As I explore the places near where I live on foot, within the approved 5km or so limit, I ask myself: ‘Do I just see urban prehistory everywhere? Is it just me? Or are allusions to the prehistoric hard-wired into our urban spaces, industrial estates, retail parks, and housing estates?’. I am coming to suspect the latter, as the alternative would mean that urban prehistory is simply a product of my own delusional state of mind, a pathological condition.
So that’s fine then. On to the business of this post.
Urban exploration is seldom a walk wasted. And following a path, or a desire line, just that little bit more, towards the end of a long walk, if often the time when unexpected discoveries are made. And so it was recently on a lockdown walk in the Lanarkshire sun. On a wander that had already delivered olfactory pleasure drifting from whisky barrels biding their time in warehouses with their doors flung casually open, Jan and I pushed on just a few minutes more, in the shadow of Tesco Extra that from the rear had the appearance and scale of an airport terminal.
A deserted path ran along the backside of this massive grey warehouse, pitted with black doorways at the bottom of unwelcoming stairways. Someone has spray painted a brick wall ‘Mind the steps’ while a bunch of dying flowers hung from a rusting banister nearby, a plaintive sad simple note attached: RIP. An accident on the stairs? We became overwhelmed by the sound of the shop, a low capitalist hum, as if the building were not really a shop but a huge power station feeding on the energy of queuing shoppers.
I glanced off the the right, along a narrow but concrete-paved pathway that led to a clearance, within which were I glimpsed a few inverted shopping trollies, and a pile of big angular boulders. Attracted to this – what other word can I use? – cairn, I pushed aside the foliage, and emerged out into an opening, where other blocks were arranged in more cairns. Huge sandstone discs, like giant tiddlywinks, were arranged in a snaking line. The chase was on, with each break in the vegetation leading to more megalithic revelations.
This cannot be a coincidence. The place we stumbled upon is some kind of landscaped public art, perhaps industrial in spirit, almost certainly not prehistoric in any way whatsoever in the mind of the creator, and yet I cannot help but see these blocks, these lines, these deposits, as prehistoric-esque, to coin a clumsy compound word. Why would anyone see these piles of boulders as anything other than cairns? One even took the form, I am sure, of a fallen standing stone.
Consider the basic facts of the matter. In a hesitant line some 150m in length, punctuated by bushes, squeezed in a green triangle between the Faraday Retail Park, Coatbank Street, and South Circular Road, there are multiple cairns and fallen megaliths of granite and sandstone.
These stones are a 1980s palette of oranges, greys, and pinks, and arranged casually, but the sheer size of some of the boulders meant that there could have been nothing casual about this. In the shadow of high rises, near the din of traffic noise, this is surely urban prehistory?
In one clearing, two trollies lay tied to one another by the chains attached to the pound coin slots. One trolley was from Tesco, the other Asda. This unholy coupling appeared to have been deliberately engineered, perhaps for my benefit, a Ballardian touch that I appreciated. Trollies were strewn all around, their metal carcasses ridden in, broken, borrowed, stolen, then finally dumped amidst this Coatbridge Carnac.
The abandoned trollies give this place the feel of a mortuary space for excarnation, their defleshed skeletal frames picked clean of their consumer flesh, the tin cans, the multi-packs, the boxes and packets, and left to tarnish in the sun. Exposed to the elements, their wheels silently spinning in the breeze.
Gareth Rees recently tweeted about coronavirus and his specialist subject, retail park Car Parks. (Would he choose this topic were he on Mastermind?) One picture, showing ‘bizarre trolley alignments’, made me think about the new affordances that shopping trollies have for us during pandemic. Arbiters of safe social distanced space in shops. Delineations for queues outside shops. And perhaps they should also be viewed as vectors of the transmission of Covid-19 via unwashed hands and surfaces, things to be handled while wearing latex gloves.
It was difficult to make sense of this mostly abandoned piece of landscaping behind the Faraday Retail Park. The gravel surfaces that most of the boulders and stones had been laid atop were overgrown with weeds, and broken bottles and bent cans were strewn all over the place. Litter accumulated around the base of standing stones and collected in the unusual angles created by stones like tangled limbs. Fires had been set in the shadow of some cairns. This was a place that was hidden in plain sight, just off the road, just behind a retail park, and yet seemed like another world that belonged to someone else. We were trespassing, and yet the only life that we could detect here at 4.30pm on a Monday afternoon were rabbits. Lots of rabbits. Some hiding behind shopping trolleys, perspective creating the illusion they were in cages at the whim of a mad scientist.
Someone tweeted later that evening that this place was known as a rabbit run, and the various meanings of this phrase seem apt for this place. Someone else told me it was a failed attempt to establish a Japanese garden behind the Retail Park, although many of the stones looked to me like the byproducts of the heavy industries that used to dominate this landscape. The huge sandstone discs were, I am sure, remnants of bridge supports, although from where I have no idea. Still another theory goes that this is a liminal place that marks the boundaries between the territories of two Coatbridge gangs, perhaps borne out by the tags sprayed onto some of the blocks.
Yet the scale of all of this did not quite compute with any of these explanations. The megaliths that we encountered in that liminal space, that edgy edgeland, seemed to me like they belonged to the fantasy worlds of Doug McLure, or James Franciscus, beneath, beyond, impossible, deeply strange, and yet enchanting. It was our world – my world – and yet not quite of that world. Shoppers nearby largely knew nothing about what we had encountered, in this space that in the end was deemed suitable only to plant shrubs and erect standing stones and cairns. It is defiantly not a shop. But maybe a little bit prehistoric.
As we emerged out of this nether region, passers by on a better-used path looked at us suspiciously, as it urban exploration in that place was unusual behaviour even for lockdown walkers. Little did they know that only a few metres away, amidst the trollies, the rabbits, and the rubbish, lay the Coatbridge Carnac.
In two previous blog posts, I have explored the art of the Cochno Stone, riffing off the art bit of rock-art.
As a reminder, this monument is one of the most densely decorated prehistoric abstract rock-art sites in Britain. It is located on the fringe of Faifley, Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, and has a fascinating modern historiography to match the profusion of prehistoric carvings. The Cochno Stone was buried in 1965 by the heritage authorities to protect it from damage caused by visitors to the site and you can find out more here.
In previous blog posts, I have considered different aspects of the ‘art’ of the Cochno Stone. In Part 1, I looked at marks made on the surface of the Stone itself, 5,000 years of creative interaction between people and stone. Part 2 focused on depictions of the cup-and-ring marked symbols found on the surface of the Cochno Stone, from antiquarian drawings to travelogue sketches to digital and archaeological records of the monument.
In this third part of the exploration of the art of the Cochno Stone, I want to look at the brief history of public art inspired by the Cochno Stone and the rich cup-and-ring mark heritage of the area to the north of Clydebank.
Here, I don’t mean the undoubted piece of site-specific performance art that was the painting and presentation of the Cochno Stone by Ludovic Mann in the second half of 1937…. some public art is of the moment.
Rather I want to look at how the cup-and-ring marks have been and still are evident within Faifley itself. Such artistic responses are a testament to the powerful simplicity of cup-and-ring marks, and the story of the Cochno Stone, to inspire and continue to inspire artists. The projects I want to talk about here combine this with the spirit of Faifley the place, and have been the outcome of interesting collaborations. And public art has so much more potential in Faifley and Clydebank to celebrate the cups and the rings – so I will also present here – for the first time ever – one architect’s inspired vision for making this happen and thoughts about the future potential of rock-art inspired public art.
At a workshop about the future of the Cochno Stone that I ran in November 2017, I met staff from Knowes Housing Association and was told a curious tale about a rock-art mural that had once hung on the gable end of one of their buildings. After making some inquiries, I was eventually led to the artist responsible for this, Tom McKendrick. Tom is a local guy who has been responsible for some amazing artworks, often inspired by the rich heritage of Clydebank.
Much of this has been about the shipbuilding industry and the blitz, but Tom was also the brains behind the Faifley mural, which to my delight was created with children from the two primary schools closest to the Cochno Stone. Not only is this process documented nicely on his website, but Tom was kind enough to spend a morning with me in 2018 chatting about the mural and also future plans for rock-art art.
I went by train to see Tom and was constantly reminded en route of the social, cultural and sometimes political role and value of public art of this kind, both official and informal.
The Faifley mural was the result of a project called ‘Faifley: Past Present and Future’. The work that went into creating this mural took place in 2009, but by the time I started to visit Faifley regularly (2015) it was already gone.
The vision for the artwork was to ‘increase sense of place, responsibility, ownership and foster community spirit within children and people living within the area of Faifley’. In other words this was not art for arts sake, and I believe was commissioned by the Housing Association, as well as being hung on one of their buildings. This was for the well-being of their residents.
The mural was the result of a series of workshops with primary seven kids, with drawings produced that reflected aspects of the history, recent and deeper, of Faifley. The aspiration of dream homes and urban renewal were also themes that were tackled, reflecting the utopian ideals that underpinned places like Faifley in the 1950s and 1960s. Natural characteristics of this place were also drawn – the wind, the black birds that circle the Knowes. Together these images came together in a spectacular mural.
The cup-and-ring marks of Cochno and other stones in the area featured heavily. Tom’s reflections on the process focused on the mysterious and significant nature of the symbols, something he regarded as being synonymous with Faifley. In his online documentation, Tom noted the Pictish origins of these carvings, not really accurate, but reflecting the deep time and enigmatic nature of these symbols to the local people.
The children created their own stones, and their own symbols, and it strikes me that so many of these themes of what Faifley is, what it represents, are entangled with these cups and rings and spirals, almost as if they are encoded into the DNA of the place.
The mural itself looks as if it were spectacular and powerful indicator of the sense of place felt by local children. At the root of it – the foundations – are the cup-and-ring marks, both constant backdrop but also intruding into the modern.
Tom notes that the symbols emerge from the smoke billowing from the industry and houses of Clydebank down the hill, suggesting that the past and present are dependent on one another. Flying children exploit the thermals of the spiraling wind. Faifley is depicted as a place of timeless intangibility, with solid – ancient – foundations.
I asked Tom about his choice of the rock-art symbols as a starting point in the mural and he told me that,
If I am working on something I like to go as far back as possible…this is my starting point. The IRON exhibition dealt with this. Hence the subtitle ‘second great iron age’ starting point, a element forged in the furnace of the sun….and falling stars…gift of the heavens…long winded statement to say for the Faifley project that was as far back as I could go.
