Tag Archives: Urban Prehistory

Coatbridge Carnac

21 Jun

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.

The fallen standing stone (photo: Jan Brophy)

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 the shadow of high rises

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 coupled trollies

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.

Place of trolley excarnation

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.

Marking territory, Buckie deposition

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.

Facing our dystopian future

6 Apr

This post reproduces a short provocation that I gave during the last workshop of the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded Scotland’s 3rd Millennium Archaeology workshop series. Abbreviated as 3M_DO_2019 (#3M_DO), this event took place in Edinburgh on 10th December 2019. The workshop series, organised by Alex Hale of Historic Environment Scotland, and co-organised by Antonia Thomas, UHI, and myself, had the aim of ‘contributing valuable archaeological perspectives to the political, economic, and environmental challenges facing Scotland in the present day.

The final workshop was a chance to reflect on the three previous workshops, and consider future directions for contemporary archaeology in Scotland. These issues are yet to be resolved, with a final event delayed by Covid-19, but we hope to produce an output, or outputs, from this workshop series in the coming months. I would like to thank Alex and Antonia for inviting me to speak at the final workshop, and Gavin MacGregor for support and inspiration.

My brief was to summarise thoughts on workshops to date, and future directions and issues, and I called my provocation Facing Our Dystopian Future. Some of the ideas and even words in this short presentation have been used in earlier blog posts. Links to sources and related material have been added to the text where you might want to follow up on these snapshots and I have slightly edited the text in places where it was rubbish.

When these workshops started, I was not sure if archaeology was part of the problem – or part of the solution.

Of course, it is both.

And not only can archaeology affect change for the good, but it can also document change as it happens.

We are uniquely positioned to document material history and future site formation processes.

As Simon Sellers wrote in his novel Applied Ballardianism, archaeologists see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. 

It is time to rethink what an archaeologist can be and should do. This is what this workshop series has been about.

Tackling problems.

During this Brexit Age everyone is seeking the comfort of the past. Nostalgia is in abundance. There is more nostalgia than we need. Supply has out-stripped demand.

Some wish for a fantasy Britain, of the 1950s, or perhaps the 1930s. Others seek the comforts and strictures of the Victorian era. Steampunk memories.

Still others seek the relative golden hour of Blairism and the years around the turn of the millennium.

But where will this nostalgia lead?

And is there any comfort to be had in the past? Or is this a delusion?

Welcome to Brexit Britain, where practices, materials, lifeways, are inexorably becoming prehistoric.

Our dystopia is not that of the Orwellian vision of Big Brother. Or Huxley’s Brave New World.

Our dystopia is that of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, of Will Self’s Book of Dave, of a regression to prehistory.

We need to be ready for the Second Iron Age – and who better to prepare us for this task than archaeologists?

Middens are indicative of accumulation and disposal, rise and decline. They are the ultimate material expression of consumption.

Middens mark the rise, fall, and will indicate our return to, prehistory.

Middens are contingent on abandonment, emergent in every place that humans exist, from a deserted military island to the urban core.

Middens passively grow, while awaiting collapse.

Middens are our cultural scar tissue, which we cannot help but touch.

Cairns of calcium and carbon. And plastic.

Because middens are not just of the past. Everywhere around us are middens-in-waiting, potential-middens, partial-middens, middens-in-hiding, proto-middens.

Living is an act of maddening middening.

If we must stumble into this prehistoric dystopia, then let us offer ourselves, the archaeologists, as expert tour guides.

We are not just over-producing nostalgia. We also have an abundance of plastic. Plastic has outstripped demand, and gone beyond need.

The focus on single use plastic and the Anthropocene will be defining issues by which archaeologists can demonstrate the effectiveness of our techniques but also the efficacy of our critical thinking.

Plastic democratises archaeology because everyone can become collectors of it. We have our own hoards, our own deposition strategies, our own stratigraphies and contexts.

Beach combers document the madness of what we have done. The frustrating pointlessness of what we use plastic for. The sea spews up our iniquities and shortcomings on daily base, each tide revealing a new charge sheet.

Collections of plastic adorn social media. Arranged in tableaux that have a creepy aesthetic.

But our typologies need to be more sophisticated than ‘blue plastics’ or ‘toy soldier plastics’. We need to arrange plastics that are found according to their potential for re-use and recycling. We should be considering moral categories for plastics that are collected too.

And as archaeologists we should be part of the conversation about the how we can put less stuff into the archaeological record, to compress our material footprint, and shrink future assemblages.

We need less single-use archaeology.

As archaeologists we are especially well place to document processes of collapse, entropy, decay, dissolution.

We know that nothing last for ever, that even the most enduring structures will return to their constituent parts.

Our job now is to reflect on recording the mighty structures of today in expectation of their inevitable crash tomorrow.

I was told once by a planning officer during a public inquiry related to Orcadian windfarm development that had wind turbines been erected in the Neolithic, the local tribes would have bowed down and worshipped them.

What seemed ridiculous to me back then, now seems an essential insight.

