Tag Archives: Neolithic

Taunton axe

26 Sep

Serendipitous encounter with

the material culture of urban prehistory

unexpected discovery

the happenchance of sewage infrastructure

small find destined to be documented, drawn

and stored in a box

once found, then forgotten again

almost unknown

unknowable

indicative of an act: loss, disposal

or the outcome of a process: erosion, river-washed

the slow accumulation of the archaeological record

drifting until discovery

on the riverbank

beside the cricket ground

by Mick Aston off the Time Team.

stone axe from taunton drawing

Notes: on the 30th June 1974 Mick Aston, then a field archaeologist with Somerset County Planning Department, found the butt of a Neolithic polished stone axe on the spoil heap of a trench that had been dug beside the River Tone, in the centre of Taunton, for sewage works. The broken axe was green in colour, had been bashed around by the river, and was broken. Analysis by the Petrology Implement Committee identified the possible source of the axe raw material as Cornwall. The axe is now, I assume, in a local museum collection.

SomHERimage14159 Mick Aston

Mick Aston (right) in 1987 (c) Somerset County Council

The location of this discovery is now a pathway running along the eastern bank of the Tone, passing close by the Somerset County Cricket ground. The location is not marked by any formal notification. Nearby is a setting of three megalithic eggs in a wooden compound.

location today

Eggs

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks firstly to Andrew Watson for flagging up the axe discovery for me in the Somerset HER. Andrew also kindly took me to the location and gave me a guided walking tour of central Taunton.

The axe has site reference number 44418 in the local HER database. The discovery of the axe was published by Aston here: Aston, M 1975 A stone axe from Taunton. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 119, pages 70, 71. The axe drawing comes from that publication, and the photo of Mick Aston and colleagues was sources from the Somerset HER.

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Post-atomic megalith

29 May

Dounreay nuclear power plant

Cnoc na h-Uiseig chambered cairn

Clachar megalith

tripartite

entangled                    powerless

 

an inventory of atomic performance

splitting atoms

transcending time

centrifugal forces

power generation

accumulation

 

radiating

 

‘The half-light, with its glimmer, had always had for him a curious historic reality, as though the world in this quiet hour turned itself into a stage whereon all that had once been could once more be, but invisibly now and therefore magically. The word ‘magic’ was as professionally real to him as the word ‘atom’ to a physicist. He knew his learned theories. But, unlike the physicist, he had to translate his concepts in terms of human behaviour’. 

Dounreay during construction Getty Images

 

Chambered cairn b&w photo

the asymmetrical arrangement of hollow spaces

blueprints

directing minds

intentionality

erection

 

orthostatic rods

 

cells

chambers

voids

 

“…it would drain him through death to the negation of stone; and even then, he would not be the stone, he would be the darkness”.

 

Chambered cairn plan and section

Section of nuclear power Open University

 

Dounreay interior TopFoto National Archives

 

the architecture of containment

exclusion

approach with caution

wear protective clothing

warning signs

invited participants only

unshielded humans

inside and outside

 

“The upended stone was about three feet high, a small ‘standing stone’ or orthostat…These upended stones or orthostats would go right round the cairn forming its containing wall or peristalith. There were theorists who said that the great stone circles themselves were  but a later development of this peristalith which kept back the cairn – or kept in the dead’.

Dounreay workers Alamy stock photo

 

Chambered cairn b&w interior photo

 

systematic investigation of a death chamber

material culture

beakers

skulls

broken bones

 

typologies

 

rule-bound

precise

fast reactions

a steady hand

required

 

‘Then, as always in such fluid fancy, a knot formed about the one solitary fact, namely that the cairn was a great tomb; and instantly, as if his mind were indeed a radioactive substance emitting thoughts of an inconceivable swiftness, he completed the destruction of the world by atomic bombs, saw the cairn of Westminster Abbey and a future race of archaeologists opening it up’.

 

Ox bone

Dounreay-explosion-environment

control panel BBC

Beaker sherds

 

ideological demands for absolute decommission

half-life

decay

ionization

 

the shaft

 

excavation

preservation by record

backfilling

made safe

forever

 

Inside the reactor

Cairn during excavation AOC

fan room decommissioning dounreay

 

“The evidence would disclose

that this had been

a chambered tomb of the Pre-Atomic age”.

 

 

A Tripartite tale: some notes

The long quotations contained within this post were written by Neil Gunn (1891-1973), the Scottish author who grew up in the small village of Dunbeath, about 40 km south-south-east of Dounreay, Caithness. He wrote a series of evocative novels about the transformed and transforming Highlands in the middle of the twentieth century. All the extended quotations in this post come from his 1948 book The Silver Bough. This book tells the story of an arrogant academic archaeologist based in central Scotland who spends a summer on the northwest coast of Scotland in the fictional town of Kinlochoscar excavating a prehistoric megalithic tomb encased in a stone circle. (This is the best book I have read about an excavation other than Peter Ackroyd’s similarly themed First Light.) Nuclear matters are a recurring theme: Gunn was by all accounts disturbed by the dropping of atom bombs on Japan in 1945, while his archaeologist protagonist was active at a time when that profession was on the cusp of being transformed by science, and in particular the radioactive science of radiocarbon dating. In many sense, it is a novel about individual, disciplinary and social ‘loss of innocence’ to coin archaeologist David Clarke’s memorable phrase.

Neil Gunn

The Silver Bough

A Neolithic chambered cairn, Cnoc na h-Uiseig, is situated right next to the former nuclear power plant of Dounreay, near Thurso, Caithness, on the north coast of mainland Scotland. This monument is largely ruinous, and was investigated by Arthur JH Edwards in 1928. Excavation of this ‘horned cairn’ showed it to contain various internal chambers, and recovered from the interior were sherds of Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery, a perforated bone object, a sandstone axe and the remains of at least five individuals. The site has been much damaged by its location near twentieth century infrastructure, notably a nearby (now defunct) airfield, and in 1964 OS field workers noted that, ‘This chambered cairn, a grassy mound, has been mutilated large-scale construction work and is now slightly rectangular in shape, measuring 22.0m E-W and 17.5m transversely, by about 2.5m high’. It has for many decades been contained within a  square fenced enclosure. This tomb was located well within the blast zone and almost impossible to visit for that reason. There are a number of other prehistoric and later heritage sites within a notional exclusion zone.

Dounreay fieldwork poster

Map from canmore

Source: Canmore

Dounreay nuclear power plant was established from 1955 onwards, and had three nuclear reactors. For decades the plant lived in uneasy equilibrium both with the population of the county of Caithness, but also the ruinous Neolithic megalith on its fringes. The plant was famous at times for unorthodox practices involving the disposal of some nuclear material, while there were often tales of radioactive particles on the nearby beaches. This was not an environment conducive to megalith visitation. Closure and decommissioning of the site began in 2005, and is expected to take over two centuries to entirely return the site to its former state. Since its closure, the nuclear plant has undergone a gradual decommissioning process, brought to my attention recently with the inclusion of a glossy brochure about this in the pack for a conference I was attending in the county. Here, we see the act of un-polluting the land, reversing the radioactive decades, as a triumph of technology carried out by robots and scientists wearing protective outfits straight out of science fiction. The decommissioning process has brought with it a longish tail of employment, and some funds to support community projects including those related to heritage and archaeology, although as yet this has not included re-excavation of the chambered cairn.

