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The Hexham Heads Part 3 – the cursed fieldtrip

6 Dec

Is there truly such a thing as the cursed archaeological discovery? Can old objects that are recovered have latent sinister properties contained by burial, only to be unleashed simply by being found? As an archaeologist I tend not to think about this too hard as my job involves trying to find old things that have been buried by accident or design. If I actually believed in curses my job would be that much more difficult. If curses were actually real then my life would be that much more difficult. 

Yet still…..

The curse is something of a trope in archaeology, and the object of jokey conversations on many excavations I have been on. I’ve been involved in rites carried out before excavations. I’ve seen ceremonies take place at the end of digs just as things are being covered up again. Different motivations underpinned these events, although I can’t say I took many of them that seriously.

pre excavation ceremony

Me leading a ceremony before excavations at Battle Moss stone rows and cairn, Caithness, in 2003. Offerings were thrown into the loch to placate the ‘Fishman of Watten’ (photo: Paul Murtagh)

Often we leave things behind on excavations, to be buried with the remnants of the site, from whisky bottles, to coins, to other things which are best left unsaid until after I am either retired or dead. These structured deposits mirror practices that we often find archaeological evidence for, but part of the motivation is also surely to put something back in compensation for what we have taken away.

Archaeologists are a superstitious-curious lot in general, but the famous curses we hear about are driven by popular culture. The most famous example being the ‘curse of the mummy’ or ‘curse of the pharaohs‘, part of a phenomenon that Jasmine Day called ‘mummymania‘. This dates back to the nineteenth century (BC), very much a Victorian concoction, as John J Johnston, and others, have noted. 

220px-FF59-Curse_of_the_Mummy

Yet there seems something strangely illogical about the whole concept of ‘the curse of Tutankhamen’ where a whole bunch of people apparently died, some of whom were old, and others bitten by insects in hot sweaty places (I don’t mean armpits). A dog was heard to howl. All of this over a fairly extended period of time. It is the archaeological equivalent of the ‘curse of Dad’s Army’, where old people playing the parts of old men died within a decade or two of the show being made. It is reminds of me of an amusing running joke in Private Eye where aged celebrities who make it as far as their tenth decade eventually die and join the ’94 club’.

Curse of Dad's Army Sunday Sport

Sunday Sport ‘exclusive’

Mummy curses largely belong to the popular culture of films, books, and computer games. But underlying them are real archaeological discoveries (albeit it often found under questionable colonial circumstances) including, lest we forget, dead bodies. Regardless of what happened to their guts and brains post-mortem

What of another, slightly less famous archaeological curse, that associated with the celebrated Hexham Heads. This is the third is a series of four blogs I am writing on these little buggers, having already explored their discovery, scientific analysis, supernatural associations, and their mysterious disappearance in part 1 and part 2. Some who handled and possessed these objects between 1971 and 1978 believed them to be cursed.

extract from journal

The Hexham Heads in the 1973 volume of Archaeologia Aeliana in an article of Celtic stone heads by Anne Ross.

In this third installment, I want to report on my own engagements with the story of the Heads. Nothing original, all that I have done has been done before by others, but I wanted to bring an archaeological sensibility to the process, in part in preparation for a paper I am working on around the topic of cursed material culture. Here, then, I’ll report on my brief chats with archaeologists who were around the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities and archaeology department in the 1970s, some archive research, and finally my cursed fieldwork to the place where the Heads were found.

As of yet, there have been no werewolf (or weresheep) incidents at my home. As of yet. 

The archaeology of the Hexham Heads

For the time being, let’s treat the Hexham Heads as a pair of archaeological artefacts. What can we say about them?

They form a small assemblage of archaeological material, both of similar enough form to suggest some kind of typological relationship. They are two spherical objects made of stone-like material, and carved with roughly human physiognomy.

The circumstances of discovery is well documented although of questionable reliability. They were found during an impromptu ‘excavation’ in a suburban back garden by two children in 1971 and thus could be said to have no secure context, but some sort of provenance. They were quickly handed in to the authorities by the finders, and spent a period of time in the care of museum experts and academics, during which they underwent various episodes of invasive sampling. The results of these investigations were contradictory, and during the period of analysis, competing claims about the manufacture and taphonomy of the Heads were made in the media. Nonetheless Dr Anne Ross had the Heads drawn, and they were duly published in a paper on Celtic heads in the journal Archaeoligia Aeliana (with that illustration reproduced in full above). This paper acknowledged the problematic nature of these heads in terms of where they came from and when they were made.

Anne Ross had published on this general topic before, and it could be argued was pre-disposed to be credulous where the Hexham Heads were concerned.

Book cover

Ross’s 1967 book Pagan Celtic Britain, which includes lots of wee Iron Age heads such as those illustrated below.

celtic heads from anne ross book

Somehow the Heads ended up being taken to Southampton University, where some of the aforementioned analysis took place. The Heads were then passed onto a scientist, Don Robins, for further investigation of a non-conventional manner. Once this private research was concluded, the Heads subsequently went missing after they came into the possession of a psychic in 1978.

During this period, the Heads were connected to a series of paranormal events.

What happened to them while they were in the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities in the early 1970s? I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to, and correspond, with an archaeologist who dealt with the Heads during this period, Roger Miket.

Miket 1974 from Screeton

Poorly scanned image from Screeton’s Quest for the Hexham Heads

Despite being photographed by the media in 1974 (really? not sure about the timeline here) clutching the Heads, Roger has little memory of them. (This photo was taken before the Heads were apparently passed back to the Robson family, the finders, see archive discussion below.) Miket did have access to them for a while, and also visited Rede Avenue to see where they were found. For at least some of the period between 1971 and 1974, the Heads were in the keeping of Anne Ross and so not always in Newcastle. Roger concluded, “I was personally very skeptical of the stories attached to them, and never felt anything of a mysterious nature, and certainly not anything malevolent.”

Another archaeologist who was around the Museum and archaeology department in the 1970s is Lindsay Allison-Jones, although she personally did not actually handle or even see them. She told me however that some time later she emailed the (now defunct?) band The Hexham Heads about why they chose that name which suggests a lingering curiosity if nothing else.

Band logo

Paul Screeton carried out a more extensive interview with Allison with excerpts in his 2012 book The quest for the Hexham Heads. 

Digging into the archives

Both Roger and Lindsay suggested I contact Andrew Parkin at the Great North Museum, Newcastle, which now has the archives of the old museum of Antiquities. He kindly scanned and sent me everything in their files appertaining to the Hexham Heads. This file has in the past (I presume) been consulted by Paul Screeton, who reproduced various letters and newsclippings I was sent in Quest for the Hexham Heads.