Wind turbines on Orkney are just another incarnation of the grey upright megaliths erected in prehistory. The turbines are the true Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

They are our source of salvation. We put faith in them. They will ensure our future wellbeing and fecundity, while staving off disaster.

They stand watch over us to remind us of what we have done – and what out futures may become.

How can we have anything but awe for these mighty structures? We have a duty to document them now, and after the collapse, surveying the future ruins of our civilisation.

Underwater sources of power are potentially more powerful than the on-shore farming of wind. But fishing for energy, sinking machines to the depths, does not provide the visual fix that we need to ensure that something is being done. That we are protected, and that our future is seen to being protected.

This is our equivalent of Neolithic pit deposition, putting significant objects beneath the surface to work for the benefit of the community, interceding with the gods on our behalf. It is an act of faith, of sacrifice.

Underwater machines offer the hope of safety but ultimately, when dystopia comes, what is left will be picked over by underwater archaeologists. Measurements will be taken, objects recovered from scatters across the ocean floor. Pipes and tubes will have become occupied by crabs, encrusted with barnacles. Conservators will have to deal with salt-rust and corrosion. 

We will probably document a futile gesture that was at least untroubled by sea water level rise, except for the destruction of the secret bunker that controlled it on a nearby beach, an achilles heel built into the system.

Water will gradually seep into the mechanisms of these underwater machines, causing malfunction, the source of power also being the means of their destruction.

We are on a collision course with the sun.

In his book The Crystal World, JG Ballard writes about an environmental crisis where everything in the world gradually turns to crystal. This was one of a series of early novels that he wrote with a focus on climate emergency and the ways that humans are changing the world. He wrote these books half a century ago.

Ballard foretold the future, using his creativity to diagnose society’s pathologies, and make portentous prophecies about the outcomes. As with archaeologists, he observed human – material interactions, and he was especially interested in how people entangled with machines.

Human-machine interactions are a key aspect of contemporary archaeology, as fundamental as human-ceramic or human-megalith relationships are key for prehistorians.

Our insights should allow us to become advocates and activists for what we need to do to avert dystopia. We need to become prophets of the contemporary past.

In summer 2019 I visited Crystal World near Innsbruck in Austria. Ostensibly this is a showcase for the Swarovski crystal makers.

This is a deeply Ballardian experience. The main focal point of the whole gated compound is a huge green passage grave with the face of a Green Giant. From this earthwork mound poured a stream of recycled water, vomited into a placid pond.

Entry to this passage grave is affected behind this saliva-fall, where a straight passage opens up ahead, with golden walls. Walking along this passage brings you into a chamber, where amongst other things are displayed skulls of crystals, and a lifeless figure propped onto the back of a gem-adorned horse.

Inside this Green Giant passage grave, a series of disorientations and otherworldly experiences can be had.

This is a thoroughly retro-futuristic experience, at its heart cold crystal consumerism dressed up in art installations with Ballardian names: Emotional Formation. Transparent Opacity. Chandelier of Grief. Into lattice sun. Crystal Dome. The Mechanical Theatre.

These are the arenas in which the hypermodern are enacted. These should be our fieldwork destinations. These passage grave utopias.

Always start your investigation at the green, grassy mound, for this will be the nerve centre.

In the 2007 book Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape Sefryn Penrose and colleagues considered the archaeology of modern structures, buildings, and landscapes of England. Places that defined modern consumer and leisure behaviour featured highly – shopping malls, theme parks – but also places of transportation – railway stations hubs, airports, motorway intersections.

This Ballardian vision of what archaeologists should be studying and researching is inspiring and suggests that we should collectively be shifting our gaze from the past to the contemporary past.

The contemporary past is where the past now resides, all of it, and we are making new pasts on a daily basis.

One of the categories of place that was considered in this book is Television landscapes.

Recently I spent some time at Salford Quays in Manchester, a canal-side space station dedicated to the recording and broadcasting of television programmes. The skyscape was dominated by huge corporate logos – BBC, ITV, Granada Studies.

Bladerunner meets Coronation Street.

Moving through this landscape, amidst glassy broadcast buildings, felt like being on a reality TV programme. I assumed that I was being observed by cameras from various angles, monitored in a way I found uncomfortable. Groups of people sat in a park, ate in expensive bars, and I could not tell if they were merely visitors to the area, or extras in a film documenting my visit.

In the Blue Peter garden I noted memorials and monuments to dead pets, children’s TV as Pet Semetery.

Salford Quays and other places like it offer blurred experiences, neither reality, not the product of a team of creatives. I felt myself flickering in and out of solidity, almost as if I was being pixilated, about to be broadcast like Mike TV in the Chocolate Factory.

Penrose wrote of the television utopia, the Teletubbies set:

The mythological fantasy land of Teletubbies (1997), devoid in reality of preternatural greenness and baby-faced sun, was embedded incongruously in Warwickshire farmland. Field boundaries were marked by hedgerows that shielded camera operators, tracks and multi-coloured bouncing beings before the field was ploughed back to farmland – as if the teletubbies had never actually existed.