Dounreay glossy brochure

The end of the Dounreay decommissioning project is anticipated to be in AD 2300. By that time, the chambered tomb will be over 6,000 years old.

It is becoming post-atomic.

 

Sources: Edwards’ excavation report can be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 63 (1928-29), the paper being called, ‘Excavations at Reay Links and at a horned cairn at Lower Dounreay, Caithness’. There is a very  nice introduction to Gunn’s The Silver Bough by Dairmid Gunn, in the 2003 Whittles Publishing edition which shed some light on the motivations behind the book. The timescales for the complete decommissioning process for Dounreay came from this article in the The Engineer Magazine.

Material culture and other items related to Dounreay can be viewed in an exhibition in Caithness Horizons, Thurso.

Photo and image credits: All of the black and white images related to the chambered cairn are reproduced from the Edwards’ excavation report. The photo of the excavator at work (actually on a nearby site, not the chambered cairn) comes from a poster produced by Headland Archaeology entitled, Lower Dounreay: an archaeological landscape. The photo of Neil Gunn comes from the website about him linked to in the text.

The rest of the images, from top to bottom:

Half-built reactor (B&W) Charles Hewitt / Picture Post / Getty, via The Times

Reactor diagram (colour) The Open University

Inside the reactor (B&W) National Archives

Masks (B&W) Alamy Stock Photo

Debris (B&W) Friends of Bruce

Control panel (colour) BBC

Removing x 2 (B&W and colour) Decommissioning webpage

 

 

 

 

 

What happens when the polluter can’t pay? The sad case of Station Brae

2 Mar

This blog post has been written with Lauren Welsh, who thanks to the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow, was a paid intern on an urban prehistory placement in June 2017. I asked Lauren to come up with an idea for a blog post, and she suggested we visit and investigate an amazing urban prehistory site in her home town of Dreghorn, North Ayrshire….Station Brae.

Never heard of it? Read on to find out why.

NB In this post, my contributions are in italics.

Lauren meeting Steve Timoney UHI

Lauren discussing Balfarg henge with Dr Steven Timoney, UHI, during the placement

During the summer last year, I was lucky enough to undertake a placement as the Urban Prehistorian’s Intern. This was a fantastic opportunity and I learned so much about what happens behind the scenes when planning community archaeological events and outreach to keep the public informed.

Whilst on this placement I undertook some of my own research into Community/Public Archaeology and I must admit it left me a bit bewildered about how this branch of archaeology is treated.

Where I live, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by lots of archaeology from many different periods. My biggest interest lies however, within prehistory and so focused my research on this. Before I began my research, I was aware that there was a prehistoric monument found in the village next to mine, it is known as the Drybridge Cursus.

Drybridge cursus canmore_image_SC00842714

Drybridge cursus from the air in 1977 (c) HES canmore_image_SC008427

Wet Drybridge extract

Pictures of a walk KB did along the Drybridge cursus in the late 1990s (source: Brophy 2000)

However, when I started investigating in more detail I found that this was not the only substantial and interesting find from prehistory in this area.

In 2003/04, archaeological investigations were taking place in my little home village of Dreghorn, in advance of a new housing development at Station Brae. This work took place just before 53 houses were built by Wimpey Homes next to Dreghorn cemetery. The excavations were reported on in Discovery and Excavation Scotland. It was suggested that the excavations had found a ‘probable timber hall’ which is ‘comparable to those at sites such as Balbridie, Crathes, the Claish, and smaller examples at Balfarg and Raigmore’. Like the structures that are mentioned, the Station Brae structure is thought to date to the Neolithic Period. The site is also described as the prehistoric remains at this site as being in a ‘density and scale seldom seen in Scotland’.

Excavation photo

Station Brae excavation site viewed from the east. This image is from an unpublished draft report on the first stages of the excavation that came into our possession.

This site is clearly a rare find but the only information in the public domain about this important site is the DES article.  This goes on to mention that there were a number of archaeological finds that accompanied this impressive timber hall structure. From lithics and Grooved Ware to Carinated Bowls and kilns, this site has a lot of interesting prehistoric archaeology which is often lacking from prehistoric sites. Evidence for later prehistoric activity, and an early medieval settlement were also found here.

Station Brae location map

The urban location of the Station Brae site

Given that this appears to be a site that should be of national importance due to the number of prehistoric artefacts and that is considered to be a timber hall structure, it is extremely confusing that a very small amount of people have heard of it (myself included even prior to my research into the excavation).

I had known about the Station Brae site for many years, as I have been documenting evidence for Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland (in reviews published in 2006 and 2016) and have even written a paper on Scotland’s Neolithic timber halls (published in 2007). However, in all these reviews, Station Brae has proved an elusive site, and attempts in the past to get further information on the excavations – even a coherent plan of the timber hall or possible Grooved Ware associated oval structures – have got me nowhere.

Yet the site is now in the literature. In a paper published in 2006, I celebrated the discovery of Station Brae ‘putative timber hall’ via developer-funded archaeology although made a curious mistake when adding it to a distribution map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland – I forgot to add it as a dot to a map previously published by Gordon Barclay, and a penciled in x still survives on the map as evidence of this in the published version. Oops.

Map from Brophy 2006

X marks the spot. A map of Neolithic settlement sites in Scotland. Station Brae is immediately to the west of Biggar Common on the coast (source: Brophy 2006)

In a review of timber halls written around the same time, the site was again mentioned although here it was simply viewed as a possible parallel for other Neolithic timber halls, except the Grooved Ware connection was puzzling (this pottery style would be too late for such a big roofed building). However, I was working from the original DES report only and the site did not make it onto a terrible map I produced of Scotland’s Neolithic halls. This doubt fed into a much more recent review of Neolithic settlement evidence in Scotland, where I had grown a little fed up with the situation. I described Station Brae as a ‘tantalising, but as yet unpublished, discovery’ (2016, 216). Despite my high hopes for this site, it has not yet made it into wider synthesis of Neolithic settlement sites, simply because nothing is really known about it.

PSAS 2007 map

Station Brae did not make it on to my terrible 2007 map

Given this last paper was written over a decade after the excavations, and I again failed to find out anything about the site, this troubled me. The same old DES source was all that underpinned it, and that was starting to feel a bit tired.

This is clearly a frustrating situation – but one that I am not entirely unware of, having run up against similar road blocks for various reasons, from time-limited confidentiality clauses inserted into excavation contracts by developers, to sites being published in obscure online locations in reports that require a lot of guesswork to locate via google, to publication being delayed for all manner of reasons. But this seemed a more intractable problem. And that has proved to be the case, although Lauren brought it home to me that it is not just Neolithic archaeologists that are frustrated about Station Brae….