The removal of the mural – apparently during renovation works on this block of flats – and its subsequent destruction should be a source of sorrow, and indeed is for Tom, having spoken to him about this. Yet the mural and the visions of the local children remind us that nothing is truly forever, but nothing is entirely forgotten.
Adorning the two road entrances to Faifley are sculptures by the artist Andy Scott, perhaps better known for his works such as The Kelpies in Falkirk and the Heavy Horse by the M8 in Glasgow. The Faifley sculptures are a wire frame composition, each depicting an adult with a child, and are known as the Faifley Family sculptures. They were constructed, again with design work undertaken with local schoolchildren and commissioned by the housing association, in the late 2000s. And crucially, unlike the mural, this public art is still there to be enjoyed by the local community and visitors.
The statues depict two pairs of people – a father and son, and a mother and daughter. I didn’t notice, however, until Tricia of Faifley Community Council pointed this out to me, that the arches that loop over each of the pairs of figures are decorated with cup-and-ring mark symbols. There are variants of motifs from the Cochno Stone and other rock-art panels here, but also even more abstract shapes and symbols.
The artist, Andy, very kindly took some time to explain the process behind the symbols and the role local children had in the process, and he also sent me some fantastic behind the scenes photos, which he has generously allowed me to share here.
The working process was that Andy and artist Margo Winning worked with local school kids to explore symbols and their sense of place. One of the starting points was, of course, the cup-and-ring marks symbols.
The children worked with Margo to develop their own artwork. This drew on pictograms that they invented, some of which ended up on the arch of the final artwork. He told me:
The kids invented their own alphabet of pictograms based on the cup & ring markings. As far as I recall they were quite diligent about this and invented words using their own symbols. I then transcribed those markings onto the steel sculptures, thereby bringing the ancient markings up to date.
These symbols therefore represent a mash-up of ancient local symbols and versions of those created by the children. The kids were also invited to see the final sculptures being made in the studio.
The sculptures therefore combine a sense of place with family, tied together with symbols and overall form based on the curved and concentric prehistoric rock-art. The final artworks in a sense therefore indicate that once passed, you are entering a special place that has special resources – its people and its prehistory.
This has been reinforced by the focal points that these artworks at the threshold of Faifley have become, for instance being used for commemorative events and services, with the above photos of such an event supplied by Andy.
I have not checked closely to see if ribbons have been attached to the sculptures, but I will check next time I’m in Faifley. Have the Faifley Family sculptures become a focus for deposition and ritual, as rock-art sites would have been thousands of years ago?
More recently, the two entrances to Faifley have been adorned with additional public art, this time drawings by local school children under the theme of ‘Fresh Faced Faifley’. This alliterative positive slogan offers a wonderful welcome to the area: ‘Friendship and Faifley are a total couple!’
The combination of an adjacent Family sculpture and Fresh Faced Faifley sign offer a positive public art threshold for those entering Faifley and suggest that there is great potential in shaping the image of a place by celebrating what is best about that place, the aspirations and qualities of the people who live there. I wonder to what extent cup-and-ring marks had similar aspirational qualities?
How might the instantly recognisable cup-and-ring marks – and other Cochno Stone symbols such as the four-toed footprints – become a more prominent feature of the Faifley urban landscape?
I guess with a lot of time and money anything is possible, but a vision is needed. An architect, Alex Taylor of Entasis Architects, contacted me during the Cochno Stone excavations to share with me some ideas that he and his colleagues had for public art on roundabouts in Drumchapel, which is near Clydebank. This was part of a plan that in the end didn’t work out, but this amazing vision shows one way forward, and Alex is happy for me to share this with you, made public for the first time ever. All images are reproduced here courtesy of, and copyright to, Entasis Architects.
Alex told me:
My first port of call in these cases is to look at a local influence to inspire a unique and local approach and after a bit of research came up with the Cochno stone carvings. I imagined some 3D representations of the carvings, which perhaps give some credence to some of the astrological interpretations.
These visualisations, if they had been constructed in roundabouts in Drumchapel, would have been spectacular realisations of prehistoric symbols, and it is exactly this kind of approach that I think is needed at Faifley, where as we have seen there are clear entrance points – and also roundabouts.
These dead circular spaces are popular locations to pop public art, and if such sculptures were to be erected in and around Faifley, they would denote an entry point to a place with prehistoric credentials.
These instances of public art – of the past, present, and an imagined future – all indicate to me that it is through working with artists that the Cochno Stone can and will continue to be a real presence within the local community. The rock-art symbols offer potent signifiers for deep time, social value, cultural heritage and a unique peri-urban story. Despite it’s abstraction, this is anything but abstract.
The art of the rock-art has the potential to be amazing. Perhaps the most ambitious and crazy plan that I know of is the creation and an exact 1:1 scale of the Cochno Stone. If we can raise the money and create enough enthusiasm, this could happen thanks to the Factum Foundation.
Ferdinand Saumarez Smith, who led the photogrammetry recording of the Cochno Stone when we excavated there in 2016 has shared with me some insights into how this enormous chunk of public art might be made. The replica (or facsimile as he prefers to call it) would not be printed as such, but rather precision cut from a large block of material that has the look and feel of stone. This is an art in itself, both an exact copy of the art of another, but also made using a very different method and new material form. Is this the future of Faifley’s prehistory?
There are spaces and walls in Faifley that need public art and murals. These are spaces that could become cup-and-ring marked. Working with artists, as has been shown already in this post, is both inspiring, and allows the celebration of deep time, present concerns and future aspirations.
Part 4 of this series on the Art of the Cochno Stone will review artistic representations that tell the story of Cochno Stone and Faifley’s rock-art from comic books to sketches to visualisations, and I’m delighted to say that most of these have resulted from collaborations I have been involved in since my work with the Cochno Stone began. And Part 5 – yes there will be a Part 5 – will explore digital engagements and art related to the rock-art. As for Part 6 – that’s for the future.
Sources and acknowledgements: This blog post benefited hugely from the kindness of Tom McKendrick, Andy Scott and Alex Taylor, all of whom shared images and ideas with me, and took the time to explain their inspiration. Their generosity has made this blog post possible.
In particular, Tom allowed me to use images from his Faifley: Past, Present and Future documentation. Andy gave me permission to use multiple images regarding the creation and use of the Faifley Family sculptures. Alex allowed me to use his images about the cup-and-ring mark architectural visualisations and photomontages. All of these images are copyright to these individuals and reproduced with permission.
Imagery and information about the fascimile / replica of the Cochno Stone was provided by Ferdinand Saumarez Smith and Factum Foundation / Factum Arte.
Source for the black and white rock-art photo near the start of the blog post: Morris, R W B 1981 The prehistoric rock-art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway), Oxford: BAR British Series 86.
In my first post looking at art and the Cochno Stone, I considered the 5,000 year-old tradition of using this domed sandstone surface as a canvas for various creative acts in the form of shallow scratches, deeply incised hollows and painted lines. These surface alterations are ambiguous in meaning, each with their own aesthetic qualities and values, either reducing or adding to the monument, all of them inspiring passionate opinions.
In this second post, I would like to consider the art of the Cochno Stone from another perspective, through the medium of sketches and drawings, specifically those drawn from life (ie before the stone was buried in 1965) over a period between the 1880s and 1930s. No doubt there will be some who will argue that some of these drawings are not really works of art and creativity. For instance, can we regard ‘measured’ depictions of something, technical drawings as part of an archaeological study, as being creative or simply reductive? And what is the archaeological value of studying archive material or newspaper clippings with old drawings when we know with the benefit of hindsight that the drawings are either inaccurate, or incomplete, or both? More fundamentally – and this gets to the roots of much debate on the nature of archaeological narratives – to what extent are these objective renderings of the Cochno Stone? Is such a thing even possible? There are layers of art entangled with art here, the art of art, about art, for art.
Regardless of the motivation, medium, and intended audience, I would argue that there is a deeply artistic strand running through the history of attempts to capture the spirit of Cochno and I hope that this story of four decades worth of drawing and sketching the Cochno Stone will persuade you of this. Before getting to the real stuff, however, I want to reflect a little more on the art of depicting rock-art, and this also has resonance for part 3 of this sequence of posts, which will focus on art inspired by the Cochno Stone, so please take notes! 😉
The art of rock-art
Prehistoric rock-art lends itself well to contemporary variations in unusual locations, with the simple form and shallow depth endlessly replicatable. Wherever it occurs, if offers a juxtaposition, a curious time slip. Palaeolithic rock-art – cave paintings to you and me – work especially well in this respect, with otherwordly effects as standard.
More abstract Neolithic and Bronze Age rock-art works is equally portable. This lovely image is in Umea, Sweden, photographed by Lorna Richardson (and reproduced here with permission). This was part of a campaign by the local authorities to promote cycling and draws on the local rock-art repertoire which is a little less abstract than the Scottish equivalents.
Many artists have been inspired by the simplicity and concentricity of cup-and-ring marks. Gavin MacGregor wrote about one such artist, Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933), a landscape painter who lived most of his life in and around Kirkcudbright in southwest Scotland, and one of the famous ‘Glasgow boys’. Gavin notes that Hornel consorted with antiquarians and was himself a keen amateur archaeologist, and as it happens, Kirkcudbright happens to be a real hotspot for rock-art (as well as being the location of some shooting for The Wicker Man movie).
MacGregor, and the biographer of Hornel, Bill Smith, both draw attention to the echoes of cup-and-ring marks in the depiction of the moon in painting such as The Brownie of Blednoch (1889) and The Druids: bringing in the mistletoe (1890, with George Henry). Gavin notes the former (see above) is dominated by a ‘Gallovoidian shepherd beast, beard of circles and cup-marked eyes … manifestation of the living rock….’. Hornel went as far as to search for new cup-and-ring marked stones and some of his discoveries were recorded in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
It is in the work of the polymath-antiquarian-artist-archaeologist that we find the first recorded artwork associated with the Cochno Stone, with the earliest engagements mediated by various characters of this ilk as well as clergymen. The earliest drawings we have of rock-art in the pages of antiquarians books of the nineteenth century emerged form such a melting pot of influences and interests, blurring the lines between art and objective record, in fascinating ways. Hornel was himself involved in the process of the creation of a series of black and white engravings of Kirkcudbrightshire rock-art, which MacGregor notes were collaborations between a small team and were based on photographs taken of casts made from rock-art panels.
This is a period when the first drawings as a matter of record were being produced for cup-and-ring marks, and there was no rulebook, no style guide, no best practice conventions to follow. Artists used licence and produced evocative and memorable images, which often used unusual perspectives and were, for a time, concerned with context and not metrical accuracy.
