late 1990s allowed a previously unknown Neolithic site of national importance to be discovered and fully excavated. The discovery of rare examples of houses and farming evidence (via a fine assemblage of quernstones) at Chapelfield, Cowie, has added much to our understanding of Neolithic settlement in Scotland, and the site is referred to in the literature frequently. However, I would argue that value was added to the lives of those living in this new housing estate by other means than traditional archaeological outputs, namely by the ways that the results of the excavation were used – in street names, for instance, but also in the co-production of a prehistorically themed children’s play park. Much more could have been done, but this was not just a cut and shut operation which cost the developer plenty-much cash and time with the only minor outcome a footnote in academic books and papers, and a couple of boxes in a storeroom.

General street view low res

The discovery of a Neolithic site here was a surprise. The housing development was proposed by Ogilvie Builders Ltd in the mid-1990s, and GUARD, a commercial archaeology company (at that time based within the University of Glasgow) carried out an initial evaluation. It was thought that there was an Iron Age ditch in the field where the houses were to be built, but evaluation trenches revealed something altogether different – and much, much older: ‘a series of structures defined by stake-holes and a number of pits containing Neolithic pottery’ (John Atkinson 2002, 139). So a really big excavation was carried out, paid for by the developers, Historic Scotland and the regional authority.

Oops. Source is Atkinson 2002. No offence meant.

Oops. Source of the images and information is Atkinson 2002.


Excavations at Cowie in 1995 (source: Atkinson 2002).

Excavations at Cowie in 1995 (source: Atkinson 2002).

The outcome was the excavation of a complex Neolithic settlement which included a range of oval and round stake-built structures (with few parallels in Northern Britain). These dated to both the Early and Late Neolithic. Associated with different phases of activity were a series of pits which contained broken quernstones, axe fragments, Arran pitchstone blades, charcoal and Neolithic Carinated Ware pottery. It could be argued that the deposits places in these pits were in part the detritus of everyday life, although these may have been deposited in line with social rules about rubbish, taboo or rituals. Whatever. I’m not getting into the whole Neolithic pit argument here. A few pits that provided Mesolithic radiocarbon dates suggests that this location was used at least in passing up to 8000-10000 years ago. Wow.


Today? It is a quiet suburb (if a village can have a suburb), and even on a sunny Monday afternoon, the only people I saw walking about were pushing prams. As I walked around the three streets that define this small estate, I also saw a succession of white vans going back and forth, while occasional chatter from back gardens floated in the feeble breeze. There seemed nothing exceptional about this place – except the deep time. On and off this had been a place for people to live, eat, drink, sleep, and walk around with babies, for at least 5500 years.

Neolithic village low res

These were houses upon houses. Paths upon paths. Beds upon beds. Kitchens above hearths. Dinner plates over pottery bowls. Loaves of bread over quernstone-powdered barley. Toast over carbonised wheat. An awesome example of what archaeology can tell us about the seemingly most mundane and normal of places.

houses upon houses map

It must have been decided that the prehistoric discoveries here were worthy of marking in street names (and I have reflected on the power of these in a previous blog post) and it has been done very nicely here: Flint Crescent. Ochre Crescent. Roundhouse. The latter road, the one into the estate, being afforded a single word that I could find on only two signs. This contrasts with the fate of the Neolithic timber cursus excavated during housing construction in the 1980s at Bannockburn, just 2 miles to the west: remnants of this huge monument lie beneath houses, tarmac and a bed and breakfast, but it has been completely forgotten.

Roundhouse 2 low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

Ochre low res

Flint Cres low res

These street names are quirky and nice although it doesn’t mean that the people who moved into these houses had any sense of the deeply engrained ancient use of this particular place or the significance of the unusual street names. I have suggested before that archaeological discoveries made during housing developments should be made more widely known to those seeking to buy, information included with the house schedule for example. Street names alone are probably not enough to convey this information.

During my walk, I came across a blank road sign offered a tempting opportunity for me to come up with a less ambiguously Neolithic place name, but my chalk would not make a mark on its glossy black surface.

Suggestions welcome....

Suggestions welcome….

However, after the houses had been built, a more tangible and exciting possibility emerged – the creation of a children’s play park with a prehistoric theme. The need for a park was actually prompted by the sad death of a child by drowning in a pond next to the houses. The designers of the park, Judi Legg and Mike Hyatt, drew inspiration from the Neolithic archaeology that had been found when the houses were being constructed. This led to local children being asked to actively help design the park in a prehistoric style:

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. 

Playground photo 1

Playground photo 2

Playground photo 3

Children also helped choose and plant trees and hedgerows in and around the park, which was officially opened in 2006. It is regarded as an example of good practice by the Free Play Network because of the freedom to roam afforded to kids, although I would suggest the co-production of the park form, and the inspiration of the prehistoric archaeology found here, are also wonderful and innovative elements of this park.