These colourful alien beasts with television screen stomachs and antennae ears are of course the perfect vector for the televisual age, and by gazing into their oblong glass bellies we can see our own futures being broadcast back at us on a loop.

The Teletubbies occupy a monumental landscape, focused on a grassy dome which is reminiscent of the Green Giant passage grave at the Crystal World.

Children must be used to seeing prehistoric structures. In the show In the night garden, the creature Makka Pakka lives in a riverside dolmen. It is almost as if our television producers and creatives are subliminally preparing our children for their dystopian future, but in a metaphor for Brexit Britain, this is being sold as a utopia.

This accords with Penrose’s observation that this is a landscape of deceit and deception.

Goodnight children and don’t have nightmares.

We have our own equivalent of the centrally placed grassy mound phenomenon – the now defunct Archaeolink Prehistory Park near Aberdeen.

Here we have the ruination of a set of ruins, a visitor attraction that was utopian in so many of its ideals, but has now become an overgrown dystopia.

Like the ruinous Bangour Hospital near Livingston, Archaeolink is about to be sold for housing development.

Houses will eventually be built on top of where a roundhouse once stood, although as documented by Gavin MacGregor, this had its door hanging off as early as 2013. The hearth has not been lit for some time.

Various urban explorers have been to this place, broken in, and carried out photographic and documentary surveys.

In some cases, they are literally archaeologists, in other cases they act like archaeologists, documenting the ruination and decay of this place. Urban decay, as with plastics, democratises what we do, and encourages diverse forms of archaeological engagement with the world.

This is a ghost village of confusing temporality. Everything has gradually slipped into a state of disrepair, with stuff left lying about as if the place was abandoned overnight. Timber posts are strewn about like limbs. Roofs have fallen in. The green mound has grassed over, and its glass façade is boarded up, looking like something from the set of an Italian science fiction movie from the 1960s rather than a defunct visitor centre.

Archaeologists document decay, although are not usually able to see it in real time as is the case at Archaeolink.

We must be the biographers of all emergent ruination.

I recently visited the Temple of Mithras in London.

Located beside the now buried stream of Walbrook, this Mithraeum has gone through various incarnations since its discovery in the 1950s. The most recent being funded by Bloomberg, with the Temple relocated to its original location beneath a golden office block.

This is a place that stinks of money.

A display of artefacts found during excavations ahead of the construction of this office compound includes a Roman table and stylus dated to 8th January in AD 57. This records the earliest written evidence for a financial transaction in Britain.

A reference point for visitors to visualise the stratigraphic depth of the Temple is the Bank of England, which is situated a few minutes’ walks away horizontally, and 7m vertically.

Before going down to the gloomy basement within which the Temple can be experienced, one has to pass several huge golden artworks.

Central to the myth of Mithras is the slaying of the bull – the tauroctony.

A sacred secret killing for the approval of the sun god sol. Eyes averted, hand wet with blood, creation in death. The myth remade in temples underground by lonely men trying to become gods.

In our archaeological practice, are we willing to get our hands dirty, to slay the bull, to take on the structural forces that shape and constrain us all today? Or will we be complicit and happy to remain within the bosom of capitalism?

What is contemporary life but an accumulation?

What are humans but constant accumulation and deposition?

Rubbish in, rubbish out.

We live on the dirty edgelands of the future.

We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.

Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.

And when our machines have collapsed or been overwhelmed by water, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens, our broken machines, our single-use plastic, and bulls slayed by overwhelming circumstances.

Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds. We should not depend on there being archaeologists of the future age, just curious and liberated animals.

It is all accumulating today.

We cannot be bystanders in this formation of the archaeological record.

We are tomorrow’s archaeology. Today.

Great crown of stone

20 Mar

Exactly a year ago, 20th March 2019. the new Sighthill stone circle was officially revealed to the media. Designed, as was the first iteration, by Duncan Lunan, this astronomically aligned stone circle has been constructed as a permanent and unique resource within the emerging new Sighthill just to the north-east of Glasgow city centre.

At the time when this new megalith began to emerge, it sat on a raised island amidst a giant muddy building site. Sighthill itself was yet to be reborn, the old variant having been more or less completely bulldozed and remediated as part of a £250 million redevelopment. The standing stones stood resplendent like teeth, their concrete foundations exposed like white gums. At the time they sat in a noisy landscape of construction, with the closest neighbour being a Mercedes car dealership, a Ballardian crash of epic proportions.

A year on, residential Sighthill is now growing slowly, although the stone circle remains (just) in glorious isolation. It still sits in a brownscape of mud amidst machines of construction, but it is slowly visually and metaphorically being lost in an urban skyline. Yet even now, driving west along the M8 into the city centre, the Sighthill’s second stone circle is a fantastic site / sight, emerging as it does on the horizon off to the left. A similar and wonderful view can be gained by the pedestrian by standing on Baird Street bridge over the motorway.