The documents in this file include a series of 20 letters, notes, and memos, documenting back and forth between the museum staff, academics, the finders of the Heads (the Robsons) and the alleged maker of the heads (Des Craigie). Correspondence includes letters to, or from, Roger Miket, Anne Ross, David Smith (museum director), and DA Robson, one of the scientists who examined the little rascals. Theses documents cover the period 29th October 1971 to 8th April 1975.

Also included were two newsclipping from 1972 (from the Evening Chronicle and Journal) and two Fortean Times articles from 2012, the latter suggesting that the file was at least at that point in time being actively maintained.

Other ephemera include the original version of the Screeton book (Tales of the Hexham Heads) as 10 pdfs, although you can now download this as one convenient pdf from the Hexham Heads blog.  A copy of a book section in some kind of mysteries encyclopedia where H is for HH was also appended.

Finally, two key analytical reports were in the file: the pivotal one by DA Robson which argues that the Heads were made of cement, and a more credulous earlier summary written by F Hodson in 1972 that suggested a geological origin for the material that the Heads were made from. Both are discussed in my previous blog post on this matter and are in the public domain.

The earliest letter is the first communication sent to Anne Ross, in other words the first she would have heard about the discovery of the Heads. The letter, from Miket, ends with a handwritten note that the Heads were packed and sent, presumably to Ross, on 25th November 1971.

Miket letter 29101971

Also of note in the file, is a letter from Mrs Robson in March 1975 asking for the Heads to be returned to her sons, as they were keen to have them back. The Museum had been keen to return them for some time, having concluded that they were of modern origin. The following month, a letter was sent by David Smith to Des Craigie saying tests had concluded, the Heads had been returned to the Robsons, and that the file was now closed. Typical of the confusion and coincidence that hovers around the Hexham Heads like bees around the Candyman is the note in the letter about the Robson family and analysis by Dr Robson.

Smith to Craigie letter

What happened next? The archive trail stops here and further confusion has been sown by the above letter. Screeton notes that the Heads were indeed returned to the Robson’s via Prospect House, Hexham (Quest, pg 75). There are still some dots to be joined here however because Screeton also notes that in 1977 Anne Ross said that the Heads were in Southampton with one of the geologists who had sampled them two years earlier and that they had been in a box there for years. Don Robins (not Robson, do keep up!) got his hands on them on 21st September of that year (pg 82) and the rest, as they say, is mystery.

The contradictory nature of historical records is not unusual, and suggests actions and words were not necessarily aligned in this paper trail. There is no way to resolve how the Heads were both in Newcastle being returned to the Robsons while at the same time were in a box in Southampton. 

The complex timeline of the movement of the Heads between 1975 and 1978 is captured nicely in the Hexham Heads blog in a tour de force of parallel alternative histories. Four possible sequences of possession are postulated, depending on when the Heads were actually made, and what happened in the pivotal spring of 1975 when the Heads had their Sliding Doors moment. This is ‘Sequence 2’ which presupposes the Heads were indeed genuine ancient objects found by the Robsons and ended up in Southampton, never being returned to the family.

“Sequence 2  (the chain begins at the top and each name passes to the name underneath, [being the handiwork of James Fisher])

  • Colin and Leslie Robson
  • Betty Gibson
  • Professor Richard Bailey
  • Barbara Harbottle
  • Roger Miket
  • Peter Moth
  • Dr Douglas Robson
  • Anne Ross
  • Frank Hodson
  • Anne Ross
  • Don Robins
  • Frank Hyde”.

All of this begs the question as to how many heads there actually were, and which variants Don Robins / the Robsons were actually given…

There seem to have been a lot of Heads knocking about at this time. Des Craigie, when attempting to demonstrate he made these little ugly objects knocked one up for the media. Newsclippings in the Hexham Heads file include this story dated to 3rd March 1972, from The Evening Chronicle, with the wonderful headline ‘Terror from the Celtic mists’.

Terror from the Celtic mists

The story tells of Ann [sic] Ross’s plans to excavate in the garden at Rede Avenue, it being a possible ‘Celtic burial ground’. Ross makes a direct connection between the presence of such a shrine and the supernatural. Here also the story notes that Colin Robson had been making creepy clay heads at school before his big discovery. Occam’s razor and all that…

Family fear another night of terror

The same claim is made in the above cutting, also in the collection, from the Journal at the same time.

As archaeological objects, the Hexham Heads pose more questions than they provide answers. Their origin, discovery method, materiality, chain of ownership, and current whereabouts are unclear. Frankly this is all a bit suspicious if we are to regard these as anything other than modern curios. There are issues of authenticity, honesty, and motivation, that all render these deeply problematic objects. And that is before the curse is taken into consideration. 

Cursed fieldwork

If Anne Ross planned fieldwork, then perhaps so should I, although excavation seemed a bit over the top.

I first tried to document a visit to Rede Avenue back in March 2013. On a fieldtrip with Honours students to northern England, I left the team at Hexham Abbey and briskly walked the 15 minutes or so it took to get to the house where the Heads had been found 40 years earlier. After a detour to a nice toilet in M&S I headed through a car park, up some stairs, and walked the few minutes towards the familiar house, number 3. There followed some discrete photography of the house and street signs, and some careful peering through a hedgerow into the back garden where the Heads were found.

map of the hexham walk

On my walk back to meet up with the students, I went down a very narrow alley connecting a car park with Priestpopple (an actual street name) past some warehouses. Daubed on one wall was a cartoonish round face, a head looking back at me in Hexham. A coincidence? 

I met the students at The Grapes pub. This establishment features in Paul Screeton’s book about the Hexham Heads because apparently it is haunted. He featured a salacious story about the ghost’s nefarious activities.

Haunted pub newsclipping

On the occasion of that visit, no hauntings or further incidents occurred, and I had a pleasant pint in the shadow of a slot machine, possibly one of those ones with the head of Noel Edmonds on it, glaring out with Iron Age inscrutability. Then we decamped and headed onto some Roman site nearby.

A few years later when I was starting to blog about the Heads, I went back to my archives and could not find any photos from this visit. I had the photos of the abbey visit itself and the Roman site afterwards, but the Rede Avenue images were missing. Cursed!

It took me six years to make it back. In the area to make some mediocre Neolithic-style pottery with Potted History Graham Taylor, I decided to take the chance and make the pilgrimage again although this time Jan came with me to take the photos. I wasn’t taking any chances this time. Especially as I had forgotten a power cable for my phone and so I could not take any pics. Even then it took ten months to retrieve the photos from the visit from the cloud, a ghostly disembodied repository. 