It was also around this time that a young Ludovic Mann became obsessed with cup-and-rings marks near the rural family holiday home, according to Katinka Dalglish, an obsession that would reach its feverish conclusion on the surface of the Cochno Stone to which we now turn. Before going any further in this post, I must also offer the debt of gratitude I owe to Jim Mearns for doing much of the archive research which underpins the history of early drawings of Cochno.
Sketches and symbols
Several drawings or sketches of the Cochno Stone were undertaken before 1900, each with a very different style, scope and ambition. (A cast was also taken although the nature and fate of this remains unknown.) These wonderfully capture the emergent understanding of Cochno, presenting only symbols that were initially visible, sometimes selectively so. The gradual reveal of the removal of grass from the stone was played out in these artistic renderings and associated accounts.
A partial drawing, defined within a box, was published with the first detailed account of the Cochno Stone, by Rev James Harvey, in 1889. This may well be the earliest drawing we have of any part of the Cochno stone, certainly the first to be published, and it focuses on the only area of the stone cleared when Harvey encountered it. This is a rather plain drawing, with cupmarks represented as dots and dashes, and lacking depth. Harvey himself did the drawings in 1887, but also took rubbings, which he was then able to use to correct his field sketches. The end product has a sense of immediacy, a work in progress, megalithic notations in a sketchbook. Looking at this sketch now for me is slightly disorientating as east is to the top, but is a welcome break from the tyranny of the north. However, this is also a drawing of some authority, having been published in that august organ the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS).
The wonderful little sketch below was drawn by another minister, the Rev Robert Munro at the latest in 1890. It shows edited highlights of what must have been visible at that time. Two slightly different versions of this drawing were reproduced, the earliest, remarkably, in The Illustrated London News on 6th September 1890. A slightly amended version was then included in John Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick (1893). (A further version of this was reproduced in Harry Bell’s 1980s book Glasgow’s Secret Geometry but wrongly attributed to William Donnelly.)
When compared with what we know of Cochno now from our excavation of 2016, some of this drawing is quite fanciful, but it is also an image that has real depth. (The version published by Bruce even has the feel of a rubbing, a nice observation made by Grahame Gardner.) However, unlike Harvey’s drawing, there is no scale here, thus giving the drawing a sense of being more of an artistic and interpretive depiction rather than a document of precise record. This is perhaps the case, as elements of this depiction of the stone are spatially impossible, with symbols simply in the wrong place relative to one another and so this is an image of cup-and-ring mark density, not accuracy. The use of a sharply defined diagonal line allows symbols from another part of the stone – in this case the south-western extent, several metres from the other symbols to be shown in the same drawing, making this a sort of ‘Cochno Stone greatest hits’ compilation.
This emphasis on selected bits of the Cochno Stone was countered by the clearing of vegetation, and drawing of the whole monument, by William Donnelly in the mid-1890s, working with John Bruce. Illustrator Donnelly’s drawing of the whole of the stone was published in PSAS in 1896, but a slightly earlier and different version was printed in an edition of Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick and includes the artist’s signature and the date – 1895. The slightly earlier drawing, the upper of the two versions depicted below, is notable for its inclusion of a north arrow and some landscape detail that are inexplicably absent from the more widely circulated ‘authoritative’ PSAS version.
Donnelly himself was an interesting character, and his illustrations showed an equally bold approach to cup-and-ring mark symbols found elsewhere.
His depiction of symbols of these hoax items found during his excavations (with John Bruce, him again) have echoes of what he saw and drew at Cochno just a few years previously, and suggest a hankering towards the weird and esoteric which he was also able to satisfy at Cochno with his recording of a cross in a circle and two four-toe footprints, neither typical prehistoric motifs. On the cusp of archaeological professionalism, but with visibility and access to archaeological sites still somewhat limited, at the turn of the century such drawings had to be taken on trust.
Yet the rise in interest and participation in rambling and hikes in the early decades of the twentieth century allowed less authoritative accounts of archaeological monuments to be composed and disseminated. The only two sketches of the Cochno Stone that I know of from between 1900 and 1965 were both drawn by non-professional archaeologists.
The earliest of these was published, firstly in the Glasgow Evening Times newspaper in 1909, and then in the book Some Sylvan Scenes near Glasgow by T C F Brotchie in 1910.
This lovely sketch captures a very small fragment of the Cochno Stone focused on a ‘dumb-bell’ motif, sketched at the end of a good ‘Saturday afternoon ramble’. This is a truly artistic rendering, taken from an oblique angle rather than depicting the plan view, with no scale, no north arrow, no conventions – but a sufficiency of dynamism. The rings around the cup have a real sense of mobility, almost as if the symbols were spinning in front of Brotchie’s eyes. There is also a synechdotal quality to this sketch, a gutter running off the right-hand side of the drawing hinting at more to be discovered (and drawn) beyond the frame.
Such dynamism is also evident in another Cochno Stone drawing, one which I have reproduced before, notably in the excavation summary report. Ludovic Mann’s audacious attempt to explain the cosmological meaning of each ring of a cup-and-ring mark complex is as mind-blowing now as it must have been when published in the late 1930s as part of a consideration of the Knappers site he had been excavating in nearby Clydebank.
This ‘dialectogram’ (for the wonderful work of Mitch Miller is one of the best parallels I can think of here) is an amalgam of all the other Cochno drawings to that date. There is convention. There is artistic licence. There is narrative. There is a focus on the giant cup-and-ring mark motifs on the upper reaches of the Cochno Stone that also featured prominently in the drawings of Munro, Harvey and Donnelly. There is passion. And there is wonder.
And there are more questions than answers. Always more questions than answers.
All of these Cochno Stones drawings, produced over a period of forty years, offer a series of dynamic and creative attempts to document and make sense of the cup-and-ring marks, using the conventions and styles of their time and channeled through the personal motivations and passions of the artist-recorder. In their own ways, each of these drawing is a version of the Cochno Stone that captures some of the character of the rock and its symbols and taken together they form a compelling biography of this place, another chapter of a story that began to be written (before there was writing) 5,000 years ago.
What I especially find alluring about this collection of drawings is that they were drawn from life – by actually standing at the site and looking at the stone. This is where Morris’s much reproduced drawing of the stone falls short – it was cobbled together from the plans by Harvey and Donnelly, and some photographs from the 1930s. While it was (until our photogrammetric and laser survey of 2016) the most comprehensive drawing of the Cochno Stone produced, it creaks at the edges with the slightest bit of scrutiny especially when compared with earlier, more dynamic, drawings. It is clinical, transactional, flat.
Morris, a solicitor, was a lateral thinker. To really start to make sense of rock-art, concentric thinking is required.
One of the most common questions that I get asked about the Cochno Stone regards the meaning of the symbols, and regardless of how accurately we record and draw the cupmarks and the cups-and-rings and the gutters, that meaning cannot be revealed to us. Therefore, despite the formal and technical shortcomings of some of the earlier drawings of the Cochno Stone, these are no more or less likely to help make sense of the symbols than any image we could generate now that was mediated through digital technology. In this case at least, the pencil is no more or less mighty than the pixel.
The joy of the art of the Cochno Stone – and indeed any abstract rock-art – is not about accuracy, or precision, but about mediation, dialogue, spending time with the stone, tracing the contours of the prehistoric depressions with our fingers. There is much merit in standing back and letting a laser scanner do its thing, or viewing the stone through the lens of the camera. But drawings and sketches involve a powerful intimacy that mirrors the acts that created the rock-art in the first place.
Forget the scales. We don’t need north arrows. Making sense of rock-art is about thinking concentrically, not metrically.
In the final part of my series of posts looking at the art of the Cochno Stone, I will consider art and creative acts that have been inspired by the Cochno Stone, but that exist spatially somewhere else. In some cases they have only had a brief existence or do not exist at all. A mural, a comic book, Chalkno stones and inspired architectural design all attest to the power of Cochno to provoke a response and empower.
Sources and acknowledgements: as noted in the post, the story of the antiquarian and early drawings of the Cochno Stone could not have been told without the research and diligence of Jim Mearns. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Gavin MacGregor and Alex Hale for the input that their research has had on this post and I have linked to their work where possible. For more on Donnelly and Dumbuck, you can download for free Alex and Rob Sands’ book Controversy on the Clyde: archaeologists, fakes and forgers from here. The biography of Hornel alluded to is Bill Smith’s 2010 book Hornel: the life and work of Edward Atkinson Hornel. I’m also very grateful to Lorna Richardson for both allowing me to use her Umea photograph, but giving me some background context for the image.
The High Banks rock-art drawing came from Hamilton’s paper in PSAS 23 (1888-9) ‘Notice of additional groups of carvings of cups and circles on rock surfaces at High Banks, Kircudbrightshire’. The Stronach rock-art sketch comes from Somerville’s PSAS article, ‘Notice of cup- and ring-marked rocks on the Stronach Ridge, near Brodick, Arran’ (volume 35, 1900-1901). All PSAS articles can be downloaded free.
Ronald Morris’s drawing of the Cochno Stone comes from his 1981 BAR volume The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway).
Other image permissions have been included in the captions, or the text accompanying the images
Is art an appropriate word to describe the abstract symbols that were carved onto rock outcrops in the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Britain? I was asked this question a few times recently during a series of talks I did about the Cochno Stone and it is a question that causes us to pause and reflect on the way that contemporary discourse shapes our perceptions of the ancient past. Our vocabulary is simply insufficient to characterize activities that happened in prehistory, and inevitably we end up writing narratives about the past that are pale reflections of, or weird variants on, our own present. You do not need to be a student of archaeological theory to understand that this is both problematic and inevitable.
Art is a word that polarizes in general, and especially so in the context of prehistory (for an interesting discussion on this issue, read this). Some archaeologists see the word art in this context as useful in helping us to understand some of the complexities of pictorial and abstract carvings on rock from prehistory. Others accept that while inadequate and loaded, we are stuck with the rock-art label: it is a widely understood term that is simply a classificatory label. No classification can ever be really neutral, however, and so while rock-art cannot now be easily abandoned as a descriptor, we should use it cautiously and critically. For me, art is something that provokes creativity, stimulates critical thinking, offers a fresh perspective on the world around us, and is deeply political. For others, art is about creativity and aesthetics. Can we say the same for rock-art? Can we apply the same criteria for reading art gallery art in our readings of prehistoric rock-art? Perhaps.
