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Beneath the motorway

7 May

This is a blog post that appeared not to want to be written.

Computer crashes, lack of focus, lost information, inadequate note-keeping, rain, over-complication: all have conspired to ensure that my rather simple story about a park in Manchester with a stone circle and a ruined church has yet to be written.

So I now I finally want to write this story and keep it simple. Let’s see how it goes.

Signs on the gates low res

All Saints Park, or Grosvenor Park, is located on Oxford Road in Manchester, on the campus of Manchester Metropolitan University, and I used to pass it every now and again when I visited Manchester University just down the road. I popped into the park one summer day a few years ago attracted by a tree that had been wrapped in red fabric.

Wrapped tree June 2013 low res

Once inside this compact little square park, I noticed two things: a strange megalithic monument located in one corner of the park, and a low wall right in the middle of the park that marked the location of an old church. There was clearly deep time here, and a few stories to be uncovered. And as I continued to pop into the park when in Manchester, I realised all sorts of stuff was going on here. There are megaliths and memorials, art installations and scientific experiments, signs and bins, cheeky graffiti, and right in the middle of it all, the ghostly footprint of the destroyed church. Much of this goes unnoticed by the many students from the adjacent Manchester Metropolitan University who hang around here between lectures or at lunchtime, or buy fruit and veg or snacks from pavement stalls outside the park.

the happy bin low res

And almost overhead, just to the north, runs the Mancunian Way (A57(M)), an urban motorway, which offers a suitably Ballardian tone to the park – and automatically made me think of Glasgow, another city with an urban motorway. The sound of cars thundering overhead complements the continual hum of buses going up and down the majestic Oxford Road.

As we’ll see, concrete is on the ground – as well as in the air.

1962694_46a970b8

The Mancunian Way flyover on Oxford Road (Creative Commons licence, photo taken by David Dixon)

One of the most remarkable things about this park is that it is consecrated ground. At each of the four entrances to the park, on the cardinal points, stands a short angular megalith with a plaque on it.

plinth low res.jpg

Each says the same thing:

GROSVENOR SQUARE

former All Saints Church burial ground

the MANCHESTER METROPOLITAN

UNIVERSITY

improved the square in 1995 for the benefit

of both its students and the general public.

This is still consecrated ground

PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT

Cycling, ball games and the consumption of

alcohol are not permitted, dogs must be on a

leash and litter placed in the bin provided.

This introductory text acts as a  gentle warning to park-users and dog-owners, but also as an ode to the park. There is a poetic quality to this potted history, which hints at the protracted and special nature of this places which derives directly from its past use.

This is consecrated ground. PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT.

The dead were laid to rest here, and this was once a sacred site. It isn’t any more, and yet this park cannot escape its past or the rites that were once carried out here. There are bodies beneath the grass and stories to be uncovered beneath our feet.

general view low res

The Church that once stood – All Saints Church – seems to have been cursed. It was opened for business in April 1820, a large and foreboding structure, but seemed to be ill-starred from very early in its life, for instance being badly damaged by a fire when it had stood for only 30 years.

All Saints Church

All Saints Church. Copyright owned by Chetham’s Library, Manchester (www.chethams.org.uk/)

The church gradually ran down in the 20th century, with its cemetery converted to a children’s play park by the 1930s, thus creating the link between youthful leisure and the subterranean cemetery for the first time.

And then came destruction in the form of German bomb which hit the church during the ‘Christmas Blitz’ in 1940.

The church was finally demolished in 1949 as it had become ruinous with no hope of reconstruction.

Church being demolished in 1949

The Church before final demolition in 1949

All Saints still has a presence in the park today in the form of a remarkable ground plan which is almost impossible to discern or make sense of from the ground. Various key aspects of the building are marked out in low walls, paving slabs and large stone cubes. I am not sure when this was done – perhaps in the 1995 refurbishment mentioned on the plaques.

chruch walls low resOn one of my first visits to the park in 2013, a small pile of coins had built up on one of these stone cubes, mostly coppers.

coins on the cube low res

At some point in the recent past, an artist called Grotbags used one of these cubist blocks to display dominoes made from cigarette packets. Death in little black boxes.

dominoes by grotbags

The exploded plan of this church is most effectively viewed from the air (or google earth), where its symmetrical design and layout becomes apparent. (I had drawn an annotated plan of the park to show this, but lost it, very much in keeping with this emergence of this post.) The church therefore is almost impossible to appreciate from the ground, an abstract collage of stonework and slabs. Laying out the ground plan of an old ruinous structures is a classic heritage technique used to illustrate historic and Roman buildings, and I can think of many similar examples I have visited where wall foundations, doorways and internal features are visible in manicured grass to give a 2D impression of a 3D building. Yet this is a much more impressionistic interpretative version of the church….and the walls are curiously similar to those at the partially reconstructed Neolithic village of Barnhouse in Orkney (which itself had at its centre the church-like House 8).

barnhouse photo

Barnhouse Late Neolithic building reconstruction on Orkney (photo by Sigurd Towrie)

 