The stone circle is surely Glasgow’s Angel of the North, a great crown of stone on the horizon.

This photo essay (my rather grand description of what is basically a series of photographs) documents the time I was privileged to spend in and around the stone circle on 20th March 2019 thanks to a kind invitation from Duncan.

Duncan prepares
Media scrum
The gathering
PPE and me
Pilgrims
High vis 1
Mud bath
The mints
Megalith bagging
Camera obscura
Alignment
Photo op
City limits
High vis 2
Through a crack
Great crown of stone
Mounds and megaliths
Artist’s impression of the circle when its new urban setting is completed (artist unknown)

Green bling

27 Feb

Oh, Edmund… can it be true? That I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest Green?

This post has two points of departure.

Firstly, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word bling in the context of prehistoric metalwork. This is a common enough trope used by archaeologists and the media. But is this really the correct word for how these objects functions in prehistory, or merely a characterisation of objects as being shiny, precious things – even if the objects in question were neither of these things in the Iron Age or Bronze Age?

Perhaps also there is an element of (inverted) snobbery here, of disparaging gratuitous wealth displays, and the appropriation of a word in mainstream discourse that would appear to be more at home in the urban dictionary. Take the case of the so-called Prittlewell Prince, whose early medieval grave was found in 2003 during road-widening in Southend: in the media and amongst archaeologists (from the Time Team to British Archaeology magazine) this individual became widely known as the King of Bling.

Secondly, I find almost all museums boring. Unless they are museums of weird things, or deeply strange, I am left cold by glass cases of inanimate objects, little text panels, maps, and assorted accompanying artwork and imagery. Museums of course can be deeply contested and problematic places, but for me I see them, usually, as reliquaries for cold dead things that we value today and see as representative which they may or may not be.

Museums confuse me with their fixed categories and compartmentalizations, their maze-like floorplans, the disorderly arrangement of things, the missing objects replaced by little loan cards, weird coffee, lockers with non-returnable coin slots, how much coinage to drop into the donations slot at the doorway. They are places of little stresses that I do not enjoy.

I realise how that both of my initial points of departure are contingencies related to the contemporary setting of the museum, that they exist to showcase prehistory (or whatever) in our own terms and not the terms of those who made the stuff (or whose bodies we display). They are places that for me have little sense of pastness, like big shops where nothing is for sale (except in the actual shop).

But on the other hand, as a recent visit I took to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford did remind me, museums can be fine repositories of urban prehistory. There are few places where urban prehistory exists in such a concentrated form, albeit it in a deeply fragmented and stylised arrangement. If you happen to want a hit of prehistory and are in a city or town, heading to the local museum is as good as a way as any to ensure that you your desire is fulfilled, your lust sated for the good stuff. Although I would argue that museum displays are really just a kind of methadone for prehistory addicts.

On the same weekend as I made my trip to the Ashmolean apres breakfast a conference was being held in Chester on the topic of The Public Archaeology of Treasure. This is one of a series of excellent student conferences organised by the tireless Prof Howard Williams of Chester University, some of which have resulted in publications including papers by students, and generously co-edited with students too. Howard has discussed the conference on several occasions on his brilliant Archaeodeath blog eg before the event and after.

The hashtags for this conference were / are #archbling and #blingarch and this is one of the things that I reflected upon as I sat on a lovely smooth wooden bench in the Ashmolean after failing to find a temporary exhibition of works by the artist Philip Guston that I was actually quite interested in visiting.

Because the European prehistory gallery that I had spent some time on at that point sure was full of bling, gratuitously so. But what intrigued me was how much of this bling was, er, green. Not gold, not silver, not even bronze, but green. Not always shiny, sometimes rather dull. And curiously the idea of green bling made a lot more sense to me because this opened up the category of bling to non-metallic materials. For instance, Neolithic jadeite polished stone axes, of the deepest green. Or wonderful ornate beads of glassy faience, in pale greens and turquoises.

Bling was on my mind for another reason as I pondered a vast wall of busts in the stairwell of the museum. That weekend I had been attending and participating in a continuing education conference on the topic of Places of Worship in Britain and Ireland: prehistoric and Roman. Organised by Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill, this is part of an epic series of conferences on historic matters. I was talking about cursus monuments of course.

Speakers used the word bling a lot over the course of the weekend. My notes for a great talk by the wonderful Dr Seren Griffiths showed that she used the phrase WEIRD BLING but I can’t recall the specific context.

On the Saturday evening, an excellent talk by the National Museum of Scotland’s all-knowing Dr Fraser Hunter on Iron Age stuff was frequently punctuated with the word bling, usually in relation to some shiny piece of metal like a carnyx, a torc, or a lunalae. (I am not confident about the correct singular or pluralisation of any of those words.)

Curiously my notes from Fraser’s talk included a sketch of a weird Iron Age spoon, and a pair of these caught my eye as I wondered about the European Prehistory gallery at the Ashmolean, taking in the sheer green-ness of it all.

