Tag Archives: Replica

The vitrification experiment

24 Mar

Do you remember that old TV show?

Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World

The Divine Comedy

Mysterious World

Sometimes an archaeologist does something so crazy, so visionary and so flamboyant that one can only stand back and admire the show. Trying to understanding what the heck happened in prehistory sometimes requires extreme acts (and I know this from personal experience). This post tells the story of an urban prehistoric experiment that took place almost 40 years ago in a local authority waste disposal tip (aka a dump) that combined innovation, ingenuity, furniture and weirdness in equal measure.

The East Tullos Yorkshire Television vitrified wall experiment was recently brought to my attention by Richard ‘Scarfolk‘ Littler in a twitter thread that he posted that celebrated eccentric characters and stories covered by the legendary and seminal 1980 televisual experience Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World. One of the images that he posted took my breath away. It showed a familiar archaeologist but with an unfamiliar facial hair arrangement, a wild-eyed expression and in the middle of doing something inexplicable.

The tweet

Professor Ian Ralston OBE DLitt FRSE FSA FSA (Scot) MIFA and Abercromby Chair of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh appears to have been, at some point in the past, The Pagan Man with a Stick. He also seems to have been on one of my favourite TV shows from when I was a kid, which means that I may have watched Ian in action 15 years before I first met him, and on further reflection perhaps this film subliminally made me the archaeologist I am today. Although using this logic I could just as easily have become a Bigfoot hunter or an Alien abductee.

arthur_c_clarke_mysterious_world_tv titles

Broadcast over one series and 13 episodes in 1980 on ITV (my memory convinced me that there must have been so many more episodes) the programme featured, between the adverts (no doubt starring Leonard Rossiter and Lorraine Chase), some of the world’s most mysterious mysteries, from cryptozoology to pseudo-archaeology to the supernatural. This heady mixture of nonsense was presented in deadpan seriousness and a cast of eccentrics, academics and self-proclaimed experts brought the whole thing to life. Stories were separated by brief pieces of camera by Clarke himself leaning against a tree somewhere hot (Sri Lanka).

I used to have the book as well, the cover of which shows what might be found beneath Stonehenge if they ever build that tunnel.

Book Cover

It is not every day that a young, but respectable Chas ‘n’ Dave lookalike archaeologist gets to star in his own 10-minute slot in a portmanteau mystery TV documentary, and so I wanted to look into this a little further. The urban fringe landfill location was enough for me to tag this under the category of urban prehistory and write a blog post about it which I have duly done.

The story of this unique vitrification experiment was broadcast in Episode 3 of the show on the theme of Ancient Wisdom, from 11 minutes in. (Some of the other stories on the programme do not seem to me to represent wisdom.)

This account of the vitrification experiment was subsequently supplemented by a detailed and fulsome report on the experiment in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland written diligently by Ralston himself and published in 1986

It is from these two sources that I piece together those momentous spring days in 1980.

Paper title

Quote 1

The experiment entailed the construction of a full-scale 8m long section of wall replicating a hillfort rampart, with the aim to reproduce the effect of vitrification. In effect, this process entails the melting of rocks within the core of such walls (perhaps with internal ‘timber-lacing’ to fuel fires), the end result of which is a glassy stone that is fused and melted together. This is a relatively common trait of later prehistoric fortified sites in Scotland, notably in Angus, and Argyll and Bute. Arguments have long ranged about whether this was caused by accident or design. As archaeologist Andy Heald put it fairly recently, ‘Some think vitrification was a status symbol, some think a settlement would be set alight and inadvertently vitrified in the process by attackers and some think it’s a structural thing to do with strengthening the walls of the fort.’

This heated (pun intended) dispute was the attraction for Arthur C Clarke’s crack team of mystery-chasers: “it was this contrast in views that constituted ‘the mystery'”… as Ralston puts it in his report. This doesn’t seem to me to be a mystery on a par with the Bermuda Triangle or the Nazca Lines, but I guess they had hours of schedules to fill.

The segment of the programme starts with a sweeping view of the laughably pronounced Iron Age hilltop enclosure Tap O’Noth. Ralston arrives on top, bestriding the landscape and then sitting on the ramparts pointing out vitrification while not even appearing to be out of breath. The light levels are low and there is mild peril for sensitive viewers – will he make it back down to his parked car before darkness falls?

Ralston on Tap o Noth

The voiceover person (who is not Arthur C Clarke but sounds suitably serious about the whole business) expresses the mystery of vitrification: was this something that just happened to occur when a fort wall caught fire, or was it the result of, “some technique now lost to strengthen the walls by welding the rocks together”? Gosh, I wonder.

The TV show voiceover further noted that “Ian Ralston, in an ambitious attempt to crack the mystery decided to build his own Iron Age fort”. This was to be done using materials and finance provided by a Mr Nick Lord of Yorkshire Television and where better to carry out this large-scale experiment than in the salubrious surroundings of a smelly dump near Aberdeen. The image on the screen melted from the misty hills of Aberdeenshire to the site of the vitrification experiment. The show was careful to show Aberdeen as if it had just been hit by a nuclear attack.