What bothered me the most about this discovery is that it is less than 500 yards away from my house and yet I knew nothing about it (which is interesting as I have always had a keen interest in archaeology).

So, what happened? Why has there not been more done at this site to help the locals (and wider public) understand the importance of this site as well as what it helps us to understand about other prehistoric sites similar to this one?

It is certainly strange. The site itself sits in a larger prehistoric landscape. As previously mentioned, there is an impressive cursus monument located at Drybridge and is only about 1 mile away from the Station Brae site. Also, in Drybridge there is a single standing stone, although there has been no known work conducted to say whether the stone is prehistoric or not.

 

 

The next village along this route is Dundonald, where today a beautiful castle stands on top of a hill. There have been excavations carried out at the castle which date the archaeological remains back to the early Bronze Age (hopefully the subject of a future urban prehistorian blog post! -KB). There have also been excavations in Kilmarnock recently as well, where (ironically) a Neolithic ‘timber hall’ site was found in 2017 by GUARD Archaeology during development work.

Dundonald Castle from the air

Dundonald Castle (photo: Richard Hughes)

A final important site to mention in this geographical area is Shewalton Moss. This is ‘bog land’ that runs to the Northwest of Dundonald and is known locally to have produced a number of prehistoric artefacts including urns, pottery, flint scrapers and polishers, hammer stones and arrowheads, indicating substantial prehistoric activity in the area (although it is proving difficult to find records of these finds).

In an article in The Herald newspaper on 19th April 2004, the significance of Station Brae was stated in a very public forum. This was at worst based on a press release, at best on an interview with the director of the company who carried out the excavations, and I have highlighted in bold some particularly juicy comments.  

‘The site suggests a 5000-year-old village similar in scale to the group of stone houses at Skara Brae, Orkney.’

Tom Addyman, excavation director of Addyman Associates, who carried out the ongoing dig at the housing development, said….”We found 750-odd pieces of Grooved Ware, which is one of the largest collections in the south-west of Scotland. The area is now known as a type site for the Neolithic period, which means that all other sites will be compared to this one.”

Neolithic pit

Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, said: “Finding evidence at this date for settlement, in the form of building foundations and for pottery making, is extremely rare, and promises to help us understand the lives of the people who built the great ritual monuments like henges and early stone circles”.’

There are some spectacular claims here, although the comparison of all other known Neolithic sites in Scotland with Station Brae has thus far proved impossible. Mike Pitts’ aspiration for this site remains unrealised.

A drip-feed of information was put out via the media offering further tantalising details. Site director Tom Wilson was quoted by iAyrshire as saying:

“This is only one of five [timber halls] to be discovered in Scotland and we think it dates back to around 3500BC. It would be a farming community with around eight huts taking pride of place in the site. We have also found pits with pottery and a giant fence that must have circled the village. Although other Neolithic villages have been found in Scotland, this is the only one I believe has been permanently lived in. We can see where the huts and kiln would have been. The residents moved further up the hill in the winter as the land was prone to flooding. We’re really like detectives and so far we have found some important artifacts including grooved-ware pottery and a kiln that we think is the oldest found in Scotland.”

I am salivating just reading the description of what was found here. Sorry, I’ll just go and wipe my mouth.

Back again.

One thing that Lauren said that really struck home was that people in Dreghorn knew that an ancient settlement had been found in the town, but that was all they knew about it. It was like the site had taken on a mythical quality of its own, which would be all well and good but underlying this is a community who have been let down. Because archaeologists came, excavated, spoke to the papers, and then went away again. And that was it.

Lauren did some research as part of the placement that suggests that Dreghorn has embraced the discovery to an extent. It has become something of a branding for this place that it is the ‘Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’. Not snappy but pretty cool. References to this (erroneous) claim can be found online in various places, for instance in the wikipedia page for the town. I guess this impression was given by Tom Addyman himself who told the now defunct Today newspaper on 27th February 2004 that:

“People have always lived here, and have wanted to live here. Can’t think of any other site that has that depth and layering of occupation.”

The Neolithic discoveries in the village have, since the excavations, taken on the status of a a thing, although based on only wafer thin tit-bits of information.

Villages of Britain image

 

As has already been touched on, the local people (and even some not so local) seem to have heard about Dreghorn and its impressive little title. It seems strange to me that no-one has really ever done any further ‘digging’ to see why it got the title in the first place. It is just something that is accepted. The information about the Station Brae site is out there (what little of it there is) but the information that can be found about this site in the public domain should be enough for the public to start questioning ‘what happened?’ Having spoken to a few locals about this and showing them the information in the public domain, I have found that the unfortunate reality is that they view it as ‘suspicious’. They tend to feel that something strange has happened at this site. The information tells us that this is a nationally important site and yet nothing further has been done to promote this or even investigate this. I must admit, I feel the same as them, although I can also see the dangers of this way of thinking as ‘professionals’ in this field can find it hard to gain and keep trust of the public as it is.

During the placement, Lauren and I visited the location of Station Brae. This is now a grassy bank with a flat top, crowned with older houses and a garage block with an urban goal painted on it. Fine views down to the Annick Water hint at the ideal location this would have been to live 5,000 years ago, just as it is now.

Station Brae

There is no indication whatsoever of what was found in this area before the adjacent newer houses were constructed, either in the lie of the land, or information for passers by and residents. It is impossible to imagine a timber Skara Brae standing here once, this village before the village.

After the visit, some discrete enquiries were made. What happened here? Without divulging too much information, it appears that the excavations were far more extensive and expensive that planned, and that the money simply stopped coming. No-one could afford to fund adequate post-excavation analysis, nevermind writing up the excavations, although enough resource was available for the material culture to be inspected and safely packaged up to go into storage. None of this stuff has been mis-treated, but nor has its full potential been realised.

The site is in limbo. There is no money to cover the substantial costs of analysing a very large assemblage of material (and that is just the Neolithic stuff I know about). Specialists would have to be paid, and someone or an organisation commissioned to write it all up, a major task as I well know being in the middle of writing up an excavation monograph myself.  

Sadly, this is not an isolated case and other sites across Britain have been left in the same kind of situation: excavation done, archive and materials packaged up and put into storage, no more money to write it all up, and perhaps no real motivation or will to go back and sort it all out. There is only thing worse that having to write up an old excavation from a decade or more ago – that is writing up someone else’s old excavation, and in a sector as dynamic as heritage, this is likely what would have to happen. This is comparable to academic archaeologists, who have their own backlogs (as do I) but at least we have the safety net of a contractual situation that vaguely encourages us to spend some time sorting things out, and a career-progression motivation for publication.

Interim report title

This is the only detailed information I could find about the site, an interim report from mid-way through the excavations, obtained via an anonymous source.

