Tag Archives: Bronze Age

Heathen temple

9 Feb

churchyard low res

in a yard in the shadow of the church

amidst bent monuments and faded death markers

and dead flowers

protrudes from the earth the last fragment of a

heathen temple

that once stood in this location

now sanctified now a sanctuary

but once an altar upon which offerings were made

of an unholy nature pagan

with liquids unknown returning to the earth

dripping splashing running

to be absorbed into good christian graves

corrupting bones

countless years later many moons

have passed since dark and mysterious

rites were practiced here in a

heathen temple

that stood in this location

now a sanctuary now sanctified

bible-proofed

but chalk dust was spilled here

by antiquarian Mann inquisitive man

sketched out on the north face of this stone stump

mapping out the occult

crossing the cracks transcending planes

imposing acute and right angles

making connections that ignore

the topography of the megalith

inscrutable washed off by rain never repeated

photographed greyscale black and white

the last flourishing of a

heathen temple

that stood in this location

of the dead

Photo 3

 

Notes

The standing stone in the churchyard of Strathblane Parish Church, Stirling, is of unknown date although there is no reason to doubt that it has ancient origins. Nothing is known about the stone at all, although it was recorded in nineteenth century maps in this location and was briefly mentioned by John G Smith in his 1886 book The Parish of Strathblane. The stone itself is no more than 1m in height, with five faces, and a relatively flat top.

Photo 1

strathblane-stone-1886 map Northern Antiquarian

1886 map of the churchyard with standing stone location shown. This map was first posted online on the Northern Antiquarian blog post for the site.

At some point, the archaeologist and antiquarian Ludovic Mclellan Mann drew a grid on one face of the standing stone in what looks to be white chalk. The nature and meaning of this grid, consisting of connecting and overlapping lines and circles, remains unknown. Only one photograph records that this event ever took place.

canmore_image_SC01331278

Paul Bennett, on the Northern Antiquarian webpage for this standing stone, notes:

‘The fact that it stands by the church (rebuilt around 1803 out of its more ancient fabric) suggests that the site was a heathen temple or sacred site, redesignated by the invading christian priesthood’.

The truth of this may never be known.

Sources and acknowledgements: The grid-drawn-on-the-stone photograph is copyright HES and has Canmore image number SC01331278. It was brought to my attention by Katinka Dalglish who attributed the handiwork to Mann. Supplementary information, as is easily gathered from above, comes from Paul Bennett’s Northern Antiquarian page for this site: he always gets there before me! 

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Melancholia

18 Oct

Some urban prehistory sites are strange. Some are sad. Some are both.

There is something melancholy about a prehistoric site that has been destroyed with nothing done to compensate. We are now used to the fairly cosy arrangement that we can accept the destruction of archaeological sites in exchange for them being professionally and fully excavated. This is a deal that archaeologists – and society without most being aware of it – have made with the free market economy. We won’t interfere too much with endless development, change and economic progress and the juggernaut won’t completely flatten what is left of the past without first slowing down a bit or taking little detours. The result is jobs in the heritage sector, lots of random data we would otherwise not have, and sometimes local communities benefit from these transactions too. This might be a Faustian pact, it might even be entirely sensible, but it does mean that in 2017 one of the most important and uncontrollable ways we have of finding prehistoric sites and sucking the information out of them is driven by social need for, and the political demands of, development.

But in the nineteenth century when society was still getting to grips with the implications of massive scale urban and industrial expansion, railway line and canal building, and the requirement for the extraction of the necessary aggregates to make these things happen, no such deal existed. Archaeological sites were swept aside simply because they were literally the wrong place at the wrong time. And so inconvenient standing stones were  toppled, or ”blown with powder’ as in the case of a stone circle at St Colmac’s, Bute. To add insult to injury, whatever survived these extractions was then put to use as building materials, built into walls and barns, or broken up and utilized serendipitously and randomly e.g. in road and rail foundations. Stone cists and coffins were emptied of their contents, with much of the goodies inside ending up on the mantelpieces of the rich landowner, local vicar or an eccentric antiquarian, soon to be ‘lost’. Of course, this was all underpinned by money as well – but the power relationship was balanced differently than it is now. Archaeological sites could be swept away on a whim, facilitated by the signing of a cheque (one of those big fancy Victorian ones), and the data and information that resulted from any crude interventions that followed could be characterized as limited, selective and often rubbish.