Aberdeen

The rampart section, based on various real forts, was realised, as with so many experimental archaeology projects of this scale and vision, through a series of compromises, imaginative bodges and visits to DIY shops. Ralston takes up the story:

Quote 2

Granite was chosen for the rampart exterior and gabbro for the interior, with wooden beams inserted inside to form the lacing (the internal structure of the wall). The construction project took place over four wet and windy days at the end of March 1980, with a combination of labour by the team of seven and a small fleet of support vehicles doing the work. Ralston was heavily involved in the heavy stuff, having made it down from that mountain top after all, his vigour undiminished.

Construction

Wall nearing completionThe conflagration itself was facilitated by the application of ‘dripping’ (animal fat) to the ends of beams protruding from the rampart while other artificial accelerants were on hand just in case, and a large pyre also had to be constructed up against one side of the wall to get the fire going due to ongoing inclement weather. With a cavalier attitude, Ralston got stuck into the building project with a fag hanging out of his mouth, right next to the stores of paraffin and beef dripping.

Ralston smoking

The fire was started around noon on the 1st of April, with a stiff breeze causing some anxiety. The conflagration as Ralston called it was monitored carefully and managed proactively, with regular truck-loads of wood having to be brought on site to feed the fires and pyres to keep it all burning and raise the temperature within the wall.

Wood supplies seem to have been running low because at one point a delivery of knackered old furniture (or what Ralston called “a miscellaneous cargo of domestic refuse, delivered by the Aberdeen Cleansing Department”), was poured onto the pyre.

A load of old furniture

Despite trying to control air flow into the core of the wall using a tarpaulin, by early evening and five hours into the burn, the internal wall temperature was only 13 degrees. “At about this time the writer clambered onto the top of the wall”. In other words, the shit just got real.

Ralston on the rampart

Ralston on the rampart TV version

This dramatic intervention by Ralston, flying in the face of a risk assessment that had almost certainly not been written anyway (this was 1980 after all), signaled an intensification of pyre building and fire management, which through the course of the evening began to pay dividends as the core temperature of the wall rose steadily.

Sunset

By strategically starting big fires at certain points around the wall in relation to wind direction, the experiment began to meet expectations and the team allowed themselves a dinner break from 9pm to the back of 11pm. By now the wall was collapsing in places and the fire was massive. Then they all went to bed / the pub.

The next morning the team arrived back in the dump to find a smouldering, hot smoky crumbling wall, with fires still burning inside. The wall was monitored and slowly dismantled by hand and machine from 8.30am, with team members raking through the guts of the unstable structure for evidence of vitrification and a small quantity of glassy stones was recovered.

Vitrified material

This material was carefully stored in conditions that retained the high scientific integrity of the samples.

Schweppes vitrified stones

Despite Ralston’s assessment that the fire would have continued to burn for another 24 hours, he also noted that, “the structure appeared markedly unstable and Yorkshire TV, with filming schedules completed, was not prepared to accept the insurance risk represented by the wall any longer. Accordingly, at 1600 hrs, some 28 hours after the experiment had started, the wall was bulldozed flat”.

Bulldozer

This allowed further observation by the archaeologists, but after all of this hard work, was the mystery of vitrification finally solved? The voiceover on the TV show was not so sure, suggesting that the meagre evidence for melting rock (3kg of glassy stone) only posed more questions than it solved. If this was the case, it would surely take half of the trees in Scotland just to vitrify one fort the size of Tap O’Noth, the voice claimed ludicrously and misunderstanding the whole nature of extrapolation.

Ralston’s account of the experiment was more balanced, noting the errors made during the process that had became clear as the fire took hold, and some of the inauthenticities that were essentially unknown variants on what might have happened in the ancient past. He was able to show that under the right circumstances vitrification could happen in such a timber laced rampart, but he could not say for sure what cultural activity (warfare, ritual closure of a site, accidental fire) caused this to happen in the Iron Age.

This ambitious and eccentric project, made possibly by TV largesse (which only really went so far as the many compromises that had to be made demonstrate), shows the potential of educational and informative experimental archaeology in even the most unpromising of locations. This was not the first vitrification experiment nor was it the last, but it was perhaps the most urban.

Even more urban than an equally ambitious and bonkers vitrification experiment that was carried out in the industrial setting of Plean Colliery, between Stirling and Falkirk, by V Gordon Childe in 1937. (The National Geographic recently called this an ‘audacious experiment’.) The Plean vitrification experiment was carried out with Wallace Thorneycroft and a response to questions raised by vitrified material found at a number of forts in Scotland, including one recently excavated by Childe himself at Rahoy, Argyll and Bute. In this case, Childe and Thorneycroft asked / told staff at the colliery to construct a ‘murus gallicus 12 feet long  by 6 feet wide by 6 feet high’ based on detailed sketch plans.

