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How old is a piece of stone?

3 Dec

There can’t be much left to write about the London Stone, an urban megalithic curio that The Guardian newspaper called a ‘psychogeographer’s landmark’. This strange roughly cuboid limestone block, located at 111 Cannon Street in London for at least half a millennium, may well be a solid lump of stone but it consists more of myth than molecule.

the-london-stone-at-st-swithins

There are so many legends associated with this roughed-up beige 76 kg stone block that it strikes me as weird that it has consistently been located in such an un-legendary location. Although in the past the the London Stone has by historical accounts been set into the wall of the former St Swithen’s Church, it has also in more recent times been contained by a rather crappy cage in the wall of a WH Smiths and before that a Sportec sports shop and even The Bank of China. This was after a near miss during the Blitz.

London_Stone-WHSmith

Wikipedia: creative commons, John O’London

Rex Shutterstock photo Daily Mail

Rex Shutterstock photo Guardian 2016

Above two images both Rex / Shutterstock, sourced from The Daily Mail 12022016

There is little point in rehearsing the many stories associated with the origins, meaning and biography of the London Stone. There is such a depth of lore about this object that I am sure that it deserves more than the one or two paragraphs afforded in most books about London; certainly, a lack of time permitted me researching this as rigorously as I would have liked.

For the time being, to cut to the urban prehistoric chase, let’s focus on how old the LS actually might be. Peter Ackroyd (London: the biography, 2001), suggests that it, ‘is of great antiquity’, but ‘as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to survive from prehistoric times’. Two pages tell the story of the Stone in John Matthews and Caroline Wise’s The Secret Lore of London (2016); they describe is a ‘worn stump’ and a ‘geomantic mark-stone’ of, at oldest, Roman origin.

London Lore book illustration

Reproduced in The secret lore of London (Matthews and Wise)

In The Stones of London (2012) Lee Hollis suggests that the London Stone may be little more than a Roman gatepost that has taken on all sorts of myths and legends depending on the political needs of those who told those stories. Ed Glinert (The London Compendium, 2004) calls the Stone a ‘totem for the city’s safety’ which has prehistoric overtones, but more broadly draws on myths about the Stone not being removed from the city. And so on. Each account draws on the same pool of lore, include lots of secondary referencing, and indicate the limitations of the historical text as a source as authors attempt to peer back into the murky mists of time.

There is much that could be done from an archaeological perspective to add to the already-colourful story of the London Stone. There have been various different reliquaries that have held the LS, and this would be an interesting line of investigation both in terms of the form but also materiality of these cages and boxes, as well as telling us something about how people engaged with and interacted with the Stone, and what levels of control were exercised over that engagement.

4-London-Stone-in-Cannon-Street

From John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities of London (1791-1800)

Or perhaps a mapping exercise could be undertaken, considering the various different locations that the London Stone has been placed, on both sides of the street and with slight variation, and other possible places of repose. The location of the Stone vertically might also be traced, with pavement level and higher in the church wall just two variations. Again, how people encountered the London Stone and spatially where it was located might shed light on its social role, and this includes the bodily inclination needed to view the monolith: looking down or peering up.

london-stone-conserved-portrait

Helen Butler does some conservation work (c) Museum of London

The stone itself could (and I’m being fanciful here but what the heck) be the object of scientific study, with techniques such as XRF and Ramon Spectroscopy able to discover paint, blood, sweat, tears and semen stains (OK, maybe not the latter, that would need a CSI-style UV light source…). Use-wear analysis would be able to (theoretically) shed light on the exact metallurgical properties of the sword that was used to strike the London Stone by rebel leader Jack Cade in 1450 (but not what he had for breakfast that day).

jack-cades-rebellion

Stock image of Jack Cade waving his sword about, various sources online.

It is interesting how many old drawings of the stone focus on the detail of the container and not the stone, which more often than not seems to be a shapeless lump. This is perhaps because geometrically this thing is a shapeless lump. The Mail Online described it as looking like, ‘a large piece of leftover masonry’. So a 3D model of the stone would be nice so capture its slightly strange shape and rough surface, and might shed light in the mechanism of the breakage of the stone (it may once have been larger), as well as highlight historic damage and carvings.

London_Stone_scan

(c) Europac 3D

Indeed, after I had written these words, I found out that such a scan has indeed been undertaken by Europac 3D. This laser scan, undertaken to sub 1mm resolution, was done using Arctic Space Spider which sounds like something from a John Carpenter film but probably isn’t. Interestingly, this ‘revealed several man-made carvings, one of which is believed to have been made when Jack Cade entered London’ although I think that one was already visible with the naked eye. I think full results are yet to be published, but at last the Stone can be viewed as something other than a blurry block in a photo or as an etching of a blob in a box (see below).

Ackroyd book illustration

Reproduced in Ackroyd’s London: the biography

The London Stone, as it happens, recently spent a couple of years in the capable hands of the Museum of London’s archaeologists, and they undertook some conservation work on the Stone as well as putting the thing on display with a lovely purple background in their museum (and getting the aforementioned scan done).

John Chase photo Guardian Sep 2018

(c) Museum of London

One of the key areas of their presentation of the stone to the public was some myth-busting, and blimey there are lots of myths and stories attached to this object that they wanted to bust.

Myth number 1 that they ‘bust’ was: It has stood in London since prehistoric times and Myth number 2: It was an ancient altar used for Druidic sacrifices. Both of these centre on the suggestion that the LS is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric stone or even a broken standing stone. However, MOLA question the urban prehistory credentials of this rock, and thus by extension the legitimacy of this blog post. In fact neither myth is really busted, but rather some of the historical biography of the London Stone cited, with the underlying suggestion that there is simply no evidence that this was ever part of a prehistoric monument. They push is back possibly to Saxon or Viking times, maybe even Roman, but no earlier.

Assumed by some authors such as John Strype and William Blake to be a pagan stone, in fact this had no basis in fact and simply confirmed their own romantic proto-druid mythologizing, captured in this stansa from Blake’s Jerusalem:

Where Albion slept beneath the Fatal Tree,
And the Druids’ golden Knife
Rioted in human gore, In Offerings of Human Life…
They groan’d aloud on London Stone,
They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook…

Finally, MOLA get to the point and conclude: “There is no evidence for this, and London Stone, whatever its purpose, was certainly not erected before the Roman period.” Boo.

That’s fine, and also true. There is no evidence that the London Stone is prehistoric in origin. But does this matter? Some in the past have believed it to be the case, and some still do. The prehistoric credentials of this stone are nothing to do with reality, but perception, and this is often the way with odd megaliths and other urban prehistoric miscellany. We might as well ask: how old is a piece of stone? Because the fact that the London Stone is an oolitic limestone means that it is very old, dating to before 1,000,000 BC. It depends on how one frames the question.