I want to make it clear that I am not trying to blame the excavation team or the company that undertook the excavations, which were clearly to a high standard and carried out with rigour and enthusiasm. The team did a great job of getting the media interested in the site and they cannot be held financially liable for further work that has to be done. They also clearly tried to make things happen with this site and recognised its importance.

In this case, the developer also cannot easily be cast as the pantomime villain. In an interim report written by the archaeologists that I managed to obtain when researching this situation, it was clear that in January 2004 there was already a problem. A section in the report entitled ‘Costing’ noted that ‘additional funding sources’ to cover post-ex and publication costs were being sought. It was further noted that these costs were ‘an additional and unforeseen (as well as unwelcome) burden’ upon the developer who had otherwise been helpful and accomodating. In other words, I am guessing that the whole unexpected Neolithic and Medieval settlement bombshell had the potential to destroy budgeting and profit margins in the months and years after the excavations finished and that the original tender for the work, offered in good faith, was simply inadequate to deal with the spectacular discoveries subsequently made. 

But I do want to blame the system.

The polluter pays principal is great when it all works, but what happens when it all goes to shit? Who has the ultimate responsibility of fulfilling the expectations of salivating prehistorians and a local population that have been left disappointed? How do we dance sites out of limbo?

There is an ongoing discussion in the heritage sector about this very problem.

Some say we should forget the older digs, write them off, dispose of the boxes of files, and move on.

Others say that Historic Environment Scotland (or Local Authorities) should step in and provide resources for these zombie excavations to be revived, albeit almost certainly at the tax-payers’ expense.

Another school of thought is that the whole system needs to change. A pool of money could be gathered using some kind of Development Tax, to be allocated as and when needed to ensure all remedial archaeology work related to development projects can be centrally funded and completed. This means that tendering would become less of a lottery, projects with almost no costs could not boost profits artificially, and really expensive excavations like Station Brae would not bankrupt anyone to deal with. Used in some European countries, this system might well be a solution going forward, but won’t help deal with backlogged limbo projects, of which there are, sadly, many.

This situation is all the more painful to me because of the urban location. Here, archaeologists, the developer and the system to one extent or another have let people down – the Neolithic people who lived here once, but also the current inhabitants of Dreghorn have been ill-served, with expectations raised of their town being a place of real significance in the ancient heritage of Scotland. There is now a brand to be lived up to – but how can the proud claim of deep time be evidenced, backed up, celebrated, with the site reduced to so many box files and packing cases?

Timber hall

With all this prehistoric evidence cropping up in such a small geographical space, maybe in the future we will be lucky enough carry out more investigations at the site of Station Brae. It would be great if more information on these sites could become available in the public domain so that people can learn about the history of their village and the significance of the archaeology that could potentially be lying in their own back gardens!

Going forward, hopefully by raising awareness of the site, it might encourage people to look further into what can be done to pull this amazing site into the mainstream. If we can go by what is reported in the draft report we have got hold of, then the finds from this site really could potentially be used to lend further understanding to a period of time we really don’t know that much about. Perhaps a crowdfunding initiative could be set up to find the funds needed to complete the post-ex work and write up required to make sense of what has been found here. If the community could take ownership and be proud of the potentially spectacular site that has been found here, I really think it would help raise an awareness that the public really do have an interest in sites like this, just as much as those who have a keen interest in the field and period. And who knows, maybe then, Dreghorn really would deserve its title,Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited village’, or at least they would understand why this title stuck in the first place!

 

Sources and acknowledgements: firstly, I would like to thank Lauren for all of her hard work over the course of the placement, and it was a treat for me to get to the Station Brae site as I had read that one paragraph about it for so long! Lauren took me straight there with the knowledge only a local can have, an expertise in this place I could never hope to have. I would also like to thank the wonderful staff at Dundonald Castle for their hospitality during my trip to North Ayrshire, and Richard Hughes for allowing his great photo of the castle to be included in this post.

I sought advice from several seasoned, wise and experienced heritage professionals in the preparation of this post, and although my sources shall remain anonymous, I would like to thank them very much.

I thought long and hard about not naming an archaeologists or other parties involved in the excavation at Station Brae. However, I hope that our post makes it clear that the system is at fault here, and not the diggers or funders. A cursory search would have revealed identities for those who wanted to find out anyway.   

The DES entry that started all of this off is: Addyman, T. 2004 Station Brae, Dreghorn (Dreghorn parish), Neolithic settlement with ritualistic component; medieval village’, Discovery Excav Scot, vol. 5. [open access, google Discovery Excavation Scotland]

In the post, a couple of my old papers were referred to. In case anyone wants to follow these up, they are:

Brophy, K 2000 Wet Drybridge: a cursus in Ayrshire. In J Harding & R Johnston (eds) Northern Pasts: Interpretations of the later prehistory of northern England and southern Scotland, 45–56. BAR: Oxford.

Brophy, K 2006 Rethinking Scotland’s Neolithic: combining circumstance and context. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 136, 7–46 [open access, google article or journal name]

Brophy, K 2007 From big house to cult house: early Neolithic timber halls in Scotland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 73, 75–96.

Brophy, K. 2016. On ancient farms: Neolithic settlement in mainland Scotland, in Brophy, K, Ralston, IBM and Macgregor, G (eds) 2016 The Neolithic of mainland Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, pages 200-235.

 

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! 

Lost world

27 Jan

This blog post has been written to coincide with a paper I gave at the first ever Scottish Students Archaeology Society Conference held in the University of Glasgow on the weekend of 27th and 28th January 2018. My paper was entitled Houses upon houses: the impact of urbanisation on our understanding of Neolithic settlement in Scotland and at some point in the future will be available to view on youtube. I’ll update this post with a link when that happens.

conference logo jpgThe rather lovely conference logo

As part of preparing my lecture I revisited an urban prehistory site that I blogged about in May 2016, a Neolithic settlement site that was found in advance of a housing development in Cowie, near Stirling. The blog post, Houses upon houses, was a reflection on how archaeology could as a discipline do better to utilize the results of developer-funded excavations, in terms of how we synthesize such data, but also how results are disseminated and what community benefits might accrue from exciting (and even mundane) discoveries. In the case of this housing estate, some of the roads had been given prehistoric sounding names to reflect the remarkable Late Neolithic site that GUARD excavated in 1995. This was an easy win in a sense although does not necessarily tell those who move(d) into this area exactly what was found because their houses had to be built there.

Flint Crescent low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

A more imaginative and substantive development happened at Cowie that also drew directly on the prehistoric archaeology but in a potentially more powerful way than the street names – the creation of a children’s playground that was inspired by aspects of what GUARD found, although when I first visited this place I didn’t actually go to the playground because I didn’t find out about it until after the event.