The Plean wall spec

The structure was constructed from materials to hand on the mine, such as fireclay bricks and wooden beams. This gave the wall the appearance of being nothing more than another industrial structure in a mining landscape, and it lacked the rugged organic look of Ralston’s wall. Also, and perhaps this is where motivational inauthenticities creep in, this wall was designed purely to burn and for no other reason.

Plean colliery experiment 1937

The conflagration of this wall would have had an urban audience, with houses overlooking the site, and one presumes the poor sods who built the thing would have been allowed to stand and watch. 4 tons of kindling and logs were used to create a pyre to cause the wall to burn and effect vitrification in its core.

Plean fire and vitrication

Childe reported that, ‘the fire was kindled at 11am on March 11 in a snowstorm’, and the wall began to collapse internally within an hour, reaching peak core temperatures in five hours. 20 hours after the fire was started, glassy bubbled rock was picked out of the smouldering debris. As with the Yorkshire Television experiment, the means to vitrify rock had been explored successfully, but the cause and motivation remained unclear.

As an aside, a curious Edinburgh University Abercromby Chair runs through this thread. Ralston currently holds that role as did Childe, both of whom carried out peri-urban vitrification experiments. And Stuart Piggott, another Abercromby Chair, was on a different episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

Stuart Piggott

I feel a Venn coming on. In the future, PhDs will be written about this.

Venn

The wonder of the vitrification experiments is that they failed to answer the ‘why’ question even if they were able to shed some light on the ‘how’ and ‘WTF’. Experiments and excavations continue to this day, with for instance an ongoing community and educational project involving the Forestry Commission at Dun Deardail, Argyll and Bute.  Here, the unanswered question, the mystery of vitrification and the melting of rock, offers fertile ground to involve and empower lots of people.

destruction-dun-deardail-cropped-low-resedited

Dun Deardail ablaze (c) Forestry Commission

When reflecting on the 1980 TV show, Ian Ralston told me that that the tweeted still photograph brought back memories although he did not define whether his recollections were negative, positive or bamboozled. He told me,

this is the Arthur C Clarke ‘The Mysterious World of…’ Yorkshire TV escapade … of the vitrified wall on Aberdeen City rubbish dump c. April Fool’s Day 1980 and that’s the unprepossessing surroundings of the tip in the background. I’m holding the torch I was given in due course to ignite the wall”.

He then went back to sorting out Brian Hope-Taylor’s historic Doon Hill excavations in East Lothian from the 1960s (and that would make an amazing blog post…but that’s for another day).

Holding the torch is a nice metaphor for what Ian Ralston was doing here, as well as a literal description. Of course, the great Professor and Edinburgh successor to Childe and Piggott is not quite ready to hand that torch over yet, but when he does, it is important that archaeologists continue to burn bright with enthusiasm, be hirsute with dignity and dream crazy dreams of impossible projects on the urban edgelands.

The end

Sources and acknowledgements: the tweet that started all of this was one a series of brilliant screen grabs and out-of-context comments from the TV show Arthur C Clarke’s mysterious world from Richard Littler. His tweet and screen grabs of Ralston and Piggott have been used in this blog post. Please follow him and buy his books.

The academic publication about East Tullos vitrification experiment was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 116 (1986), pages 17-40 and this is open access via the journal’s ADS page. This was the source for several quotations and the black and white images in the post. The account of the Plean vitrification experiment came from the same journal, in this case volume 72 (1937-38), pages 44-55. This was the source of the several black and white images about this experiment. 

The colour images are stills from the TV show itself, while the images related to Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious world are available widely online. The image of Dun Deardail ablaze came from the Forestry Commission website about that project, link in text above.

For an interesting critique of these kinds of experiments, and accounts of the work at Plean and East Tullos, with images I have not included, see this blog.

 

 

 

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Lost world

27 Jan

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

conference logo jpgThe rather lovely conference logo

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

Flint Crescent low res

Roundhouse 1 low res

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

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

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

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

Playground photo 1

Neolithic house planThe house that inspired the circular playground feature

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

Playground photo 3

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

Panorama low res

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

Lost world low res

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

General view low res

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

Neolithic house low res

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

Gap in the mound low res 1

Gap in the mound low res 2

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

wildside designs photo

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

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

Then and now

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

Remnants

The former timber setting

Remnants 2

The former log seats 

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

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

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

General view 2 low res

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

Tunnel low res

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

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

Reach out low res

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

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

 

 

 

Dynamic

8 Dec

DYNAMIC

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.

General view low res

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.

Stone row from bottom low res

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”.

stone pile low res

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.

DSC_1381

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’

noticeboard low res

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.

Bedrock 2016 low res

I suppose it is pretty dynamic though, as some weeds have grown in the cracks, between January 2016 and December 2017.

Bedrock 2017 low res

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.

Paint splat low res

It’s nowhere near as good as the megalithic rock sample collection at Bournemouth University though.

Bouremouth Uni rocks 1 low res

Bouremouth Uni rocks 2 low res

Sorry Dynamic Earth.

Your megaliths are just a bit rubbish.