We could view Neolithic rock-art such as is found across Britain as prehistoric equivalents of medieval oil paintings of kings and contemporary landscape art installations. All have the aspiration and possibility to mean many things to many people that is only partially in the control of the artist. None of these means of expression is neutral or without political, social and emotional depth, even although their context, medium, audience and reception vary hugely. On the other hand, the repetitive and ubiquitous nature of cup-and-ring marks could be viewed as restrictions on creativity, symbols of conformity and social identity carved into rocks in an almost obsessive fashion that speak more of propaganda than free-will. But looking even closer, it is in the detail that we might should we care to look find the hand of the individual, subversive riffing on the cup-and-ring mark formula, rock(art) n roll. Perhaps we might take another approach, viewing cupmarks as a prehistoric abstract movement, all weird shapes, juxtapositions and coded meaning that is meaningless. Yet we could also read rock-art as an interactive and tactile form. The landscape was no art gallery and there were no fences, glass or guards (as there are now at places like Achnabreck in Argyll (fences not guards)). The haptic qualities of rock-art speak more of sculpture than painting: sculpture that one could touch however, rather than stand back and admire as one would do with an oil painting or something hung on wall. Or……
I could go on. What I am trying to say here is that there are many ways to make sense of cup-and-ring mark rock-art, and by thinking about it as ‘art’ we open up routes to interpret such symbols in ways that make sense to us.
One thing that art is good at is inspiring more art, and in this spirit, over two posts, I want to consider artistic responses to the Cochno Stone rock-art site. In this post, I will look at art that has been applied to the surface of the stone itself, and then in the second I’ll consider art inspired by the rock-art (I’ll add a link here once this has been posted) in the form of public art, sketches, measured drawing and comics. Together I hope these posts will offer an artistic and visual history of this amazing monument but of course there is no chance I’ll settle the old ‘is rock-art art argument’…..
Part 1: Art on the surface of the stone
Let’s leave aside the prehistoric carvings on the surface of the Cochno Stone.
Whether these are art or not depends on you and ink has been spilled on these elsewhere.
These symbols were carved into the rock probably between 3000BC and 2000BC for purposes unknown, but using a huge amount of skill and expertise. These creative acts, probably spread over a period of many decades of centuries, marked this place out as somewhere special, and ever since then people have been unable to resist the temptation to add their own elements to this huge communal rock canvas, with startling different motivations and outcomes.
The images below show prehistoric symbols and twentieth century (AD) additions, almost blending seamlessly together, a palimpsest in sandstone.
The earliest artistic responses that we have to the cup-and-ring marks on the Cochno Stone were recorded by the antiquarians who first drew the complete extent of the rocky outcrop, John Donald and William Donnelly. In the 1890s they recorded two unusual symbols:
‘two new features which had not hitherto been observed, viz, a cross within an oval border, and a sculpturing resembling two pairs of footprints, which …. show only four toes each’.
Are these genuine if unusual prehistoric symbol, or were these weird feet (or hands) added at some point in the millennia since the cup-and-ring marks were carved? We may never know. The cross is not a Christian cross, and so we cannot assume this belongs to the historic period. Perhaps these are prehistoric. Such subversions of the typical rock-art forms may have been especially powerful in prehistory, perhaps as impactful and shocking as other radical new art styles and pieces that have punctuated history, the Bronze Age equivalent of Tracy Emin’s unmade bed.
Antiquarians appear to have responded to the Cochno Stone symbols in a more boring way, adding their name as was their wont. During the 2016 excavations we recorded two examples of historic graffiti that appeared to be written in bookplate text: W KERR and W CARMICHAEL, which probably date to the nineteenth century and would have been regarded as unworthy of recording by their peers.
This reminds me of extensive ‘graffiti’ left on the orthostats and lintels of Unstan Neolithic chambered tomb on Orkney, also in the nineteenth century. A different set of standards were being applied here – double standards – where it was OK to scrawl your name into an ancient megalith as long as you were well-off and educated, like Orcadian James Cursiter. (You can explore the interior of this tomb for yourself with this brilliant sketchfab model by Hugo Anderson-Whymark – all of the graffiti has been scanned for posterity.)
This photo, which I took in 2015, is complex, containing the antiquarian graffiti of the aforementioned Cursiter from 1891 but also ‘FH’ from 2000. Which, if either, have the value of creativity? Is this historic graffiti or vandalism? Is it art? (And don’t get me started on the Viking graffiti in Maes Howe…). As Hugo notes in his model, however we view this, it is now illegal to deface this monument as it is a scheduled ancient monument, so FH better keep their head down.
Similar conundrums are posed by the next major intervention on the surface of the Cochno Stone. Into the twentieth century, the symbols on the Cochno Stone inspired more intensive artistic engagements, not least the work of Ludovic McLellan Mann, whose painting of the Cochno Stone in 1937 was one of the truly transformative events in the history of this monument. Aside from offering a colour-coded translation and abstract analysis of the meaning and properties of the design, Mann’s efforts could and should be viewed as a creative act.
This oil paint job was creative in other ways, with for instance two circles added to the surface of the stone, such as the red and white symbol in the image above, another layer of depth and obscure meaning as if Cochno needed any more depth and obscurity. One of Mann’s long straight yellow lines crosses the circle, almost as if he was revising his theories as he went along. Making sense of Mann’s brushstrokes is as much an act of interpretation as is needed for any artwork where we know little of the intentions of the artist.
Having used oil paints, as recent analysis by Louisa Campbell of the HES-funded Paints and Pigments In the Past project (PPIP) has demonstrated, it seems likely that Mann’s palette was the paint shelf of a 1930s ironmongery.
Even the drawing of the Stone, based on Mann spending a lot of time (perhaps more than is healthy), has an artistic quality that transcends mere recording because it is hardly an objective rendering. This image, the only drawing that Mann published related to the Cochno Stone, in 1939, is a fictional account of the meaning of the symbols, creative writing, one page from a wonderful graphic novel that he didn’t ever get round to finishing.
The grand canvas of Mann’s work contrasts with the more private and modest acts of graffiti that occurred with increasing intensity in the years leading up to the Cochno Stone’s burial in 1965. These actions did not have the facade of academic research that Mann may have hidden behind, although even his actions were frowned upon by the owners of the stone and the ‘establishment’. The memo below was written at best a couple of months after Mann painted the stone; the stone would become a scheduled ancient monument by the end of the year.
The legal protection of the Cochno Stone did not stop people making their mark on the surface, and I suspect that no-one from the Office of Works bothered to tell local people or visitors of the change of status anyway. Thus what Mann started, only the burial of the stone could stop. And frankly, if Mann could paint the stone up a storm, why could others not make their own modest additions?
Research by University of Glasgow postgraduate student Alison Douglas has shown that over 100 modern marks were made on the surface of the stone, mostly dating to between 1940 and 1965, overwhelmingly in the form of names, dates and initials.
Individual expression seems to have taken different forms, including weak attempts to replicate the prehistoric symbols, as this image from the online Cochno Stone viewer suggests.
Other graffiti showed a desire to be inventive – spirals and swirls were added to names to give a touch of class, a set of initials were displayed inside a simple depiction of a house while some names were connected with arrows, suggesting relationships were being depicted here too, stone genealogies.
This art came at a cost. I recently spoke to someone who as a child carved his name onto the surface of the Cochno Stone with his penknife, which was broken in the process. Sacrifices have to be made to make one’s mark on the world. One wonders what personal cost Mann’s obsessions had for him. And ultimately, the creative encounters discussed above culminated in the shutting down of this site, the burial of the stone beneath tons of soil for contravention of the rules in 1965.
Maybe we should charitably view the covering of the Cochno Stone itself as a grand piece of performance art that almost no-one was fortunate enough to witness.
There is no doubt that art and creative interventions on the surface of archaeological sites can be contentious. I don’t want to make light of the potential problems in site management and interpretation that paint, carvings and worse can cause and there are some horrible examples of crude painted messages added to rock-art around the world should you wish to google.
However, in the case of the Cochno Stone, there is a rich history of additions to the surface of the stone that cannot simply be written off as mindless vandalism as some other examples clearly are. Indeed, if we view one of the roles of art to inspire creativity in others, then at this level the Cochno Stone succeeds as an open air installation that was and remains a constant source of inspiration. The examples in this blog post suggest that these interventions – both permanent and temporary – have been going on for some four or five thousand years.
I will explore alternative mediums in part 2 when I consider the history of art inspired by the Cochno Stone that is not on the surface of the monument but located elsewhere – on the sides of buildings, on the trees and pavements, in the pages of journals and newspapers, and in a wonderful little comic book.
Whether you think rock-art is art or not, art sure follows it around.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Alison Douglas for her ongoing analysis and research into the historic graffiti on the Cochno Stone, and for the community of Faifley for their indulgence and support. Thanks also to Grahame Gardner for drawing (ha ha) my attention to the Francis Hitchings’ book Earth Magic.
The Bruce and Donnelly report can be found here (free online):
Bruce, J 1896 Notice of remarkable groups of archaic sculpturings in Dumbartonshire and Stirlingshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 30, 205-9.
The Mann sketch of Cochno comes from his booklet:
Mann, L M 1939 The Druid Temple Explained. London & Glasgow.
Dr Green and I reached the final point of our expedition quite by chance. The end of our journey, marked by an encounter with a monstrous head that neither of us will forget. We had heard reports from locals about the existence of such a head, but had put this down to braggadocio or hallucination brought on my excessive Irn Bru consumption which I believe to be a local beverage with chemical properties that promote altered states of consciousness.
My source had told me that the monstrous head was located in a nether-world of scrap on the southern bank of the River Clyde. My first attempt to catch glimpse of this head, a solo mission, was unsatisfactory, the bulbous orb too distant when viewed from the north side of the river to reveal the details of its concrete physiognomy.
Upon approaching the supposed location of this concrete monstrosity, Dr Green and I spoke to various people who made a living breaking automobiles in this place. Surrounded by skeletal motor cars, carburetors and bent doors and wings, these men affected to tell us they knew nothing of a giant head. Yet we had already caught sight of the dome of its skull behind a portable cabin.
The men gazed on the head with awe and wonder from the safety of their own business premises and were soon evangelising about the discovery to colleagues.
Yet Dr Green and I did not have the luxury of standing back. We had a duty, now we had come this far, to document and record this wonder of human endeavour, to pay our respects at the chin of the beast.