We headed up the alleyway but the graffiti was gone, replaced by one of those muddy brown rectangles that are frequently painted over such daubings. Through the retail car park we passed (which was not pedestrian friendly lacking a pavement) and up the set of stairs out onto Wanless Lane / Loan. In turn we wound up a slight gradient to Rede Avenue. This is Hexham Head country.

Rede Avenue

We sidled up to the semi-detached house at the western end of the street, standing at the end of the drive-way. Some photos were taken of the house and surrounds, and no-one seems to have been around, or looking out through one of the many windows on the property.

Rede Avenue 2

As with my first visit, my only sense of unease related to lurking outside someone’s house and taking pictures of it. We looked at the back garden from whence the Heads came. But this did not feel like a cursed place to me. It had no real sense of pastness, which I do sometimes pick up when working at prehistoric sites. But in itself this is probably wishful thinking.

The end of my quest for the Hexham Heads was a disappointment, but then I think those particular objects retain a sense of mystery only when we don’t look at them too closely. Expose them to the harsh light of scrutiny, or stare directly at them, and their power withers and they become, well, frankly a bit ridiculous.

We retreated to a Wetherspoons in town that is a converted old cinema, which I must say has very spacious toilets.

A few months later we returned to Hexham, this time to see the Abbey, which had been closed in our earlier visit, which had me cursing at the time. Inside, we saw more heads, this time carvings on wooden benches, misericordia, and a fine series of stone carved figures along the side of the tomb of Rowland Leschman, Prior of the Abbey in the 1480s.

DSC_1105

Screeton spends a lot of time looking at heads in the abbey and trying to find rude sculptures, but of course they have nothing to do with the Rede Avenue Heads. Quite a few places here did remind me though of the BBC adaptation of The stalls of Barchester.

Stalls of Barchester

Heads are everywhere in Hexham. Painted heads. Wooden heads. Stone heads. Pints with great big foamy heads. Cursed heads. They should call the place Headsxham. 

The curse

Do I feel cursed now that I have excavated those stone rows in Caithness, or disturbed a few prehistoric burials in my time? Have I brought certain doom and bad luck upon myself because I have reduced the Heads to archaeological objects? Should I be looking over my shoulder for mummies, were-sheep, or the ghosts of monks, or Dad’s Army cast member zombies?

Not really. I don’t look over my shoulder. Perhaps I dare not.

I have visited Rede Avenue twice, in my hunt for the tale of the Heads. Not the truth you understand. Just the story. The place. Suburbia. Mundanity coloured by an explosion of supernatural energy. Five minutes’ walk from Marks and Spencers. Ten minutes’ stroll from haunted pub The Grapes. Not much further on to ‘spoons and the Abbey. Something undeniably weird happened here almost 40 years ago……

Head hunting has its pleasures, and one of the things that strikes me as most fascinating about the HHs is that, despite their loss and uncertain origins, they have never been more accessible, more visible, more written, and spoken about. A new lease of life has been afforded the Heads as generation haunters, and this will be the subject of my final forthcoming post on this bestial pair of spheres.

Sources and acknowledgements: many thanks to Lindsay Allison-Jones, Andrew Parkin, and Roger Miket, for their help with filling in some of the archaeological and archival background. Many thanks to Jan for taking the Rede Avenue pictures in this post. Other images have been credited as appropriate in the text or below those pictures. I have never been in touch with Paul Screeton (I don’t think he likes archaeologists all that much) but I owe a debt to his book and several images that have been reproduced in this post. Information about the Leschman Screen at Hexham Abbey came from the abbey webpages. Finally, thanks to James Fisher, custodian of the Hexham Heads blog, for his help, and making material about them available freely and for all who dare to care.

#StonehengeAnything

21 Nov

It only took a tweet to confirm what I had long suspected.

Stonehengism isn’t just a problem for archaeologists. It is a social problem too. It is not just us – archaeologists – that seem to be obsessed with Stonehenge.

Despite being relatively well known amongst a certain select audience as someone who has, let’s just say, reservations, about the amount of time and attention focused on Stonehenge, the most popular things I do always seem to be about the fun or even positive aspects of Stonehenge.

My most liked blog post dates back over five years – and I can’t help feel that the visual focus and passing mention of Stonehenge in relation to it’s brutal look and feel attracted 220 ‘likes’, several pingbacks, and literally hundreds of new followers of the blog in the space of a week.

And so it has happened again, this time with a tweet. Posted on the evening of Friday 16th November 2019, it was an innocuous suggestion that twitter-users play a game which I called #StonehengeAnything

By any stretch of imagination compared to my usual social media track record, this went mental. Over an intense 72 hour period I struggled to keep up with all replies to my initial tweet, those using the hashtag for the game, and replies to others who retweeted the tweet, including a big signal boost from Alice Roberts and Sarah Parcak, who both played along as well.

As of the evening of 19th November, impressions and interactions were off the scale for what I normally achieve, plus I probably picked up over 50 new followers.

I added some variants as we went along, such as #StonehengeYourself. I also introduced the concept of a #StonehengeWhack – a noun that when matched with Stonehenge simply produces google images of Stonehenge with no added weirdness. This was based on an idea that comedian Dave Gorman popularised a few years ago, Googlewhack, “a contest for finding a Google search query consisting of exactly two words without quotation marks that returns exactly one hit” (wikipedia).

Stonehenge Sausage (source: Chimmy Blog, tweeted by @HeyerdahlKing )

What prompted this? In part it was due to some research I have been doing with Gordon Barclay for a paper we are working on related to late Neolithic studies and Neo-colonial geographies. I was doing a lot of Stonehenge-this and Stonehenge-that searching online to follow up various lines of inquiry, and some of these got a bit silly. Then I realised that no matter how silly things got, I still seemed to get a directly related image.

Photos of the real Stonehenge with things in the foreground. Photoshopped images of Stonehenge added to things, or things added to Stonehenge. Stonehenge corporate branding. Stonehenge merch. Trilithons made of all sorts of weird and wonderful materials. Things that someone thought looked a bit like Stonehenge. Stonehenge memes. Cartoons of Stonehenge. Relentless bloody Stonehenge. And some deeply weird combinations.

Stonehenge Clothes / Clothesline
(Markus George, Die Macht Der Bilder,
tweeted by @pighilltweets)

But I had something else in mind. In his excellent 1999 book Metaphor and Material Culture, Chris Tilley included an essay which I have always loved (and believe me I don’t love everything he writes) on the genealogy and usage of the word megalith. The essay ‘Frozen Metaphor: megaliths in text’ is a gloriously granular exploration of how rigid adherence to archaeological vocabulary constrains interpretations. The legacy of the weird faux-Latin word megalith has been one of reductionism, leading to a narrow range of pre-figured interpretations of things we call megalith.