Whoever said that no deal was better than a bad deal?

A dead megalithic monument in Clackmannanshire prompted these thoughts to be re-articulated once again. It is a sad and strange story that represent the ways that even substantial prehistoric monuments, when competing with the demands of nineteenth century economic requirements and the requirements of the landed gentry could come to a very sticky end, reduced to nothing more than an antiquity map symbol.

 

I have a Cunninghar plan

The site to which I refer was called Cunninghar in Tillicoultry. This is a monument that according to varied accounts was substantial, consisting of a circular or oval setting between 20m and 35m in diameter of standing stones three feet high at the foot of the Ochils. (A bank apparently surrounded this, suggesting to me this was a kerb cairn rather than a stone circle for what it is worth.) No record of the number of stones survives, nor any etchings or drawings of this monument. The enthusiastic recorder of prehistoric lost causes and megalithic wild goose chases, Fred Coles, tried to get to the bottom of the story of this stone circle right at the end of the nineteenth century, his sources of information patched together from conversations with an experienced local forester, an OS Name Book entry and some nifty mapwork.

His informant, the estate forester, gave a vivid description of the stone circle and the fate that it met (for the source of this quote, see the end of this post; Location A is shown on Cole’s map reproduced below):

McClaren statement from Coles 1899

The rather undignified evisceration and re-purposing of the monument by the local gentry for their own grand designs, and also perhaps with one eye on the quarrying and thus financial potential of this location to come, left the bank and one single standing stone on site, which became the focus of excavations in the 1890s when two cists, one containing a fine Food Vessel, were discovered on site as the ridge was gradually denuded for aggregate extraction. The account of these discoveries was documented fastidiously by R Robertson in a paper written slightly before Coles arrived on the scene, and in his observation that the site was situated on an ‘elevated ridge of sand intermixed with gravel’ lies the seeds its downfall at the hands of quarrying for those materials.

There is no need to rehearse the details here of the discoveries that occurred in harmony with the rhythm of the extension of the gravel quarry, surprising extractions, suffice it to say that several Bronze Age pots, and a stone marked with rock-art, were discovered.

Food Vessel from Tillicoultry Robertson paper

Rock-art photo Robertson paper

My favourite detail of these impromptu rescue excavations was the discovery by Robertson in the location within a cist that one would have expected a head to be located, ‘a quantity of a fibrous or hairy substance, of dark-red colour’. Analysis was undertaken of this mysterious material by a Professor Struthers who appears to have been something of an expert in these matters, having his own collection of ancient hairs which he sometimes exhibited to the public. He concluded, by comparison with his own reference collection, that this was not the hair of a man, ox or horse – but it might have been the ‘wool’ of a fox, dog or rabbit. (Audrey Henshall later suggested it was otter.) No further analysis of this was undertaken but I like to imagine this was the remnants of a crazy stoat hat. (It is worth noting also that the name of this site derives from something to do with rabbits suggesting this is the kind of location where a rabbit might have burrowed into a cist by accident and died in there. Just saying.)

Cist plan Tillicoultry Coles paper

Fred Coles reported on another cist found here a few years later, although had nothing to say on the matter of the ginger-haired deposit. He also noted that quarrying had not begun at the south end of this ridge by the time of the OS 1st edition mapping of the 1860s, but by then, the stone circle was already gone, for the reasons already noted above. The sand pit to the north suggests the landowner was well aware of the potential value of this location and the pesky stone circle that was on the way of his bank account being further bloated.

OS 1866

OS 1866

Later maps show the outline of the quarrying in more detail, and so show the activities that led to the discovery of Bronze Age burials here as well as completely removing the site where the stone circle / kerb cairn. In a sense the quarrying was more destructive than the standing stone removal, in the same way as extracting one’s teeth is not half as bad as losing your mouth.

This megalith was wiped off the map, and it was on maps that ironically was the only place where it continued to exist.