London Stone launched

Source: London TimeOut 05102018

Visiting the London Stone today seems to me a legitimate exercise in prehistoric speculation now that it has been re-instated in a new shrine on the former WH Smith site, still 111 Cannon Street.

London Stone wide view low res

The Stone has only been back in its old location for a few months, although now the weird cage has been replaced with a glossy shiny glass-fronted display box. This reliquary appears to be a throwback retro design referencing older versions of the container for the Stone, some of which are pictured earlier in this post.

London Stone new setting low res

Two black plaques sit on either side, one of which explains that we know bugger all about the London Stone, while the other says the same thing in braille (I assume).

The right-hand information panel begins with a malformed tripartite sentence.

London Stone plaque low res

Above the ceremonial repository, there is a simple bookplate inscription saying LONDON STONE and this appears to be part of a limestone facade of the fancy new building, thus mimicking the materiality of old Stoney itself. Has the architectural design for this glassy building been designed with the LS in mind?

London Stone sign low res

This has replaced the crappy but endearing WH Smith context of yore, and the new mini-high rise building is rather more glassy and glamorous. The London Stone has clearly gone upmarket. This is certainly a gentrification from its earlier status, described by Ackroyd as, ‘blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare‘. Nonetheless, the latter part of this statement remains true.

The London Stone obscured low res

The glassy nature of the building within which the LS is now encased affords views behind the Stone, a glimpse that was not within the gift of the stationer WH Smith. Here, disappointingly, the oolitic lump appears to be concealed behind a wall of mdf, although there is the hint of a small panel that might be removable with a smuggled screwdriver once this establishment opens for business, whatever that business might be.

Behind the London Stone low res

Observing those walking past the London Stone suggests that this is, at worst, of no interest, or at best, an over-familiar landmark, as few pedestrians paused to pay their respects. The noticeboard detained a few men with suits for a minute or two, while a woman with a pram did look at it as she perambulated past.

Road closed low res

I got the sense that this is a lonely Stone as I lurked in the area for far too long. This is perhaps why this geological curio literally engaged me in a short twitter conversation, expressing the surprising and hitherto un-expressed desire to be called Kevin. I duly obliged, walking past and affording LS this new moniker with a jolly shout of ‘hello Kevin’, although as yet this new persona has not been adopted widely.

Tweet 1

Tweet 2

Shall we ever get to the truth of it? No, of course not. And why should that matter? When we ask ‘how long is a piece of string’ we don’t expect a factual, empirical answer. The London Stone’s prehistoric credentials are not in doubt as far as I am concerned, elements of a story long told, whether that be the one about it being a broken standing stone or having served as a druid altar or some other sacred megalith of yore.

It doesn’t matter how old the London Stone is: we only need believe it to be so. This is rich narrative, a stone that does not roll but has gathered spiritual moss. As AD Cochrane has noted, ‘Down the centuries a parade of charlatans, poets, modern psychogeographic writers, alchemists, historians and eccentric clergymen have enriched the mythology of London Stone‘. If this isn’t prehistory, I don’t know what is.

There is one source that I was able to find that suggested that this misshapen hunk of rock was once part of a prehistoric monument. In a review of the former London Stone Pub (107 Cannon Street) a contributor to the website ‘Fancy a Pint.com‘ suggests that the Stone was, ‘possibly part of an ancient stone circle’. The same review also suggests that the pub contained, ‘gargoyles, cocktails in test tubes and other assorted horror ephemera’ so perhaps it is for the best that it closed a couple of years ago, to be replaced by The Cannick Taps.

London Stone pub

Photo: Fancyapint.com

Rare views inside the London Stone pub, which appears to have been a gothic extravaganza of poor taste, suggest decor that mimicked the grey metal cage that enclosed the Stone until fairly recently. Bad art imitates poor cage.

quaint-decor-in-pub

Trip Advisor – interior of the London Stone pub (deceased)

How old is this piece of stone? Who cares.

The London Stone is as the London Stone does. LS if you are into the whole brevity thing.

The London Stone abides.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: if you want to find out more about the London Stone, ask it questions on twitter via @thelondonstone – it / Kevin might answer back.

 

 

 

 

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Ghosts

31 Oct

It is a cliche to say that archaeological sites are fecund with the ghosts of those who occupied, lived, worked, cried and laughed in those places in the past. Even the most unremarkable ancient place is likely to have been passed through by countless living but now dead humans and animals. Mute witnesses whom we cannot call to account. Spectral presences that haunt our efforts to write their stories with all of the constraints of the archaeological record and our imaginations.

01 Sandy Road 2.jpg

These phantoms of the past are always present as we visit archaeological sites (as we clinically call them), just invisible from the corners of our eyes. The dead are knocking once, twice, if only we would listen. Warping the thin rood screen between now and then, past and present, and bending the wind to their will. Light cannot pass through them, and forever their ancient haunts will be opaque to us, clumsily accounted for in our narratives, our excavation reports, our notes. Archaeologists are amateur ghost story writers with neither the elegance nor the critical ambiguity of MR James.

04 Ravenswood low res

Urban prehistory sites suffer more than most, and at this time of the year in particular. The harsh entombment of concrete and tarmac, brick and gabbion, combine to dull the kinetic urgency of the dead users and makers of prehistoric places with the misfortune – the curse – to haunt places now occupied by a different strain of zombie: commuters, shoppers, drivers.

03 Bargeddie l r

Only school children and certain sensitive individuals remain attuned to the specific frequency that prehistoric ghosts broadcast via. Sometimes the past bleeds through though, as if in a seance, and becomes a matter of record. Twisted clues offer fragmentary accounts, uneasy truths, partiality. We place our trowel on the ouija board trench surface and hope that a spirit will animate it, write the story for us, shatter glass.

05 Townhead lr

Archaeologists act in advance of urban expansion and development as ghost-busters, using highly sensitive equipment to pick up the wavelengths of the spirits of prehistory, then extracting those spirits by way of storage bags and boxes that are transported far away from the site and blessed with the obscure rituals of the trinity of lab analyst, the archivist and the curator. We do everything but consult with priests, and can be found in libraries furtively flicking through a dusty grimoire.

07 Succoth Place low res

As archaeologists we often state our case ‘in all seriousness’ and yet this is simply to cover up our fears, and insecurities. We laugh off the uncertainty of the past, the questionable proofs of prehistory, supported by the safety net of out ontologies which when analysed have all the supportive qualities of the spiral staircase in the library in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Aberdour Rd low res

Like many a Poe-inspired mansion in a Roger Corman movie, everything may end up in a suspicious but cathartic conflagration. All of us wish to be Quatermass, to discover our own Pit, and with it our fate and destiny.