This was a study in archaeological banality. Tilley writes this about the word megalith but he might as well have been writing about Stonehenge: “The term creates a particular form of discourse and – such is its power – there appears to be an inability to reinscribe the past in a fresh manner” (1999, 83).

One of the things that Tilley explored in relation to text was words that were combined with megalith. He noted common matches in the archaeological literature: words related to burial, monumentality, ritual. Then, he did a curious thing which exposed the banality of our discourse and the inadequacy of our vocabulary: he created Table 3.3. Drum roll please.

Tilley 1999 Table 3.3 – one of the most important tables published in an archaeology book

It is no coincidence that in my initial series of #StonehengeAnything tweets, I included Stonehenge Volvo.

Stonehenge Volvo. No idea what this has actually got to do with Volvo and I now can’t find the source!

Tilley noted: Bearing in mind what the word megalith actually means ie ‘big stone’, why is it that we might laugh at megalithic (big stone) vegetable when it is apparently quite normal and unproblematic to refer to big stone evolution, big stone people, big stone territories, big stone rituals, etc?

And so, Stonehenge has been rendered banal through its ubiquity. Stonehenge limits and constrains our discourse as a word, concept, and image. Why is Stonehenge Ritual any less – or more – nonsensical than Stonehenge Whiskey and Coke? Why do we have to accept Stonehenge Age but laugh at Stonehenge Marmite?

The ubiquity of Stonehenge is something that has been playing on my mind for a while. And not just in terms of the disproportionate amounts of intellect, money, and time spent on the archaeology of this monument and its surrounding landscape. I have also been concerned about the dominance of Stonehenge in the public imagination when it comes to British prehistory (not even just the Neolithic period). For many people Stonehenge is British / English prehistory.

For some Stonehenge is a political symbol of Britishness / Englishness, which is deeply problematic, and in some senses is enabled by the ways that archaeologists fetishise this place, and probably not helped by its pop culture aesthetic.

The Sun, 12 June 2018

This ubiquity comes in many forms. For instance, the coverage of Stonehenge in Britain’s popular archaeology magazine, British Archaeology, is remarkable in its quantity and depth in comparison to any other site, never mind any other Neolithic site. (The only story that came close to competing in the last decade was the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III.) To quantify this, I considered the front page, the main selling point of this magazine in shops and online, to be representative of the main stories and headlines contained within each edition. I looked at every cover of this magazine published between November 2003 and May-June 2017 (83 editions in all). A remarkable 11% of these editions had as the main front cover feature Stonehenge. On seven occasions, Stonehenge was the cover feature two editions in a row.

In the same period, only one other Neolithic site was afforded cover story prominence (0.13%), and this was the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, the other dominant pole of British Neolithic studies.

Internal content shows an even stronger bias towards Stonehenge, with at least 29% of the issues containing an article about Stonehenge. A few stories were about Durrington Walls which is gradually adopting the role of ‘the place where the Stonehenge builders lived’ in the literature. For this dataset, I only focused on articles mentioned on the front cover of the magazine, and it is likely this underplays the true level of Stonehenge content. News stories about Stonehenge are commonplace and are not included in these figures. Only five other British Neolithic sites were mentioned on the front cover of any of these 83 magazines, and three of these are in Wessex (Avebury, Silbury Hill, Dorset excavations the name of which currently escapes me….).

I am not being critical of the editor across this period, Mike Pitts. He clearly knows his audience! And I have not looked at this for a few years so the balance may well have shifted.

Stonehenge ubiquity is therefore reflected in archaeology the discipline, and academic and popular publications. And it seems a vast array of other walks of life.

Did you know, for instance, that there are over 80 replica and fake Stonehenges around the world today, lovingly documented by the wonderful Clonehenge blog.

This is where #StonehengeAnything comes in.

I analysed 319 tweets that used the hashtag #StonehengeAnything or replied to a thread prompted by my initial tweet, over the period of 72 hours from evening of 15th to 18th November 2019. I may have missed some, and this data does not include some random latecomers to the party since that period so apologies if your bizarre suggestion is not reflected here.

Stonehenge Ice Cream (image: Whitby Morrison, tweeted by @DSAArchaeology)

I divided the Anything part of equation (Stonehenge being the recurrent ‘anchor’ word) into a series of rather arbitrary categories, with ‘Other’ capturing a miscellaneous assortment of things. So for instance Stonehenge Underpants was filed under clothing, Stonehenge Monty Python under popular culture. In some cases I had to guess what the tweeter had initially searched under. In other cases, searches produced unpredictable results eg Stonehenge Pineapple brought up Liver Salt tablets. Stonehenge Idiot produced a fabricated picture of Nigel Farage with Stonehenge behind him. (Hang on, is that really that unpredictable?)

In other words, this is dirty data.

#StonehengeAnything results over a 72 hour period, n = 319

The most popular connections were food, animals, and then household and garden items. The two most popular individual searches were Stonehenge Breakfast and Stonehenge Cheese. An image of a cat apparently taking a selfie was the individual image I saw most, four times.

Stonehenge Cat (source: a pinterest board about cats, tweeted multiple times)

As Chris Tilley found, combining an over-familiar archaeological word with a random noun is surprisingly powerful. The Bodily Matters category especially so in a sort of David Cronenberg way.

Stonehenge Nipple

Stonehenge Feet

Stonehenge Tampons

Stonehenge Penis

Stonehenge Hair

Stonehenge Fingernails

Stonehenge Dildo

Stonehenge Skull

Stonehenge Germs

Stonehenge Sex

Stonehenge Teeth

Stonehenge Teeth (source: Freaking News)

There was a focus on horror themes and professions which overlapped to an extent. Is a vampire a profession? What about a pirate? Astronaut is more cut and dry. Thus are the pitfalls of classification.

Stonehenge Astronaut (patch for sale on Amazon, tweeted by @wildgem23)

There were a range of #StonehengeWhacks, combinations so obscure that no-one anywhere in the world had thought to create or fabricate an image to fit this bill. Examples included Swingball, Finch, Vaccine, Turtle, Circus, Aardwark, Parrot, Rockabilly, Radiator, Japan, Wallaby, Covfefe, Pigeon, Narwhal and – surprisingly – Gorilla. (Stonehenge Monkey did work.) I am sure there are many more examples, and on balance I would imagine that searches that did not work were less likely to be tweeted than ones that did work. I failed with Stonehenge Two Ronnies for instance. But even as I write, someone might be messing about with a picture of a tapir at Stonehenge.