There is a lot to make sense of here already – an abstract church, destroyed by a firestorm from the air, now preserved in stone and slabs. Around this, a grassed over cemetery. And then there is the stone circle. Or rather, stone spiral.

red tree and park low res

Tucked into the back corner of the park, hidden behind trees, a hedge and various additional concrete blocks which appear to have been scattered randomly (perhaps leftovers), is a remarkable spiral structure consisting of a series of  flat standing stones. These are embedded in the hedgerow and are mirrored by a narrow paved pathway, drawing the visitor into the vortex. The stones sit side on to the flow of the spiral, acting more as orthostats than single uprights, giving this monument the feel of an Orkney tomb like Midhowe (another weird Orkney connection).

stone spiral 1 low res

stone spiral 2 low res

stone spiral 3 low res

In the centre of this spiral lies an altar or shrine with a basin on top, usually filled with rainwater, leaves and coins (at least when I have visited). Perhaps it is a bird bath. This concrete cube sits within a cobbled circle with more of the rough stone cubes found across the park on its fringe.

shrine low res

Here I have to be honest. When I initially researched this stone circle, I am sure I discovered that it was a monument to African slaves, but I confess the definitive version of this information and the source alludes me at this time. Certainly the monument has a certain calm beauty to it despite its urban location.

memorials low res

And the circle sits in an area of the park that has become a memorial – to friends, to family members. Just beside the standing stones, small improvised shrines have begun to emerge amidst the flowers and the trees. Some of these are for named individuals, such as Souvik Pal, a student whose body was found in a Manchester canal in January 2013.

souvik pal memorial low res

I want to stop my story here, in the spirit of keeping things simple. This lovely park is well worth a visit, not just for the hidden megaliths with the mysterious meaning, but also for the flowers and memorialisation of the dead, both recent and Victorian, and for the demolished church, and for the things left on the stone blocks, and the graffiti, and even the stuff that hangs from the trees.

It is also a perfect place to have lunch in the sun. All Saints and no saints. Sinners and sandwiches.

tree hanging

John Hyatt and Craig Martin’s artwork, Fireflies in Manchester

I was in Manchester again a few weeks ago, and once again looked in on the park, although this time rain got the better of me, and I turned and walked away back to the city centre, beneath the motorway which seemed to have been emptied of the homeless people who usually congregate there, urban casualties in their concrete cocoon.

I am drawn to this place, fated to keep coming back to the roads and the park, the angles of the concrete, the impossible juxtapositions.

Urban parks can be special places – and All Saints Park is a very special place.

Sources and acknowledgements: some of the images used above have been ctedited to external sources already. The photo of the church being demolished was sourced from a website dedicated to curating old photos of Manchester. The Barnhouse photo comes from Sigurd Towrie’s excellent Orkneyjar website (note, how can I not have a photo of Barnhouse in my own collection?). The David Dixon photo is reproduced under the terms of a creative commons licence. All the other photos are my own.  For more information on Fireflies in Manchester, follow this link. I have no idea who Grotbags is.  

If anyone has any information about the spiral stone circle, I would love to hear from your, just contact me below the post..

 

 

 

The search for Miliband’s megalith

11 Sep

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

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

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

BBC photo of the monolith and Miliband

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

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

Heaviest suicide note in history

Private Eye

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

Guardian front cover 4th June 2015

So why re-visit this comical monolith now?

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

Milistone newsclipping

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

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

Labour hoped it would be a hinge stone

many thought it was a henge stone

it was quickly tagged an #EdStone

but now it’s just a headstone

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

General Boles twitter image

Image posted on twitter by General Boles

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

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

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

Solstice story

Daily Mail coverage of the standing stone unveiling

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

millibands-stone-tablet1

newshump image

raiders of the lost ark

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

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

letter to labour

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

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

Radio 4 ad

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

Location of the launch

Location of the launch

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

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

Stone Circle makers of the EdStone

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

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

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

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

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

The game was afoot!

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

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

SunNation screen grab

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

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

Warehouse

Private Eye 1393

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

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

One Edstone, no longer needed

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

Private Eye 2

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

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

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

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

matt cartoon

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

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

 

 

Nothing BC

30 Jul

There was no prehistory in Iceland. Nothing BC.

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

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

Keflavik big head low res

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

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

Standing stone at entrance to Seltun geothermal area car park

Standing stone at entrance to Seltun geothermal area car park

Monument, Vik

Monument, Vik

Reykjavik city centre

Reykjavik city centre

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

Lava cairn, on a roadside of the Kaldidalur Corridor

Lava cairn, on a roadside of the Kaldidalur Corridor

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

Car park entrance, Reykjavik

Car park entrance, Reykjavik

Information board standing stone, Heimaey

Information board standing stone, Heimaey

Geysir Hotel standing stones

Geysir Hotel standing stones

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

German memorial 1 low res

German memorial 2 low res

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

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

Road junction standing stones and mounds, Grindavik

Road junction standing stones and mounds, Grindavik

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

dolmen low res

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

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

Grindavik reconstruction 1 low res

passage low res

forecourt low res

knackered cist low res

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

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

passage grave sketch

And so my visit has changed my mind-set.