In my first post about Cowie, I assigned the design of this playpark to Judi Legg and Mike Hyatt, and quoted on the design process:

Local children paid a visit to a pre-history park, Archaeolink, and many of the ideas they got from this visit as well as information about the pre-historic Cowie site itself have been built into the design of the park, which includes shelters, cooking and seating areas, and a raised beach, as well as mounds, tunnels, slides and a climbing wall. The children’s involvement in the design development has meant that the design concept which underpins the site layout contains elements which the children understand and which feel familiar to them. 

The co-production and imagination that went into this was impressive to say the least. The images I found online of the playpark, such as those below, showed aspects of the excavation results did indeed directly effect the design. For instance, a circular arrangement of mounds with structures inside mirrors the Late Neolithic double-skinned roundhouses found by Atkinson and team. That the material form of this – mounds and not organic structures – was not entirely accurate did not dilute the effect I don’t think.

Playground photo 1

Neolithic house planThe house that inspired the circular playground feature

The playpark itself was established a few years after the houses were built after a tragic accident there involving a child. The local community formed a group which campaigned for a safe playpark and the site – which overlies where some of the archaeology was found – was designed with the help of the children themselves, a nice example of co-production. The park cost £110,000 to build and was funded by Section 75 housing developers’ contributions, BBC Children in Need, the Stirling Landfill Tax Trust and Cowie Play Areas Group local fundraising events. Maintenance is provided by the local authority.

Playground photo 3

I wanted to close a loop, so the day before I gave my lecture I paid a quick visit to the playground which was both frosty and empty as I walked around in the beautiful and dazzling sunlight. Although I found that the form of the playground was creative and exciting, I was also disappointed to see that the site had suffered a decline over the past decade or so and some of the nice features built into the playpark were simply gone or were unrecognizable due to missing elements.

Panorama low res

The park itself is called Lost World, which I love, and this name was cast into the sturdy metal and wooden gate into the park, which can be reached by following a narrow pathway between two houses on Flint Crescent.

Lost world low res

Once inside the park, it is clear that this is a place that aspires for an organic look using timber and earthwork features that are unusually arranged to draw on excavation results. Boulders were also strewn around. It had a very naturalistic feel even although it channels an anthropomorphic place. The centre of the park is dominated by a curving long mound with tunnels running through it and slides adorning its sides, while there are normal and weird trees dotted around. A looping path meanders around the park and there is always something to look at. Boring it is not.

General view low res

A nice little Neolithic-style house was evident and in one piece, and although it looked more like a Wessex Late Neolithic house than an Eastern Lowland Scotland one, I suspect excitable children could not care less about that! Or maybe it is a little raised granary? It looks like the playground has interpretive challenges for visitors of all ages.

Neolithic house low res

As I walked around, it was clear that elements of the park were missing or had declined somewhat since the glory days of their first erection. In particular, the long mound, which I had to haul myself atop using a rope, had a huge gouge taken out of the middle to the extent that is had its own sandy stratigraphy.

Gap in the mound low res 1

Gap in the mound low res 2

Upon looking back at old photos, this gap was created by the removal of a large wooden structure that used to be here.

wildside designs photo

The park when first constructed: the wooden structure in the middle of the mound has gone leaving the gap that can be seen in my own 2018 photos (Wild Scot)

The circular earthwork setting, based on the Neolithic roundhouse plan, also appeared to have several somethings missing in the middle.

Then and now

Upon closer inspection, remnants of the structures that had once stood here (inspired by ideas of sitting around the fireplace in the middle of a house I would imagine) could still be seen on the ground, the archaeology of an archaeological playground.

Remnants

The former timber setting

Remnants 2

The former log seats 

The arrangement of boulders, a hearth of sorts, is barely recognizable anymore and this is where the problem with such well-meaning endeavours sometimes arises. There is the awkward question of sustainability. I have seen this so many times before. Noticeboards get dirty and difficult to read or simply become out-of-date. Signs are removed, fall down or become obsolete. Metal constructions rust. Wood falls apart or burns. Earthworks slump or have cars driven over them. No-one has the money to fix the problems. It is unclear who should do this work. The original players in making things happen have moved on.

In other words, attempts to celebrate, preserve and educate the public about archaeological sites often themselves fall victim to the processes of entropy that the archaeological materials underwent in the past that caused the situation in the first place.

None of this is necessarily the fault of an individual or organisation but something has gone wrong and sometimes it is not clear how the problem can be fixed.

General view 2 low res

As far as I can see Cowie’s Neolithic village, their own Lost World, is in danger of becoming lost again. This is not through anything other than a basic lack of sustainability and funding which are absolutely commonplace problems not just in the heritage sector but also in the age of austerity in which we live.

Tunnel low res

Yet this is still a wonderful park and there are more ideas and imagination stuffed into this small corner on the edge of a housing estate than is normal. Perhaps the local authority can be persuaded to tidy this up properly, or maybe the community can once again lift themselves to work in a common cause inspired by social need and prehistory. Suggestions made to me both on twitter and at the conference itself suggest to me that there could be a really nice project here, both in documenting this unique playground but also rebuilding, refreshing and – something that was missing I think first time around – really explaining to park users what this is all about. I will see what I can do to help make some of this happen.

It really is a place where it is possible to feel you can reach out and touch the past. Or at least climb up, slide down and crawl through the past.

Reach out low res

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the organisation team for the conference for asking me to speak and allowing me to take an urban prehistory angle! 

The excavation report for this site is available open access online. It is John Atkinson 2002 Excavation of a Neolithic occupation site at Chapelfield, Cowie, Stirling, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 139-192. The original photos of the playground with the wooden structure in the mound came from the Wild Scot website, as did the extended quotation and the information about the costs, funding and designers. The other old playpark photos came from Stirling Council Play Services and the Free Play Network. Thanks to those who suggested ideas at the conference and on twitter, I will actively be pursuing these.  

 

 

 

Therapy

18 Nov

Window detail 2 low res

Urban prehistory can take a number of forms and scales, although there is a tendency to imagine that the biggest, most complete and coherent examples to be the most efficacious to serve contemporary society.

There are glamorous examples of urban prehistory abounding, and I have blogged on plenty of these over the past five years. (Yes, I wrote glamorous.) Extant standing stones, megaliths, earthworks and brochs in urban locations are often recognizable for their prehistory-ness by locals, visitors and archaeologists, although rarely are these utilized as effectively as they could be.

But not all urban prehistory is like this. In fact, most of it is not. There are lots of bits and pieces, unresolved fragments of smashed and denuded prehistoric all-manner-of-what-have-you, the archaeological equivalent of plankton hoovered up by the gaping maw of the sperm whale that is urbanisation. These bottom feeders are far from the light of archaeological interest, and when they do come to the fore, it is usually briefly, at the trowel’s edge.

These are the pits, the hollows, the scoops, the ditches, the postholes, the stakeholes, the tree throws, the potsherds, the lithics, the carbonised material, the ditches, the axe fragments, the broken querns, the amorphous features, the strangely shaped stones: the fundamental stuff found in advance of development that – for the time being – is the material outcome of the legal principle that the ‘polluter pays’.