I think however that #StonehengeAnything works about 95% of the time.

One curious footnote to this searching frenzy was the identification of a series of weird cartoons, all of which are stock images for sale, using the same Stonehenge background. These are produced by VectorToons, all sell for 20 dollars a pop minus the watermark, and feature a foreground element and eccentric caption. I assume these are generated by a bot.

“A Vampire Standing Confidently And In Content and Stonehenge Background” (c) VectorToons

The example above, one option which is found searching for Stonehenge Vampire, includes some additional detail. Cartoon image of an immortal man, with graying hair, wearing a black coattail tux with pointed collar, red bow tie, white shirt and socks, black shoes, oversized head with pointed nose, ears and red eyes looking onto his right, lips sealed in a smirk showing his fangs.

Stan Sagrott @archaeostef tweeted that there are 102 pages of these, and with 32 per page, this means that there are something like 3264 variants on this! I have not had time to crunch the numbers on this but a lot of them are animals, often in anthropomorphic situations (eg a cat using a laptop in front of Stonehenge).

A man dressed as a pirate for Halloween (c) VectorToons

This one is confusing because it is not even a pirate, it is someone dressed as a pirate. Stonehenge Fancy Dress? Stonehenge Accountant letting his hair down?

“A Regular Cockroach and Stonehenge Background” (c) VectorToons

The rather simple and elegant description for this one is: A regular cockroach with brown outer wings, six legs, and two antennae.

Each of these cartoons has the same Stonehenge information: A mysterious landmark in England, made of large boulders of rocks forming a circle, on a green grassy area. I’ve read worse descriptions.

Talking of Cock-Roaches, one of my favourites was #Stonehenge Ken Barlow, submitted for consideration by @vopiscus_bm.

Bill Roach (middle, multiple sources of this image online)


Finally, it is worth noting how complicit English Heritage are in all of this. A lot of the results eg Stonehenge jumper, Stonehenge Ginger Wine, were merchandise that they market and sell. There are literally hundreds of products with a Stonehenge angle in their online shop, up to a piece of jewellery costing £1250.

Stonehenge Wooden Spoon, £6 (English Heritage)

As Aaron Watson preciently wrote in 2004, the word HengeTM had become in archaeology, through over-use, a brand. And so it is for StonehengeTM: the brand.

Stonehenge can be lots of silly things. Why this is the case is not easy to work out. There is of course something iconic about this monument? Where else has pictorial images with the Rolling Stones, God, Alice Roberts, St Patrick and Zombies. What other stone circle has been drawn by Vic Reeves? Which other monument was one of the stars of This is Spinal Tap?

But Stonehenge can be serious things as well. A World Heritage Site. A symbol. A synedoche. A metaphor. A noun, a verb, an adjective. It is a period of time, it is a cultural tradition. It is a phenomenon.

But does it also represent a narrowness of focus, a constraint on our imagination, a failure of archaeologists to lead us all beyond the shadow of an enormous, grey, looming trilithon?

Tilley concluded his essay by writing, Is it useful for us now to start to cross the word out in our texts, in a classic Derridean move, and accept that megaliths do not exist, while realising they will almost certainly continue to do so?

For megalith, replace Stonehenge.

#StonehengeAnything

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to everyone who tweeted, retweeted and joined in the fun.

In this post I have referred to a couple of essays:

Tilley, C 1999 Frozen metaphor: megaliths in text. From Metaphor and Material culture (Oxford: Blackwell), pages 82-101

Watson, A 2004 Monuments that made the world: performing the henge. From Rosamund Cleal and Josh Pollard’s edited volume Monuments and material culture (Hobnob Press), pages 83-97.

Reaktor

26 Oct

The prehistory laboratory repository

In the middle of an industrial estate

Amidst the units and the car parks

Is a laboratory

A laboratory that is a repository for prehistory

An appointment with science

This is East Kilbride

S.U.E.R.C.

Scotland’s Environmental Research Centre

Branded with a dynamic flowing liquid logo

suerc-logo

Where prehistory sits in test-tubes

Where prehistory resides in aluminum capsules

Where prehistory is turned into gases and powders and pastes and unguents

Through the corridors of power are the containers of powder

Corridors of power

The geochemistry of prehistory –

The radiochemistry of prehistory –

The isotope biogeosciences of prehistory –

The prehistory of Scotland and beyond

In the hands of the scientists

In this prehistory laboratory repository

In East Kilbride.

 

The small print

Bring your samples to us and let us analyse them we provide a comprehensive post-excavation service and are happy to deal with prehistory but also not prehistory if that is appropriate and in some cases we are aware that you are aware that when samples are given to us you do not know if they are prehistoric we do not know if they are prehistoric or not and we offer no money-back guarantees as there are no guarantees no a priori assumptions here just hard science the atoms have no politics our reaktor has no biases and there is no prejudice in a test tube once they have been thoroughly cleaned so roll up and bring us your samples and we will do you proud.

We will accept samples in the following vessels and receptacles: plastic Tupperware box, tin foil (no hats), carrier bag (bags for life please), matchbox, kinder surprise eggs (plastic element not chocolate please you would be surprised), shoebox.

Samples cannot be accepted in liquid form unless sample is a liquid.

Samples cannot be accepted in gaseous form unless sample is a gas.

The following materials are permissible for sampling and we have some kind of technique for all of these, and if we do not have a technique, we will invent it. Plant microfossils, teeth, shells, all sorts of wood, bone, antler, horns, crusty residues, methane, dirt (please clean dirt before deposition and remove all worms), speleotherms, all manner of artefacts from metals to ceramics to textiles (you name it we, we date it as long as it has a carbon component and once had a proverbial pulse), and assorted elements of the periodic table namely 1-64, 71-100 and 112 (latter only in extremis and we need a 36 hour warning and lots of permits). 

We are contractually obliged to note that you should not expect to get your sample back at all, ever, and certainly not in the form you gave it to us. Furthermore it is likely that the container you delivered the sample to us in is unlikely to come out of the process in one piece, and indeed may well be destroyed / recycled / contaminated / melted. However, we do reserve the right to retain bags for life to distribute amongst our staff. 

Please note we do not sample the living. 

 

Isotope flavours and ancient diets

Reaktor artwork

 

Prehistory turned into gas

controlled area

 

And so to the Reaktor

disembodiment

Only the most disembodied of prehistory makes it this far

Only the finest samples underpinned by the most clearly articulated stratigraphic arguments are permitted entry to the Reaktor

Only the best can experience nuclear ecstasy in the Reaktor Shed.