Mystery World

19 Jan

What a great welcome, fabulous atmosphere and amazing journey into past myths and legends.   ” Mrs W, aged 68

“Tales of joy and tales of fright await the avid listener. And when the excitement of the park becomes too much, visitors can enjoy relaxing refreshments at the Viking Foodship. The Mysterymall Gift Shop has many beautiful and unique souvenirs to take home as a reminder to this truly amazing experience.”

mystery low res

While in Ballachulish on New Year’s Day with friends, I took the opportunity to visit a series of standing stones arranged around and within a car park next to the A82 main road. These spectacular grey granite megaliths do not appear to be ancient – and indeed they are not – so what is their story? Why were they built and when?

The curious answer to this question revolves around the rise and fall of a short-lived tourist folly. This place was once Highland Mysteryworld, a bizarre and tacky tourist attraction that was built as part of the economic development of the area in the 1990s alongside a hotel and leisure complex. Despite considerable investment in this venture, it went bust in the following decade, and the building it once inhabited is now a water sports business.

Yet traces of the visitor centre and infrastructure survive, something that became increasingly evident as we wandered around the car park and paused to touch the austere megaliths. Like much urban prehistory, traces of this place jut awkwardly into the current landscape. These are little more than ghostly clues to a rather inexplicable tourist attraction that, if the lack of its presence on the internet is anything to go by, left almost no impression on those who visited.

My one visit with Jan in the late 1990s holds various memories, none of them particularly positive other than that is formed one part of an otherwise spectacular day out in the Glencoe area. No photos appear to exist in our pre-digital archive, but we do distinctly remember an aggressive character who called himself the ‘wee fecher’ (sic). This irritant consisted of a member of staff hiding behind a wall panel. As we walked past, this poor soul thrust out their elbow, upon which was attached a rubbery ugly mask, which gave only a weak impression of a living being, and shouted at us as we innocently tried to pass. A limp textile body hung below this thing to complete a frankly unimpressive effect.

the wee fecher photo

The ‘wee fecher’ (c) Stephanie Ward from Steph’s Animation Blog

There, I purchased the only material remnant I have of this visit – a key ring in the shape of a megalith with the Highland Mysteryworld logo on it. This fell apart some time ago but for some reason I have retained it, although it was not to celebrate the experience. Rather like my Tomb of the Eagles fridge magnet, or unsharpened Bede’s World pencil, or unused Vindolanda rubber, it forms part of a dubious collection of mediocre-heritage-attraction-tat that lurks in a back corner of a kitchen drawer, awaiting some future event when the whole lot is finally emptied into a bin bag.

 

keyring

 

What was Highland Mysteryworld?

“The theme park will transport guests back in time, with the rich smells, bustling noises and sights of Scotland in ancient times.”

front of buildingHighland Mysteryworld was a cheesy visitor centre experience celebrating the myths and folklore of Scotland’s Highlands, situated in a pinky-grey building in the grounds of the Isles of Glencoe Hotel. Inside were celebrated, through dioramas, models, animatronics and people dressed up in costume all sorts of ‘characters’ and stories from Highland mythology. These included the aforementioned ‘fecher’ as well as witches, hobgoblins, mermaids and the like. Visitors followed a twisting pathway that allowed lots to be crammed into a relatively small space. And there was a apparently an auditorium shaped like a stone circle (of which I have no memory), as well as a shop and café.

A puff piece in the Herald newspaper dated 26th April 1996 (which is so journalistically poor and credulous that it can only have been a barely amended press release) told the story of the Mysteryworld soon after it opened. It notes that the neighbouring hotel, and the Mysteryworld, were a two-phase development on the site of an old slate mine and thus enhanced the landscape – a dubious claim given the spectacular nature of this location.

The advert, sorry, serious tourism piece, continued: “Like all the best ideas, this one came from the private sector”. Hmmm. The blurb continues, with no sense of irony,

“Highland Mysteryworld is a bold initiative, costing upwards of £1m initially, and although popularly described as a theme park, is a gentler exercise designed to recreate the Highland environment of times long past. It is based around aspects of life from ancient Celtic and Viking folklore with its myriad myths and legends. Charming and romantic today, these were at the very heart of life in the old Scottish way of life when superstition was rife and the elements were accorded great power to influence day to day existence.”

roots of rannoch photo

Interior shot (c) Stephanie Ward from Steph’s Animation Blog

What could visitors expect to see? Well, there was a film show for a start.

“In the Astromyth Theatre, the audience will hear Calgacus the Pict explaining the secrets of the elements, sun, moon and stars. The theatre is built to resemble a stone circle and has some dramatic sound and visual effects. The presentation takes about 20 minutes, well within the boredom threshold of the younger members of the family.”

Sorry for the extended quoting. This stuff is hilarious.

How might one finish this spell-binding trip?

“…at the end of the day, browse for interesting artifacts in the Mysterymall or enjoy some fine food in the Viking Foodship, where real warriors serve up the grub and pillage your empty plates.”

(Who writes this stuff? Can I shake their hand?)

“Highland Mysteryworld is hotly tipped to become one of Scotland’s top ten tourist attractions and is open daily, 10 am till late. The cost is £4.95 for each adult, £2.95 for children. You can get a family ticket for £12.”