Iceland does have a prehistory.

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

Dolmen-like sculpture, Kirkjubaejarklaustur

Dolmen-like sculpture, Kirkjubaejarklaustur

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reyjkavik

Reyjkavik

 

 

 

Drive thru henge

20 Apr

drive thru henge sign lowest res

Last month I drove through a henge. Right through the middle of it. On a little road. The location was remote. It was cold, a bit wet and low mist hung over the surrounding hills. The henge was barely discernible. Invisible to the ‘untrained eye’. Yet there it was, a low broad bank, a weed-filled damp ditch, with a raised platform in the interior. And a road right through the middle of it. A little road, one that does not even appear to have a number. A dead end. A road that leads nowhere really, just up to a reservoir with lots of warning signs not to enter and not to park, and a house with a crazy tree house. But that isn’t relevant.

From the air

From the air

The drive thru henge is called Normangill (NMRS number NS92SE 11) in South Lanarkshire, near Crawford. It is located in the valley of the River Camp with low rolling hills on all sides, some adorned with wind turbines. The henge is class 2, that is, it has two opposed entrances, in this case on the north and south sides of the enclosure. It is quite a large monument, up to 60m in diameter on its longest axis, defined by a flat bank and shallow wide ditch. The entrances on the north and south sides are both very wide, at least 17m. As with many henges, the boundaries and entrances are disproportionately large relative to the size of the monument as a whole, and so it actually encloses a relatively small area. And a road.

Driving through Normangill

Driving through Normangill

Drive thru henge

Drive thru henge

The monument is bisected by this little east-west running road, which cuts a swathe some 10.7m wide right through the middle of this ancient enclosure. Curiously, this little road seems to have started life as a railway line. OS mapping from the 1920s shows this feature to be a railway, branching off the nearby main Glasgow – Carlisle line at Crawford, but really it was only a little railway line.

OS map extract from 1920s, showing the railway line - the henge location is marked by the red circle

OS map extract from 1920s, showing the railway line – the henge location is marked by the red circle

A little railway line that appears to have serviced a prisoner of war camp at the end of the valley. This was in use in the First World War and there German prisoners were engaged in building the dam that holds back Camps Reservoir that now lies at the end of the little road which bisects the henge. This is one of only 39 such camps in Scotland associated with the Great War, and like most such camps, almost nothing is known about it and barely any traces survive (it has NMRS number NS92SE 66).

Normangill henge bank and road, looking north

Normangill henge bank and road, looking north

The process of driving railway tracks through the henge caused a schism in the monument. The bisection of the henge has an almost exactly east-west orientation, while the henge itself is orientated north-south. The henge is now divided into four quadrants: NE, NW, SE, SW. Other effects were also created by railway and road construction. This cutting produced spoil which seems to have been piled into the centre of the henge itself, mis-shaping the monument. It has a peculiar mounded appearance, with the bank visible in section on both sides of the road, albeit grassed over. Only a trowel scrape from being exposed. And at least the road has rendered the henge accessible to those with cars or via an easy flat walk from Crawford a few miles away. Having said that I am not sure how many people actually know that the henge is there, or how many visitors it receives.

Many will drive thru, but how many stop? The little road is a quiet road and the henge is largely silent.

notes low res

Roy Loveday has observed the recurring spatial proximity of Roman roads and Class 2 henges in the north of England, and this is not a crazy a thought as it first seems. Clearly the Romans were interested in existing routeways (which henges often sat within) but also local sacred and ancient sites which they often took a colonial interest in. Some Roman roads not only lie close to class 2 henges, but run parallel to them, suggesting a certain flow through the landscape was maintained. A Roman road passes close to Normangill too. In other words, henges were usually built in places that were moved through, by roads, tracks and rivers, and often reflect those routes. But not many henges have been subverted to become routes themselves as is the case at Normangill.

It is possible of course to drive into and through the massive henge at Avebury in Wiltshire (as well as have a pint in the middle of the henge, a luxury not afforded to visitors to Normangill). And you can also drive through Long Meg and Her Daughters stone circle in Cumbria; indeed you can park within the stone circle, although you then have to perform an awkward turning manoeuvre on the road, or within a nearby farm yard. I have seen a milk tanker do it so it can be done.

Long Meg and road 1

Two views of the road through Long Meg and her Daughters stone circle

Two views of the road through Long Meg and her Daughters stone circle

And if you have a tractor, you can pretty much drive through any henge you want, such as this character I spotted whizzing around within Mayburgh Rings henge recently, dispensing little white balls from a chute at the back of his farmyard machine.

The Mayburgh Rings tractor incident

The Mayburgh Rings tractor incident

‘Drive thru’ is a label of convenience in the world today. Drive thru fast food. Drive thru coffee shops. Drive thru weddings and funerals. Drive thru this, that and the other. It seems that some do not even want to have to get out of their cars to furnish themselves with fast food and hot drinks, or take part in some life-changing ceremonies. I was once told (in a previous job with a government agency) that in the past OS archaeological fieldworkers would only record sites that they could see from their landrovers, so Normangill must have been very popular back then. Flasks, cameras and notepads all that were needed to update the archaeological record.