In order to do this we had to pass through a broken post-industrial world of cairns of scrap metal, clawing digging machines and the constant rumble of crushing and breaking. This was the end of all things, the bent remnants of our society piled high as if to reach heaven but only speaking of hell.
We scrambled through an open fallen gate, circumnavigated some shacks and warehouses, and entered a broad and open yard, across which we espied the monstrous head behind two ruined mechanical units, one of them an omnibus.
Closer we edged, until in front of us the huge bald head stood, balanced atop a linear mound of litter, tin cans, building material and detritus. The dome loomed over us and it felt like it had eyes in the back of its considerable cranium.
The preposterously sized crown was propped up by wooden supports, better to enable it to loom over any river dwellers and pleasure cruisers sailing by.
As we hesitantly went closer to the megalith, it was clear that it had enormous orifices, dark holes that we could have climbed into should we have wished, although on reflection we decided that dragging ourselves into and along eye sockets and nasal passages would not have been the wisest course of action. It was better that we did not investigate too closely the sense organs of this thing.
An over-sized blocked ear was located on either side of the skull, a closed porthole into the brain. This was a great relief for us as there was no enthusiasm for an exploration of an enormous external acoustic meatus or the accompanying skin flaps.
Crude letters were daubed onto the eastern cheek and chin of the hideous noggin. We documented these photographically although could not and cannot discern the meaning of K P and J G. An incantation to be chanted by acolytes circling the head in a frenzy we supposed. Although the paintwork was not red, it had the character of blood that had dried.
The proboscis emerged from a beard of green lichen, a moss-tache. We realised that this massive head had features that were disproportionate and exaggerated, its sharp angles directional, indicating the north, notably the mandible. Moss balls ran down the spine of the nose, beads of sweat that mirrored out own precipitative glands. A metal loop protruded from the base of the chin, clearly with the purpose of chaining sacrificial animals and – shudder – humans. And in the centre of the face were the eyes, voids into which our gaze could scarcely be arrested, eyes which somehow seemed to look up- and down-river at the same time. Thankfully the oral cavity remained sealed, forming a rictus grin; we had no desire to see what lay within.
As we retreated back to our carriage, we vouchsafed that nothing in our previous existence prepared us for the magnitude of the foreboding, monstrous head that we encountered on the bank of the slow-moving River Clyde that damp Spring morning.
Its dead eyes looked upon us as gods look upon ants. But more disturbing than all of this was –
an oblong void in the centre of the forehead suggested to us that there once had been a third eye a television screen located here broadcasting messages of hate and despair
What we feared more than anything else was that the rest of the body of this titan was there too, buried deep in the foreshore mud and sludge, awaiting re-animation. This prehistoric abomination, this monstrous appendage, this dreadful megalith, this…this…
Floating Head, Richard Groom
The Floating Head was one of many pieces of public art that were commissioned for, and displayed at, the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. This seminal and fondly-remembered summer event took place on the south bank of the River Clyde about 4km to the east of the current location of the Head.
The big Head was located in the Marina, which is on the left hand side of the map below.
The Souvenir Brochure of the Glasgow Garden Festival notes that the artwork was essentially a boat. “British Shipbuilders Training … helped to fabricate Richard Groom’s astonishing floating head – in reality a cement boat – in the harbour itself” (page 79). I have been able to find a few photos of the Head during the Festival (sources in the acknowledgements), and it looks very different.
The Festival ended in September 1988 and was dismantled, with various bits of art scattered around Scotland. In this air photo of the decommissioned site, the Floating Head is just visible, now out on the Clyde.
At what point the Floating Head was floated downstream to its current location I do not know. The Head now sits on the south side of the Clyde, near the Renfrew Ferry terminal, in an industrial estate accessed via Meadowside Street, Renfrew (NT 5068 6862).
It has its own record in the National Record of the Historic Environment (canmore). HES fieldworkers visited this monstrous head on 14 May 2015, and noted: “It now sits on the south bank of the River Clyde, adjacent to a scrap yard. It comprises the lower hull of a boat with a fibre glass moulded head on the top. It currently stands upright on its prow and appears to stare north across the river.”
Someone who works in a garage beside the yard the big Head sits behind told us that it had been there for at least 20 years, and that this place used to be a boat yard which might be why it was brought here. The Floating Head floats no more, but close examination makes it clear that it has many boat-like traits.
And now it has been erected, propped up, still an artwork but a very different one, a megalithic head watching boats travel up and down the Clyde, a source of puzzlement and wonder to all those who fall beneath its gaze.
Acknowledgements: I found out about the big head via Hugh Beattie, who posted the following photo on the My Clydebank Photos website. Hugh told me how to find the head, which prompted my two visits on both sides of the River over the past few weeks.
Helen Green accompanied me on the scrapyard fieldtrip, and provided one of the photos in the post above, so many thanks for the support when having to speak to strangers, not my strong point and for her observations which fed into the fanciful narrative that starts this post.
The staff of Renfrew Car Breakers were very helpful and allowed us access to their yard to take some photos. The Head is accessible by the various yards in this location, but permission must be sought, and it didn’t feel very safe. It is better viewed from Yoker on the other side of the River.
The images of the Floating Head in situ were found through various online searches, and attributed (from top to bottom) to: Owen of My Clydebank Photos, unknown, Graham Whyte video screengrab c16:45, Charlie Bubble (Flickr) and Sausage Sandwich (Urban Glasgow blog). If anyone has any other photos of the Floating Head I would love to see them.
My parents managed to find their old copy of the Garden Festival Brochure so many thanks to them for the archive work.
In my previous post, I introduced the story of the shellmound in Emeryville, California. This site, sacred to the Ohlone Indians and with thousands of years of occupation, use, tradition and burials, was gradually denuded by the requirements of modern urban living, from the construction of a funfair atop the mound in the nineteenth century, to the extensive destruction of the site to create a level space for industrial uses in 1924. Excavations at this site in the early decades of the twentieth century confirmed that this site was not merely a massive midden site, but also a place of ritual and burial, with hundreds of burials, many with grave goods, identified. (Maybe this could have been established by talking to locals of Ohlone heritage?) But these invasive excavations were rescue and salvage digs ahead of development which all happened despite the feelings of the local community.
The second part of my Emeryville posts brings the story up-to-date, and reveals that little seems to have been learned from the lessons of the past.
After decades of industrialisation and decline, the location of the shellmound underwent another dramatic transformation with the construction of a shopping mall between 1997 and 2002. This included further archaeological evaluation, and the realisation that despite everything that had happened here, elements of the shellmound – and human remains – still survived in situ. Environmental evaluations also confirmed that the land had been poisoned with heavy metals: it was ‘a singularly vile toxic brew left behind by the acid vats of an abandoned paint factory’ (source).
Reports suggest that there was uneasiness amongst those working on the site. Archaeologists requested permission to carry out a comprehensive excavation ahead of the development, but this was not permitted. Building workers were traumatised and many still refuse to use the mall to this day, given that human remains still lie underneath the shops and car parks. Hundreds of burials were simply reburied in the same location and sealed beneath a protective layer upon which the mall was to be built. I have read that some human remains had to be destroyed because of the levels of chemical pollution in the bones, making repatriation impossible.
There is no doubt that this process was problematic and contested, and split opinions amongst archaeologists working ahead of development. Local archaeologist Allen Pastron said at the time, ‘The portion of the shellmound that I saw in 1999 was largely intact’ and he quit the project due to the continuation of the construction. On the other hand, another archaeologist working in the project, Sally Salzman Morgan, argued that change is inevitable and needs to be accepted. Yet the contested nature of the project is also evident in her acknowledgement that ‘We did find a lot of intact burials. It’s too inflammatory to say how many there were. But most were disturbed.’ I have been unable to find a report on the archaeological work undertaken as the Mall was being built.
Attempts were made to preserve the shellmound, stop it being damaged further and / or designating this as a protected sacred site. But in the end the local Council went ahead and approved the replacing of the industrial complex with the Bay Street Shopping Mall.
The mall itself is a typical Dawn of the Dead type of place, corporately shiny and trying too hard to be cool. The website for the mall states:
Combining retail, entertainment, hospitality and residential uses, Bay Street Emeryville invites customers to escape into a casual village designed for strolling, shopping and having fun. The character of Bay Street Emeryville is drawn from the rich history of its bayside site as a place where people have gathered for decades to live, work and play. Designed as an eclectic urban village set in an industrial landscape, Bay Street Emeryville uses architecture, lighting, landscape and environmental graphics to create a unique, contemporary atmosphere.
Remember, this is a shopping mall.
And there is no mention of the hundreds of dead bodies beneath the feet of shoppers, most not even in their original graves – although I guess that is not a good look. The heritage of this place is mentioned however and it is worth quoting at length what the Mall’s website says as this is the (a) corporate response and statement on what came before the mall, and (b) a list of stuff that has been done to compensate for all of this unfortunate business, even although the word ‘compensate’ is not mentioned, and I suspect for many these reparations are inadequate.
The Ohlone heritage of this place is mentioned in utopian and simplistic terms, almost as if these people were children:
One day, a group of people, the Ohlone, arrived at the Bay. They stopped to gather oysters and mussels to eat. These were easy to collect from the marsh along the shore of the bay. There was also a large creek where they could drink fresh water. The edge of this creek was a great place to camp. When the tide was low, anyone in the village could gather oysters from the gravelly bottom of the bay or use a stick to dig clams out of the mud of the tide flat. This was a great place to live, with plenty of everything people might need: water, food, space, and the materials to make shelters. The Ohlone decided to stay and call this place home.
Curiously, the shellmound is mentioned under the heading ‘Today’:
Over time, the Native Americans inhabiting the site created an elevated landmark known as a “Shellmound” that they used for daily activities as well as a burial ground. By the late 1920’s the upper Shellmound had been demolished and the site transformed with industrial development.
These two sentences are self-serving, suggesting that the main damage to the shellmound occurred long before the shopping centre came along and attempting to legitimise the Mall’s construction in this location. Great pains have been taken to suggest that the Mall and activities that it hosts are little more than a continuation of activities that had happened in this location for thousands of years (except the burial of the dead). Such claims were made, for instance, in 2002, by the Emeryville Vice-Mayor Nora Davis who argued the ‘mixed-use’ nature of the Mall (shops, cinemas, restaurants, public spaces and art) was simply an idea previously invented by Native Americans. As an editorial at the time in The Berkeley Daily Planet stated (tongue in cheek):
Much like Native Americans once gathered at the Emeryville Shellmound to exchange goods, she said, Bay Area residents will come together at Bay Street to shop — at stores like Banana Republic, Gap, Pottery Barn and Victoria’s Secret. But while Native Americans relied mainly on a shellfish diet, modern shoppers will have restaurants like Pasta Pomodoro and Prego to choose from.