Highland Mysteryworld went bust in the early-2000s and is now the home of Lochaber Watersports.

Mystery_World_Brochure purple

The leaflet for this attraction, which I managed to find the front page of online, perhaps gives us some hints as to why this genius idea failed. It proudly boasts: ‘See Legends Come Alive’. This is overlain on a picture of a small child shitting herself as a horrific Lovecraftian dribbling green monster looms over her shoulder. Below is an image from a new attraction for that year, ‘The tomb of the ancients’ which appears to consist of a sinister monk leering over body parts while parents clutch their kids save they become incorporated into the bone pile. That will teach them to have a minimum 20 minute attention span.

The name of the attraction is written in crazy runes which, along with the megaliths in the car park, hints at the bizarre melting pot this attraction undoubtedly was. It represented something of a conflation of thousands of years of stuff into one simple marketable package. This confusion reminds me of the technological mash-up in the movie Westworld, where robot cowboys re-enact the tropes of the Wild West. Perhaps Mysteryworld should have been the third part of a Michael Crichton trilogy (that also included Futureworld) where the salivating green monster, the little fecher and the death monk all gain sentient knowledge of their animatronic state and take matters into their own hands.

Maybe that’s why the place closed?

 

Mysteryworld today

Upon parking in the Isles of Glencoe Hotel car park and surveying the various standing stones within and around the car park it quickly becomes clear where a lot of the initial £1 million quid budget went – on erecting at least a dozen very large pink-grey granite standing stones. These are big as well, in the order of up to 2.5m high each; with below-ground components of up to 1m, presumably set in concrete – this represents a lot of granite. These are scattered around the edges of the car park, and between some rows of parking spaces, while two smaller stones still flank the entranceway to this leisure compound.

megalith and bus low res

Three large stones sit atop a grassy mound overlooking the car park, a megalithic triangle.

megalithic triangle low res

And then there is the building itself. Remarkably, the façade of the bland building in which the attraction was once housed still retains the large logo of the Mysteryworld.

mysterworld facade from afar low res

This is the same motif that is evident on my key-ring and recalls of course rock-art, being essentially a cup-and-ring variation with a little M (or W, or both) appended to the end of the spiral.

mysterworld facade low res

highland mysteryworld entrance photo

Now and then

The steel frame of the door still remains although now is has WATERSPORTS written on it. The entrance itself is entirely different as the photos above demonstrate. I pressed my face up against the brown glass doors that are in place now, peering into the sports HQ to see if any internal vestiges of the Mysteryworld still remain in situ. But all I was able to see was an untidy desk and a lot of empty boxes lying around.

In the forecourt of the entrance area other traces of the Mysteryworld were evident.

cobbling low resUnderfoot was a huge iteration of the logo created from carefully arranged grey and beige cobbles, a threshold of sorts, perhaps marking the moment when visitors were transported back in time, a patio-wormhole.

wee heads low res

Three little stone heads sat nearby, gurning and making faces: cheeky Highland mytho-heads. The impression they gave me was of three stone giants struggling in quicksand, buried up to their necks in this tourist blandscape. One of them appeared to have spat a cigarette from his mouth in surprise.

wee head low res

Our visit to Highland Mysteryworld was surprising as more of it survived than I would have thought possible, especially considering it was open for  less than a decade and it closed 13 or 14 years ago. Those staying at the hotel or using the car park or adventure playground today may well wonder what these enigmatic bits and pieces represent – something of a mystery to most of them I would imagine, ironically.

 

On the endurance of megaliths

Even on 1st January there was a steady drift of visitors and tourists wandering around Ballachulish and this megalithic-car-park. Many looked confused, walking between the cold hotel and the cold co-op, past closed public toilets and random landscaping megaliths on the other side of the A82.

toilets megalith low res

The pictured example above is one of several slate standing stones that lies within the tourist hub of this village, and at least these megaliths reflect the quarry that this retail zone exists within.

Ghostly traces of the Mysterworld abound, and these require some explanation for visitors, although in reality there is none. Signs have been amended rather than replaced, editing out the Mysteryworld as a concept. This was fleetingly a place of commerce, a place for coach parties to stop and a place for the consumption of a mythical mashed-up past, a place for investment and the attraction of visitors to actually spend money and not just look at the wonderful views or walk in the mountains.

pic

This dead theme park.

Surviving only in stone.

Megaliths, a building, cobbles, carved heads.

Car park flankers.

One silvery metal sign the exception.

This ghost place, now an archaeological site that does not exist in any lists of archaeological sites.

These rootless, restless megaliths, now an archaeological site that does not exist in any lists of archaeological sites.

Mystery.

car park megalith low res

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan, Helen and Erika for wandering around a car park with me on a freezing cold public holiday! Almost all information about Highland Mysterworld came from the Herald article mentioned above (including link) and a few travel blogs and touristy webpages, all of which appeared to regurgitate the Mysteryworld’s own publicity material – these are the source of the unattributed quotes in the post (such as this blog) including those at the start. The two photos of the outside of the Mysterworld when it was open are from here and here. The photos of the interior are both sourced from a blog Steph’s animation blog.