Development – urbanisation – generates urban prehistory in this way. Ancient stuff is found only because someone (not a heritage professional) has chosen to build, or knock, something down in a certain location, a place where archaeologists would either not normally chose to look or could not raise funds to investigate even if they wanted to.

But what do we do with all of the material and information found in these instances? Much ends up in the world of grey literature, unpublished and in difficult to access reports often laden with technical detail, placed in repositories that most people know nothing about. There are notable exceptions, where reports of this nature can be accessed, such as GUARD Archaeology’s Archaeology Reports Online (ARO) although these reports are still technical and obscure in nature. Increasingly there is a community element to such excavations, where people and schools can visit the site, local media are consulted and exhibitions / consultations held and talks are given to local heritage groups. But little of this has a legacy or is sustainable for a variety of understandable reasons related to money, time and accepted practices.

How can we ensure that prehistoric discoveries made in urban places have a lasting impact on the community? What mechanisms can be adopt to ensure that those who pay for archaeology pre-development (often the taxpayer) get value for money and not just some dusty boxes of stuff, dots on maps and obscure reports? There are interesting examples of how this might be done, such as a Neolithic settlement being remembered in street names and the architecture of a children’s playpark at Cowie, Stirling although I am unsure as to the efficacy and sustainability of such enterprising approaches.

Another way this might be done is through art, and I recently stumbled across an example of this that I want to tell you about here.

buildingpic_2405

Vale Health Centre (source: Urban Realm)

In 2012, archaeological evaluation was undertaken in advance of the construction of a new health centre as part of the Vale of Leven Hospital in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire. The work was undertaken by CFA Archaeology Ltd. In an initial evaluation of the site, trial trenches identified seven pits (some possibility postholes) and two sherds of prehistoric pottery.

Photo of pits from WoSAS

Features found during evaluation (c) WoSAS

This was deemed enough for a larger scale excavation, which took place soon after. This resulted in a wide range of discoveries as reported in the 2012 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland. Here, experienced archaeologist Ian Suddaby reported:

An area excavation was carried out in October and November 2011. A total of ninety features were recorded, comprising of pits, post-holes and a circular ring-groove. The pits were largely small and sterile but three significant features were excavated, each containing large quantities of Grooved Ware. Five egg-shaped pits contained burnt mound material. The post-holes formed no recognisable patterns. The ring-groove had a diameter of 10.5m. Neither an entrance, nor internal post-holes were recorded. A palaeochannel was recorded running across the site and the upper levels of this feature contained a buried ploughsoil containing numerous sherds of prehistoric ceramic, quartz and part of a cannal-coal artefact. The ploughsoil overlay a natural sandy fill which was heavily scored by ard-marks. A second phase of excavation in May 2012 exposed and excavated further pits and the remainder of the palaeochannel. It also revealed a ‘U’shaped ditch overlain by quantities of stones. No finds were recovered.’

Enigmatic stone setting from WoSAS

Circular stone setting found at the site (c) WoSAS

This is pretty much standard fare in many respects. A development is planned due to social need and paid for by the taxpayer. The site is chosen and then an archaeological (as well as other environmental) evaluation takes place. Stuff is found, excavated, recorded, a report is written (usually tough to access for the public and often written in an obscure discipline-centric style) and the finds are processed and sent to a (usually local) museum and end up in a box somewhere in a basement.

So far I am pretty sure that Alexandria Health Care Centre (as this archaeological site is snappily called) has ticked all of those boxes. This is unfair to an extent as I have no idea what plans the excavators have to publish the results of their work but it’s fair to say that this won’t be in the Daily Record. The finds have been allocated to Clydebank Museum; but from a visit there in June 2017 they did not seem to have much archaeological material on display.

But something amazing did happen because of these excavations. The discovery of Grooved Ware pottery in pits inspired a therapeutic artwork that now forms part of the fully functioning Vale Centre for Health and Care.

An aspiration of this new Health Centre was for public art to be commissioned for inside the building with the aim being to exploit the therapeutic qualities of such works. The Health Board stated that,

Unique artworks made by four of Scotland’s leading artists commissioned to reflect the local natural environment are permanently installed in the building and grounds of an inspirational new health and care centre for the Vale of Leven West Dunbartonshire…By focusing on the surrounding locality each artist tells a different story about people and place through a range of media including textiles, painting, photography and wood.

The artists were Jephson Robb, Dalziel and Scullion, Deirdie Nelson and Donald Urquhart.

D&S photo low res

Dalziel and Scullion

The latter artist used as inspiration for one of his works the prehistoric pottery found during the excavations that occurred before the Health Centre was constructed. This piece takes the form of a window in the gym and is:

… influenced by the pot shards [sic] found on the site during the excavation process for the new building. Dating back to the Bronze Age [sic] their beautiful geometric markings informed the design for the manifestation for the gym window, offering privacy for staff and patients in the gym yet allowing views out whilst letting plenty of light in.

A rather different account of the artwork and its archaeological origins was reported in the local newspaper in 2013. Margaret Campbell, commissioning manager for the centre, told how a stone circle of Roman date (???) was found during an archaeological check prior to work starting. She said:

It was discovered at the site of the physio area. The archaeological people have taken a couple of the stones and the rest have been buried again. It is standard practice. There was quite an amount of movement through the area in the past and the archaeological visitors were not totally surprised that we found something. Frosting glass will be put on all the windows in the physiotherapy room and we will incorporate the shape of the stone circle into the frosting.

This account is interesting as it directly connects the location of the artwork with the archaeological site whose discovery inspired it. This spatial connection is reinforced for the manager of the centre by the return to the ground of much of the archaeological materials at the site. It also suggests that the plan was to use the archaeology as inspiration for the artworks but at first it was not clear what element of the site would be reflected in the glass. As it happens, both accounts of this piece of Neolithic art erroneously claim wrong dates for this archaeological material.

I visited the Health Centre to see this artwork for myself. At the reception, I was met with puzzlement. Yes, there is artwork in the building, and yes, there is a gym, but my description of inscribed windows got me nowhere. John was called upon, and he was equally unclear what I meant, but he kindly took me through to the physio gym. There, it was immediately obvious to me that the windows on both sides of this small room were etched with classic Grooved Ware motifs.

Gym interior low res

Window detail low res

Exterior view 3 low res

John was delighted to hear about the pattern of the window and the fact that it was based on 5000 year old pottery that had been found in this exact location. I got the sense that he would be telling everyone about this who would be using the physio room in the future, but it seemed a shame that it took me, on a random visit, to make sense of this all for him and his colleagues.

Outside, the windows were equally clearly Neolithic in style and offered wonderfully complex reflected views of the old Argyll Motor Works building across the road.

