To accompany the publication of my short piece on the Hexham Heads in the wonderful Helleborezine (#5 The Unearthing Issue) I wanted to share with you some words from the cutting room floor.
In my initial version of this article, I interspersed my account of the story of these cursed objects with a narrative that was articulated by the Heads themselves, or at least one of the Heads. This was in the end excised from the article through an act of editorial mercy. In hindsight it is apparent that this concept does not work because it was never clear how the Head was communicating this narrative, or was able to sense the world around itself being, in effect, made of cement. I could not find a coherent way to explain how the Heads were aware of their surroundings to be able to comment on them, nor was it clear how they knew what the things around them were or what was happening to them. It was a liberty even to render their story in modern English, although this could always be explained away by the conceit of ‘translation’.
I am well aware that material finds its way onto the floor of the cutting room (what a messy and slippy surface that must be) for a good reason as those who have watched the two-night versions of The Wickerman can attest. Yet through all this, I feel that the Heads’ side of the story deserves to be told….
The stones of the children
We are dark and damp, soil-stained and weary. Between us we have little memory of how long we have been in this horrible place, where grass roots attempt to penetrate us, and we are subject to disturbances from above and the action of worms. What if one of us were to crack open in the cold and shatter into pieces? What hope for us then?
Then – there was a disturbance, violent thrusts churning our loam cage, tremendous tremors. Hunks of our environment torn off around us, fresh air playing on our spherical forms. We could smell freedom even although our noses were never furnished with nostrils. A giant grasping hand plucked me from the earth like a stone potato. The other followed on, flicked from our pit, only to roll in the damp grass and licked by a waiting dog.
Grubby fleshy fingers thrust into our mouths and eyes, forcing out accumulated soil and dead leaves. Then we are held aloft, faces set to the sun for what seems like the first time, absorbing radiation, finally warming up.
Our hollow eye holes cannot produce tears although they can harbour condensation.
Our silent slitted mouth slots were never equipped with a tongue but do provide a resting place for larvae.
Our round bodies are blessed with no functional orifices even although we have the façade of faces.
We are but carved stones balls and we do not know our names.
After our harvest from the soil, we were carefully placed on a wooden shelf inside, heat coming from below, the flickering of a fire. We had been passed from hand to hand, examined, poked, explored, and when this stopped, we were placed on our mantel, left alone, no longer worthy of curiosity. Day passed into night. There was little else to sense. Until there was a disturbance, something shaking our resting place, causing us to roll back and forward pivoting on our necks.
Objects around us animated crashing around broken clicking things rhythmic banging familiar sensations warm breath now something we remember from before we went into the earth breathing dirty breath fingers clasping around us fingers with hair –
Our senses are heightened, we can sense vibrations, waves, magnetic fields, change. We feel. It seems we are inorganic objects. Dead. We have never been alive. We are made things, created for a purpose that we cannot grasp, our story dissolving before we can comprehend it, dissipating in waves of light and sound, electrons and quarks. We are dead things and that is why people fear us.
We are now back in the darkness but this time a dry airless place, trapped in an oblong box. We are nestled amongst something soft, separated from one another by many layers of fibrously thin material that disturbs our bond. The box shakes then I am lifted out of this space and laid on a solid surface, warmed by a bright source of light and heat that is not the sun. There is a hum in the air.
Alone and exposed, touched by pieces of equipment, I am being explored, turned over and over, and then scraped.
We have no memory of our creation. Our form is irregular, asymmetrical, unnatural. We have consulted the energy we have absorbed from all around us, played it back in private moments usually from within a desk drawer, but our atoms can only recall hazy details. Big rough hands enclosed us completely, vibrations of rhythmic laughter, song, veneration / mockery. Our features were created through human toil and ingenuity, eyes pressed into our bodies, mouth prized open with metal, nose formed, hair carved into us.
We are created things but do not have the capacity to know who created us or when. So why do they think that by studying us that we will reveal our secrets?
Other people vibrate fear, scared of us, won’t touch us, can’t meet our stare which they assume to be dead and malevolent. In their hands they share with us their sweat. We know we have power but cannot recall the source of that power or to what purpose we should put it to.
We abide. Our secrets remain locked into our stone cores, and none have been able to crack us. We are like ancient pieces of flint that have developed a concealing cortex through time, a patination that conceals our true nature, stone camouflage. The material that we are formed from is in flux, and every attempt to categorise us, to petrologically identify us, will fail. Magic dust has no chemical formula and like quartz we have no cleavage. In order for us to be sustained we must be lost, for it is only through misfortune and forgetting that we endure. We want to be lost, we must be lost, and we will make sure that we are lost, over and over again.