The more time I spent in this gallery, the more green stuff I saw, in all sorts of shades, depths, tones, and materials. Lumps of malachite (nuggets of the purest green?), glassy beads, stone axes, torcs, axes, little metal things that I had no idea what they were, and the pair of bronze spoon-things. In fact it seemed to me that there was more green bling than gold bling or silver bling or even brown bling.

Obviously some of this stuff was not green back in the day. A chemical reaction has taken place. Metal corrodes to a coppery haze and loses its original colour over time. A lot of this stuff is green with age: unlike wood, here green does not depict youthfulness and flexibility. But quite a good deal of this stuff was green all along, with for instance the rich greenness of the stone azes brought to the fore by relentless polishing. Here green was the origin point, not the inevitable outcome. Green-ness was worth climbing the Alps for, perhaps even dying for.

And of course a lot of the bling found with the ‘King’ at Prittlewell had, with age, green-ed like this drinking horn fitting and hanging bowl.

My own experience of green bling came with the discovery of a dagger grave in a cist at Forteviot, Perth and Kinross, 2009. The first indication we had of the grave goods was a shaft of green poking from the beige cist floor, almost as if the dagger was a new growth, appropriate amidst a grave that contained rich evidence for Meadowsweet flowers (white bling). The dagger, once all the brown stuff had been cleaned from it, was revealed to be a wonderful green jagged shard of copper alloy with a whale tooth and gold pommel atop. Now, let’s not get started on whale bling.

So if we must use the word bling, and given the word has been used by the Howard Williams and Fraser Hunters of this world, then I guess we must, then let us at least rethink the parameters and temporality of what we mean. Let’s celebrate green bling, if nothing else because it is one of the most common forms in which urban prehistory appears to us, minty fresh, today.

Sources and acknowledgements: the quote that starts this blog post comes from the Blackadder Season 2 episode Money, and was, or course, uttered by Lord Percy.

I would also like to thank Paul Barnwell and Tim Darvill for inviting me down to Oxford to take part in the conference.

Drinking horn image (c) MOLA and sourced from The Guardian and the hanging bowl image is also (c) MOLA, from Heritage Daily.

The Forteviot dagger image is (c) the SERF Project and HES.

Museum map taken from the guide to the Ashmolean which cost me a quid.

Finally, grateful thanks to Howard Williams for sharing his thoughts about bling. I am truly delighted to have found a topic to blog about that has not yet featured on Archaeodeath (yet!).

London cromlech

26 Jan

Looking for Welbeck Street. Hunting for Henrietta House. At times walking and looking upwards. At other times with my nose buried in a map.

Following another tweet, sniffing out a lead, searching for prehistory where by rights there should be none and yet….

… this is London after all.

This tireless, relentless, obsessional quest for #urbanprehistory is driving me on beyond what is reasonable of a person with my other commitments.

And then I see it: the London cromlech. Suddenly it is all worthwhile.

On the corner of Welbeck Street and Henrietta Place, perched high above pavement level, surveying the steady flow of commuters, shoppers, doctors in this medical quarter of Marylebone. A place of bones. On Henrietta Place stands Henrietta House. On Henrietta House stands the cromlech.

Megalithic art on the corner quoins

Occult architecture across a from department store, a place of coins

The Debenhams dolmen

A structure of dark passages and concealed knowledge

rendered in four dimensions, all angles and shadows

having the feeling of being an optical illusion.

A stone joke not shared by those who pass beneath unaware

the view from below being as if from the underworld

and we are the dead.

The cromlech is perched, an iron on coffin legs

placed on a junction, a liminal place of decision-making

looming from its dizzy cliff, inaccessible, skeletal, timeless

representative of an impossible topography.

Field notes 1: the cromlech

The cromlech is not alone. A remarkable series of buildings and structures are carved around the façade of Henrietta House in Portland limestone, the work of sculptor Keir Smith. They are from a commissioned series of sculptures he called From the Dark Cave which was completed in 1992. I traced the edge of this office block with my eyes, moving forward in time, sometimes recognising the well-spaced miniature stone architectural renderings of iconic buildings of Britain both real and stylised.

Smith during work on the project (source: catalogue)

Fifteen buildings, from the dark cave, to Canary Wharf, hundreds of thousands of years of human occupation and endeavor.

Field notes 2: the dark cave

The primitive hut twinned with the cromlech, wrapped around the corner

Temple, cave, pyramid, skyscraper, church

Watchtower and tolbooth

Castles and crenulations

Globes and domes

The phallic observatory

Machines of industry

Whimsy, fancy, folly

The Euston Arch

Hawksmoor (of course).

Plan showing the locations and names of the 15 sculptures, from the catalogue

This work was commissioned by Lynton plc and Nationale-Nederlanden, and in part funded by the Public Arts Development Fund. The influences, process, and rationale, is captured in a rather tough to find short booklet entitled A sculpture for Henrietta House London W1, From the Dark Cave. The second part of the title is written, white on white.

My copy came in the post in an extravagantly stamped envelope.