This editorial also stresses the extensive plans for reparation from both the city and the developer, although I am not sure how many of the ambitious plans actually came to anything. A promised website about the shellmound and the archaeological work that was undertaken may have existed once, but I can’t find it.
Back on the Mall’s website, there follows information on memorials, art and information in and around the mall and district that have been installed: an ‘interactive educational experience that invokes thought and understanding about the lives of the Ohlone people’.
Certainly, there have been art projects and installations in the area that reflect the heritage of this place as well as its contested nature. For instance, a park was established in 2004 with pieces by artist Sheila Ghidini. This includes a trilithon-like archways, one with a map of the area inscribed upon it, as well as information panels. Orange dots mark the actual location of the shellmound.
This park was commissioned by the developers, and specifically designed to ‘honor the Emeryville shellmound’. It includes 10 ‘polished granite slabs…each….includes sandblasted text and images which note significant moments in [Ohlone] civilization, from a deadly measles epidemic to their first contact with Westerners.’
According to Megalithic Portal contributor symbionspacesuit, other aspects of the shellmound have been presenced in different ways locally, including a ‘metal arch suggesting the profile of shellmound’ on a wall in the Mall itself, and material culture from the shellmound being displayed near toilets beneath a nearby IMAX cinema.
There are also some street names that reflect the past use of this location, such as Ohlone Way and Shellmound Street.
However, the most visible attempt to make good the ongoing hurt caused by the mall’s construction is the Shellmound Monument.
Due to the controversy caused by the construction of the mall and the perceived desecration of large numbers of burials, it was decided by the authorities to build a monument to the dead and the shellmound, which is located outside the mall at a road intersection and overlying Temescal Creek.
The monument consists of a mound-like grassy knoll, and I have tried to make sense of what it actually represents in more detail. The slice cut from the mound seems to be showing sedimentary stratigraphy with shells embedded in the sandstone slabs. There is also a waterfall, maybe representing the bay? On one side of the mound is a strange looking structure which apparently is meant to be a traditional Ohlone basket. Some big random stone ball / bollards are arranged in an arc at the front of the monument.
Ironically, this monument has become the main focus for the annual Black Friday protests against the Mall and the treatment of the dead.
I invite you to close your eyes; imagine the mall isn’t under your feet but you have ground. And that you’re some place that was here a long time ago, and that you’re going to take a walk and understand what was here before you. Source: Corrina Gould, in an audio walking tour of the shellmound location called An Unsettling Sound.
This is such a difficult situation and a salutary one for me as I blithely blog about how great it would be if we could replace prehistoric sites destroyed by development with street names, artworks and information boards. The Emeryville shellmound shows that this does not always work and in some cases cannot work, because if offers only the slimmest of reparation. These images from the Atlas Obscura sum things up better than I could: this is a place you can no longer go. Or if you do go, expect the experience to be consumerism.
But should we have no hope? The annual protests, maintained by Corinna Gould, with hundreds attending, and many more boycotting the shopping mall, are a vibrant reminder of the value of heritage and community cohesion. The reparation attempts, no matter how piecemeal they appear, will raise awareness of Ohlone heritage to some visitors to this location. The compelling and tragic story of this place will make some people care. Perhaps at some point the dead will be treated appropriately as has happened in other instances in the region.
And perhaps lessons can be learned. There is an ongoing dispute related to a similar urban Native American site nearby, the West Berkeley shellmound. Here, there has been a good deal of debate about where the mound’s boundaries are and if new developments such as a ‘155 apartments, about 30,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, and a six-level parking garage’ (source) will impact on shellmound remnants. In this case, Corinna Gould and others have got together to propose an alternative vision for the development that celebrates the heritage of this location rather than obliterating it.
In this case, at least, those with a stake in this place other than developers have a chance to make the news, shape the agenda, protest and make their case creatively before the worst actually happens. The case is currently under review (as of December 2017).
I started this two part blog post with some introspection about my urban prehistory project, caused by Colleen Morgan’s excellent question to me in York. Having thought a lot about this over the past six weeks, it is clear that what the sad case of Emeryville tells me is that as a heritage professional, I should not assume that my tool kit will work for all occasions, and that I need to let go, talk more to communities and learn from them. They are after all experts in where they live, and I am not. There is also a need to be more pro-active and celebrate the prehistory of places before urbanisation sweeps it away. In 2018, that is exactly what I intend to do.
Sources and acknowledgements: as with the first post on this topic, I have leaned heavily on online sources for much of this post, mostly newspaper articles, which have been the source of the various direct quotations in the post. Quotes in this post from Allen Pastron, Sally Morgan and Rosemary Cambra all came from a 2002 editorial in The Berkeley Daily Planet. I am grateful for the supportive comments and permission to use images from local website The E’ville Eye News.
I would also like to thank Andy Burnham of the Megalithic Portal for pointing out to me the excellent webpage they have on the shellmound, with information provided by user symbionspacesuit which includes the map location linked to above.
The monument picture comes from this weird website, while the aerial view of the monument is widely available online. All other images in the post have the source credited in the caption, and if anyone wants images removed or different copyright statements added, please contact me.
If anyone can point me towards a report on the archaeology undertaken in advance of the Mall’s construction, or the website about the Ohlone heritage of the Mall location that is referred to in the Mall’s own website, I would appreciate it.
There are a lot of standing stones outside Dynamic Earth, a geological visitor attraction, and within stone’s throw of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.
This grand collection of megaliths is in reality a very expensive collection of rock samples, erected around 10 years ago, part of a grant from the Millennium Commission of £432,959 to utilise the large open ‘amphitheatre’ like space at the front of weird tent-like original building that is the visitor centre itself.
The arc-shaped linear setting of eight standing stones (some actually stacks of rocks arranged into vertical cairns) are essentially a (very) quick-fire geological tour of Scotland. What was expressed at the time of their erection as ‘“a walk through Scotland’s journey in geological time”.
Each of the monoliths and stone-piles has a label appended to it, stating where each rock was formed on earth as Scotland oozed around the world carried on a tectonic plate like a huge slug.
At the bottom of the steps that lead up past the stones to the entrance and ticket-desk in the tent-like visitor centre is a noticeboard that states: ‘Around us here in the amphitheatre you can see “Scotland’s Journey” from deep in the southern hemisphere to where we are today….The walk up the ramp reflects Scotland’s landscape and tracks its long geological history’
On a slope running down from the standing stones is a bit of fake bedrock, and each time I have been there I have felt an overwhelming temptation to squat and carve rock-art onto this dull landscape feature. However, the nearby policemen with guns protecting the parliament always look a bit bored and I don’t want to give them an excuse to open up on me.
I suppose it is pretty dynamic though, as some weeds have grown in the cracks, between January 2016 and December 2017.
On my most recent visit, I was cheered to notice signs of emergent vandalism on some of the standing stones, including faintly carved initials and a splat of black paint.
It’s nowhere near as good as the megalithic rock sample collection at Bournemouth University though.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Realm. I 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.
This is a blog post that appeared not to want to be written.
Computer crashes, lack of focus, lost information, inadequate note-keeping, rain, over-complication: all have conspired to ensure that my rather simple story about a park in Manchester with a stone circle and a ruined church has yet to be written.
So I now I finally want to write this story and keep it simple. Let’s see how it goes.
All Saints Park, or Grosvenor Park, is located on Oxford Road in Manchester, on the campus of Manchester Metropolitan University, and I used to pass it every now and again when I visited Manchester University just down the road. I popped into the park one summer day a few years ago attracted by a tree that had been wrapped in red fabric.
Once inside this compact little square park, I noticed two things: a strange megalithic monument located in one corner of the park, and a low wall right in the middle of the park that marked the location of an old church. There was clearly deep time here, and a few stories to be uncovered. And as I continued to pop into the park when in Manchester, I realised all sorts of stuff was going on here. There are megaliths and memorials, art installations and scientific experiments, signs and bins, cheeky graffiti, and right in the middle of it all, the ghostly footprint of the destroyed church. Much of this goes unnoticed by the many students from the adjacent Manchester Metropolitan University who hang around here between lectures or at lunchtime, or buy fruit and veg or snacks from pavement stalls outside the park.
And almost overhead, just to the north, runs the Mancunian Way (A57(M)), an urban motorway, which offers a suitably Ballardian tone to the park – and automatically made me think of Glasgow, another city with an urban motorway. The sound of cars thundering overhead complements the continual hum of buses going up and down the majestic Oxford Road.
As we’ll see, concrete is on the ground – as well as in the air.
One of the most remarkable things about this park is that it is consecrated ground. At each of the four entrances to the park, on the cardinal points, stands a short angular megalith with a plaque on it.
Each says the same thing:
former All Saints Church burial ground
the MANCHESTER METROPOLITAN
improved the square in 1995 for the benefit
of both its students and the general public.
This is still consecrated ground
PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT
Cycling, ball games and the consumption of
alcohol are not permitted, dogs must be on a
leash and litter placed in the bin provided.
This introductory text acts as a gentle warning to park-users and dog-owners, but also as an ode to the park. There is a poetic quality to this potted history, which hints at the protracted and special nature of this places which derives directly from its past use.
This is consecrated ground. PLEASE TREAT WITH RESPECT.
The dead were laid to rest here, and this was once a sacred site. It isn’t any more, and yet this park cannot escape its past or the rites that were once carried out here. There are bodies beneath the grass and stories to be uncovered beneath our feet.
The Church that once stood – All Saints Church – seems to have been cursed. It was opened for business in April 1820, a large and foreboding structure, but seemed to be ill-starred from very early in its life, for instance being badly damaged by a fire when it had stood for only 30 years.
The church gradually ran down in the 20th century, with its cemetery converted to a children’s play park by the 1930s, thus creating the link between youthful leisure and the subterranean cemetery for the first time.
And then came destruction in the form of German bomb which hit the church during the ‘Christmas Blitz’ in 1940.
The church was finally demolished in 1949 as it had become ruinous with no hope of reconstruction.
All Saints still has a presence in the park today in the form of a remarkable ground plan which is almost impossible to discern or make sense of from the ground. Various key aspects of the building are marked out in low walls, paving slabs and large stone cubes. I am not sure when this was done – perhaps in the 1995 refurbishment mentioned on the plaques.