 

 

Nothing BC

30 Jul

There was no prehistory in Iceland. Nothing BC.

Yet when I recently visited for the first time, it became apparent to me that the landscape, both urban and rural, has a prehistoric quality to it.

This is an island that is defined by extremes of stone, and this has thrown up (in some cases literally) strange and beautiful arrangements of rocks. But not all of these megaliths are natural – there are standing stones, dolmen, stone circles too, commonplace in laybys, parks, street corners and on roadsides and pavements. This is immediately apparent on the road leaving the airport, with huge stone blocks with stone heads – stone people – looming over the road sides of Keflavik.

Keflavik big head low res

There is also something deeply prehistoric about the belief systems of the Icelanders, whether the over-played-for-the-tourists stuff about faeries and little people, or the Norse sagas and stories of gods, men and giants. The land has been ripped apart and reborn by prehistoric and geological forces, shaping the people just as much as the people shape the land with stories, place names and monuments. Little people live in the stones. Giants and gods fought with stones. People became stones, and are stones. The stones lived too once as well, oozing down the side of volcanoes, spewed across the land, swept up in flood waters, scraped and shaped by ice. Here, prehistory is a living condition, not a distant past, not even a real past, just an ever-present quality the land seems to have.

The standing stones that I saw often reflected the grain of the land, dark grey basaltic blocks with square or pentagonal or hexagonal profiles.

Standing stone at entrance to Seltun geothermal area car park

Standing stone at entrance to Seltun geothermal area car park

Monument, Vik

Monument, Vik

Reykjavik city centre

Reykjavik city centre

Cairns have been built on hilltops and roadsides of orange-hewed lava, or carefully constructed from small balanced flat stones.

Lava cairn, on a roadside of the Kaldidalur Corridor

Lava cairn, on a roadside of the Kaldidalur Corridor

Rocks are still on the move, continually being re-arranged and juxtaposed, put to use – to memorialise, to pin information boards on to, as boundary markers, to decorate hotel forecourts and car parks. In some cases it is unclear if the stones are in situ and have been utilised where they were found (a kind of expedient architecture), or if they have deliberately been erected.

Car park entrance, Reykjavik

Car park entrance, Reykjavik

Information board standing stone, Heimaey

Information board standing stone, Heimaey

Geysir Hotel standing stones

Geysir Hotel standing stones

But in some cases formal monuments appear to have been constructed, such as the German Memorial on the edge of the town of Vik. Here, a stone circle with central monolith has been constructed on the edge of a black sand beach, with the objective of remembering seamen who died on one or more German fishing boats off the coast of Iceland, and to thank locals for trying to help.

German memorial 1 low res

German memorial 2 low res

The nine external stones, graded for height, are grey hexagonally cooled magma columns, similar to those illustrated above, while the central block is a vibrant orange sandstone boulder, with metal plates attached.

But perhaps the most dramatic and perplexing megalithic monument I spotted in Iceland was in the surprising surroundings of a small fishing town on the southern coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula, Grindavik. On driving through the centre of town, it was clear that there were a lot of mounds and standing stones by the roadside, concentrated mostly on roundabouts and at road junctions.

Road junction standing stones and mounds, Grindavik

Road junction standing stones and mounds, Grindavik

On one side of the road was something altogether more coherent and remarkable – an extensive reconstruction of a passage grave, complete with a dolmen at the entrance. I spent some time wandering through this complex of stone walls, earthworks, standing stones and passages marvelling that such a structure should be built here, in a country with no prehistory (in a technical sense), and certainly no tradition of megalithic passage graves. No signs or information were evident anywhere to explain what was going on here – this was a most unexpected megalith.

dolmen low res

The only thing I could find out about this monument online was from a webpage about Viking pagan practices, which noted:

In Grindavík, on Reykjanes in Iceland, a modern interpretation of a pagan temple has been erected. While it’s not clear that the designers and builders of this modern temple had any special insight into how pagan temples were built during the Norse era, it is fun to see all the motifs from the various temple descriptions brought together into one structure.

Grindavik reconstruction 1 low res

passage low res

forecourt low res

knackered cist low res

It seems clear that the passage grave has been built in a Nordic tradition, with walling for instance reminiscent of Danish passage graves, although some aspects of the monument reminded me of Neolithic tombs in Brittany as well. The reconstruction seems to conflate various different megalithic monument elements (and not just Neolithic tombs): there are forecourts, recesses, orthostats, a stone cist, standing stones, mounds, cairns, a trilithon and facades – and a very narrow long and low passage I could not get through. It was a right jumble of all sorts of things in other words.

The monument lay open and exposed, bisected by pathways and pavements, with a road running along one side. Weeds grew from the paved surfaces, and graffiti was evident on the dolmen or trilithon setting. This was an altogether unremarkable place, typically quiet for Iceland, and this faux tomb almost – almost – did not seem out of place and time.

passage grave sketch

And so my visit has changed my mind-set.