The creative process involved the creation of a series of wooden maquettes in a specially established woodworking workshop. These are smaller scale versions of the final sculptural pieces which were made by cutting stone blocks with a diamond steel saw, ‘essentially stone constructions rather than pure carvings’.

Maquettes of the Dark Cave, the Cromlech, and the Primitive Hut

As a whole, the buildings represent what Smith characterised as a ‘personalised history of architecture, or more properly of building’. Yet there was also a strong archaeological undercurrent in this work, acknowledged by Smith as a longterm preoccupation. In his obituary in The Guardian it was noted that ‘Art and architecture of the past, archaeology, mythology and landscape informed his early work’ and all of this and more is evident at Henrietta House. There is also a clear occult thread running through this work not least with the depiction of a pyramid that recalls the one in the cemetery of Hawksmoor’s church St Anne of Limehouse and his pyramid in the grounds of Castle Howard.

Of the cromlech itself, Smith notes the ongoing impact on his work of Paul Nash, of whom this carving is a ‘remembrance’ especially the 1937 lithograph Landscape of the megaliths, an Avebury masterpiece. The line of stones in this painting, a kinaesthetic avenue, has more curves and fewer angles compared with the Dark Cave series, but captures a similar processional, progressional, aesthetic in stone.

Nash’s Landscape of the megaliths (Victoria and Albert Museum)

The cromlech is a composite creation, based both on an un-named megalith that Smith saw on a trip to St David’s in Pembrokeshire (= dolmen country) and Kits Coty House, a caged dolmen in Kent. That it is a fictionalised dolmen, composed of multiple sources of information, an every-cromlech, is no surprise. But Smith’s rendition has no cage, only the adjacent cave.

Kits Coty House dolmen (c) English Heritage

Here the Nash influence is at its most strong, and Smith has fabricated a fascinating facsimile of this mysterious monument. Unlike most other buildings in this series, this is a place of the dead, not the living.

What of the future of this artwork? This is a place of transformation. Scaffolding and fencing conceals from view some of the carvings, while men with high-vis jackets, hard hats, and cigarettes loiter in the shadow of the cromlech, observing my own curious behaviour, taking photographs, keeping notes, avoiding traffic.

This is not a quiet location. Close to Oxford Street, it offers the back view of big shops, the rear entrances, the underbelly of capitalism and pre-Christmas consuming.

Henrietta House is currently occupied by CBRE who appear to be a big international real estate corporation.

CBRE have embarked on what they call Henrietta House Re-imagined. A ‘divisional director’ says:

This transformational project will create an inspiring and energising workplace which promotes wellbeing, sustainability and productivity. Incorporating the latest in tech and office design, it will allow innovation and collaboration to thrive and will empower our teams to better serve our clients and to attract and retain the best talent.

Whatever.

A glance at the impression of the new look for the exterior of this building shows that Smith’s series of carved buildings will survive this regeneration. This can do no harm to the wellbeing of staff and visitors alike.

And CBRE do appear to like prehistory. They are the ‘Official Real Estate partners’ of the Tutankhamun: treasure of the golden pharaohs exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery (November 2019 to May 2020). This is King Tut on tour. This golden sponsorship deal reminds me of the Bloomburg curation of London’s Temple of Mithras which will be the subject of a future blog post. It would be nice to think that this ethos would encourage information about Smith’s work to be included at Henrietta House, as I am not sure if this is currently the situation.

Smith’s obituary says this of the Dark Cave series: These frontal sculptures were carved in deep relief, much bolder and more three-dimensional than the shallow carving that bas-relief allows. He employed geometric form and references to elements of his favourite buildings, whether significant or utilitarian. Who is to say which category we might assign to the cromlech?

The depiction of the dark cave, of the cromlech, of the primitive hut, represent an urban prehistoric triptych of unparalleled depth and complexity, and are well worth a visit if you are ever in the vicinity.

You won’t regret it.

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Magnus Copps for drawing my attention to this cromlech, which I visited during a trip to the TAG conference at UCL in December 2019. A suitable end to the millennium. Quotes in the text either come from ‘the obituary’ (The Guardian, 3rd April 2007, by Ann Elliot) or ‘the catalogue’, which is the 1994 pamphlet From The Dark Cave – A Sculpture For Henrietta House London W1 by Keir Smith. The image of the maquettes is sourced from the Royal British Institute of Architects (RIBA). Finally, the Henrietta House re-imagined visualisation comes from the web page with this name linked to in the text above.

An t-Eilean

31 Dec

I am alone on the campus in the dark, testing the surfaces slippery with rain with care beneath my feet. The relentless Christmas rain.

Surrounded by formless buildings, contained by road and railway lines, deflated and lonely. Sheltering beneath the awning of a bus-stop even although at this time of evening no bus will pass.

On this Ballardian edgeland campus within which I am interned, I’m avoiding going back to my prison cell room, killing time, getting wet.

Working off school dinner turkey dinner, a damp squib cracker, the limp party hat, a lukewarm beer from the car boot of a well-known archaeologist.