Boydstone Rd low res

We must embrace the ghosts of our ancient past,  strain to listen to what they have to tell us, get everything on tape, play it back over and over again to hear their story until it stretches and snaps. For we ignore them at our peril.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encounter with a monstrous head

9 Apr

Dr Green and I reached the final point of our expedition quite by chance. The end of our journey, marked by an encounter with a monstrous head that neither of us will forget. We had heard reports from locals about the existence of such a head, but had put this down to braggadocio or hallucination brought on my excessive Irn Bru consumption which I believe to be a local beverage with chemical properties that promote altered states of consciousness.

My source had told me that the monstrous head was located in a nether-world of scrap on the southern bank of the River Clyde. My first attempt to catch glimpse of this head, a solo mission, was unsatisfactory, the bulbous orb too distant when viewed from the north side of the river to reveal the details of its concrete physiognomy.

View from the north 1

View from the north 2

Upon approaching the supposed location of this concrete monstrosity, Dr Green and I spoke to various people who made a living breaking automobiles in this place. Surrounded by skeletal motor cars, carburetors and bent doors and wings, these men affected to tell us they knew nothing of a giant head. Yet we had already caught sight of the dome of its skull behind a portable cabin. 

View from the south

The men gazed on the head with awe and wonder from the safety of their own business premises and were soon evangelising about the discovery to colleagues.

view from the west

Yet Dr Green and I did not have the luxury of standing back. We had a duty, now we had come this far, to document and record this wonder of human endeavour, to pay our respects at the chin of the beast.

In order to do this we had to pass through a broken post-industrial world of cairns of scrap metal, clawing digging machines and the constant rumble of crushing and breaking. This was the end of all things, the bent remnants of our society piled high as if to reach heaven but only speaking of hell.

Scrapyard

We scrambled through an open fallen gate, circumnavigated some shacks and warehouses, and entered a broad and open yard, across which we espied the monstrous head behind two ruined mechanical units, one of them an omnibus.

two mechanical units

Closer we edged, until in front of us the huge bald head stood, balanced atop a linear mound of litter, tin cans, building material and detritus. The dome loomed over us and it felt like it had eyes in the back of its considerable cranium.

Helen and the head low res

The preposterously sized crown was propped up by wooden supports, better to enable it to loom over any river dwellers and pleasure cruisers sailing by.

As we hesitantly went closer to the megalith, it was clear that it had enormous orifices, dark holes that we could have climbed into should we have wished, although on reflection we decided that dragging ourselves into and along eye sockets and nasal passages would not have been the wisest course of action. It was better that we did not investigate too closely the sense organs of this thing. 

An over-sized blocked ear was located on either side of the skull, a closed porthole into the brain. This was a great relief for us as there was no enthusiasm for an exploration of an enormous external acoustic meatus or the accompanying skin flaps.

View from the east initials

Crude letters were daubed onto the eastern cheek and chin of the hideous noggin. We documented these photographically although could not and cannot discern the meaning of K P and J G. An incantation to be chanted by acolytes circling the head in a frenzy we supposed. Although the paintwork was not red, it had the character of blood that had dried.

Helen's photo

The proboscis emerged from a beard of green lichen, a moss-tache. We realised that this massive head had features that were disproportionate and exaggerated, its sharp angles directional, indicating the north, notably the mandible. Moss balls ran down the spine of the nose, beads of sweat that mirrored out own precipitative glands. A metal loop protruded from the base of the chin, clearly with the purpose of chaining sacrificial animals and – shudder – humans. And in the centre of the face were the eyes, voids into which our gaze could scarcely be arrested, eyes which somehow seemed to look up- and down-river at the same time. Thankfully the oral cavity remained sealed, forming a rictus grin; we had no desire to see what lay within.

front of the face

As we retreated back to our carriage, we vouchsafed that nothing in our previous existence prepared us for the magnitude of the foreboding, monstrous head that we encountered on the bank of the slow-moving River Clyde that damp Spring morning. 

Its dead eyes looked upon us as gods look upon ants. But more disturbing than all of this was –

an oblong void in the centre of the forehead suggested to us that there once had been a third eye a television screen located here broadcasting messages of hate and despair

What we feared more than anything else was that the rest of the body of this titan was there too, buried deep in the foreshore mud and sludge, awaiting re-animation. This prehistoric abomination, this monstrous appendage, this dreadful megalith, this…this…

 

Floating Head, Richard Groom

The Floating Head was one of many pieces of public art that were commissioned for, and displayed at, the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. This seminal and fondly-remembered summer event took place on the south bank of the River Clyde about 4km to the east of the current location of the Head.

canmore_image_SC01140807

The head is not visible in this photo of the GGF (c) HES canmore_image_SC01140807

The big Head was located in the Marina, which is on the left hand side of the map below.

GGF map The Glasgow Story

The Souvenir Brochure of the Glasgow Garden Festival notes that the artwork was essentially a boat. “British Shipbuilders Training … helped to fabricate Richard Groom’s astonishing floating head – in reality a cement boat – in the harbour itself” (page 79). I have been able to find a few photos of the Head during the Festival (sources in the acknowledgements), and it looks very different.

04 FLOATING HEAD GARDEN FESTIVAL 1988(1)

Big headurban glasgow blog sausage supper

Screengrab from home video c1645

Charlie Bubble flickr

The Festival ended in September 1988 and was dismantled, with various bits of art scattered around Scotland. In this air photo of the decommissioned site, the Floating Head is just visible, now out on the Clyde.

canmore_image_SC01140809

Glasgow Garden Festival site during decommissioning (c) HES canmore_image_SC01140809

At what point the Floating Head was floated downstream to its current location I do not know. The Head now sits on the south side of the Clyde, near the Renfrew Ferry terminal, in an industrial estate accessed via Meadowside Street, Renfrew (NT 5068 6862).

It has its own record in the National Record of the Historic Environment (canmore). HES fieldworkers visited this monstrous head on 14 May 2015, and noted: “It now sits on the south bank of the River Clyde, adjacent to a scrap yard. It comprises the lower hull of a boat with a fibre glass moulded head on the top. It currently stands upright on its prow and appears to stare north across the river.”

canmore_image_DP00228670

(c) ‘Floating Head’: canmore_image_DP00228670

Someone who works in a garage beside the yard the big Head sits behind told us that it had been there for at least 20 years, and that this place used to be a boat yard which might be why it was brought here. The Floating Head floats no more, but close examination makes it clear that it has many boat-like traits.

Propped up head

And now it has been erected, propped up, still an artwork but a very different one, a megalithic head watching boats travel up and down the Clyde, a source of puzzlement and wonder to all those who fall beneath its gaze.

 

Acknowledgements: I found out about the big head via Hugh Beattie, who posted the following photo on the My Clydebank Photos website. Hugh told me how to find the head, which prompted my two visits on both sides of the River over the past few weeks.

Renfrew big head

(c) Hugh Beattie

Helen Green accompanied me on the scrapyard fieldtrip, and provided one of the photos in the post above, so many thanks for the support when having to speak to strangers, not my strong point and for her observations which fed into the fanciful narrative that starts this post.