The Reaktor Shed, on the edge of the industrial estate gives nothing away regarding its contents, masked behind the corrugation of obscurity

Shielded from penetration

The reaktor shed

The Reaktor Shed adorned with a stark geometric deep blue monolith, appearing to emit turquoise ectoplasm, the escaping spirits of the past

Reaktor shed monolith

Inside the shed, an appointment with science awaits

Don’t be late because time is important here or at least relative chronology

The chronology of prehistory –

Time measured through atomic bombardment –

Complex machinery for the deconstruction of materials and the transformation of those materials into something else – data, information, knowledge

Data that is corrupted by the ignorance of objectivity and the ‘clause of subjectivity’

Spinning stories from the centrifuge.

 

Reaktor

travelling in time bending light stretching the laws of physics bombarding inside the cage lead lining artefacts broken down to constituent parts indistinguishable from the matter that defines the universe big bang flickering lights and electrical surges

Hazel nutshell protons

Birch bark electrons

Cremated human pelvis photons

Meadowsweet flower quarks

Carbon isotopes 12 and 14

big machine U of G photo

Inside the Reaktor (c) SUERC

science direct photo

(c) Science Direct

 

The poetics of C14

Carbon abstraction from carbon extraction

SUERC-21566 (GU-17836); 3120 ± 40 BP; 1500 – 1290 cal BC (95.4%)

SUERC-23247 (GU-18537); 8290 ± 30BP; 7480 – 7250 cal BC (87.1%)

Foreplay before the Bayesian dance

Visual inspection only – for now

A dagger through my heart.

forteviot-dagger-with-organics.jpg

The Forteviot dagger (c) SERF Project

 

Isotopic heaven

The devil in the detail

Craving statistical probability

The past as conjuration, mediated through tree rings, carbon on carbon, wood on wood

The results are preconceived and can only have one outcome because

All journeys end at the Reaktor

All journeys begin there

The Reaktor loves decay even although the Reaktor cannot love

It is an information machine

Never look back.

Looking behind

 

SUERC is a shared facility between different Universities in Scotland, and they undertake a wide range of scientific analyses for archaeology and beyond the idea being that lots of expensive equipment and expertise is more efficiently pooled in one location for all to access. This facility includes the following Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) facilities: the Radiocarbon Facility (Environment), the Argon Isotope Facility, the East Kilbride node of the Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility, the Isotope Community Support Facility and the Cosmogenic Isotope Analysis Facility. It has emerged from decades of activity and was formerly the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre (SURRC). They have amazing staff and undertake amazing research and analyses. I could not do what I do without them.

Most of the photos in this blog were taken during a visit to SUERC with Honours archaeology students from the University of Glasgow.

The radiocarbon dates in the ‘C14 poetics’ stanza are from the SERF Project, one of well over 100 dates from that project that were produced by SUERC and funded by HES. The dates were provided by Dr Derek Hamilton.

Much of the information in this post comes from the SUERC website and the text betrays my lack of scientific understanding.

The concept of the ‘clause of subjectivity’ comes from a paper by Tim Flohr Sorensen entitled ‘More than a feeling: towards an archaeology of atmosphere’ (from the Journal Emotions, Space and Society 15, 64-73 (2015)). Thanks to Erin Jamieson for suggesting I read this.

 

 

Men of Felben

20 Aug

Resolute.

Men of Felben awakened from their deep slumber.

Looking for fuel.

Felben approach

Unfurling themselves.

Dwarfing standing stones.

Remnants of their former selves.

Giants de-petrifying.

Becoming metal.

Leaving their shackles behind.

Fully erect

Looming over vehicles.

But not looking at them.

The circle of life.

Roundabout.

Over vehicles

Standing guard beside their tombs.

Limestone boxes.

The eternity of stone.

Spirits in the sky.

Revealed

 

Sources and acknowledgements: Die Herrn von Felben (The Men of Felben) is an artwork (artist unknown to me) within a roundabout in the town of Mittersil in the Austrian Tyrol. At the time of its construction in 2014 it was one of 95 in the Salzburg Region, although probably the only traffic island adorned by two metal giants and four portal dolmen. 

Newspaper photo of Felben

Source: Salzburger Nachrichten

The ‘gentlemen’ of Felben were noblemen from the 12th century whose name is commemorated in the nearby Felbertal mountain pass and the tunnel, Felbertauern, that runs through it (source). 

The photos in the post were taken, from a car, by Jan Brophy.

 

A trick of the light

17 Jun

The standing stone stands outside the shop.

The shop is situated beside the standing stone.

But which came first – the shop or the stone?

Odin stone

This is the new Odin Stone, on the corner of Junction Street and Burnmouth Road, Kirkwall, Orkney. Right across the road from Buster’s Diner and a long stone’s throw from the marvellous Bothy Bar.

It is a replica of the old Odin Stone, which once stood between Maeshowe passage grave and the Ring of Brodgar. This was destroyed by an over-zealous landowner in 1814 and apparently built into a barn.

This is a standing stone that was / is distinguished by it’s hole, through which (reputedly) arms were thrust and within which objects were balanced in ancient rites.

canmore_image_DP00038990

The Odin Stone (right) in 1807. The Watch Stone is on the left.

The new Odin Stone might have been erected to mark the launch of a fancy gift shop in Kirkwall in the early 2000s called Odin Stone. (The ‘the’ was dropped.)

Or was the shop called Odin Stone because there was already a replica Odin Stone on this street corner?

Which came first? What is the stratigraphy here?

Odin Stone shop frontage

From defunct Odin Stone website

It was a nice shop, and sold the kinds of things one would expect to find in a high-end gift and souvenir shop. I once bought a nice butter dish from there and from time to time browsed through boxes of expensive black and white prints with little intention of actually buying one.

One travelogue review described how the Odin Stone (the shop not the old or new standing stone) had the aspiration ‘to honor [the] spirit [of the Odin Stone] by representing local artists and craftspeople’ which is a curiously cynical way of describing what was in fact the kind of shop that one would have expected to do well in the new cruise ship reality of Kirkwall, a reality that has changed the character of the town over the last decade.

But sadly this does not seem to have been the case and on my most recent visit to Orkney in June 2019, the shop was gone. Probably long gone.

The standing stone – the fake Odin – abides though. And there is something rather comforting in that.

General view Odin stone 1

General view Odin stone 2

By the standards of replica megaliths, it is a hole lot of fun.

Through the Odin hole

But what’s this? A new business opportunity has sprung up. The Orkney Experience.