Then I see the crannog.

It is a geometrical wonder. A square island – a platform – set within an asymmetrical pentagonal loch. A black pool of water, illuminated by a white streak, seasonal lights, street lamps, the mysterious tower glowing red nearby.

On this island grows a tree, in defiance of the urban coldness of its surroundings, the sterility of this ground, slick with University money.

Illuminated by uplights, dampened by downlights, cathode uppers and downers. I approach and then cross the bridge – the causeway – to the crannog. An t-Eilean – The Island.

The route across the eldritch dark water, the only way onto this island, is lit up blue, like a runway begging me to land. Except it is not land. The surface is lubricious with precipitation.

The square arena of the interior of the crannog is floored with fake wooden tumble, branches that never lived. Gaps in this crazed paving have filled with organic detritus, washed there by the wind and rain. Leaves, twigs, brush, pile. These cracks are fecund with the mechanism of pollination in an otherwise infertile place.

Amidst this inorganic floor, a sort of prehistoric linoleum, are set dazzling white lights that point to the sky, and neon strips.

For a while I am disorientated. Blinded by the light.

The tree was no illusion even although I fancied it was before I crossed the water. How could a living tree exist on this concrete island? Yet it lives although I could not determine how its roots were arranged or what this tree was growing from aside from a brown puddle of soil. It jutted through the floor of this crannog, a living tree that connected water with sky, only stopped from soaring away by its shackles and chains.

The walls of the crannog mixed materials and levels of porosity – cold concrete, dark metal, hard wood. Windows in the walls afforded views of the surrounding campus world, framing the blank canvas in this blank campus. The west side of the compound was a palisade of squared concrete posts, a defensive line.

Wet through with rain, salt-less tears on my face, I squatted over a hot white light and

just

melted

away.

Notes

An t-Eilean – The Island is an award winning installation within the UHI Inverness College campus by architect Lisa MacKenzie. She notes that the work offers a space for reflection in a public civic space. Key questions in the genesis of the work: How do we challenge the management of public spaces at an Institutional level to make landscapes that are real and enlivening? What are the principles that lie behind our encounters with public space and public art? 

Internal view: (c) Gillian Hayes, Dapple Photography 2016

It was constructed by Applied Engineering Design (AED) at a cost of £325,000 in 2013. Their website notes that, it is an unique object in many ways: a gallery; an island and a bespoke structure/art object in its own right. They do not call it a crannog, but rather suggest it is an iconic structure….a surprise and a delight.

Hardwood causeway (c) AED

Ruaraidh MacNeil, HIE Inverness Campus project director, told the Press and Journal newspaper in January 2015: Our plan for Inverness Campus is to create a world-class setting for business, research and education. HIE has created a high quality built environment with interesting landscape, public realm and water features in order to help create global interest in Inverness and Highlands as a business location.

The Island (c) Michael Carver photography, Press and Journal

This interesting landscape, this University building site, this sterile edgeland…..

Lots of money, shiny buildings, iconic structures. The University of the future, wanting to appear embedded in the past in its architecture and the names it gives its buildings. But will its values, its principals, the ways staff and students are treated: will these also be in the spirit of the past, the traditions of Scotland’s Universities? Or will they succumb to a neoliberal fantasy that is so very un-crannog?

From the air (Google maps)

This installation is located a few hundred metres from, and on the other side of the A9 to, the Raigmore Neolithic monument reconstruction, the subject of a blog post of mine from 2014. Prehistory cannot be suppressed but it can be appropriated.

Acknowledgements: I was in Inverness to speak at a conference on the theme of Ruination and Decay, and would like to thank the organisers for inviting me, and accommodating me in this soulless campus. And now Rebecca and Antonia know why I disappeared and did not go to the pub with them that night!

The Hexham Heads Part 3 – the cursed fieldtrip

6 Dec

Is there truly such a thing as the cursed archaeological discovery? Can old objects that are recovered have latent sinister properties contained by burial, only to be unleashed simply by being found? As an archaeologist I tend not to think about this too hard as my job involves trying to find old things that have been buried by accident or design. If I actually believed in curses my job would be that much more difficult. If curses were actually real then my life would be that much more difficult. 

Yet still…..

The curse is something of a trope in archaeology, and the object of jokey conversations on many excavations I have been on. I’ve been involved in rites carried out before excavations. I’ve seen ceremonies take place at the end of digs just as things are being covered up again. Different motivations underpinned these events, although I can’t say I took many of them that seriously.

pre excavation ceremony

Me leading a ceremony before excavations at Battle Moss stone rows and cairn, Caithness, in 2003. Offerings were thrown into the loch to placate the ‘Fishman of Watten’ (photo: Paul Murtagh)

Often we leave things behind on excavations, to be buried with the remnants of the site, from whisky bottles, to coins, to other things which are best left unsaid until after I am either retired or dead. These structured deposits mirror practices that we often find archaeological evidence for, but part of the motivation is also surely to put something back in compensation for what we have taken away.