The staff of Renfrew Car Breakers were very helpful and allowed us access to their yard to take some photos. The Head is accessible by the various yards in this location, but permission must be sought, and it didn’t feel very safe. It is better viewed from Yoker on the other side of the River.

The images of the Floating Head in situ were found through various online searches, and attributed (from top to bottom) to: Owen of My Clydebank Photos, unknown, Graham Whyte video screengrab c16:45, Charlie Bubble (Flickr) and Sausage Sandwich (Urban Glasgow blog). If anyone has any other photos of the Floating Head I would love to see them.

My parents managed to find their old copy of the Garden Festival Brochure so many thanks to them for the archive work.

The vitrification experiment

24 Mar

Do you remember that old TV show?

Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World

The Divine Comedy

Mysterious World

Sometimes an archaeologist does something so crazy, so visionary and so flamboyant that one can only stand back and admire the show. Trying to understanding what the heck happened in prehistory sometimes requires extreme acts (and I know this from personal experience). This post tells the story of an urban prehistoric experiment that took place almost 40 years ago in a local authority waste disposal tip (aka a dump) that combined innovation, ingenuity, furniture and weirdness in equal measure.

The East Tullos Yorkshire Television vitrified wall experiment was recently brought to my attention by Richard ‘Scarfolk‘ Littler in a twitter thread that he posted that celebrated eccentric characters and stories covered by the legendary and seminal 1980 televisual experience Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. One of the images that he posted took my breath away. It showed a familiar archaeologist but with an unfamiliar facial hair arrangement, a wild-eyed expression and in the middle of doing something inexplicable.

The tweet

Professor Ian Ralston OBE DLitt FRSE FSA FSA (Scot) MIFA and Abercromby Chair of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh appears to have been, at some point in the past, The Pagan Man with a Stick. He also seems to have been on one of my favourite TV shows from when I was a kid, which means that I may have watched Ian in action 15 years before I first met him, and on further reflection perhaps this film subliminally made me the archaeologist I am today. Although using this logic I could just as easily have become a Bigfoot hunter or an Alien abductee.

arthur_c_clarke_mysterious_world_tv titles

Broadcast over one series and 13 episodes in 1980 on ITV (my memory convinced me that there must have been so many more episodes) the programme featured, between the adverts (no doubt starring Leonard Rossiter and Lorraine Chase), some of the world’s most mysterious mysteries, from cryptozoology to pseudo-archaeology to the supernatural. This heady mixture of nonsense was presented in deadpan seriousness and a cast of eccentrics, academics and self-proclaimed experts brought the whole thing to life. Stories were separated by brief pieces of camera by Clarke himself leaning against a tree somewhere hot (Sri Lanka).

I used to have the book as well, the cover of which shows what might be found beneath Stonehenge if they ever build that tunnel.

Book Cover

It is not every day that a young, but respectable Chas ‘n’ Dave lookalike archaeologist gets to star in his own 10-minute slot in a portmanteau mystery TV documentary, and so I wanted to look into this a little further. The urban fringe landfill location was enough for me to tag this under the category of urban prehistory and write a blog post about it which I have duly done.

The story of this unique vitrification experiment was broadcast in Episode 3 of the show on the theme of Ancient Wisdom, from 11 minutes in. (Some of the other stories on the programme do not seem to me to represent wisdom.)

This account of the vitrification experiment was subsequently supplemented by a detailed and fulsome report on the experiment in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland written diligently by Ralston himself and published in 1986

It is from these two sources that I piece together those momentous spring days in 1980.

Paper title

Quote 1

The experiment entailed the construction of a full-scale 8m long section of wall replicating a hillfort rampart, with the aim to reproduce the effect of vitrification. In effect, this process entails the melting of rocks within the core of such walls (perhaps with internal ‘timber-lacing’ to fuel fires), the end result of which is a glassy stone that is fused and melted together. This is a relatively common trait of later prehistoric fortified sites in Scotland, notably in Angus, and Argyll and Bute. Arguments have long ranged about whether this was caused by accident or design. As archaeologist Andy Heald put it fairly recently, ‘Some think vitrification was a status symbol, some think a settlement would be set alight and inadvertently vitrified in the process by attackers and some think it’s a structural thing to do with strengthening the walls of the fort.’

This heated (pun intended) dispute was the attraction for Arthur C Clarke’s crack team of mystery-chasers: “it was this contrast in views that constituted ‘the mystery'”… as Ralston puts it in his report. This doesn’t seem to me to be a mystery on a par with the Bermuda Triangle or the Nazca Lines, but I guess they had hours of schedules to fill.

The segment of the programme starts with a sweeping view of the laughably pronounced Iron Age hilltop enclosure Tap O’Noth. Ralston arrives on top, bestriding the landscape and then sitting on the ramparts pointing out vitrification while not even appearing to be out of breath. The light levels are low and there is mild peril for sensitive viewers – will he make it back down to his parked car before darkness falls?

Ralston on Tap o Noth

The voiceover person (who is not Arthur C Clarke but sounds suitably serious about the whole business) expresses the mystery of vitrification: was this something that just happened to occur when a fort wall caught fire, or was it the result of, “some technique now lost to strengthen the walls by welding the rocks together”? Gosh, I wonder.

The TV show voiceover further noted that “Ian Ralston, in an ambitious attempt to crack the mystery decided to build his own Iron Age fort”. This was to be done using materials and finance provided by a Mr Nick Lord of Yorkshire Television and where better to carry out this large-scale experiment than in the salubrious surroundings of a smelly dump near Aberdeen. The image on the screen melted from the misty hills of Aberdeenshire to the site of the vitrification experiment. The show was careful to show Aberdeen as if it had just been hit by a nuclear attack.

Aberdeen

The rampart section, based on various real forts, was realised, as with so many experimental archaeology projects of this scale and vision, through a series of compromises, imaginative bodges and visits to DIY shops. Ralston takes up the story:

Quote 2

Granite was chosen for the rampart exterior and gabbro for the interior, with wooden beams inserted inside to form the lacing (the internal structure of the wall). The construction project took place over four wet and windy days at the end of March 1980, with a combination of labour by the team of seven and a small fleet of support vehicles doing the work. Ralston was heavily involved in the heavy stuff, having made it down from that mountain top after all, his vigour undiminished.

Construction

Wall nearing completionThe conflagration itself was facilitated by the application of ‘dripping’ (animal fat) to the ends of beams protruding from the rampart while other artificial accelerants were on hand just in case, and a large pyre also had to be constructed up against one side of the wall to get the fire going due to ongoing inclement weather. With a cavalier attitude, Ralston got stuck into the building project with a fag hanging out of his mouth, right next to the stores of paraffin and beef dripping.