Exterior view 1 low resExterior view 2 low res

It strikes me that this is a really nice example of a new building having value added to it because of the prehistoric archaeology that was excavated in advance of its construction. This initiative was not, I don’t think, driven by archaeologists, but the fruits of their labour was inspiring enough. Perhaps as a sector we could be more pro-active about this kind of thing at times, but that won’t always be possible or desirable.

However, it also seems to me that there has been a missed opportunity to pass this information on to the users of the Health Centre and this room in particular. Maybe this kind of thing is needed, as John suggested. I am going to contact the artist about this, and I will work up more accurate and tidier cardboard versions of these labels and send them to the Health Centre in the hope they will be displayed – I’ll update this post if they are.

Artwork label

But then does such transparency matter? (I realise windows are transparent even if the art is not.) None of the artworks in the Health Centre had any information attached to them as far as I could tell, and that does not seem to diminish their therapeutic value. John told me that he felt the art was a nice addition to the building and that users like it. Perhaps more broadly it is enough that the archaeology inspired the art which has no doubt been spotted by hundreds of users since the place opened in November 2013.

Subliminally, at least, every day, users of the gym and rehab facilities will be basking in light filtered through geometric patterns derived from thousands of years-old creativity, casting Grooved Ware shadows on their healing bodies.

Cornelius Holtorf has argued for years (as I have) that loss, and destruction, might not mean the end of the value of a historic resource to society – ‘…the values of a heritage object may not be lost even if it is no longer physically existent’ (2015, 409). In this case the entanglement of a modern healthcare facility and some Neolithic pits has resulted in positive outcomes.  Deep-time beneath this place has been foregrounded in a creative way that is explicitly about helping people to heal. Here, money spent on the archaeology and the art – both it could be argued frivolities in this Austerity Age – represents money well spent, and hint at the power of excavation to be a creative and powerful social act.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: the quotation about the Donald Urquhart window comes from the same source as the ‘Unique artworks’ quote (source in text). The two WoSAS images came from brief reports on this work – evaluation and excavation. The image of the Health Centre came from a nice piece about the building’s innovative architecture, from Urban RealmI would like to thank the staff of the Health Centre who were very helpful and gave up some time to take me through to the thankfully empty gym. I was accompanied on this trip by Glasgow University archaeology student, Mar Roige Oliver, who is doing a ‘urban prehistory’ placement with me. The source of the Holtorf quotation is: Holtorf, C 2015 Averting loss aversion in cultural heritage, International Journal of Heritage Studies 21.4, 405-21. 

 

 

Houses upon houses

30 May

There has been a lot of media and social media reaction to the new planning legislation proposed in the recent Queen’s speech, namely the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill. This Bill appears to be based on the premise that archaeological evaluations and other similar mitigatory processes which happen after planning permission has been granted are in some cases holding up development, or being exploited for financial ends, perhaps even regarded by some as frivolous. And so the idea is that this stage of the process could be by-passed in order to deliver the government’s aim to “deliver one million new homes, whilst protecting those areas that we value most including the Green Belt” – and creating lots of new jobs / apprenticeships. Blah blah blah of course they would say that, maybe even with a straight face.

Anyway, this new piece of legislation appears very much to be an attempt to bypass normal planning requirements in England such as dealing properly with any archaeological sites, the rationale I suppose being that archaeological work is expensive and thus gets in the way of money-making enterprises like house-building and economic development. The outcry from the archaeological profession has been loud, with for instance a petition against the legislation having over 15,500 signatories at the time of writing (30/05/16), and lots of angry tweeting going on. The petition has the rather hyperbolic opening line:

Britain has some of the most amazing and diverse archaeological remains in the world, however the new Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill announced today puts all of this at risk, leading to the destruction of our past for good.

In my opinion this kind of statement plays to the view that many have of archaeology as a profession, one of conservatism, complaining, protesting, often for motivations that seem closely aligned to protection for protection’s sake and knowledge gathering for knowledge’s sake. (I have tweeted sentiments to this effect previously regarding protests as varied as those against the Stonehenge tunnel and the housing development near Old Oswestry Fort.)

More balanced  and constructive responses are typified by that of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) which raised concerns for the viability of the heritage sector as a whole and the jobs that come with it, dependent as it is on developer-funded work, although this sector has diversified a lot in recent years. And recent media coverage appears to suggest that if anything the job market for archaeologists can’t keep up with demand, although whether this equates to floods of new good well-paid sustainable jobs is another matter (lets just say it probably doesn’t).

On the one hand I am worried that this legislation – which will apply only to England – will indeed mean the loss and destruction of countless archaeological sites in green belt locations and peri-urban landscapes. On the other hand, perhaps as archaeologists we sometimes fight the wrong battles. We should not necessarily see our profession being defined by developer-funded work alone (unless of course it is a news story about Stonehenge) for instance. These are real-world problems with very real implications for the historic environment and landscape change.

I think we need another strategy. We need to accept that as archaeologists we are part of an economy that thrives on eternal growth (a fictitious concept of course but that is the capitalist fantasy land we currently live in) and this includes always finding more things for the ‘construction industry’ to build. This is all the more pressing given that there is a housing crisis in the UK, with expectations of continual population rise in coming years from various different drivers.

Therefore, as archaeologists, we cannot just throw our hands up in horror about the crude weighting of value we see before us (economic growth v archaeological record) and fall back on out-dated notions of conservatism and activism. Rather, we need to make the case more strategically that heritage professionals can add so much value to developments and construction projects that the country as a whole cannot afford not to make sure archaeology is taken seriously as part of the planning process at all times. I’m afraid this doesn’t just mean: ‘please take note of the archaeology, it’s really interesting and we could really, really do with another box of Grooved Ware or Green Glaze in our museum store room, plus I don’t think we have quite enough grey literature yet’. Heritage and the past is not inherently valuable – being old does not necessarily equate with value for money or even public interest – and so we live in an age where ‘added value’ is required in our words and actions.

And so what I am suggesting is that we should not bemoan the Government’s actions or actively try to derail them with the trying to maintain the status quo and promote sensationalist petitions, but rather use this an opportunity to make the point that heritage professionals can and do work with developers of all sizes to add value to their projects rather than cost them money, hold them up and generally get in the way (which, like it or not, appears to be how Government ministers view our profession, and probably a lot of develops and businesses do too).

Developers need to be persuaded of the benefits to them (economically, reputationally, and perhaps also in terms of their own community engagement aspirations) to engage with the archaeology, deal with it adequately, and then make use of this for their own promotional purposes etc. This has worked well for instance with BAA and Framework Archaeology relating to Heathrow T5 construction, and just about the only time London’s Crossrail makes the news in positive terms is related to archaeological discoveries.