OS 1866

OS 1951

Gradually, this location became increasingly surrounded by housing estates and the trappings of the modern urban landscape. Using a really helpful map that Coles made of the archaeological discoveries at Cunninghar, and subsequent mapping, it is possible to roughly plot where these key discoveries were made in relation to the modern Tillicoultry – sandwiched between Dollar Road and Sandy Knowe with a fine view over a cemetery and war memorial.

Location map

It was no surprise to me when I visited on a quiet Saturday morning that there is no sense whatsoever that in this corner of Tillicoultry once stood a substantial multi-phase Bronze Age monument. The Cunninghar sand and gravel ridge that so attracted quarriers survives within the urban setting, in the form of a wide grass-covered bank that runs north-south between two housing estates. A path runs along this ridge and I mounted it, from my parking position on the appropriately named Sandy Knowe, via a set of steps. Once on the embankment I followed a rough path that lead to a broader and uneven overgrown area with a mast atop it. This metallic tower stood within a steel cage with warning signs adorning it.

The mast

Grassy knoll

The skull

Tree symbol

This area betrays little to nothing of its former purpose, other than that it is possible to imagine this as a prominent viewing point with views down to the River Devon. The ridge came to a sudden end at a wall on the fringe the A91, while an escarpment topped with a feeble fence which meandered from east – west marked the limit of the sand and gravel quarry that was once here that finally removed the remnants of this monument, the conclusion of a slow-motion series of interventions.

The quarry

As I wandered around in the faint hope of seeing something, anything, that might hint at megaliths, burials or an embankment, I noticed a large stone lying on the other side of the fence on the edge of what was once the quarry. This had previously been identified by the Northern Antiquarian as being a remnant from the stone circle, and although it seemed to me too small to have fulfilled this purpose, it did look out of place and may once have been a prehistoric something or other.

Remnant

Down I went into the quarry, now an overgrown edgeland betwixt road, mound and back gardens, nothing but weeds and rubbish strewn about. Spatially, if not physically, there had been a stone circle here once, perhaps elevated 5m above my head. But all that remained were random sad objects: a twisted child’s car seat, a hoard of charity shop sacks and the splayed and stretched out tendons of a Venetian blind.

Remnants

This made me melancholy. A stone circle had been lost – so be it. But it had been lost and not adequately compensated for. A Food Vessel, Urn and a clump of dead rabbit / otter had been added to the archaeological record, dots on a distribution map (except for the rabbit unless there is a distribution map of Bronze Age wigs), but we don’t even know how many megaliths once stood here. Tillicoultry House with its amazing standing stone lined drain was demolished around 1960, another victim of progress, while the current location of the rock-art-marked stone, visited and visible to Ronald Morris in 1966, is unknown. The Food Vessel is held in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland.

Tillicoultry House

Tillicoultry House. Drain not visible. Source: http://www.ochils.org.uk

There is nothing to let people whose houses are literally metres from where a prehistoric centre of ritual, ceremony and burial once stood know about this, no noticeboards that might inform casual passers-by, a lack of an app or virtual reality ancient version of this place to download. This monument has gone, a victim of all sorts of Victorian hoo-ha. And not only was the monument destroyed, but the place where this monument once stood was destroyed, atomically removed. Once it was removed, the megalith was split up into pieces and then it was later destroyed again, a second death. The burials that were left behind were recovered to an extent, but are now hopelessly dispersed.

There was no deal here – this was a hard extraction, and once the stones had fallen from this cliff edge there was no going back.

I have often said in the past that urban prehistory is not about a sense of loss, or sadness, and this is still the case. But for Cunninghar there have only been bad outcomes, as bad as it gets, and it seems a hopeless case, all that remains being this sad story and footnote in the National Monuments Record of Scotland.

Melancholy is not the same thing as sadness, nor is regret. What I regret about some urban prehistoric sites is that their destruction was in vain, the price paid too high.

Prehistorica melancholia.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: This post benefited from many conversations with Helen Green about heritage, development and compensatory measures (or lack thereof). 