Ralston smoking

The fire was started around noon on the 1st of April, with a stiff breeze causing some anxiety. The conflagration as Ralston called it was monitored carefully and managed proactively, with regular truck-loads of wood having to be brought on site to feed the fires and pyres to keep it all burning and raise the temperature within the wall.

Wood supplies seem to have been running low because at one point a delivery of knackered old furniture (or what Ralston called “a miscellaneous cargo of domestic refuse, delivered by the Aberdeen Cleansing Department”), was poured onto the pyre.

A load of old furniture

Despite trying to control air flow into the core of the wall using a tarpaulin, by early evening and five hours into the burn, the internal wall temperature was only 13 degrees. “At about this time the writer clambered onto the top of the wall”. In other words, the shit just got real.

Ralston on the rampart

Ralston on the rampart TV version

This dramatic intervention by Ralston, flying in the face of a risk assessment that had almost certainly not been written anyway (this was 1980 after all), signaled an intensification of pyre building and fire management, which through the course of the evening began to pay dividends as the core temperature of the wall rose steadily.

Sunset

By strategically starting big fires at certain points around the wall in relation to wind direction, the experiment began to meet expectations and the team allowed themselves a dinner break from 9pm to the back of 11pm. By now the wall was collapsing in places and the fire was massive. Then they all went to bed / the pub.

The next morning the team arrived back in the dump to find a smouldering, hot smoky crumbling wall, with fires still burning inside. The wall was monitored and slowly dismantled by hand and machine from 8.30am, with team members raking through the guts of the unstable structure for evidence of vitrification and a small quantity of glassy stones was recovered.

Vitrified material

This material was carefully stored in conditions that retained the high scientific integrity of the samples.

Schweppes vitrified stones

Despite Ralston’s assessment that the fire would have continued to burn for another 24 hours, he also noted that, “the structure appeared markedly unstable and Yorkshire TV, with filming schedules completed, was not prepared to accept the insurance risk represented by the wall any longer. Accordingly, at 1600 hrs, some 28 hours after the experiment had started, the wall was bulldozed flat”.

Bulldozer

This allowed further observation by the archaeologists, but after all of this hard work, was the mystery of vitrification finally solved? The voiceover on the TV show was not so sure, suggesting that the meagre evidence for melting rock (3kg of glassy stone) only posed more questions than it solved. If this was the case, it would surely take half of the trees in Scotland just to vitrify one fort the size of Tap O’Noth, the voice claimed ludicrously and misunderstanding the whole nature of extrapolation.

Ralston’s account of the experiment was more balanced, noting the errors made during the process that had became clear as the fire took hold, and some of the inauthenticities that were essentially unknown variants on what might have happened in the ancient past. He was able to show that under the right circumstances vitrification could happen in such a timber laced rampart, but he could not say for sure what cultural activity (warfare, ritual closure of a site, accidental fire) caused this to happen in the Iron Age.

This ambitious and eccentric project, made possibly by TV largesse (which only really went so far as the many compromises that had to be made demonstrate), shows the potential of educational and informative experimental archaeology in even the most unpromising of locations. This was not the first vitrification experiment nor was it the last, but it was perhaps the most urban.

Even more urban than an equally ambitious and bonkers vitrification experiment that was carried out in the industrial setting of Plean Colliery, between Stirling and Falkirk, by V Gordon Childe in 1937. (The National Geographic recently called this an ‘audacious experiment’.) The Plean vitrification experiment was carried out with Wallace Thorneycroft and a response to questions raised by vitrified material found at a number of forts in Scotland, including one recently excavated by Childe himself at Rahoy, Argyll and Bute. In this case, Childe and Thorneycroft asked / told staff at the colliery to construct a ‘murus gallicus 12 feet long  by 6 feet wide by 6 feet high’ based on detailed sketch plans.

The Plean wall spec

The structure was constructed from materials to hand on the mine, such as fireclay bricks and wooden beams. This gave the wall the appearance of being nothing more than another industrial structure in a mining landscape, and it lacked the rugged organic look of Ralston’s wall. Also, and perhaps this is where motivational inauthenticities creep in, this wall was designed purely to burn and for no other reason.

Plean colliery experiment 1937

The conflagration of this wall would have had an urban audience, with houses overlooking the site, and one presumes the poor sods who built the thing would have been allowed to stand and watch. 4 tons of kindling and logs were used to create a pyre to cause the wall to burn and effect vitrification in its core.

Plean fire and vitrication

Childe reported that, ‘the fire was kindled at 11am on March 11 in a snowstorm’, and the wall began to collapse internally within an hour, reaching peak core temperatures in five hours. 20 hours after the fire was started, glassy bubbled rock was picked out of the smouldering debris. As with the Yorkshire Television experiment, the means to vitrify rock had been explored successfully, but the cause and motivation remained unclear.

As an aside, a curious Edinburgh University Abercromby Chair runs through this thread. Ralston currently holds that role as did Childe, both of whom carried out peri-urban vitrification experiments. And Stuart Piggott, another Abercromby Chair, was on a different episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Stuart Piggott

I feel a Venn coming on. In the future, PhDs will be written about this.

Venn

The wonder of the vitrification experiments is that they failed to answer the ‘why’ question even if they were able to shed some light on the ‘how’ and ‘WTF’. Experiments and excavations continue to this day, with for instance an ongoing community and educational project involving the Forestry Commission at Dun Deardail, Argyll and Bute.  Here, the unanswered question, the mystery of vitrification and the melting of rock, offers fertile ground to involve and empower lots of people.

destruction-dun-deardail-cropped-low-resedited

Dun Deardail ablaze (c) Forestry Commission

When reflecting on the 1980 TV show, Ian Ralston told me that that the tweeted still photograph brought back memories although he did not define whether his recollections were negative, positive or bamboozled. He told me,

this is the Arthur C Clarke ‘The Mysterious World of…’ Yorkshire TV escapade … of the vitrified wall on Aberdeen City rubbish dump c. April Fool’s Day 1980 and that’s the unprepossessing surroundings of the tip in the background. I’m holding the torch I was given in due course to ignite the wall”.

He then went back to sorting out Brian Hope-Taylor’s historic Doon Hill excavations in East Lothian from the 1960s (and that would make an amazing blog post…but that’s for another day).

Holding the torch is a nice metaphor for what Ian Ralston was doing here, as well as a literal description. Of course, the great Professor and Edinburgh successor to Childe and Piggott is not quite ready to hand that torch over yet, but when he does, it is important that archaeologists continue to burn bright with enthusiasm, be hirsute with dignity and dream crazy dreams of impossible projects on the urban edgelands.

The end

Sources and acknowledgements: the tweet that started all of this was one a series of brilliant screen grabs and out-of-context comments from the TV show Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious world from Richard Littler. His tweet and screen grabs of Ralston and Piggott have been used in this blog post. Please follow him and buy his books.