 

Cowie a walk map

I want to make this point using my own modest example. Last week, I visited a small housing estate on the edge of the Stirling village of Cowie. Here, the construction of houses in the late 1990s allowed a previously unknown Neolithic site of national importance to be discovered and fully excavated. The discovery of rare examples of houses and farming evidence (via a fine assemblage of quernstones) at Chapelfield, Cowie, has added much to our understanding of Neolithic settlement in Scotland, and the site is referred to in the literature frequently. However, I would argue that value was added to the lives of those living in this new housing estate by other means than traditional archaeological outputs, namely by the ways that the results of the excavation were used – in street names, for instance, but also in the co-production of a prehistorically themed children’s play park. Much more could have been done, but this was not just a cut and shut operation which cost the developer plenty-much cash and time with the only minor outcome a footnote in academic books and papers, and a couple of boxes in a storeroom.

General street view low res

The discovery of a Neolithic site here was a surprise. The housing development was proposed by Ogilvie Builders Ltd in the mid-1990s, and GUARD, a commercial archaeology company (at that time based within the University of Glasgow) carried out an initial evaluation. It was thought that there was an Iron Age ditch in the field where the houses were to be built, but evaluation trenches revealed something altogether different – and much, much older: ‘a series of structures defined by stake-holes and a number of pits containing Neolithic pottery’ (John Atkinson 2002, 139). So a really big excavation was carried out, paid for by the developers, Historic Scotland and the regional authority.

Oops. Source is Atkinson 2002. No offence meant.

Oops. Source of the images and information is Atkinson 2002.

 

Excavations at Cowie in 1995 (source: Atkinson 2002).

Excavations at Cowie in 1995 (source: Atkinson 2002).

The outcome was the excavation of a complex Neolithic settlement which included a range of oval and round stake-built structures (with few parallels in Northern Britain). These dated to both the Early and Late Neolithic. Associated with different phases of activity were a series of pits which contained broken quernstones, axe fragments, Arran pitchstone blades, charcoal and Neolithic Carinated Ware pottery. It could be argued that the deposits places in these pits were in part the detritus of everyday life, although these may have been deposited in line with social rules about rubbish, taboo or rituals. Whatever. I’m not getting into the whole Neolithic pit argument here. A few pits that provided Mesolithic radiocarbon dates suggests that this location was used at least in passing up to 8000-10000 years ago. Wow.

 

Today? It is a quiet suburb (if a village can have a suburb), and even on a sunny Monday afternoon, the only people I saw walking about were pushing prams. As I walked around the three streets that define this small estate, I also saw a succession of white vans going back and forth, while occasional chatter from back gardens floated in the feeble breeze. There seemed nothing exceptional about this place – except the deep time. On and off this had been a place for people to live, eat, drink, sleep, and walk around with babies, for at least 5500 years.

Neolithic village low res

These were houses upon houses. Paths upon paths. Beds upon beds. Kitchens above hearths. Dinner plates over pottery bowls. Loaves of bread over quernstone-powdered barley. Toast over carbonised wheat. An awesome example of what archaeology can tell us about the seemingly most mundane and normal of places.

houses upon houses map

It must have been decided that the prehistoric discoveries here were worthy of marking in street names (and I have reflected on the power of these in a previous blog post) and it has been done very nicely here: Flint Crescent. Ochre Crescent. Roundhouse. The latter road, the one into the estate, being afforded a single word that I could find on only two signs. This contrasts with the fate of the Neolithic timber cursus excavated during housing construction in the 1980s at Bannockburn, just 2 miles to the west: remnants of this huge monument lie beneath houses, tarmac and a bed and breakfast, but it has been completely forgotten.

Roundhouse 2 low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

Ochre low res

Flint Cres low res

These street names are quirky and nice although it doesn’t mean that the people who moved into these houses had any sense of the deeply engrained ancient use of this particular place or the significance of the unusual street names. I have suggested before that archaeological discoveries made during housing developments should be made more widely known to those seeking to buy, information included with the house schedule for example. Street names alone are probably not enough to convey this information.

During my walk, I came across a blank road sign offered a tempting opportunity for me to come up with a less ambiguously Neolithic place name, but my chalk would not make a mark on its glossy black surface.

Suggestions welcome....

Suggestions welcome….

However, after the houses had been built, a more tangible and exciting possibility emerged – the creation of a children’s play park with a prehistoric theme. The need for a park was actually prompted by the sad death of a child by drowning in a pond next to the houses. The designers of the park, Judi Legg and Mike Hyatt, drew inspiration from the Neolithic archaeology that had been found when the houses were being constructed. This led to local children being asked to actively help design the park in a prehistoric style:

Local children paid a visit to a pre-history park, Archaeolink, and many of the ideas they got from this visit as well as information about the pre-historic Cowie site itself have been built into the design of the park, which includes shelters, cooking and seating areas, and a raised beach, as well as mounds, tunnels, slides and a climbing wall. The children’s involvement in the design development has meant that the design concept which underpins the site layout contains elements which the children understand and which feel familiar to them. 

Playground photo 1

Playground photo 2

Playground photo 3

Children also helped choose and plant trees and hedgerows in and around the park, which was officially opened in 2006. It is regarded as an example of good practice by the Free Play Network because of the freedom to roam afforded to kids, although I would suggest the co-production of the park form, and the inspiration of the prehistoric archaeology found here, are also wonderful and innovative elements of this park.

Flint Crescent low res

As I said before, this is a modest example, where archaeological evaluation and intervention during the planning and development process has resulted in amazing archaeological discoveries. But there is much more to it – the very fabric of the housing estate and the identity of those who live(d) there is entangled in street (place) names, while the prehistoric discoveries here eventually helped inspire children’s play facilities and some amazing educational opportunities for local kids. Of course, I am under no illusions that most folk who live there now may well know nothing about any of the prehistoric pre-history of where they live, and I would imagine much more could be done to inform, amaze and inspire the local community. But the information is there, the work has been done, and none of this could have happened without the active collaboration of archaeologists, developer and local authority – potentially a relationship under threat in England from the Tory Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill.

If we are to be taken seriously as a sector, and want to really impact on how the planning process works, we need to be proactive and not reactive. We need to make the positive case for responsible, sustainable and meaningful engagements with the archaeological record during the planning and development process. We need to argue for the added value that heritage and deep-time depths can bring to new suburban communities. We need to make the point that the construction industry will thrive and benefit from working with heritage professionals precisely because of all that expensive and time-consuming ancient stuff that is out there under the ground waiting to be found. And we need to acknowledge that landscapes change, that society has needs, and that many aspects of the historic environment will, eventually, be swept away.

In other words there is a business case to be made for treating the past as an investment in the future – and I would argue this case will do more to ‘save our archaeology’ than any petition you care to sign.

Neolithic village fake sign low res

Sources and acknowledgements: I have mentioned and linked to my sources in the text above. For context, this post was written between 25-30th May 2016. The excavation report for Chapelfield, Cowie is freely available online – full details are: John Atkinson 2002 Excavation of a Neolithic occupation site at Chapelfield, Cowie, Stirling, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 139-192. The first two playground photos were sourced from the wildside.scot website (link above) and this was also the source of the extended quotation used in my post, while the third photo was posted by the Free Play Network and attributed to Stirling Council Play Services.