Little has been published on Cunninghar, or the variants of spelling of that name that are out there (Cuninghar, Cunningar). Two articles were published in close succession in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland about this site, both referred to above. The first of these was Robertson’s 1895 effort, ‘Notice of the discovery of a stone cist and urns at the Cuninghar, Tillicoultry’, in volume 29; the second Cole’s 1899 ‘Notices of the discovery of a cist and urns at Juniper Green, and of a cist at the Cunninghar, Tillicoultry, and of some undescribed cup- marked stones’ (volume 33). Both can be read online for free via the Society webpage. The image of the Food Vessel came from the Robertson paper, the cist plan and rock-art ‘photo’ from Coles, and the latter also provided the quote near the start of the post.

Dunfermline’s invisible dead

19 Dec

I went on a fieldtrip on Saturday with Sam to Fife. Ostensibly the journey was to visit the location of a Bronze Age cemetery that had been found by chance during house construction work in the 1970s in Dunfermline, but this expanded to a visit to a second location, a standing stone situated just a few hundred metres to the west. These two locations – the standing stone and the cemetery – were treated very differently during the post-war urban expansion of Dunfermline. One was excavated thoroughly, and then forgotten. The other was monkeyed about with, left on display and had a pathway named in its honour. Yet it was the invisible prehistory that had more impact on me on my visit to Pitcorthie.

standing stone walk sign low res

In the 1950s the site of the standing stone and cemetery was still ‘all fields’ as they say with farms Easter and Wester Pitcorthie eventually giving their name to the suburb that would emerge here. The standing stone appears on some old OS mapping, such as the six inch 1st edition Fifeshire sheet 35 (published in 1856) marked simply as ‘stone’. The cemetery was unknown until its accidental discovery during Scottish Special Housing Association (SSHA) works in 1972. A lot of the post-war housing in southern Dunfermline was constructed by the SSHA. This was a government-founded agency that was established in 1937 and was involved in the construction and maintenance of ‘social housing’. One of the most notable projects the organisation was involved in was Glasgow Eastern Areas Renewal (GEAR) in the 1970s. This pseudo-quango was wound up in 1989 at the time my father worked for them, and they became Scottish Homes.

standing stone and grafitti low res

Urban development inevitably impacted on the prehistoric archaeology of this area (sadly no longer called Fifeshire). The terrace of land to the north of the Forth has a sequence of Bronze Age monuments scattered along it, including a series of isolated standing stones and the famous Lundin Links stone setting (NMRS number NO40SW 1) with its weird monoliths. The latter monument sits within a golf course, one of several prehistoric monuments that have become obstacles (and targets?) for golfers in Scotland. And located on what was once outside Dunfermline was a single, lumpy standing stone, known as Easter Pitcorthie (NT18NW 4). When visited by RCAHMS in 1925, the stone still sat in a field and was described as being just under 2m tall and made of sandstone; stones clustered around the base, although their relationship to the standing stone was unknown. The stone still looked rather like this in 1959, but at some time in the 1960s, as urbanisation spread to this location, the stone was transformed by the construction of an irregular square of cobbles, or setts, around its base. The ‘landscaping’ of this stone was, I assume, not accompanied by an invasive excavation as no record of such an act exists. The stone became the centrepiece of a small square sloping piece of grassland, with houses on all sides, and assorted trees in the vicinity. The pathway that ran past the megalith was called Standing Stone Walk. It appears that this was to be ‘a feature of interest to the local population’ (Close-Brooks et al 1972).

sam and standing stone low res

The stone today is surrounded by concrete, literally and metaphorically. It sits forlornly adjacent to some back gardens, covered in slimy green moss and even the red graffiti daubed on its western side has faded to unintelligibility. Broken glass and weeds had replaced the stones that once sat at the base of the stone, while the paved setting looks like it is now a few bricks short of a patio. A child ran past and told us he was able to climb on top of the stone, but we did not ask him to demonstrate. Urban prehistory can take on many forms, but most commonly it is banal, and even the most powerful and obvious juxtapostions (or indeed contrived juxtapositions) cannot revive the pastness of these places.

standing stone and friends low res

Just 350m to the west, house-building continued, and an altogether more troubling and problematic (and expensive) prehistoric site was located in 31st March 1972. A machine driven by Mr M Miller dislodged the capstone of a cist; the driver jumped down and started to clear out the contents of the cist with a shovel, stopping only when he found a human skull. By the 1st of April, five burials had been found and fully excavated, while a sixth was located and investigated ten days after that. Little time was lost on the build, with the cemetery location just beyond the back gardens of several houses on what was to become Mathieson Place. (This site is commonly known as Aberdour Road, NMRS number NT18NW 13).