A henge in my rear view mirror

A henge in my rear view mirror

I suppose the collision of car and henge, two distinctly different things belonging to very different cultures, is indicative of many of the weird contemporary engagements that we have with prehistoric sites. Even in this ‘rural’ location, the industrial, urban, mechanical intrudes. Cars crash through this henge and for those in the know, a secret pleasure can be derived by these seconds of fusion, curiously Ballardian, but over all too soon.

Sources and acknowledgements: I drove thru / through Normangill henge with Helen Green, whom I must thank for helping formulate my thoughts for this post and who told me about the site in the first place. The limited amount of information there is out there on this monument largely comes from CANMORE and the air photo used in this post is an amended version of the RCAHMS copyright image LA2950CN – I am not sure when the photo was taken, probably in the 1970s or 1980s. The map extract is from an OS One Inch Map (series produced 1921-1930), which can be viewed online via the National Map Library of Scotland – this map is out of copyright. Information on prisoner of war camps came from Gordon Barclay’s very interesting 2013 report The Built Heritage of the First World War in Scotland’. Roy Loveday’s paper ‘Double entrance henges – routes to the past’ can be found in an edited volume called Prehistoric ritual and religion (edited by Gibson and Simpson, published by Sutton, 1998); like most things written by Roy, it is well worth a read.

The Hexham Heads part 2 – Tested and contested

26 Nov

In an earlier blog post, I introduced the weird story of the Hexham Heads, rather strange little objects with prehistoric pretensions found in a very (sub)urban context in Hexham, County Durham. The story of the initial discovery, the ‘poltergeist’ activities that seem to have accompanied the little stone heads, and claims and counterclaims about their age and origin provide an already rich folk narrative. But fairly soon after two children found the stones in their garden in Rede Avenue, these objects came into the orbit of archaeologists, historians, pseudo-scientists and psychics. They travelled the length of England as an answer was sought for the nature and date of these objects. The Heads were tested and became even more contested – specialists disagreed, amateurs speculated, and then finally the Heads were lost.

These enigmatic items of mobile urban prehistoric material culture were in the end too mobile, and their current whereabouts remains a mystery.

A page from Anne Ross's 1973 paper which featured the heads (from Archaeologia Aeliana 1)

A page from Anne Ross’s 1973 paper which featured the heads (from Archaeologia Aeliana 1)

Of course the Heads were quickly, after their discovery, passed onto the ‘authorities’. They were held for a while in the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities, where they were formally drawn to scale in a conventional archaeological style, and thus became proper archaeological artefacts. Archaeologists and curators, such as Roger Miket and David Smith, who handled or knew of the Heads were non-committal about what these strange objects actually were. The remarkable tale of the objects, and the associated ‘curse’ made little impact on these seasoned professionals (if they even knew about these stories at all). In Paul Screeton’s 2010 book Quest for the Hexham Heads Miket described them as ‘just archaeological material’ which is a bit like describing the Turin Shroud as ‘just a blanket’.

roger miket

But others were less circumspect, and before the bombshell was dropped by local man Des Craigie that he claimed to have made them as playthings for his children in the 1950s, another academic had grasped the Heads very enthusiastically, and situated them within a Romano-Celtic head cult tradition. Inevitably, by doing this she brought upon herself a visitation from a werewolf, mirroring to an extent earlier events in Rede Avenue.

Anne Ross

This academic was the recently deceased Dr Anne Ross, a well-known Celtic scholar whose interests straddled the worlds of archaeology, history, and art history, with a bit of dabbling in folklore and Celtic mysticism thrown in. Her best-known and quite well respected publications hint at her proclivities: The Pagan Celts and Pagan Celtic Britain have both run to multiple editions. It would be fair to say that Anne Ross has a somewhat ambiguous reputation amongst early medieval archaeologists, a nice person but with some strange side interests.

ebook pagan celts

She became involved in the Hexham Heads saga when she was passed photos and drawings of the Heads by Roger Miket. She visited Newcastle to give a lecture, and Paul Screeton has suggested she courted publicity for her rather boring sounding lecture by informing the media she would be looking at the Heads and speaking to Mrs Dodds (neighbour of the boys who found the Heads in 1972) about her ‘were-sheep experience’. The Heads and the weird stuff that accompanied their discovery was of great interest to Ross, as she came to believe that they were Celtic objects, perhaps cursed, and that the garden of 3 Rede Avenue where they were found was once a Celtic shrine. She even contemplated excavating the garden although never got round to it.

Cursed scan of some Celtic heads from Ross's book

Cursed scan of some Celtic heads from Ross’s book Pagan Celtic Britain

It was not surprising that Anne Ross showed an interest in these strange little objects. She had long had a research interest in ‘the cult of the head’ across Celtic Europe, writing in 1967 that ‘the human head was regarded by the Celts as being symbolic of divinity and otherworld powers’ (Pagan Celtic Britain page 61). And there is precedent for ‘Celtic heads’ to be found in back gardens. An (undated) newspaper clipping from the Daily Telegraph that I found contained in a copy of Pagan Celtic Britain held within the Leslie Alcock Library, University of Glasgow, discussed a ‘concentration’ of carved stone heads that had been found in Yorkshire. The Telegraph archaeology correspondent FW Perfect (a fine name) noted that their ‘existence became known when several people who had dug up heads in gardens and allotments brought them’ to a museum in Bradford. These were ‘crude, almost caricatures of human faces’, some ‘grotesque’ and Anne Ross thought it possible some were Celtic in part because of their ‘Heavy moustaches’.