Flint Crescent low res

As I said before, this is a modest example, where archaeological evaluation and intervention during the planning and development process has resulted in amazing archaeological discoveries. But there is much more to it – the very fabric of the housing estate and the identity of those who live(d) there is entangled in street (place) names, while the prehistoric discoveries here eventually helped inspire children’s play facilities and some amazing educational opportunities for local kids. Of course, I am under no illusions that most folk who live there now may well know nothing about any of the prehistoric pre-history of where they live, and I would imagine much more could be done to inform, amaze and inspire the local community. But the information is there, the work has been done, and none of this could have happened without the active collaboration of archaeologists, developer and local authority – potentially a relationship under threat in England from the Tory Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill.

If we are to be taken seriously as a sector, and want to really impact on how the planning process works, we need to be proactive and not reactive. We need to make the positive case for responsible, sustainable and meaningful engagements with the archaeological record during the planning and development process. We need to argue for the added value that heritage and deep-time depths can bring to new suburban communities. We need to make the point that the construction industry will thrive and benefit from working with heritage professionals precisely because of all that expensive and time-consuming ancient stuff that is out there under the ground waiting to be found. And we need to acknowledge that landscapes change, that society has needs, and that many aspects of the historic environment will, eventually, be swept away.

In other words there is a business case to be made for treating the past as an investment in the future – and I would argue this case will do more to ‘save our archaeology’ than any petition you care to sign.

Neolithic village fake sign low res

Sources and acknowledgements: I have mentioned and linked to my sources in the text above. For context, this post was written between 25-30th May 2016. The excavation report for Chapelfield, Cowie is freely available online – full details are: 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 first two playground photos were sourced from the website (link above) and this was also the source of the extended quotation used in my post, while the third photo was posted by the Free Play Network and attributed to Stirling Council Play Services.

Panopticon megalith

18 May

Panopticon: ‘a building, such as a prison, hospital, library, or the like, so arranged that all parts of the interior are visible from a single point’.

Stone circle: a prehistoric panopticon.


This is the story of a stone circle that is trapped – stuck in concrete, cornered at the end of a dead-end. A stone circle that has suffered more than most due to the encroachment of suburbia and urban expansion, and yet despite this, still exists, albeit it in a heavily moderated and modified form. It still matters. This is the story of a stone circle that we should not give up on, even although a decade ago it seemed that everyone had. This is the story of the greystanes of New Scone, the Sandy Road stone circle.

Greystanes cul de sac low res

The stone circle is tucked away, almost out of sight, at the end of a short road, hemmed in on all sides by houses and the familiar trappings of urban furniture – cars, lamp posts, kerbs, hard core, wood chippings, generically boring plants, doors, door steps, windows, window ledges, hanging baskets, low walls, grey bricks, grey paving stones.

Greystanes in Greystanes.

Greystanes low res

The stone circle is inconspicuous, disguised as an abstract piece of landscape gardening, like a group of artfully and craftily arranged boulders, sitting amidst grey-white pebbles and bright pink, purple and yellow heathers. Ankle high vegetation and knee high stones. A process has occurred that has transformed this stone circle into a circle of stones. It has been cul-de-sacked.

Sandy Road low res

I visited this stone circle, known as Sandy Road, in Scone, Perth and Kinross (NMRS number NO12NW 28) a few months ago. I have to be honsest and say that I felt uncomfortable during my visit. The monument seems to be completely surrounded by windows, holes with eyes, viewing platforms through which to watch strangers like me armed with cameras and small photographic scales and notebooks.

Curtains twitched, dogs barked aggressively, letter boxes rattled.

Woof woof. Stranger danger. Megalithic meddler. Weirdo. What is he up to?

I am alone, but not alone, being watched by house dwellers and passers-by with their shopping bags, being sensed and sniffed by dogs. I felt that I had invaded the senses of this place and caused a disturbance.

two of the stones

The stone circle in New Scone was first documented in detail by the redoubtable Fred Coles, who wrote abou this ‘remarkable’ monument in 1909 as part of one of his wider reviews of standing stones in the county. (Gavin MacGregor has blogged about some nice work Coles did a few decades earlier in SW Scotland in relation to cup-and-ring marks.) When Coles visited the Scone area, the circle still lay outwith the boundaries of western side of the town, beside Sandy Road, and a fir tree plantation. He recorded nine stones, seven of which were in situ, in a slightly elliptical setting 22 or so feet across. As well as drawing a lovely sketch of the stones, Coles also included in his report a photograph taken by a local man, Mr William Small. (An intriguing footnote records: ‘Mr Small is interesting himself in the skilful use of his camera in connection with the megalithic remains to be found in the districts adjacent to Perth.’)

Fred Coles' sketch of the Sandy Road stone circle pre-urbanisation

Fred Coles’ sketch of the Sandy Road stone circle pre-urbanisation

William Small photo from PSAS

Coles’ insightful comments on the stone circle came when the monument was untroubled by anything other than the activities of forestry workers. This was viewed a few decades later as being the cause of the loss of an supposed second small stone setting adjacent to Sandy Road. However, no firm evidence has been found to confirm there were two stone circles, with scattered boulders on the surface likely causing mid-identification – confusingly some of these boulders are part of the current display of the monument.