Iceland does have a prehistory.

Iceland is prehistoric – in the nicest possible sense of that word.

Dolmen-like sculpture, Kirkjubaejarklaustur

Dolmen-like sculpture, Kirkjubaejarklaustur

This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than the recent project to build Arctic Henge, on the north coast of Iceland at Raufarhöfn (I did not manage to visit). This huge monument was planned in 2008, and is yet to be completed, and combines aspects of pagan religion with geology in a very Icelandic way. The project website states:

Similar to its ancient predecessor, Stonehenge, the Arctic Henge is like a huge sundial, aiming to capture the sunrays, cast shadows in precise locations and capture the light between aligned gateways. The ambitious series of circles and stacked basalt columns were placed according to a complex system based on old Norse mythology. Utilising the ideas of a pastor named Kolbeinn Þorleifsson (who believed dwarves corresponded to seasons in the Edda) there are 72 stones, each one representing a different dwarf name. There are also four gates corresponding to the four seasons, and a range of other symbols to explore. Along with the outer circle, the final henge will be a massive 52 metres in diameter.

Images of the Arctic Henge, from www.arctichenge.com

Images of the Arctic Henge, from http://www.arctichenge.com

It is interesting that the iconic Stonehenge is evoked here, just as it is in the trilithon that crowns the Grindavik passage grave. In both cases Icelanders appear to be looking to other parts of Europe for prehistoric inspiration. Yet all they need to do is to look around them, to their own landscape and their own post-pre-history.

I did not expect to think about prehistory when I was in Iceland and yet it seemed I was confronted by it constantly, in the art, the land, the people, the stories, and the stones.

Reyjkavik

Reyjkavik

 

 

 

Panopticon megalith

18 May

Panopticon: ‘a building, such as a prison, hospital, library, or the like, so arranged that all parts of the interior are visible from a single point’.

Stone circle: a prehistoric panopticon.

 

This is the story of a stone circle that is trapped – stuck in concrete, cornered at the end of a dead-end. A stone circle that has suffered more than most due to the encroachment of suburbia and urban expansion, and yet despite this, still exists, albeit it in a heavily moderated and modified form. It still matters. This is the story of a stone circle that we should not give up on, even although a decade ago it seemed that everyone had. This is the story of the greystanes of New Scone, the Sandy Road stone circle.

Greystanes cul de sac low res

The stone circle is tucked away, almost out of sight, at the end of a short road, hemmed in on all sides by houses and the familiar trappings of urban furniture – cars, lamp posts, kerbs, hard core, wood chippings, generically boring plants, doors, door steps, windows, window ledges, hanging baskets, low walls, grey bricks, grey paving stones.

Greystanes in Greystanes.

Greystanes low res

The stone circle is inconspicuous, disguised as an abstract piece of landscape gardening, like a group of artfully and craftily arranged boulders, sitting amidst grey-white pebbles and bright pink, purple and yellow heathers. Ankle high vegetation and knee high stones. A process has occurred that has transformed this stone circle into a circle of stones. It has been cul-de-sacked.

Sandy Road low res

I visited this stone circle, known as Sandy Road, in Scone, Perth and Kinross (NMRS number NO12NW 28) a few months ago. I have to be honsest and say that I felt uncomfortable during my visit. The monument seems to be completely surrounded by windows, holes with eyes, viewing platforms through which to watch strangers like me armed with cameras and small photographic scales and notebooks.

Curtains twitched, dogs barked aggressively, letter boxes rattled.

Woof woof. Stranger danger. Megalithic meddler. Weirdo. What is he up to?

I am alone, but not alone, being watched by house dwellers and passers-by with their shopping bags, being sensed and sniffed by dogs. I felt that I had invaded the senses of this place and caused a disturbance.

two of the stones

The stone circle in New Scone was first documented in detail by the redoubtable Fred Coles, who wrote abou this ‘remarkable’ monument in 1909 as part of one of his wider reviews of standing stones in the county. (Gavin MacGregor has blogged about some nice work Coles did a few decades earlier in SW Scotland in relation to cup-and-ring marks.) When Coles visited the Scone area, the circle still lay outwith the boundaries of western side of the town, beside Sandy Road, and a fir tree plantation. He recorded nine stones, seven of which were in situ, in a slightly elliptical setting 22 or so feet across. As well as drawing a lovely sketch of the stones, Coles also included in his report a photograph taken by a local man, Mr William Small. (An intriguing footnote records: ‘Mr Small is interesting himself in the skilful use of his camera in connection with the megalithic remains to be found in the districts adjacent to Perth.’)

Fred Coles' sketch of the Sandy Road stone circle pre-urbanisation

Fred Coles’ sketch of the Sandy Road stone circle pre-urbanisation

William Small photo from PSAS

Coles’ insightful comments on the stone circle came when the monument was untroubled by anything other than the activities of forestry workers. This was viewed a few decades later as being the cause of the loss of an supposed second small stone setting adjacent to Sandy Road. However, no firm evidence has been found to confirm there were two stone circles, with scattered boulders on the surface likely causing mid-identification – confusingly some of these boulders are part of the current display of the monument.