Undated clipping from the Daily T

Undated clipping from the Daily T

And so she quickly published the Heads, in 5th series volume I (1973) of the journal Archaeologia Aeliana, as part of an article entitled ‘Some new thoughts on old heads’. The article rounds up various recently discovered stone heads from the Hadrian’s Wall vicinity, all of which lay claim to being Romano-British. The heads were illustrated (reproduced at the top of this post) and described as ‘Two small stone heads from Hexham’. It is a rather strange account: she notes their ‘archaic appearance’ (which amounts to nothing in terms of dating evidence) and suggests ‘their find-spot would be in accordance with an early date’. Eh? They were found in a back garden! The article includes, as a footnote, the results of visual and petrological analysis on the wee Heads undertaken by Prof Frank Hodson at Southampton University. He identified the material the Heads were made from as sandstone, with hints of a lime coating and some applied colour pigments.

It is quite remarkable that two such disputed and strange objects appeared in an academic journal, but there was some science to back it up (albeit superficial and not related to dating). Ross tried to give the Heads an archaeological credibility by including them in an article with other ‘heads’ with a better provenance and stronger claims to be authentic. The format of the publication adds to this impression: the Heads were drawn to correct conventions and standards, petrological analysis had been applied, and they were placed into a historical context of sorts. Difficulties in dating and lack of context were acknowledged.

But there are also clear problems with this account: her insistence on the urban findspot being important had no physical evidence to back it up. The geological analysis seems to have been problematic. And events would soon overtake this dry academic account as Anne Ross was dragged deeper into the mythos of the Heads.

Nationwide_mandala logo

On the rather bizarre platform of the BBC TV early evening news magazine Nationwide, Anne Ross made some amazing claims about the Hexham Heads that were not fit for academic publication. She recounted that her home in Southampton was being haunted by a huge werewolf that seemed to have followed the Heads all the way from the NE of England; the Heads had been brought south with Ross for analysis at her own institution, Southampton University, and she had taken them home. Big mistake!

relic that spooked a boffin

The Heads were now gathering (literally) a nationwide reputation for being too hot to handle and seriously spooky wee things. Yet the tests and analysis continued.

And this is where perhaps the strangest aspect of this whole story emerges – how is it possible that two specialists (geologists no less) were able to look at these objects and come to completely different conclusions about the materials they were made from? Remember, Anne Ross had got Professor Hodson at Southampton University to look at them and he concluded ‘both heads are made from the same material….a very coarse sandstone with rounded quartz grains’ and he suggested local sources for this. But a second analysis came up with a very different conclusion. Undertaken by Dr Douglas Robson of Newcastle University (his report is reproduced below, and published in Screeton’s book), it concluded ‘the material from which the heads have been formed is an artificial cement’ and ‘the material is unlike any natural sandstone’. The former and earlier analysis seems to have been based on microscope work and limited visual analysis, while the latter appears to have been based on the invasive removal of a sample for analysis.

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It is difficult to see how two analyses of the same objects could lead to two such divergent identifications of the material involved, and it is a pity the sample fragments no longer appear to exist, as these could now be tested much more definitively (and without doing further damage to the materials).

Archaeologists and geologists spent quite some time poking and prodding the Heads, taking chunks from the objects and each other. There was a good deal of dispute as to whether they were genuinely ancient or modern fabrications (with most opinion tending towards the latter). And there was the small matter of apparent poltergeist activity and a curse following the little Heads around.

Don Robins at the Rollright Stones while working with The Dragon Project

Don Robins at the Rollright Stones while working with The Dragon Project

And then yet more specialists became part of the story. In 1977, the Heads passed into the care of Don Robins, a controversial chemist whose most famous work is probably the book The Secret Language of Stone (in part about the Heads) and who dabbled in a range of ‘earth mysteries’ related to things like the magnetic properties of stones and megaliths. He also collaborated with Anne Ross on their book The Life and Death of a Druid Prince about the Lindow Man bog body. He became convinced that the Hexham Heads could help prove his stone-tape theory (that stone could ‘record’ events and human emotions and then could play them back) and he rescued them from a box in Hodson’s office at Southampton University.

He kept the Heads for some analysis until early 1978 during which time his dog got excited and bit one of the Heads. Robins recounts various rather weak experiences he had that might have been connected to the female Head such as his car electrics dying. Once he thought this Head’s eyeballs were watching him. But he seems to have been unable to connect the objects with the poltergeist activity, and then he passed them onto the final character in the story, a ‘dowser’ called Frank Hyde.  The elusive Hyde was delivered the Heads in February 1978 to do some ‘dowsing experiments’ with them – and they have never been seen since.