On one of my first visits to the park in 2013, a small pile of coins had built up on one of these stone cubes, mostly coppers.
At some point in the recent past, an artist called Grotbags used one of these cubist blocks to display dominoes made from cigarette packets. Death in little black boxes.
The exploded plan of this church is most effectively viewed from the air (or google earth), where its symmetrical design and layout becomes apparent. (I had drawn an annotated plan of the park to show this, but lost it, very much in keeping with this emergence of this post.) The church therefore is almost impossible to appreciate from the ground, an abstract collage of stonework and slabs. Laying out the ground plan of an old ruinous structures is a classic heritage technique used to illustrate historic and Roman buildings, and I can think of many similar examples I have visited where wall foundations, doorways and internal features are visible in manicured grass to give a 2D impression of a 3D building. Yet this is a much more impressionistic interpretative version of the church….and the walls are curiously similar to those at the partially reconstructed Neolithic village of Barnhouse in Orkney (which itself had at its centre the church-like House 8).
There is a lot to make sense of here already – an abstract church, destroyed by a firestorm from the air, now preserved in stone and slabs. Around this, a grassed over cemetery. And then there is the stone circle. Or rather, stone spiral.
Tucked into the back corner of the park, hidden behind trees, a hedge and various additional concrete blocks which appear to have been scattered randomly (perhaps leftovers), is a remarkable spiral structure consisting of a series of flat standing stones. These are embedded in the hedgerow and are mirrored by a narrow paved pathway, drawing the visitor into the vortex. The stones sit side on to the flow of the spiral, acting more as orthostats than single uprights, giving this monument the feel of an Orkney tomb like Midhowe (another weird Orkney connection).
In the centre of this spiral lies an altar or shrine with a basin on top, usually filled with rainwater, leaves and coins (at least when I have visited). Perhaps it is a bird bath. This concrete cube sits within a cobbled circle with more of the rough stone cubes found across the park on its fringe.
Here I have to be honest. When I initially researched this stone circle, I am sure I discovered that it was a monument to African slaves, but I confess the definitive version of this information and the source alludes me at this time. Certainly the monument has a certain calm beauty to it despite its urban location.
And the circle sits in an area of the park that has become a memorial – to friends, to family members. Just beside the standing stones, small improvised shrines have begun to emerge amidst the flowers and the trees. Some of these are for named individuals, such as Souvik Pal, a student whose body was found in a Manchester canal in January 2013.
I want to stop my story here, in the spirit of keeping things simple. This lovely park is well worth a visit, not just for the hidden megaliths with the mysterious meaning, but also for the flowers and memorialisation of the dead, both recent and Victorian, and for the demolished church, and for the things left on the stone blocks, and the graffiti, and even the stuff that hangs from the trees.
It is also a perfect place to have lunch in the sun. All Saints and no saints. Sinners and sandwiches.
I was in Manchester again a few weeks ago, and once again looked in on the park, although this time rain got the better of me, and I turned and walked away back to the city centre, beneath the motorway which seemed to have been emptied of the homeless people who usually congregate there, urban casualties in their concrete cocoon.
I am drawn to this place, fated to keep coming back to the roads and the park, the angles of the concrete, the impossible juxtapositions.
Urban parks can be special places – and All Saints Park is a very special place.
Sources and acknowledgements: some of the images used above have been ctedited to external sources already. The photo of the church being demolished was sourced from a website dedicated to curating old photos of Manchester. The Barnhouse photo comes from Sigurd Towrie’s excellent Orkneyjar website (note, how can I not have a photo of Barnhouse in my own collection?). The David Dixon photo is reproduced under the terms of a creative commons licence. All the other photos are my own. For more information on Fireflies in Manchester, follow this link. I have no idea who Grotbags is.
If anyone has any information about the spiral stone circle, I would love to hear from your, just contact me below the post..
A megalithic landscape has been created in an abandoned open cast mine on the edge of the town of Sanquhar, Dumfries and Galloway. It is the Crawick Multiverse. Opened to the public in June 2015, and ten years in the planning and making, this ambitious landform was created by the artist Charles Jencks and funded by the Richard Scott (aka the Duke of Buccleuch). The complex of stone circles, stone rows, megaliths and mounds represents grand cosmic themes:
This world-class landscape art design links the themes of space, astronomy and cosmology, creating a truly inspiring landmark that will appeal to everyone from art enthusiasts and scientists to the wider community.
This is a truly impressive place on an awesome scale, and I have now visited it twice: once when construction was well underway in June 2014, and again in February 2016. The scale and ambition of the venture, and the aspiration to revitalise a ruined post-industrial landscape, are impressive. But yet I can’t help having reservations. There is a curious lack of acknowledgement that the created forms have prehistoric origins, with the cosmic meanings always to the fore. And I also wonder how much the local community will benefit from the Crawick Multiverse.
I am a great proponent of the value and utility of constructing megalithic monuments today and tomorrow, rather than seeing such structures as just belonging to the ancient past – but in doing so we also need to give a good deal of thought about who will benefit and the messages megaliths can convey. The messages I got at Crawick were decidedly ambiguous as soon as I stepped back from the initial shock and awe of the experience. This post has allowed me to explore my surprisingly ambivalent reaction to a place – a landscape – that I feel I should love, but can’t.
>> the stone, it called to me <<
Our minibus wound along the A76, travelling from New Cumnock towards Sanquhar. To the north the land was scarred by huge opencast mines, the earth being emptied of its resources in a quite brutal fashion, although in this post-coal age these scars in the land are about to become post-industrial. Gavin MacGregor was leading the field trip, and I was driving, with our destination, at that point, shrouded in mystery, as Gavin had intended all along.
Just before we got to Sanquhar, and as we passed an old military hospital to our right, Gavin indicated we turn left and I did so, steering the deep blue bus and our passengers up a minor road and beneath a railway bridge. On the horizon to our left was an old mining bing, and atop this sat several standing stones, which I was fairly sure were new additions to the skyline. As we heading up an even smaller road into what appeared to be an active quarry site, we were greeted by dozens of similar standing stones in various arrangements, as well as several large yellow diggers rolling back and forth in a dusty beige desert. This working site, this quarry, was punctuated by grey dusty zones and unkempt green sprouting grass, while bing-drumlins and spoilheap-aretes loomed over us to the north and west. Some of these anthropomorphically generated landforms had been further altered, with paths and cairns scraped from the land, with a purpose as yet unclear.
Leading off from the area where we parked up the minibus was an avenue of megaliths, an arrow-straight line hundreds of metres long flanked on both sides by standing stones: scores of them.
These straddled an amphitheatre of Classical form, suggesting a chronological and spatial mash-up was being created, while dolmen and standing stones in various arrangements emerged from the side of the avenue. There seemed to be hundreds of megaliths, disappearing off into an invisible point in the distance, an impossible arrangement that defied the material realities of what is just ‘some art in an old mine’. The illusion of infinity was one that was first attempted at Carnac, Brittany, in the Neolithic where thousands of standing stones set in painfully glorious rows go on for ever and ever, transcending time, offering the maddening possibility of counting the stones, reaching the end of the monument, which of course can never happen, really. Walking along such avenues is not about walking from A to B but from travelling from Now to Then. Or Then to Now if you are able to make the return journey, which not everyone can. To have one’s mind blown is not such a bad thing when it is being blown by a million megaliths. And my first experience of the Multiverse was on the verge of doing just that.
Actually: this is Carnac. This is Silbury Hill. This is Croft Moraig. This is Bargrennan. This is amazing! Or is it? The contrived nature of this construction site left me queasy, megaliths arranged with clinical precision, where even the casually leant standing stone was an act of proficient design. The fragmented standing stones, shedding pieces of themselves into cairns around their base, was a convenient organic effect, cultivated and left un-checked. The heavy machinery creeping around me had touched and lifted standing stones in a transactional way that could not replicate the pull of the rope, the touch of many hands. The act of translating the vision of the artist and the desire of the wealthy landowner into reshaping the land from industry to art was far too tidy and clean for my liking. Prehistory was dirty, dangerous, unpredictable, improvised. Heavy industry was dirty, dangerous, unpredictable, improvised. There was little sense of any of these qualities at the nascent Multiverse, which was when I first visited in effect incarnate and not yet fully realised and so I left my concerns to one side and took lots of photos in the dying light.
>> the monument of granite sent a beam into my eye <<
Approximately 2,000 boulders have been used to create the Crawick Multiverse site
The Sun amphitheatre can hold 5,000 spectators
The north-south line comprises approximately 300 boulders
The site spans approximately 55 acres
The Northpoint provides a 20-mile 360 degree panoramic view
Around 300 boulders were used to create the Multiverse landform [source]
>> it took my hand, it killed me, and it turned me to the sky <<
This landscape of megaliths and mounds represents the multiverse, a concept borrowed from the wilder edges of physics, which refers to the theory that there are multiple universes that exist parallel to one another. Every element of the Crawick Multiverse is a designed element, the vision of the artist made material – and very much in the spirit of other landforms by Jencks such as The Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries. There is a real sense of order about this place, a narrative to be followed, changes underfoot and the choreography of bodily movement signalling a transition into a new aspect of the cosmos and a new set of meanings. There are boundaries and divisions evident everywhere: a division horizontally into ‘four ecologies’ (grassland, mountains, water gorge, desert); a division vertically into a ‘high road’ and a ‘low road’; the classification of every element of the complex into named zones and monuments (the North-South path, the Amphitheatre, the Supercluster). This is stylised and rule-bound landscape: made of materials from a singularity of concentrated industrial destruction in an unusually creative Big Bang.
A map to the stars is provided for visitors to help make sense of this four-dimensional experience and this includes more detailed interpretations of the key elements of the landscape for the benefit of the visitor, as none of this is really self-evident. The artist as god, create now, explain later, leave a little mystery, and don’t walk on the grass while you’re at it.
Descriptions of each element emphasise the cosmological and astronomical inspiration for Jencks’s landscape installation. The Supercluster for instance represents ‘the forming of our universe and its place within the cosmos’ with an abstract jigsaw of triangular mounds held together by the ‘rivers of gravity’. The Sun Amphitheatre is all about the ‘beauty of a total eclipse’ while three Comet Shelter Points can be found across the site. At the northern end of the complex sits an artificial mound topped with a spiral setting of large standing stones, some with lines carved upon them. This megalith is the Multiverse itself, ‘the whole ensemble of universes’.