The monument before excavation (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

The monument before excavation (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

By 1961, the immobile stone circle finally clashed with creeping urbanisation, with the point of fusion being a trowel and then machines of the building trade. The expansion of New Scone on its western side, growing along Sandy Road, resulted in the circle coming under serious threat. This resulted in a series of traumatic events in the life of the monument. Firstly, the site was excavated by Margaret Stewart in 1961. She discovered a cinerary urn in a pit in the centre of the circle which contained a few cremated human bones; this was subsequently radiocarbon dated but with unsatisfactory results. In 1963 the OS recorded that the stone circle sat ‘in the middle of a council housing estate in the course of construction’. And then, by 1965, an OS fieldworker noted, ‘These stones have been temporarily removed. There are seven stones, which have been numbered and are to be cemented in position.’ And so the circle went into storage, only to be returned to the cold grey grip of concrete later that year, moving in at the same time as the new residents.

What then? The circle was by now just another garden feature, a folly in a cul-de-sac which had at least been named after the monument: Greystanes. And a  noticeboard was erected at the end of the road, to explain to residents (and visitors) what this megalithic curio was.

The noticeboard in 2006, photo (c) Cosmic

The noticeboard in 2006, photo (c) Cosmic

Yet there was clearly some kind of decline, and a lack of management of the monument. The noticeboard was removed at some point (I am not sure when, but it is certainly gone now). The stone circle itself became overgrown with vegetation, at first trees, and then shrubs and weeds.

The stone circle, overgrown and sad looking, in 2006 (c) Cosmic

The stone circle, overgrown and sad looking, in 2006 (c) Cosmic

The monument has of course been substantially tidied up since then, although upon close examination, it still bears the scars of its removal, storage and replacement. Cracks and splits in some of the stones suggest that some were broken during these invasive procedures, and subsequently glued together with some kind of synthetic adhesive.

Cracked stone

Cracked stone

There are also hints at other contemporary urban interactions. On two stones, yellow paint has been daubed onto them, on one in the form of a rough square, the other no more than a casual brush stroke.

yellow paint on stone low res

yellow paint on stone low res 2

This is what happens in urban places, with graffiti evident on other structures in the nearby park, such as this skateboard ramps, bins, trees, signposts and this obscured sign, another lost Scone noticeboard.

obscured noticeboard low res

And recently, the circle has come under minor threat from a very modern source – underground wiring related to, presumably phones, cable TV or broadband. Watching briefs were carried out by archaeologists in 2009 and 2012 because of works associated with ‘repair of communication equipment’ and the ‘repair of malfunctioning communications equipment’. Nothing of archaeological significance was found, and the monument suffered no further damage.

The urn from the stone circle, on display at Perth Museum and Art Gallery (their copyright)

The urn from the stone circle, on display at Perth Museum and Art Gallery (their copyright)

This stone circle, then, has suffered much in the name of progress and suburban utility, our convenience being at its inconvenience. But this is not to say that the circle is an irrelevance. A few years ago archaeologist Mark Hall (of Perth Museum and Art Gallery) brought the urn from the museum back to the stone circle where it was discovered, in a show-and-tell session with the local residents, and there was a lot of interest. This was a fantastic thing to do, and the response shows that there is a real desire from the community to learn more about this monument – and this is likely also reflected in the much tidied and regenerated appearance of the Greystanes as opposed to a decade ago.

Mark Hall at the Sandy Road stone circle (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

Mark Hall at the Sandy Road stone circle (c) Perth Museum and Art Gallery

So perhaps I got my visit all wrong. It could well be that the Greystanes residents were not spying on me, but intrigued by my presence, maybe even proud that a visitor had come to their street to see their stone circle. Urban stone circles can continue to be useful to us today if we use them, look after them, make them look nice, and occasionally remember that they are indeed ancient places, despite the heather and concrete and all the other trappings of contemporary urban life.

Those who are lucky enough to live with a stone circle at their front door have ringside seats overlooking prehistory.

Sources and acknowledgements: I must firstly thank Mark Hall for letting me know about this site, explaining his activities there, and sending me – and allowing me to reproduce – some of the photos used in this post. The photo of the site before excavation, the image of the urn and the final photo, with Mark sitting on one of the stones, are all copyright Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland and reproduced with permission. The urn is on display at the museum. The images of the overgrown circle, and the noticeboard, came from the Megalithic Portal pages for the site, and were posted there in 2006 by user ‘Cosmic’. Fred Coles’ description of his site, and his illustrations, come from his article ‘Report on stone circles surveyed in Perthshire (Southeast District), with measured plans and drawings’ published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) volume 43 (1909) from page 127 onwards – you can find this article online for free if you google for it. Information on the recent watching briefs and the OS accounts of the circle came from the CANMORE page for the site. Margaret Stewart’s excavation report was published in 1965 in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Perthshire Society of Natural Sciences, volume 11, pages 7-23.