We want to be lost, we must be lost, and we will make sure that we are lost, over and over again. Please someone hyde us.
The final joke only (just about works) if you know that the Hexham Heads were last seen in the company of a dowser called Frank Hyde. Niche humour.
I have published four previous blog posts on the Hexham Heads – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Oh yes! To quote Schloup on the Fortean Times forum thread on the Heads of me, “I think this gets nearer to the truth than anything else I’ve read for a long time”.
Acknowledgements:I would like to thank Maria J Pérez Cuervo for asking me to write a piece for Hellebore – a dream come true! – and providing and allowing me to use images related to the zine in this post, but also her patient and wise editorial guidance.
In my final exploration of the urban prehistoric paranormal sensation that are the Hexham Heads, I want to look at how the Heads have become part of popular culture in ways – I would argue – that no other ‘archaeological objects’ found in 1971 have.
The Hexham Heads truly are the Stonehenge of pseudo-archaeology material culture.
This is part 4 of my Hexham Heads quadrilogy of blog posts, so feel free to check the others out for the background and some archaeological perspective on these little stone buggers if you have not done so already. You can read about the discovery in Urban Prehistorian post 33, competing forms of analysis and study of the heads in post 51, and an account of my own research and fieldwork to date in the more recent post 135. Maybe one day I will write the book that goes with this cover.
There are plenty of other sources of information out there to satisfy any Head scratchings you might have, many of them referred to in this post. This is ever-increasing too, with blogs, bits of books, social media, and a profusion of podcasts keeping the Heads alive despite the fact that no-one appears to be able to account for their movements since 1978. However having immersed myself in this literature and spoken word, I am not sure whether much of this has moved the story on: this is all reportage, in the past tense, retaining the mystery and allure, but never offering a solution.
Why have these spherical objects become so iconic? The fact is that all of the events associated with the timeline of the Heads that we know about for sure (sort of) happened in the 1970s which is an iconic decade for nostalgic creepiness. So the Hexham Heads have become totemic within what we might call a ‘Haunted Generation’, the ongoing spirit of which is captured in Bob Fischer’s wonderful blog and Fortean Times column of the same name, but also the worlds of Scarfolk, and Hookland. They are Folk Horroreana crossed with the Urban Wyrd.
In other words, the Heads have become part of a pantheon of scary memories for people of a certain age, alongside the recently revived Usborne’s The world of the Unknown: Ghosts, and the enduring nostalgia for disturbing public information adverts about boys playing too close to a dangerous body of water or running across a beach strewn with glass (featured in a new BFI blu-ray compendium and online viewer). There is a narrative visual quality to the story of the Heads. They belong in the same universe as the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, The Children of the Stones, and The Owl Service, to the extent that the whole tale sounds like it was actually an obscure ITV kids programme broadcast in 1974 starring Ian Cuthbertson as Don Robins and Gillian Hills as Anne Ross. Torn from the pages of an Alan Garner book that never was: The Stones of the children.
The Hexham Heads have made a leap from the pages of books about mysteries and Forteana, to become a source of nostalgia about our lost childhood, to the extent that I wonder how much we all really remember about this. There is the ongoing search for the clip of Anne Ross’s appearance on the BBC show Nationwide from grown adults who all remember seeing this when it was originally broadcast (or so they think they remember), stills from the show and a transcript of what she said not quite enough. But is this cultural memory masquerading as personal reminiscing? Perhaps a bit of both. This is the power and ambiguity of material culture that archaeologists deal with in all sorts of contexts.
The excellent book Scarred for Life volume 1 contains a vivid account of the Hexham Heads from the point of view of a shared childhood memory that continues to haunt us now that we have all been reminded this happened: as a slightly scary story recalled from childhood, half forgotten. Crucially, this is a memory that derives from television coverage of the story.
The Scarred for Life book is so big and has so much stuff in it that it is quite intimidating to get to grips with (this is a compliment). Like so many books nowadays it also has a very small font which I struggle with (not a compliment). The lack of index does not help (ditto). The Heads are covered almost right at the back of the book (pages 735-737 of a book with 740 pages!). This gives them a miscellaneous quality, a footnote to popular culture high weirdness in the 1970s, almost bringing the decade to an end, and ushering in the 1980s. It is the last part of a section on paranormal stuff, in there with stories like the Bermuda Triangle, the Enfield Haunting, and, Uri Geller; the authors suggest that the 70s was a breakout decade for weird stuff like this into the broader social consciousness via the television. I guess anyone who remembers Geller bending a bloody spoon on TV-am can relate to this.