The Orkney Experience

The heavily painted windows make it difficult to see inside but this is clearly not a shop, more of an ‘experience’ as, to be fair, the name suggests. Cruise passenger fodder that promises OPTICAL & ORCADIAN on one window, and ILLUSIONS ARTEFACTS on the other. Beneath these bold words are pictures of a wee monster and someone running away from it, dressed like a stereotypical archaeologist. Wearing the books of a pirate.

He is running for the sanctuary of the Odin Stone.

Optical Orcadian

Illusions artefacts

Much of the imagery on the outside of this building now points towards the Norse heritage of the island, and mythology.

Norse imagery

This painted wall sign, to the side of the shop entrance, actually retains the ‘Odin Stone within the O’ motif of the Odin Stone shop, as demonstrated by the ghost sign of the old shop which still protrudes from one wall albeit with the stone viewed from different directions, inverted versions of one another.

Ghost sign

On another window of the Orkney Experience is a curious optical illusion, an Escher Trilithon, imported from Stonehenge. Beneath it, cards or CDs with standing stones on them line the window sill. A mirage of a man runs past in the rain, mirroring the optical illusions that this place seems to sell, obscuring the Odin Stone’s reflected doppelganger.

A trick of the light.

Illusionary trilithon

What is the Experience that this places sells? Entry has it’s price. I confess I couldn’t be bothered going in. It can’t be that big a place inside (the shop wasn’t) so what does £6.50 get an adult punter? Something like this according to BBC Orkney’s Huw Williams…

Huw

The Experience’s website tempts the prospective customer with this offer: ‘Come and dress like a viking, ‘visit’ a Sanday beach, or be caught by Cubbie Roo the giant’. Making a virtue of a small premises with illusions appears to be the name of the game. From various images available online, this seems to be a place with a complex combination of acrylic paintings that act as optical illusionary photo subjects, dressing up props, and real and replica objects, fixtures and fittings. Such as a Skara Brae dresser.

skara brae

From The Orkney Experience website

Not a lot of the consumer offer appears to focus on prehistory or archaeology however.  Is there no Odin Stone inside?

A magic window
A most marvelous confection
But windows are for looking through
Not for checking out your reflection (Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales)

 

The standing stone stands outside the experience.

The experience is situated beside the standing stone.

There can be no doubt.

This stone came first.

 

Sources and acknowledgements:

The old Odin Stone has National Record for the Historic Environment number HY31SW40

There is a fine account of the unfortunate fate of the original Odin Stone in the Orkneyjar website.

The 1807 drawing of the Odin Stone and neighbouring megalith is (c) RCAHMS / HES and was downloaded from canmore.

The pic of the original Odin Stone shop front came from the now defunct website for the shop – the link won’t go anywhere. 

Thanks very much to Huw Williams for permission to reproduce the photo of him with Cubbie Roo.

The lyrics towards the end of the post come from the track A Trick of the Light from the Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales album Room 29.

Finally, by way of balance, check out the wholly excellent and positive reviews (as of 17/6/19) of the Orkney Experience on Trip Advisor.

Bronze Age

5 Jun

 

We’ve been having something of a clean out in the archaeology department at Glasgow Uni recently in preparation for a new digital imaging lab, and I came across some boxes of papers. These largely contained a collection of notebooks, images, typescripts and photographs that were amassed by a former colleague of mine, who I shall call Dr G_________. Although most of this work has been published in one format or another, one folder in particular caught my eye. This blog post briefly describes the nature of G_________’s research and the unexpected outcome of it. Certain points of detail have been redacted for reasons that will become clear.

files 2 low res

The folder was foolscap, of pink cardboard, and on the front was written the following information in black biro.

BROWN

POWDER

ANALYS.

i.1973 – iv.1973

Above this was added in somewhat less order: Burn this file!!! written with such conviction that the pen had almost punctured the cover of the folder.

the pink file lr

The folder contained the following materials.

  1. A typescript manuscript entitled Analysis of brown powder recovered from the cist at Wester H________ and its implications for our understanding of Bronze Age chieftains in Scotland. The text was short. Written at the top of the page, in rough script in blue biro was the phrase ‘For D.E.S. and the Ministry only’.
  2. A small plastic bag filled with brown powder / dust.
  3. A scientific report on 2 sides of A4 written by a Prof W.X.F. B_________ entitled: Scanning Electron Microscopy of brown dust from a prehistoric grave.
  4. A small notepad with a series of crude childish sketches.
  5. An annotated drawing of a small ceramic vessel.
  6. A stub from a cheque book (Bank of Scotland).

Upon reading the typescript, it became clear that the following sequence of events had occurred. In 1959, when Dr G_________ was still an undergraduate, and senior boy scout, he participated in an excavation on the island of _________. During that project, a stone coffin or cist was discovered and excavated, rather crudely by the sounds of it, by the scout troop leader who was also the organist in the local church, St D_______ of C______. The materials from within the cist were roughly inventoried and stored in a bucket, which remained in the garage of the scout troop leader until he died a decade later during a bank robbery on the mainland. The excavation had never been published due to, I assume and reading between the lines, the embarrassing circumstances of its poor excavation. The whole episode was reported in the local press at the time as a gardening project gone wrong.

typescript low res

Later established as a member of academic staff at Glasgow, Dr G_________ was prompted to return to this youthful episode upon hearing the news of the bank job death, surprised as he was to discover that the troop leader, a Mr Q________ had been robbing banks in his twilight years. He journeyed to the island of _________ and was able, with some persuasion and bribery, to recover the bucket of artefacts and bones. He set about privately trying to redeem himself by funding from his own resources the analysis of all the objects in the bucket, with the intention of bringing the site to publication in the Glasgow Archaeological Journal. He felt confident he could reconstruct the cist itself in sufficient detail for such a publication from a combination of memory and some sketches he took at the time.

Everything proceeded smoothly with these private endeavors for a few years, with cheques removed from the cheque book testament to payments made for services rendered from pottery, human bone, textile and lithic specialists. These payments appear to have been made once annually, around the time when it was customary for young academics to receive a bonus for satisfactory performance. These monies were, it seems, used to fund his nefarious post-excavation project, in order to assuage his guilt.

Forteviot chafing vessel

Once the Christmas 1972 bonus was safely banked, he turned to the next phase of his activities, which is where the meat of this tale is to be found. Here, analysis was required of a curious deposit of brown dust that was found in a heap within a small ceramic vessel that was recovered from beside where a partial skull lay on the cist floor. This was seemingly recovered by one of the team members, a lanky youth called B. Mc________, using a teaspoon, and poured into a small sealable plastic bag. Upon the bag was written, in a childish hand, ‘Brown stuff found by head’ and the site code, which I will not reveal here for fear of allowing the identification of the site. This was placed in the bucket with all the other materials at the end of the escapade and went into storage, only being recovered by Dr G_______’s re-invigoration of this site.

sample low res

The mostly empty bag of brown powder (reversed to protect the anonymity of finder and site name)

It appears that in January 1973, Dr G_________ gave this bag of brown powder to the renowned chemist Prof W.X.F. B_________ who was at that time also tenured at the University of Glasgow. The material was analysed using a newly installed Scanning Electron Microscope. This analytical machine was at that time a novelty, being closely based on the ‘Stereoscan’ machine first put into use at Cambridge University in 1965. The analysis was undertaken rapidly, although the report on this work took several months to be delivered to Dr G________ in his attic office in the archaeology department.