One of the Hexham Heads looms over the cover of Robins's book

One of the Hexham Heads looms over the cover of Robins’s book

The story of the Hexham Heads is a remarkable one. These supposedly prehistoric objects found in suburban Hexham spent the six years after their discovery collecting around them, like a magnet, a collection of strange and interesting people. They were passed around like hot potatoes, leaving behind them confusion, disillusionment, fear and tension. They were treated like archaeological objects, but also treated as if they were worthless fakes. Then they disappeared. As Robins noted in The Secret Language of Stone Frank Hyde ‘seemed to have vanished as completely as if he had walked into a fairy hill in a folk tale’.

I have one more post to write on the Hexham Heads, the tale of my own pilgrimage to Hexham and the urban street where these objects were once found….

Sources and acknowledgements: the definitive account of the discovery and journey of the Heads, and the search from them since 1978, is Paul Screeton’s 2010 book Quest for the Hexham Heads which I recommend. From this I sourced several of the images in this post, including newsclippings and the Robson report. A lot of the information in this post comes from this source, along with two articles published in The Fortean Times 294 and 295 (November / December 2012) written by Stuart Ferrol. Plus I also consulted The Unexplained File: Incredible phenomena. The image of Don Robins came from the Dragon Project website (which was a bit unstable when I visited it), and the drawings of the Heads came from Anne Ross’s Archaeologia Aeliana article (1973). The Anne Ross pics came from an obituary, while the Nationwide logo was sourced from Wikipedia. 

The Urban Prehistory Gallery presents…

15 Nov

For two years now, The Urban Prehistory Gallery has been producing a series of lovingly constructed miniature versions of prehistoric monuments in urban locations. In this post, to celebrate the 50th miniature to roll off our production line, we decided to give you an insight into the magical process of creating an Urban Prehistory Gallery miniature, from conception right through to the production of the finished piece of work. We hope you enjoy this rare insight!

Each and every Urban Prehistory Gallery miniature is handcrafted by our team of skilled sculptors in our studio in Airdrie in the heart of North Lanarkshire. The prehistoric monuments that dominate out range are based on real sites and many followers of our blog enjoy touring the country visiting industrial estates, suburbs and road intersections in search of the actual standing stones, Bronze Age cemeteries and flattened earthworks.

One of our staff carefully scrutinises an original monument to ensure the accuracy of the miniature

One of our staff carefully scrutinises an original monument to ensure the accuracy of the miniature

Another staff member demonstrates the levels of dedication we go to in order to 'get a feel' for the original

Another staff member demonstrates the levels of dedication we go to in order to ‘get a feel’ for the original

From site visits, photographs, the internet and sketches, up to two different processes then follow to produce a complex mould from an original modelling sculpture made from Babybel wax. There is no room for error, and the original cheese wax sculpture may melt during the process. Every notch, carving, obscene piece of graffiti and lichen stain is individually applied by hand to build up the different textures and details. Flexible cardboard moulds are then used to cast faithful replicas of the cheese wax original in a specially licenced material called Amashite (TM pending). Once this has set, the moulds can then be carefully peeled away to reveal every last detail on the cast model.

A cheese wax model of a standing stone (in this case made from Babybel Gouda) showing an early stage of the process. 5p for scale.

A cheese wax model of a standing stone (in this case made from Babybel Gouda) showing an early stage of the process. 5p for scale.

After being dried in a cupboard overnight, the model passes to one of our painters, who is – remarkably – the same person who has done all of the work to date. Up to 50 different shades of grey can be tried and checked for authenticity before a master version is chosen for each monument. The exhausted painter then has to match each of the models they paint to the master version, to ensure that each bares a passing resemblance to one another. Finally, the miniature versions of monuments have green cotton wool glued to their base to replicate grass, and are labelled, before a final quality check ensures that they leave The Urban Prehistory Gallery in perfect condition, or at least reasonable ‘seconds’ quality.

Boxed up and ready for shipping

Boxed up and ready for shipping

The latest product of this painstaking process is the delightful single standing stone, Skirsgill.

UPG050 SKIRSGILL STANDING STONE

NOVEMBER 2014 LIMITED EDITION (1 of 1)

PENRITH, CUMBRIA

Height 23mm

This delightful early Bronze Age megalith occupies a striking industrial-unit-corner location amidst a bouquet of wild flowers and weeds. Our miniature version of the stone captures perfectly the moss and lichen that adorn this stone. Exquisite craftsmanship ensures that even the carved motifs G P and M R are depicted on this miniature object. This particular standing stone was chosen not just for its charm but also for its historical interest too – constructed over 4000 years ago, it is one of the oldest contained within our collections. There is delight to be had from the knowledge of the location too, situated outside a whitewashed building that was once the visitor centre of miniature cottage manufacturers Lilliput Lane. Nothing further is known about this standing stone and so it is our dearest wish that this miniature has captured something of the mystery of this enigmatic testimony to the skills and ingenuity of the ancients.

advert

The Urban Prehistory Gallery is proud to announce that on the occasion of our 2nd birthday and 50th creation it is now possible for you to join the The Urban Prehistory Gallery Collectors Club. Membership is free, and you can join by following this blog, or the @urbanprehisto twitter feed. Membership benefits that may be introduced in the future (subject to the levy of a small fee) include receiving a certificate of membership, a hat, some badges, a thrice yearly newsletter full of adverts for middle-class products and life insurance, and a personalised standing stone.