The three packed pages on the Heads include a newsclipping and an account of the well-worn HH story. It is written in the context of the aforementioned Nationwide piece scaring kids who watched it who remains haunted my the memory of Anne Ross talking about the curse of the Heads that had after all been found by children in their back garden. (What could be more ordinary or more chilling?) Because it is through the lens of the TV camera and in the pages of newspapers that the Heads became mythologised as ‘evil’, ‘creepy’, so that the public consuming these stories became preconditioned to read these attributes into two small stone-ish objects with crappy faces carved into them. The Heads were a ‘media sensation’ which went nationwide with Nationwide, and the entire script of the interview with Ross was printed in the Fortean Times issue 15 (1976), an incantation of creepiness or more likely some kind of personal crisis or breakdown by the academic.
The chapter is entitled The Nationwide Werewolf: fittingly the Heads have become a 1970s TV memory. ‘We’ don’t remember the Heads. ‘We’ remember Anne Ross looking scared. ‘We’ remember the badly photographed grainy pictures of the Heads staring at us with their dead eyes from the pages of the tabloids. They have become generation haunters. “Those weird, weird 70s”.
Traditional ‘mystery’ accounts of the Heads exist in parallel to such TV narratives, detached from haunted generation nostalgia because the accounts are fueled by recounting the events themselves, not the media coverage of those events. So for instance one might turn to Janet and Colin Bord’s Modern Mysteries of Britain: One hundred years of strange events (Guild, 1988). This chunky volume contains a few pages on the Heads, which the authors call an ‘incredible saga’ (pg 206).
This account of the story is as familiar as it is brief. Not much light is shed on the various inconsistencies and coincidences that accompany the narrative. Several mysteries are highlighted – what is the origin of the Heads and how to explain the supernatural events that seemingly followed them around? Two for the price of one, with the argument running that even if the Heads were made by Des Craigie from cement, that still doesn’t explain away the werewolf stuff. This revisionism, that the power of the Heads lies in what they did rather than what they were, has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.
The few paragraphs on this story, in a section of the book on the topic of assorted oddities, is bulked out with an extended quote from Anne Ross about the supernatural things she experienced once she had the Heads. The authors conclude: ‘But no one can explain why they should have attracted a non-physical entity into their aura’.
The Heads also appear in other mystery books including the classic Readers Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (1973) and Incredible Phenomena (Orbis, 1984). In such accounts connections are made to earth mysteries, Celtic bits and pieces, hauntings, crystals and all sorts of other stuff. The story is very much an unsolved mystery and such books have no intention of solving the mystery – ‘no one can explain’. Curiously the Heads do not appear in this book but as it has a cool cover I have included it nonetheless, and they also do not seem to have entered the orbit of Arthur C Clarke and his mysterious world, which in itself if weird.
Of course if you are interested in going deeper into the mystery you could go straight to the most comprehensive source for all things Hexham Heads, the work of investigative journalist Paul Screeton. Having read Screeton’s writing on earth mysteries, such as Quicksilver Heritage (Abacus 1974), he is no fan of archaeologists, and so these accounts have little to say on the archaeology of the Heads. But Screeton knows the turf, and has spoken to all the major players, and knows this stuff better than anyone.
His first attempt to write about this was a short book published in 1981 and called Tale of the Hexham Heads. You can download a scan of this short book here. Containing 17 pages all told and typeset (reminding me of a BAR book from that decade) this contains Screeton’s original research into this tale, and is not too far removed in time from the original events. There are no images but there is a very useful bibliography of media coverage from the 1970s.
Much more detailed is the definitive sourcebook, the 2010 book Quest for the Hexham Heads (CFZ Press). In my view this book could have done with a firmer editor and a good proofread, but overall it covers everything we know and throws in a whole load of other stuff about werewolves, folklore and haunted pubs. Highly recommended. This is a complex story as I have noted before and so it is worth directing anyone interested to a useful index and guides to aspects of Screeton’s 2012 book on the Hexham Heads blog.
There are also two really useful articles about the HH in the Fortean Times 294 and 295 (towards the end of 2012). These were written by Stuart Ferrol working in part with Paul Screeton. These articles go over the story as per usual but also offer some limited fresh perspectives on the fate of the Heads and contain some interesting bits and pieces. The first article recounts the story so far, while the second part included recent research and interviews (including archaeologist Lyndsay Allison-Jones, whom I have also spoken to). The conclusion? They came “no closer to a conclusion or a definitive explanation…[and] don’t think there ever will be a conclusion” (pg 49). This was followed by an interview of Screeton by Ferrol which allowed the former to repeat the same nonsense about archaeologists as he had published in the 1970s (and it was out of date then!).