The academic publication about East Tullos vitrification experiment was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 116 (1986), pages 17-40 and this is open access via the journal’s ADS page. This was the source for several quotations and the black and white images in the post. The account of the Plean vitrification experiment came from the same journal, in this case volume 72 (1937-38), pages 44-55. This was the source of the several black and white images about this experiment. 

The colour images are stills from the TV show itself, while the images related to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious world are available widely online. The image of Dun Deardail ablaze came from the Forestry Commission website about that project, link in text above.

For an interesting critique of these kinds of experiments, and accounts of the work at Plean and East Tullos, with images I have not included, see this blog.

 

 

 

Dynamic

8 Dec

DYNAMIC

There are a lot of standing stones outside Dynamic Earth, a geological visitor attraction, and within stone’s throw of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

General view low res

This grand collection of megaliths is in reality a very expensive collection of rock samples, erected around 10 years ago, part of a grant from the Millennium Commission of £432,959 to utilise the large open ‘amphitheatre’ like space at the front of weird tent-like original building that is the visitor centre itself.

Stone row from bottom low res

The arc-shaped linear setting of eight standing stones (some actually stacks of rocks arranged into vertical cairns) are essentially a (very) quick-fire geological tour of Scotland. What was expressed at the time of their erection as “a walk through Scotland’s journey in geological time”.

stone pile low res

Each of the monoliths and stone-piles has a label appended to it, stating where each rock was formed on earth as Scotland oozed around the world carried on a tectonic plate like a huge slug.

DSC_1381

At the bottom of the steps that lead up past the stones to the entrance and ticket-desk in the tent-like visitor centre is a noticeboard that states: ‘Around us here in the amphitheatre you can see “Scotland’s Journey” from deep in the southern hemisphere to where we are today….The walk up the ramp reflects Scotland’s landscape and tracks its long geological history’

noticeboard low res

On a slope running down from the standing stones is a bit of fake bedrock, and each time I have been there I have felt an overwhelming temptation to squat and carve rock-art onto this dull landscape feature. However, the nearby policemen with guns protecting the parliament always look a bit bored and I don’t want to give them an excuse to open up on me.

Bedrock 2016 low res

I suppose it is pretty dynamic though, as some weeds have grown in the cracks, between January 2016 and December 2017.

Bedrock 2017 low res

On my most recent visit, I was cheered to notice signs of emergent vandalism on some of the standing stones, including faintly carved initials and a splat of black paint.

Paint splat low res

It’s nowhere near as good as the megalithic rock sample collection at Bournemouth University though.

Bouremouth Uni rocks 1 low res

Bouremouth Uni rocks 2 low res

Sorry Dynamic Earth.

Your megaliths are just a bit rubbish.

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 statue got me high

13 Mar

general site view low res

>> the statue got me high <<

A megalithic landscape has been created in an abandoned open cast mine on the edge of the town of Sanquhar, Dumfries and Galloway. It is the Crawick Multiverse. Opened to the public in June 2015, and ten years in the planning and making, this ambitious landform was created by the artist Charles Jencks and funded by the Richard Scott (aka the Duke of Buccleuch). The complex of stone circles, stone rows, megaliths and mounds represents grand cosmic themes:

This world-class landscape art design links the themes of space, astronomy and cosmology, creating a truly inspiring landmark that will appeal to everyone from art enthusiasts and scientists to the wider community.

This is a truly impressive place on an awesome scale, and I have now visited it twice: once when construction was well underway in June 2014, and again in February 2016. The scale and ambition of the venture, and the aspiration to revitalise a ruined post-industrial landscape, are impressive. But yet I can’t help having reservations. There is a curious lack of acknowledgement that the created forms have prehistoric origins, with the cosmic meanings always to the fore. And I also wonder how much the local community will benefit from the Crawick Multiverse.

alan overlooking all low res

I am a great proponent of the value and utility of constructing megalithic monuments today and tomorrow, rather than seeing such structures as just belonging to the ancient past – but in doing so we also need to give a good deal of thought about who will benefit and the messages megaliths can convey. The messages I got at Crawick were decidedly ambiguous as soon as I stepped back from the initial shock and awe of the experience. This post has allowed me to explore my surprisingly ambivalent reaction to a place – a landscape – that I feel I should love, but can’t.

 

 >> the stone, it called to me <<

Our minibus wound along the A76, travelling from New Cumnock towards Sanquhar. To the north the land was scarred by huge opencast mines, the earth being emptied of its resources in a quite brutal fashion, although in this post-coal age these scars in the land are about to become post-industrial. Gavin MacGregor was leading the field trip, and I was driving, with our destination, at that point, shrouded in mystery, as Gavin had intended all along.

Just before we got to Sanquhar, and as we passed an old military hospital to our right, Gavin indicated we turn left and I did so, steering the deep blue bus and our passengers up a minor road and beneath a railway bridge. On the horizon to our left was an old mining bing, and atop this sat several standing stones, which I was fairly sure were new additions to the skyline. As we heading up an even smaller road into what appeared to be an active quarry site, we were greeted by dozens of similar standing stones in various arrangements, as well as several large yellow diggers rolling back and forth in a dusty beige desert. This working site, this quarry, was punctuated by grey dusty zones and unkempt green sprouting grass, while bing-drumlins and spoilheap-aretes loomed over us to the north and west. Some of these anthropomorphically generated landforms had been further altered, with paths and cairns scraped from the land, with a purpose as yet unclear.

machines low res

Leading off from the area where we parked up the minibus was an avenue of megaliths, an arrow-straight line hundreds of metres long flanked on both sides by standing stones: scores of them.

avenue low res

These straddled an amphitheatre of Classical form, suggesting a chronological and spatial mash-up was being created, while dolmen and standing stones in various arrangements emerged from the side of the avenue. There seemed to be hundreds of megaliths, disappearing off into an invisible point in the distance, an impossible arrangement that defied the material realities of what is just ‘some art in an old mine’. The illusion of infinity was one that was first attempted at Carnac, Brittany, in the Neolithic where thousands of standing stones set in painfully glorious rows go on for ever and ever, transcending time, offering the maddening possibility of counting the stones, reaching the end of the monument, which of course can never happen, really. Walking along such avenues is not about walking from A to B but from travelling from Now to Then. Or Then to Now if you are able to make the return journey, which not everyone can. To have one’s mind blown is not such a bad thing when it is being blown by a million megaliths. And my first experience of the Multiverse was on the verge of doing just that.

mound low res

Actually: this is Carnac. This is Silbury Hill. This is Croft Moraig. This is Bargrennan. This is amazing! Or is it? The contrived nature of this construction site left me queasy, megaliths arranged with clinical precision, where even the casually leant standing stone was an act of proficient design. The fragmented standing stones, shedding pieces of themselves into cairns around their base, was a convenient organic effect, cultivated and left un-checked. The heavy machinery creeping around me had touched and lifted standing stones in a transactional way that could not replicate the pull of the rope, the touch of many hands. The act of translating the vision of the artist and the desire of the wealthy landowner into reshaping the land from industry to art was far too tidy and clean for my liking. Prehistory was dirty, dangerous, unpredictable, improvised. Heavy industry was dirty, dangerous, unpredictable, improvised. There was little sense of any of these qualities at the nascent Multiverse, which was when I first visited in effect incarnate and not yet fully realised and so I left my concerns to one side and took lots of photos in the dying light.