This is a real standing stone

Notes, sources and acknowledgements: Much of this post is a parody of recent Lilliput Lane catalogues. Almost nothing is known about the Skirsgill standing stone, although there is a little information here. The standing stone is a scheduled ancient monument. On my visit to the stone I was accompanied by Jan, the esteemed Dr Mills and the equally esteemed Dr Pannett.

Liquid prehistory

21 Oct

‘A stone’s a stone, Dr John’

‘Never dismiss what’s beneath your feet, Jack’

 

London is one of the biggest cities in the world, a truly urban place. Yet on a recent trip there I found several worked pieces of prehistoric flint, right in the middle of the city, within sight of the financial district with glassy skyscrapers arranged in arrogant shapes and angles on the immediate skyline to the north. Maybe London is the only city in the world where this could happen. After all this is the city mythologised by psychogeographers, graphic novelists and documentarians as having deep time, so deep that many of the streets and alleyways seem to be wormholes through which Romans can be glimpsed, or some medieval street vendor’s sales pitch heard. The street plan – in places – is a roadmap to the past, while place names capture ancient trades, events and stories. In a previous post, I explored the essences of the past apparently left by just one individual in the city – Jack the Ripper – but I could just as well have discussed Dr Dee or Charles Dickens or the Elephant Man in the same clichéd terms.

London skyline

But prehistory? This is going much much deeper than most psychogeographers dare to go. Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the city barely mentions prehistory, and yet we know, from excavations in advance of the Olympics, and Heathrow Terminal 5, and the ongoing (very deep) Crossrail tunnelling that prehistory is down there, all around, waiting to be found.

What better place to search for tangible traces of prehistoric activity than on the banks of the majestic Thames, a mighty mythical river that of course runs through the city like a wound and an artery (© just about everyone who has written about this river). And such an opportunity arose when I was treated to a guided walking tour in London that involved some facilitated ‘beachcombing’ on the south bank, overlooked by the Tate Modern (and lots of curious tourists). This activity has recently become something of a trendy thing to do, with ‘mudlarking’ a relatively commonplace activity, and the exposed banks of the Thames dotted with figures bend double clutching carrier bags and trowels. There are clubs and loners, official museums and unofficial collections of curios, treasure hunters and history gatherers.

The objective? To find stuff. Preferably old stuff but online there are multiple motivations and interests represented, and for everyone who faints at the sight of a Roman coin, there is someone else who will tremble at the touch of a Victorian wine glass stem, or a 16th century clay pipe bowl. Prehistoric stuff is actually a minority concern, as it is less commonly found – and it is very difficult to separate the lithic wheat from the chaff when the beach pebbles one encounters are almost all waterworn flint cobbles and pebbles. And of course it is worth noting that there are a range of rules and regulations governing such activity, and there is an element of danger if you don’t grasp the rules of the river.

Footprints

Our walking tour, with inter-tidal archaeologist Fiona, began at the Mansion House tube station. We wound down to the Thames, trying to visualise Roman London, and the various and fatter iterations of the river. But of course the real goal for everyone present was to get down onto the ‘beach’, and this was soon achieved near the Millennium Bridge. Before going down the slimy steps beneath the city, the whole group rubbered up with gloves to avoid picking up Weil’s Disease from rats’ piss strewn objects. But this wasn’t what we wanted to pick up – it was old stuff!

The tour website tantalised:

‘wear sensible shoes and bring a little bag for your swag – for the goodies you’re going to find: mediaeval roof tiles, Elizabethan clay pipes, something Roman perhaps, or even Mesolithic! Yes, a few of our Beachcombers are now the proud owners of something a Mesolithic Londoner produced 8,000 years ago! (Give or take a few days.)’

To get down to the foreshore we had to edge down big grey steps covered in brown slime and what I suppose should be called ‘riverweed’. There, the group split up and we all wandered rather unsystematically back and forth, underfoot various textures apparent of a generally beach-like nature.

textures

Flint pebbles were everywhere, and soon it became apparent so too were grotty animal bones from a glue factory and lumps of 19th century iron (nails and so on). We picked up and scrutinised the strangest and mundanest of objects, and a few were slipped into little bags for later inspection. Almost immediately I spotted a small light brown flint with a clear bulb of percussion on it, and a blog post was (thankfully) now going to be possible. There was a good deal of excitement and confusion amongst our group, nothing like a previous systematic survey that had taken place in a similar location but for very different reasons.

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American artist Mark Dion ‘fieldwalked’ this same stretch of shore in 1999 for his Tate Thames Dig piece with a group of volunteers. This was a systematic search, part performance, part archaeological reconnaissance. In other words he created the illusion of doing archaeology while actually really doing archaeology. ‘Dion’s team collected large quantities of items, including clay pipes, vividly decorated shards of delftware, oyster shells and plastic toys. The finds were then meticulously cleaned and classified in ‘archaeologists’ tents’ on the Tate Gallery’s lawn at Millbank’. The material collected was ultimately displayed in old-fashioned cabinets mimicking outmoded forms of museum display, and in ‘treasure chests’.