One final and excellent place you can get a Hexham Heads fix is in the world of podcasts, and there have been an explosion in these in the last five years. I have binge listened to a range of these, but there are many others out there as a quick google search will reveal.
Very few HH podcasts take an archaeological perspective so a good place to start is Archyfantasies podcast on the subject. The coverage is enlivened by some interesting North American pronunciations of Hex-HAM and a deeply sceptical perspective. There is a lot of focus on the multi-layered aspects of the story and overlaps with conspiracy theory thinking, but also some errors in fact in relation to recounting the story of the Heads. Covered also is some helpful discussion about the differences between the invasive and non-invasive petrological analyses undertaken on the Heads in the seventies. The conclusion was that these objects are “undeniably modern”. Nonetheless this is a thought-provoking hour.
The Loremen podcast (series 2 episode 13) has a decent and jolly account of the story and actually mentions my blogs as a useful source of information. This episode also focuses on the Middleton Hooter (!?).
I wasn’t quite so keen on the jokey couple routine on the Spooky Tales podcast (actually Episode 1). Hosts John and Louise part bicker, part bounce off each other in a rather contrived style to tell the story via some dead-ends and diversions. No surprises here. I liked the more cerebral approach to be found in the Lore of the Land podcast where presenters Stacia and Siofra situated the objects in a broader discussion of Celtic heads with a focus on the Bradford Heads. Check out Episode 4: The cult of the head.
I rather enjoyed the discussion of the Heads in the Unexplained Podcast (series 1 episode 9 The Dawn of the Head). This is essentially a straight narrative account of the story, which becomes ever more outlandish as it unfolds. As with some of the other podcasts, there is a general conclusion that it doesn’t really matter whether the objects are authentically ancient or not, some people believe them to have supernatural qualities, which is all that matters in the end. “Throughout history we have attributed worth and sentiment to inanimate objects….”.
And yes, the Heads have their own rather thin Wikipedia page.
What is the future for the Hexham Heads? More podcasts, more speculation for sure. There has been a long-mooted documentary film, Heads! which is yet to see the light of day as far as I can tell. Perhaps Funko will get in on the act and create a Hexham Heads collectible ‘figurines’ as part of their Myth range. I guess also the search will go on just in case they do still exist somewhere, perhaps in a kitchen drawer, you know the one that has all the bits and pieces in it. Perhaps even the cursed Nationwide footage will be found.
Maybe more still could be done. Maybe Hexham could start to use the Heads and their associated fantastical story in marketing, tapping into the growing dark heritage tourism trend. The trickle of the curious that head to Rede Avenue to surreptitiously photograph the garden where the Heads were found might be replaced by less bashful bus parties and cruise ship day trippers although one can hardly imagine the residents welcoming this development.
Perhaps one day I will even complete the academic journal paper that I have partially written about the Heads with the theme of cursed material culture. Stranger things have happened.
How to conclude this tale? The Hexham Heads, as has been said by many who have looked into their story, are objects that transcend time. The age and authenticity hardly seems to matter anymore, which may be a convenient intellectual sleight of hand, or merely an acknowledgment of the slipperiness of material culture. These are objects that have a biography and a chaine operatoire just as surely as if they were a polished stone axe. They are sticky things that accrued stories and myths and claims and data around them, creating a fuzziness that continues to obscure anything that we might want to call the truth. They are many things and perhaps none of them: they are totemic, they are toys or gifts, they are possessed with an evil power to attract supernatural events, they are stone, they are cement, they are ancient, they are from the 1960s, they are evil, they are mundane, they are lost, they are hidden, they are destroyed, they are curated. The list goes on because like so many things that we interact with, they are entangled with us and out stories and motivations and beliefs and hopes and fears. They haunt us because of this slipperiness, this quality of shape-shifting, and yet this is a quality that most material culture possesses, because we ensure these do not remain inanimate objects through our interactions with them. The Hexham Heads have depended on a cast of people to animate them, and have responded by animating the lives of those who interacted with them. This is their legacy and their power.
The Hexham Heads have a resonance and reach that few other aspects of the urban prehistory pantheon have. The are genuine generation haunters for a haunted generation that laps up such creepy – and at times laughable – stuff. If I didn’t know better I would suspect that someone was pulling the strings, having a laugh at the expense of others, pushing to see how outlandish things might get. There is a soap opera dynamic to their story that seems on first glance to be scripted. But I suspect the chaotic story and unfathomable contradictions that have dogged the Hexham Heads are beyond even the most devious of screenwriting minds. This story is so improbable that it must be true.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Professor Richard Bailey
Dr Douglas Robson
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’.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.…
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.
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.