B2 compressed 25%

 

>> the monument of granite sent a beam into my eye <<

 Approximately 2,000 boulders have been used to create the Crawick Multiverse site

The Sun amphitheatre can hold 5,000 spectators

The north-south line comprises approximately 300 boulders

The site spans approximately 55 acres

The Northpoint provides a 20-mile 360 degree panoramic view

Around 300 boulders were used to create the Multiverse landform [source]

 

>> it took my hand, it killed me, and it turned me to the sky <<

This landscape of megaliths and mounds represents the multiverse, a concept borrowed from the wilder edges of physics, which refers to the theory that there are multiple universes that exist parallel to one another. Every element of the Crawick Multiverse is a designed element, the vision of the artist made material – and very much in the spirit of other landforms by Jencks such as The Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries. There is a real sense of order about this place, a narrative to be followed, changes underfoot and the choreography of bodily movement signalling a transition into a new aspect of the cosmos and a new set of meanings. There are boundaries and divisions evident everywhere: a division horizontally into ‘four ecologies’ (grassland, mountains, water gorge, desert); a division vertically into a ‘high road’ and a ‘low road’; the classification of every element of the complex into named zones and monuments (the  North-South path, the Amphitheatre, the Supercluster). This is stylised and rule-bound landscape: made of materials from a singularity of concentrated industrial destruction in an unusually creative Big Bang.

reflections low res

A map to the stars is provided for visitors to help make sense of this four-dimensional experience and this includes more detailed interpretations of the key elements of the landscape for the benefit of the visitor, as none of this is really self-evident. The artist as god, create now, explain later, leave a little mystery, and don’t walk on the grass while you’re at it.

map low res

Descriptions of each element emphasise the cosmological and astronomical inspiration for Jencks’s landscape installation. The Supercluster for instance represents ‘the forming of our universe and its place within the cosmos’ with an abstract jigsaw of triangular mounds held together by the ‘rivers of gravity’. The Sun Amphitheatre is all about the ‘beauty of a total eclipse’ while three Comet Shelter Points can be found across the site. At the northern end of the complex sits an artificial mound topped with a spiral setting of large standing stones, some with lines carved upon them. This megalith is the Multiverse itself, ‘the whole ensemble of universes’.

Multiverse low res

The Belvedere Finger sites atop the highest point of the site, on another mound with another spiral path to the top. It is capped by a spectacular plinth upon which a viewing board – the Northpoint Sign – is placed, and it affords views right down the North-South megalith avenue. This is an eccentric plinth – a lectern – a music stand holding a semi-mythical manuscript mapping the surrounding landscape. This is surely also the control panel for a spaceship with information encoded with our origins, found deep within the coal, to help us read the land. The sacred geometry of the ancient past exposed: ‘Cairns’, ‘River Nith Barrow’, ‘Sean Caer Fort’, ‘St Brides Church’. The bones of the land.

the control panel map low res

Has this spaceship just landed, or is it about to take off? Are these our instructions to achieve escape velocity: or colonise planet earth?

the control panel low res

 

>> A rock that spoke a word (an animated mineral, it can be heard) <<

 

Position yourself at the control panel of a megalithic spaceship that landed on planet earth –

Landed here, thousands of years ago, when we were still prehistoric –

Adjust yourself –

Calibrate –

Close the air locks –

Set the controls to transcend time –

Place your hand upon the lever and pull back –

Pull back hard –

Warp speed, warp space, warp time –

Find the booster –

Turn on the thruster –

Feel the throb of the stones beneath your feet –

The energy beneath your feet –

Un-docking procedures initiated –

Into the multiverse.

 

>> (and now I see the things the stone has shown to me) <<

There is another modern megalithic monument nearby, just outside the town of Dalmellington in East Ayrshire. Erected for the millennium, ‘The Standing Stones of dael meallain tuinn’ is a monument to mining, a marker recognising that this is land that has been worked by people for thousands of years.

seven stones low res

The use of rocks for standing stones here is not about the cosmos, but about the earth itself, looking to the ground, not the sky. Consisting of an arc of seven standing stones set on a crescent-shaped mound the name of this monument means ‘the meeting place at the mound with the motte’. The invocation of a motte here in the monument name hints that this is a central point, a place of justice, a parliament.

stones and pennyvenie bing low res

Behind the stones sits Pennyvenie coal bing, another industrial Silbury Hill. And like the Multiverse Silbury Hills, these standing stones and the fabric of this monument are made from industrial debris, offered up by the earth. But unlike the Multiverse, this simple, austere monument captures much more poignantly the heavy industry that preceded it. This is a thoroughly rooted monument, with connections as deep as a seam of coal.

the gate and the fence low res

This megalith sits at the entrance road to an open cast mine / quarry, the last and ugly vestiges of the coal industry that once dominated the Doon Valley. But access to the standing stones appears not to be encouraged, restricted by a locked gate and warning signs, and so detaching the stones from the communities which they represent. Because the seven stones represent seven mining settlements – Dalmellington, Bellsbank, Burnton, Craigmark, Benquhat, Pennyvenie, Waterside – a Proclaimers-like roll call of towns and villages entangled with heavy industry and the extraction of minerals from the earth, villages and towns forever associated with our changing and voracious energy demands.

Heavy industry created communities but also caused dislocation and ensured the disempowerment of those communities: the locked gate, the entrance fee, maintain this status quo.

 

>> They pale before the monolith that towers over me <<

My second visit to the Crawick Multiverse, 20 months after the first, was a very different affair. Again, I was on a fieldtrip and again I was driving a minibus with Gavin taking the lead, but this time the minibus was silver. We arrived in the car park for the Multiverse around 3.30pm with blue skies and the orange setting sun casting our long shadows onto the footpaths and fences. It was interesting to note that the Multiverse still doesn’t merit a Brown Sign all of its own on the A76, almost as if it is still on probation as a proper tourist attraction.