The monument before excavation (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

The monument before excavation (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

By 1961, the immobile stone circle finally clashed with creeping urbanisation, with the point of fusion being a trowel and then machines of the building trade. The expansion of New Scone on its western side, growing along Sandy Road, resulted in the circle coming under serious threat. This resulted in a series of traumatic events in the life of the monument. Firstly, the site was excavated by Margaret Stewart in 1961. She discovered a cinerary urn in a pit in the centre of the circle which contained a few cremated human bones; this was subsequently radiocarbon dated but with unsatisfactory results. In 1963 the OS recorded that the stone circle sat ‘in the middle of a council housing estate in the course of construction’. And then, by 1965, an OS fieldworker noted, ‘These stones have been temporarily removed. There are seven stones, which have been numbered and are to be cemented in position.’ And so the circle went into storage, only to be returned to the cold grey grip of concrete later that year, moving in at the same time as the new residents.

What then? The circle was by now just another garden feature, a folly in a cul-de-sac which had at least been named after the monument: Greystanes. And a  noticeboard was erected at the end of the road, to explain to residents (and visitors) what this megalithic curio was.

The noticeboard in 2006, photo (c) Cosmic

The noticeboard in 2006, photo (c) Cosmic

Yet there was clearly some kind of decline, and a lack of management of the monument. The noticeboard was removed at some point (I am not sure when, but it is certainly gone now). The stone circle itself became overgrown with vegetation, at first trees, and then shrubs and weeds.

The stone circle, overgrown and sad looking, in 2006 (c) Cosmic

The stone circle, overgrown and sad looking, in 2006 (c) Cosmic

The monument has of course been substantially tidied up since then, although upon close examination, it still bears the scars of its removal, storage and replacement. Cracks and splits in some of the stones suggest that some were broken during these invasive procedures, and subsequently glued together with some kind of synthetic adhesive.

Cracked stone

Cracked stone

There are also hints at other contemporary urban interactions. On two stones, yellow paint has been daubed onto them, on one in the form of a rough square, the other no more than a casual brush stroke.

yellow paint on stone low res

yellow paint on stone low res 2

This is what happens in urban places, with graffiti evident on other structures in the nearby park, such as this skateboard ramps, bins, trees, signposts and this obscured sign, another lost Scone noticeboard.

obscured noticeboard low res

And recently, the circle has come under minor threat from a very modern source – underground wiring related to, presumably phones, cable TV or broadband. Watching briefs were carried out by archaeologists in 2009 and 2012 because of works associated with ‘repair of communication equipment’ and the ‘repair of malfunctioning communications equipment’. Nothing of archaeological significance was found, and the monument suffered no further damage.

The urn from the stone circle, on display at Perth Museum and Art Gallery (their copyright)

The urn from the stone circle, on display at Perth Museum and Art Gallery (their copyright)

This stone circle, then, has suffered much in the name of progress and suburban utility, our convenience being at its inconvenience. But this is not to say that the circle is an irrelevance. A few years ago archaeologist Mark Hall (of Perth Museum and Art Gallery) brought the urn from the museum back to the stone circle where it was discovered, in a show-and-tell session with the local residents, and there was a lot of interest. This was a fantastic thing to do, and the response shows that there is a real desire from the community to learn more about this monument – and this is likely also reflected in the much tidied and regenerated appearance of the Greystanes as opposed to a decade ago.

Mark Hall at the Sandy Road stone circle (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

Mark Hall at the Sandy Road stone circle (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

So perhaps I got my visit all wrong. It could well be that the Greystanes residents were not spying on me, but intrigued by my presence, maybe even proud that a visitor had come to their street to see their stone circle. Urban stone circles can continue to be useful to us today if we use them, look after them, make them look nice, and occasionally remember that they are indeed ancient places, despite the heather and concrete and all the other trappings of contemporary urban life.

Those who are lucky enough to live with a stone circle at their front door have ringside seats overlooking prehistory.

Sources and acknowledgements: I must firstly thank Mark Hall for letting me know about this site, explaining his activities there, and sending me – and allowing me to reproduce – some of the photos used in this post. The photo of the site before excavation, the image of the urn and the final photo, with Mark sitting on one of the stones, are all copyright Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland and reproduced with permission. The urn is on display at the museum. The images of the overgrown circle, and the noticeboard, came from the Megalithic Portal pages for the site, and were posted there in 2006 by user ‘Cosmic’. Fred Coles’ description of his site, and his illustrations, come from his article ‘Report on stone circles surveyed in Perthshire (Southeast District), with measured plans and drawings’ published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) volume 43 (1909) from page 127 onwards – you can find this article online for free if you google for it. Information on the recent watching briefs and the OS accounts of the circle came from the CANMORE page for the site. Margaret Stewart’s excavation report was published in 1965 in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Perthshire Society of Natural Sciences, volume 11, pages 7-23.