The Belvedere Finger sites atop the highest point of the site, on another mound with another spiral path to the top. It is capped by a spectacular plinth upon which a viewing board – the Northpoint Sign – is placed, and it affords views right down the North-South megalith avenue. This is an eccentric plinth – a lectern – a music stand holding a semi-mythical manuscript mapping the surrounding landscape. This is surely also the control panel for a spaceship with information encoded with our origins, found deep within the coal, to help us read the land. The sacred geometry of the ancient past exposed: ‘Cairns’, ‘River Nith Barrow’, ‘Sean Caer Fort’, ‘St Brides Church’. The bones of the land.
Has this spaceship just landed, or is it about to take off? Are these our instructions to achieve escape velocity: or colonise planet earth?
>> A rock that spoke a word (an animated mineral, it can be heard) <<
Position yourself at the control panel of a megalithic spaceship that landed on planet earth –
Landed here, thousands of years ago, when we were still prehistoric –
Adjust yourself –
Close the air locks –
Set the controls to transcend time –
Place your hand upon the lever and pull back –
Pull back hard –
Warp speed, warp space, warp time –
Find the booster –
Turn on the thruster –
Feel the throb of the stones beneath your feet –
The energy beneath your feet –
Un-docking procedures initiated –
Into the multiverse.
>> (and now I see the things the stone has shown to me) <<
There is another modern megalithic monument nearby, just outside the town of Dalmellington in East Ayrshire. Erected for the millennium, ‘The Standing Stones of dael meallain tuinn’ is a monument to mining, a marker recognising that this is land that has been worked by people for thousands of years.
The use of rocks for standing stones here is not about the cosmos, but about the earth itself, looking to the ground, not the sky. Consisting of an arc of seven standing stones set on a crescent-shaped mound the name of this monument means ‘the meeting place at the mound with the motte’. The invocation of a motte here in the monument name hints that this is a central point, a place of justice, a parliament.
Behind the stones sits Pennyvenie coal bing, another industrial Silbury Hill. And like the Multiverse Silbury Hills, these standing stones and the fabric of this monument are made from industrial debris, offered up by the earth. But unlike the Multiverse, this simple, austere monument captures much more poignantly the heavy industry that preceded it. This is a thoroughly rooted monument, with connections as deep as a seam of coal.
This megalith sits at the entrance road to an open cast mine / quarry, the last and ugly vestiges of the coal industry that once dominated the Doon Valley. But access to the standing stones appears not to be encouraged, restricted by a locked gate and warning signs, and so detaching the stones from the communities which they represent. Because the seven stones represent seven mining settlements – Dalmellington, Bellsbank, Burnton, Craigmark, Benquhat, Pennyvenie, Waterside – a Proclaimers-like roll call of towns and villages entangled with heavy industry and the extraction of minerals from the earth, villages and towns forever associated with our changing and voracious energy demands.
Heavy industry created communities but also caused dislocation and ensured the disempowerment of those communities: the locked gate, the entrance fee, maintain this status quo.
>> They pale before the monolith that towers over me <<
My second visit to the Crawick Multiverse, 20 months after the first, was a very different affair. Again, I was on a fieldtrip and again I was driving a minibus with Gavin taking the lead, but this time the minibus was silver. We arrived in the car park for the Multiverse around 3.30pm with blue skies and the orange setting sun casting our long shadows onto the footpaths and fences. It was interesting to note that the Multiverse still doesn’t merit a Brown Sign all of its own on the A76, almost as if it is still on probation as a proper tourist attraction.
We were introduced to the landscape by one of the staff and he handed out A3 colour maps (see above) which included brief descriptions of the key elements of the Multiverse. The trappings of a fully open tourist attraction are beginning to emerge where before there had been a just been a rough quarry road: fences, gates, car park, noticeboards and a portaloo were in place, with the focal being being a temporary ticket office in the form of a portacabin where it is possible to purchase mugs and postcards.
We followed one of the two entry pathways and began to head uphill, skirting round a bing, before emerging out onto an escarpment which we followed right to the top. In places this was very steep and muddy. (There are ongoing drainage problems which appear not have been fully resolved although on our arrival it was hinted that an elaborate drainage system had been developed.) We passed a setting of four large standing stones, and as the path up the side of the bing became steeper, so we got increasingly spectacular views to the south and west over an awesome landscape of standing stones and mounds.
Towards the top of the ridge we encountered the mound with the huge white viewing map on it (the Belvedere Finger), and wound our way up to the top of this on the spiralling pathway, stopping to take in views from time to time, and look down into a large round hole, filled with water and its own spiral path, the Void Shelter according to our maps. At the centre of this vortex was a flat megalith.
From these high points of the site it was easy to appreciate the major changes here since our last visit almost two years previously.
Beyond the top, one of the Comet Shelters was closed, and the path was roped off in places due to mud and erosion. It’s almost as if the site is trying to return to its previous (pre-)industrial form, defying the careful shaping and health-and-safety requirements of such a visitor attraction. We passed the spiralling Multiverse, essentially a Brittonic megalith, and headed to the spiritual core of this landscape, the Omphalos.
This was very different from other elements of the complex. It consisted of large red sandstone blocks set into a megalithic chamber, with an austere iron gate, while an iron grid also overlay the top, making entry almost impossible, and certainly not permitted. The map describes this place as the Omphalos, the ‘centre or navel of the world’ – the interior megaliths are ‘special rocks’ representing the ‘mythical or actual centre of the world’. The unusual restriction of access, red rocks and harsh metal elements gave this a very different feel from the rest of the installation. As we stood here, the setting sun turned this megalithic wall and chamber ahead of us into a deep orange to blood red, and we were afforded fine views along the North-South path. From A to B, past to present, looking through megaliths to a railway viaduct and Sanquhar resting below.
>> The stone it calls to you (you can’t refuse to do the things it tells you to) <<
What do I think about it all? Superficially it is awesome, with the scale and ambition matching some of the great building projects of prehistory. But this also leads me to deeper reflection on the curious lack of prehistory within this land art. Perhaps it is so in–your-face and explicit that the site consists of hundreds of standing stones and several megalithic arrangements that it need not be mentioned. But there appears to be an almost perverse desire to dress up the meaning and utility of this place in cosmic terms, deliberately (for it can only be deliberate) making little or nothing of the quite obvious Neolithic elements that abound in this old quarry. This is weird because visitors do latch on to the prehistoric parallels quite readily: Trip Adviser users have called it ‘Stonehenge 2’, ‘a modern Stonehenge’ and ‘a modern ancient site’. An FT journalist who wrote about the Multiverse (link below) noted: “The great avenue, pointing towards a nearby viaduct and more distant hills, has the cryptic simplicity of a Neolithic alignment”. And multiple allusions to megaliths, Stonehenge, Carnac and so on can be found online.
What is going on here? Why does the published material related to the Multiverse almost entirely ignore the prehistoric appearance of this place, and focus instead on the industry and local landscape (a little) and the cosmos (a lot)? It is almost as if there is a desire to reach for the heavens and the future, rather than back into the past. Yet this is a landscape that has depth and has been occupied for thousands of years. This is celebrated on the noticeboard for the Dalmellington seven standing stone monument which says:
‘For over 6000 years there have been settlements around the Loch Doon area, and in particular the Doon Valley’.
The Multiverse is not the first megalithic construction in this landscape and it will not doubt not be the last. The past, present and future are entangled in stone in this place, mined and quarried to make monuments, mined and quarried to extract coal and other minerals, mined and quarried to pluck large rocks from the pit to repurpose as modern megaliths. All these actions are about power, about the economy, about people living and working together. The Multiverse represents another part of the biography of this land – but so far, just one small part, standing on the shoulders of megalithic giants and the labour of mining communities.
>> And what they found was just a statue standing where the statue got me high <<
What it the Multiverse for? To what end has something like £1 million been spent (the figure widely quoted in the media)? Who benefits?
There is no doubt that the Multiverse is a timely intervention, largely economic and social, although it has also addressed a literal hole in the landscape. An article on Crawick that appeared in the Financial Timessuggests that motivations included improving the quality of landscape that had been essentially sucked dry and then abandoned by an opencast mining company, much to the dismay of local people. Another motivation was as prosaic:
‘to help revive the local economy, hit hard by the demise of the mining industry and by the fact that the region is, in tourism terms, a backwater: the Crawick Multiverse could be a much-needed draw.’
There is also no doubt a degree of a very wealthy landowner using a chunk of his money philanthropically to support the arts. Charles Jencks himself has said, “This work of land art, created primarily from earth and bounders on the site, celebrated the surrounding Scottish countryside and its landmarks, looking outwards and back in time”. This could be viewed as a generous act of largesse, or a rich man’s privilege, depending on your perspective. It is probably a bit of both.
But what do local people actually think about this place? What value for money do they feel has been squeezed from a millionaire’s spare million quid? There was an aspiration early in the process to give free access to local people I believe, although I can’t find any evidence that this has actually been implemented. Certainly, it is free to visit on foot after hours when the car park is closed – but this applies to everyone and anyone, not just locals. (Ironically, Buccleuch recently courted minor controversy with a plan to charge for access to another of the Duke’s estates, Dalkeith Country Park in the evenings.) I am not sure how many jobs have been created either – were the staff working for the Estate anyway, or have new posts been created? As yet, it is too early to assess how strong visitor numbers are, or how many of those visitors also pop into town and have lunch or spend money in local shops. Mosaics on site created with local schoolchildren (see photo above), and talk of school and educational visits, suggest another benefit which could emerge through time.
Perhaps if the Crawick Multiverse can genuinely catalyse economic regeneration, create jobs and revitalise interest in this forgotten corner of Scotland, then the gesture of the Duke and the creative genius of Jencks will be vindicated. But if this turns out to be art for arts sake, an industrial-scale folly, visited by those with cars, excluding large chunks of the population, an elitist attraction, then perhaps something else should have been done with this huge hole and the money to help the local community.
Sources and acknowledgements: the title of this post and the subheadings are all taken from the They Might be Giants 1992 song The statue got me high (from the album Apollo 18). Information about the Crawick Multiverse came from their website (including the quote near the start of the post and the list of stats that make up the third section of this post) and the map handed out to visitors (a few extracts of which are included in the post). Thanks to the Estate for allowing us access to the Multiverse during construction, and informative conversations with staff on both visits, and thanks also to Gavin for facilitating the visit in 2014. The opening ceremony image was sourced from a BBC story about this event, source link in caption. Finally, thanks to all of those who joined me on those two fieldtrips, chats during walks around the Multiverse helped shaped my own thoughts.