plan of the cremation cemetery

Three cist burials were found in all, plus two cremations and one cremated burial associated with a Food Vessel pot sat within a stone setting. The survival of materials within these burials was varied, but suggests some interesting and unusual burials. A young female lay crouched in one cist, the leg bones of three different young pig bones laid around her knees (burial 1), while the crouched burial of an adolescent was accompanied by a lump of iron ore, possibly a component of a fire-making kit (burial 3). One cremation (burial 5) consisted of the remains of two people, buried together, with a single bone pin, which may once have held together a bag that contained the bone and ash. In one cist (burial 2), all that survived of the body was chemical traces, indicated by sampling for phosphorus.

the remains of the person in cist 2

All of this was recovered despite the ‘large-scale destruction by earth-moving machinery’ recorded by the excavator: in finding these sites, cist slabs were smashed, and some pottery was broken by the bulldozer.

location of grave 6 low res

The location of burial 6 which we marked with a wooden fence post fragment

The location of this cemetery today is easily accessible via a pathway at the eastern end of Mathieson Place. Sitting on a ridge, overlooking a park and surrounded by houses, the cemetery is now a piece of grassland and is not marked in any way. A few hollows in the grass hint at locations where burials were located. Debris from activities being undertaken in the park were noted: a glass Irn Bru bottle lying in the vicinity of burial 5, beer cans and bottles in an scrubby area just to the SE.  Yet there is no sense that this was once an ancient burial ground, a sacred place in the Bronze Age where at least seven people were laid to rest. The remains have now been removed, but plans by SSHA to mark the spot by returning the cist slabs obviously came to nothing. The location of cremation burial 6 lies just 5m from someone’s back garden, yet who actually knows about any of this?

burial site viewed from the SE low res

It is profoundly sad, I think, that the burial of this small group of people is not marked in any way; it is a shame that the SSHA aspiration in the early 1970s came to nothing. It was easy to leave the standing stone where it stood nearby and incorporate it into the fabric of modern Dunfermline using building materials that were to hand, whereas when skulls start to pop out of the ground, something has to be done to facilitate development. This is the fate of many accidentally found prehistoric cemeteries, unmarked and forgotten except in exceptional circumstances. An appendix in the Aberdour Road report briefly records a third prehistoric engagement during the urbanisation of Dunfermline, in the nearby village of Crossford. Workmen on the construction of a new road uncovered on 13th November 1973 what they thought was a drain, but was in fact a Bronze Age short cist burial (NT08NE 36). A Mr A Hall recovered a Food Vessel pot from the drain-grave but within a week this burial had been buried once again, this time under the foundations of the new road. The location of this burial is on the junction of Morar Road and Affric Way if you care to visit.

standing stoneD walk croppped and low res

Standing StoneD Walk: the sign subverted

Do we need to show our respect to the ancient dead? Have we done this by carefully removing the dead and their grave goods in controlled excavations rather than simply bulldozing them away? Are our excavation reports, our records and our dots on maps suitable epitaphs? Have we memorialised these people archaeologically? Do these places cease to be meaningful once the physical remnants of mortuary rites have been removed? I am not sure what the answers to any of these questions are, but I am uneasy about us concluding excavation projects and forgetting these places. In Dunfermline, I encountered two forgotten prehistoric monuments: one hidden from view, the other hidden for everyone to see. But who cares?

Sources: Many thanks to Sam who accompanied me on the fieldtrip to Dunfermline and took some of the photos used here, and to Donald for inviting us to the town in the first place. Most of the information on the history of the Easter Pitcorthie standing stone was derived from the National Monuments Record of Scotland. The excavation report for the Aderdour Road cemetery, and the Crossford Food Vessel burial, is: Close-Brooks, J, Norgate, M & Ritchie, JNG 1972 A Bronze Age cemetery at Aderdour Road, Dunfermline, Fife. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 104, 121-36. This journal, PSAS, can be accessed free online via the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland website. The plan of the cemetery was derived from various illustrations in this report, as was the phosphorus data.