Mark Dion

Mark Dion

Mark-Dion-Archaeology-book cover

Dion’s work replicates a scientific rigorous process (surface collection, cleaning, documenting) in order to expose the problems and underlying assumptions in such processes, and so for instance the final display of the objects avoided strict typological / taxonomical subdivisions. Indeed Dion defies such cosy classifications by displaying objects in stark juxtapostion, or arranging them according to colour, in this and other projects he has undertaken. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew has argued that these ‘innocent paradoxical displays invite examination; they pose questions. They lead us to ask again just what it is we do when we are doing archeology or zoology or botany’.

But what is more interesting to me is that all of this stuff was just lying there, waiting for collection, and this isn’t the preserve of professional (although you do need a permit to ‘dig’ on the Thames foreshore). Artists, amateurs, scavengers, bored children, all with little plastic boxes or bags loaded with jumbles of objects, dodging the tides, in the middle of one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world.

Objects collected ready for scrutiny

Objects collected ready for scrutiny

On the bank of the Thames, on an October Sunday morning, there was little else other than juxtapositions. Eagerly collected objects of all sorts were laid out for explanation, and these cut across a whole range of material categories (bone, clay, stone, iron, plastic, glass and so on) and had vast chronological range literally thousands of years long. The act of searching and discovery was enough for all of us, and everyone benefited from the tangible connection to the past reflected in, for instance, a 17th century clay pipe bowl. An audience of tourists watched from above, as we slowly drifted away from the foreshore, the tide lapping at our feet. By late afternoon the Thames has risen some 6m here, and our little stretch of muddy, pebble-strewn beach was submerged in murky brown water, and beneath the surface the same taphonomic processes that drew us to this location in the first place were happening all over again. Liquid prehistory.

By the end of our hour or so of pottering about we had a nice little assemblage, dominated by the stems of clay pipes, but with some promising other fragments of glass, bone, metal and stone. Collected together, these were packed in a bag and later that day passed (almost without notice) through security at London City airport.

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Back at the lab (as they say) I analysed a few of these objects. One of the most interesting things was a fragment of a Pepsi Cola bottle, which with some rudimentary online investigation turned out to be the 1940s-1960s logo for this soft drink, with this particular bottle perhaps dating to the 1940s.

pepsi label image

But the lithics held my attention most persistently. I asked our resident lithics specialist Dene Wright to have a look over these and he confirmed my interpretation of the light brown flint I found near the foot of the slippery steps – this was a broken blade, albeit undiagnostic.

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Notes from my chat with Dene

Notes from my chat with Dene

Perhaps of more surprise was Dene’s identification of working traces on a big piece of flint I had taken for teaching purposes. This lumpy stone had, apparently, been struck at one end (in the mists of prehistory) and then a blade has been knapped from one side, although things had gone wrong and it was abandoned. And a nice shiny sharp black flint I picked up was in fact a core (having has at least one scraper knocked from it).

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Amazing. Pieces of prehistory from the Thames, in the middle of London. Tangible connections with unknown craft specialists who lived thousands of years ago. These were no more or less interesting to me than the clay pipes, hundreds of years old, or the cola bottle fragment, decades old, but these stones were compelling tactile objects. In this game, a stone is never just a stone.

Of course prospecting on the banks of the Thames, in a place more often than not inaccessible and beneath the milky brown water, offered a fragmented connection with the past only. This was a very partial picture of objects without date and without context, literally lost in space and time, which is why these things could be removed in the first place.

But isn’t all prehistory rootless and routeless, with no road map, no mythical street plan, no occult place names, no eccentric architect that we know of, no paths to traverse or orbit? 10000 years beneath our feet or in our hands, it makes no difference to me. Just prick the surface and it bleeds out.

Sources and acknowledgements – firstly, I must thank Jan in the strongest possible terms for treating me to a surprise trip to London and organising the beachcombing tour. The tour itself was provided by London Walks and I would wholeheartedly recommend it and Fiona, who was a great and informative guide. If you are planning on going down to the Thames sometime to do some mudlarking, you should consult the following rules / regs for your own safety and also what to do if you actually find something that might be very old or important or both. Thanks very much to Dene Wright for looking at our little lithic assemblage and his patient explanation of French lithic terminology. The image of Mark Dion on the Thames ‘beach’ can be found in various places online, I sourced this one from this blog. For much more information on Tate Thames Dig, see the Tate Modern webpage on the exhibition (source of the quote about the project) and their learning resource, and Dion’s book ‘Archaeology’ (published by Black Dog). The Pepsi logo is available surprisingly widely online. The quote at the start of the blog comes from Phil Rickman’s novel ‘The Heresy of Dr Dee’, the Dr John being Dr Dee himself….while the Renfrew quote comes from this book ‘Figuring it out’ (Thames & Hudson 2006).