1970s SEM

1970s SEM (source)

The results, contained within the scientific report were brief and to the point. Dr G________ summarized the results and added his interpretation of them in his typescript.

The brown powder, was found under SEM analysis, to contain the following minerals and compounds: Mica, Titanium Dioxide, Dihydroxyacetone and various Iron Oxides. Initially I regarded this as some kind of dyeing agent, perhaps to ensure that [the] deceased within the stone coffn [sic] had clothes of various shades of brown as is widely believed to have been the case in Scotland in the Bronze Age (Stafford and Green 1963). However, further research led me to the revelation that this was, in fact, what is known colloquially today in 1973 as ‘bronzer’ or ‘self-tanning powder’. In other words, the man (as our analyses have shown) must have kept his tan topped up, perhaps as an indicator of status. This is in keeping with our understanding of Beaker folk: Piggott used to tell me that they liked to look healthy, and the a tanned appearance was indicative of a leisured class with time to spend in the sun.

This radical conclusion – that in effect self-tanning powder was invented in the Bronze Age and was a Beaker-associated novelty just like faience, jet beads and copper axes – would have been a career-making publication for Dr G_________. Yet the discovery was quietly forgotten, filed away in the pink folder, presumably intended never to see the light of day. From what I can gather from the remainder of the account in the folder and some other scribbled notes stapled to the manuscript (some even on toilet paper and napkins) the whole post-excavation project was abandoned at this point as well. Prof W.X.F. B_________ left the University to take up a position with the state-run Premium Bonds organisation within six weeks of turning in his report to my former colleague.

premium bonds

Prof W.X.F. B_________ (right) in his new role marketing Premium Bonds (The Times)

Dr G________ himself, from that point onwards, threw himself into the study of brochs, crannogs, wheelhouses and other variants in Iron Age roundhouse form. He never published a single word on the Bronze Age ever again.

What happened? I spoke to a few retired colleagues who remembered working with Dr G_________ and one of them told me a curious tale. She was not sure of the significance at the time, but then she was not privy to what G_______ was up to or his secret file. The story goes that back in 1973 the University senior management was looking for opportunities to monetise humanities research. One day a heated argument was heard in Dr G_______’s office between G and two vice-principals. When eventually Dr G________ emerged from the office he was ashen faced and from that day onwards he tilted to the Iron Age and quit the boy scouts where he had risen to the rank of Brown Owl. Even more curious, the VPs quit their jobs the following month. To open a tanning parlour in Bellshill called Bronze Age.

This money-spinning venture remains open to this day and I can’t help but join the dots and wonder: what became of the rest of the brown powder that was missing from that little plastic bag…..and what the secret of the success of this lucrative salon might be…..

Bronze Age Bellshill

My suspicions were confirmed only a few days ago, when I was scrambling around beneath the desk in my office looking for a sandwich I had dropped. I noticed a scrap of paper, stuck to the underside of the desk, with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. What was sketched onto that little piece of paper made perfect sense when I recalled that my desk and my office had indeed once been the domain of Dr G__________. As I read once in a fortune cookie: cartoons are the window into a guilty soul.

Cartoon stock

Cartoonstock (from here)

Modern Stone Age family

13 Apr

We’re about to meet the Flintstones
They’re the modern Stone Age family

Fun fair

In the town of Brodick
They’re a page right out of prehistory

Flintstones 1

Let’s ride with the family down the street
Witness the arrangement of Fred’s conjoined feet

Flintstones 2

No refunds, pushing or somersaulting on the slide
Please don’t eat, smoke or drink as you glide

Flintstones 3

When you’re with the Flintstones
Have a yabba dabba doo time, a dabba doo time
We’ll have a gay old time

Flintstones 4

ooooOOOOoooo

The amazing inflatable Flintstones slide I witnessed in Brodick, Arran, during a warm spring day is indicative of perhaps the most common way that children (and drunk adults) get to engage with prehistory in urban (party) settings: the Flintstones Bouncy Castle / water slide. For the purposes of this spurious argument, let’s all just agree to ignore the fact that there were no castles (or inflatable water slides) in the Stone Age…..

Fred Flintstonesource: alibaba

This is a surprisingly commonplace phenomenon.

I now present the most comprehensive picture gallery of Flintstones bouncy castles and water slides in the world. If you see any other Flintstones big party inflatables, let me know with a comment at the end of this post, or contact me via twitter @urbanprehisto using the hashtag #Flintstonesbouncycastles. [This post should not be taken as an endorsement of any of the products shown here! I have not bounce-tested them yet.]

Bentley Hire

Rainbow Inflatables

 

BB Castles

Basil’s Bouncy Castles, Essex

ian's bouncy castles

Ian’s Bouncy Castles, Basildon

Prestige Inflatables

Prestige Inflatables, Aberdeen

toys ocean

Toys-Ocean Amusement Equipment

Portsmouth

Love to Bounce, Portsmouth

double deckers

Double Deckers Entertainments, Newcastle

AliBaba

Alibaba Inflatables

Moonwalk Houston

Texas Party Inflatables, Houston USA

dobson ferris wheel

Dobsons Ferris Wheel

Airbounce Cumbria

Airbounce Cumbria

CeeJays

CeeJays Bouncy Castles, Merseyside

abcinflatables

ABC Inflatables, Flintshire

SwanseaWild West Entertainments, Swansea

The-Flintstones-Theme-Inflatable-Bouncer-Castle-1134-

close up

Rainbow Inflatables again. “The inflatable the flintstones playground is hot for sale now. If you want to make the beautiful inflatable amusement playground, you may have a try of ours”.

hisupplier

HISupplier (Made in China)

Stolen bouncy castle

Flintstones bouncy castle, stolen from the Fox and Duck Pub in Arlesey Road, Stotfold in 2017.

Zombie parent guide blog

Spotted in Valley Garden, Harrogate (Zombie parent blog)

Pelican promotions

Pelican Promotions, somewhere in Ireland

I await reader’s photos and suggestions to expand this image gallery…..

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.