We were introduced to the landscape by one of the staff and he handed out A3 colour maps (see above) which included brief descriptions of the key elements of the Multiverse. The trappings of a fully open tourist attraction are beginning to emerge where before there had been a just been a rough quarry road: fences, gates, car park, noticeboards and a portaloo were in place, with the focal being being a temporary ticket office in the form of a portacabin where it is possible to purchase mugs and postcards.

noticeboard low res

We followed one of the two entry pathways and began to head uphill, skirting round a bing, before emerging out onto an escarpment which we followed right to the top. In places this was very steep and muddy. (There are ongoing drainage problems which appear not have been fully resolved although on our arrival it was hinted that an elaborate drainage system had been developed.) We passed a setting of four large standing stones, and as the path up the side of the bing became steeper, so we got increasingly spectacular views to the south and west over an awesome landscape of standing stones and mounds.

walking uphill low res

Towards the top of the ridge we encountered the mound with the huge white viewing map on it (the Belvedere Finger), and wound our way up to the top of this on the spiralling pathway, stopping to take in views from time to time, and look down into a large round hole, filled with water and its own spiral path, the Void Shelter according to our maps. At the centre of this vortex was a flat megalith.

The void shelter low res and colour altered

From these high points of the site it was easy to appreciate the major changes here since our last visit almost two years previously.

Then and now

Beyond the top, one of the Comet Shelters was closed, and the path was roped off in places due to mud and erosion. It’s almost as if the site is trying to return to its previous (pre-)industrial form, defying the careful shaping and health-and-safety requirements of such a visitor attraction. We passed the spiralling Multiverse, essentially a Brittonic megalith, and headed to the spiritual core of this landscape, the Omphalos.

omphalos low res

This was very different from other elements of the complex. It consisted of large red sandstone blocks set into a megalithic chamber, with an austere iron gate, while an iron grid also overlay the top, making entry almost impossible, and certainly not permitted. The map describes this place as the Omphalos, the ‘centre or navel of the world’ – the interior megaliths are ‘special rocks’ representing the ‘mythical or actual centre of the world’. The unusual restriction of access, red rocks and harsh metal elements gave this a very different feel from the rest of the installation. As we stood here, the setting sun turned this megalithic wall and chamber ahead of us into a deep orange to blood red, and we were afforded fine views along the North-South path. From A to B, past to present, looking through megaliths to a railway viaduct and Sanquhar resting below.

North South path with filter

 

>> The stone it calls to you (you can’t refuse to do the things it tells you to) <<

What do I think about it all? Superficially it is awesome, with the scale and ambition matching some of the great building projects of prehistory. But this also leads me to deeper reflection on the curious lack of prehistory within this land art. Perhaps it is so in–your-face and explicit that the site consists of hundreds of standing stones and several megalithic arrangements that it need not be mentioned. But there appears to be an almost perverse desire to dress up the meaning and utility of this place in cosmic terms, deliberately (for it can only be deliberate) making little or nothing of the quite obvious Neolithic elements that abound in this old quarry. This is weird because visitors do latch on to the prehistoric parallels quite readily: Trip Adviser users have called it ‘Stonehenge 2’, ‘a modern Stonehenge’ and ‘a modern ancient site’. An FT journalist who wrote about the Multiverse (link below) noted: “The great avenue, pointing towards a nearby viaduct and more distant hills, has the cryptic simplicity of a Neolithic alignment”. And multiple allusions to megaliths, Stonehenge, Carnac and so on can be found online.

opening ceremony from BBC website

The opening ceremony, June 2014 (source: BBC)

 

What is going on here? Why does the published material related to the Multiverse almost entirely ignore the prehistoric appearance of this place, and focus instead on the industry and local landscape (a little) and the cosmos (a lot)? It is almost as if there is a desire to reach for the heavens and the future, rather than back into the past. Yet this is a landscape that has depth and has been occupied for thousands of years. This is celebrated on the noticeboard for the Dalmellington seven standing stone monument which says:

‘For over 6000 years there have been settlements around the Loch Doon area, and in particular the Doon Valley’.

The Multiverse is not the first megalithic construction in this landscape and it will not doubt not be the last. The past, present and future are entangled in stone in this place, mined and quarried to make monuments, mined and quarried to extract coal and other minerals, mined and quarried to pluck large rocks from the pit to repurpose as modern megaliths. All these actions are about power, about the economy, about people living and working together. The Multiverse represents another part of the biography of this land – but so far, just one small part, standing on the shoulders of megalithic giants and the labour of mining communities.

 

>> And what they found was just a statue standing where the statue got me high <<

 What it the Multiverse for? To what end has something like £1 million been spent (the figure widely quoted in the media)? Who benefits?

There is no doubt that the Multiverse is a timely intervention, largely economic and social, although it has also addressed a literal hole in the landscape. An article on Crawick that appeared in the Financial Times suggests that motivations included improving the quality of landscape that had been essentially sucked dry and then abandoned by an opencast mining company, much to the dismay of local people. Another motivation was as prosaic:

‘to help revive the local economy, hit hard by the demise of the mining industry and by the fact that the region is, in tourism terms, a backwater: the Crawick Multiverse could be a much-needed draw.’

There is also no doubt a degree of a very wealthy landowner using a chunk of his money philanthropically to support the arts. Charles Jencks himself has said, “This work of land art, created primarily from earth and bounders on the site, celebrated the surrounding Scottish countryside and its landmarks, looking outwards and back in time”. This could be viewed as a generous act of largesse, or a rich man’s privilege, depending on your perspective. It is probably a bit of both.

mosaics low res

But what do local people actually think about this place? What value for money do they feel has been squeezed from a millionaire’s spare million quid? There was an aspiration early in the process to give free access to local people I believe, although I can’t find any evidence that this has actually been implemented. Certainly, it is free to visit on foot after hours when the car park is closed – but this applies to everyone and anyone, not just locals. (Ironically, Buccleuch recently courted minor controversy with a plan to charge for access to another of the Duke’s estates, Dalkeith Country Park in the evenings.) I am not sure how many jobs have been created either – were the staff working for the Estate anyway, or have new posts been created? As yet, it is too early to assess how strong visitor numbers are, or how many of those visitors also pop into town and have lunch or spend money in local shops. Mosaics on site created with local schoolchildren (see photo above), and talk of school and educational visits, suggest another benefit which could emerge through time.

Perhaps if the Crawick Multiverse can genuinely catalyse economic regeneration, create jobs and revitalise interest in this forgotten corner of Scotland, then the gesture of the Duke and the creative genius of Jencks will be vindicated. But if this turns out to be art for arts sake, an industrial-scale folly, visited by those with cars, excluding large chunks of the population, an elitist attraction, then perhaps something else should have been done with this huge hole and the money to help the local community.

Sources and acknowledgements: the title of this post and the subheadings are all taken from the They Might be Giants 1992 song The statue got me high (from the album Apollo 18). Information about the Crawick Multiverse came from their website (including the quote near the start of the post and the list of stats that make up the third section of this post) and the map handed out to visitors (a few extracts of which are included in the post). Thanks to the Estate for allowing us access to the Multiverse during construction, and informative conversations with staff on both visits, and thanks also to Gavin for facilitating the visit in 2014. The opening ceremony image was sourced from a BBC story about this event, source link in caption. Finally, thanks to all of those who joined me on those two fieldtrips, chats during walks around the Multiverse helped shaped my own thoughts.