Archaeologists are a superstitious-curious lot in general, but the famous curses we hear about are driven by popular culture. The most famous example being the ‘curse of the mummy’ or ‘curse of the pharaohs‘, part of a phenomenon that Jasmine Day called ‘mummymania‘. This dates back to the nineteenth century (BC), very much a Victorian concoction, as John J Johnston, and others, have noted. 

220px-FF59-Curse_of_the_Mummy

Yet there seems something strangely illogical about the whole concept of ‘the curse of Tutankhamen’ where a whole bunch of people apparently died, some of whom were old, and others bitten by insects in hot sweaty places (I don’t mean armpits). A dog was heard to howl. All of this over a fairly extended period of time. It is the archaeological equivalent of the ‘curse of Dad’s Army’, where old people playing the parts of old men died within a decade or two of the show being made. It is reminds of me of an amusing running joke in Private Eye where aged celebrities who make it as far as their tenth decade eventually die and join the ’94 club’.

Curse of Dad's Army Sunday Sport

Sunday Sport ‘exclusive’

Mummy curses largely belong to the popular culture of films, books, and computer games. But underlying them are real archaeological discoveries (albeit it often found under questionable colonial circumstances) including, lest we forget, dead bodies. Regardless of what happened to their guts and brains post-mortem

What of another, slightly less famous archaeological curse, that associated with the celebrated Hexham Heads. This is the third is a series of four blogs I am writing on these little buggers, having already explored their discovery, scientific analysis, supernatural associations, and their mysterious disappearance in part 1 and part 2. Some who handled and possessed these objects between 1971 and 1978 believed them to be cursed.

extract from journal

The Hexham Heads in the 1973 volume of Archaeologia Aeliana in an article of Celtic stone heads by Anne Ross.

In this third installment, I want to report on my own engagements with the story of the Heads. Nothing original, all that I have done has been done before by others, but I wanted to bring an archaeological sensibility to the process, in part in preparation for a paper I am working on around the topic of cursed material culture. Here, then, I’ll report on my brief chats with archaeologists who were around the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities and archaeology department in the 1970s, some archive research, and finally my cursed fieldwork to the place where the Heads were found.

As of yet, there have been no werewolf (or weresheep) incidents at my home. As of yet. 

The archaeology of the Hexham Heads

For the time being, let’s treat the Hexham Heads as a pair of archaeological artefacts. What can we say about them?

They form a small assemblage of archaeological material, both of similar enough form to suggest some kind of typological relationship. They are two spherical objects made of stone-like material, and carved with roughly human physiognomy.

The circumstances of discovery is well documented although of questionable reliability. They were found during an impromptu ‘excavation’ in a suburban back garden by two children in 1971 and thus could be said to have no secure context, but some sort of provenance. They were quickly handed in to the authorities by the finders, and spent a period of time in the care of museum experts and academics, during which they underwent various episodes of invasive sampling. The results of these investigations were contradictory, and during the period of analysis, competing claims about the manufacture and taphonomy of the Heads were made in the media. Nonetheless Dr Anne Ross had the Heads drawn, and they were duly published in a paper on Celtic heads in the journal Archaeoligia Aeliana (with that illustration reproduced in full above). This paper acknowledged the problematic nature of these heads in terms of where they came from and when they were made.

Anne Ross had published on this general topic before, and it could be argued was pre-disposed to be credulous where the Hexham Heads were concerned.

Book cover

Ross’s 1967 book Pagan Celtic Britain, which includes lots of wee Iron Age heads such as those illustrated below.

celtic heads from anne ross book

Somehow the Heads ended up being taken to Southampton University, where some of the aforementioned analysis took place. The Heads were then passed onto a scientist, Don Robins, for further investigation of a non-conventional manner. Once this private research was concluded, the Heads subsequently went missing after they came into the possession of a psychic in 1978.

During this period, the Heads were connected to a series of paranormal events.

What happened to them while they were in the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities in the early 1970s? I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to, and correspond, with an archaeologist who dealt with the Heads during this period, Roger Miket.

Miket 1974 from Screeton

Poorly scanned image from Screeton’s Quest for the Hexham Heads

Despite being photographed by the media in 1974 (really? not sure about the timeline here) clutching the Heads, Roger has little memory of them. (This photo was taken before the Heads were apparently passed back to the Robson family, the finders, see archive discussion below.) Miket did have access to them for a while, and also visited Rede Avenue to see where they were found. For at least some of the period between 1971 and 1974, the Heads were in the keeping of Anne Ross and so not always in Newcastle. Roger concluded, “I was personally very skeptical of the stories attached to them, and never felt anything of a mysterious nature, and certainly not anything malevolent.”

Another archaeologist who was around the Museum and archaeology department in the 1970s is Lindsay Allison-Jones, although she personally did not actually handle or even see them. She told me however that some time later she emailed the (now defunct?) band The Hexham Heads about why they chose that name which suggests a lingering curiosity if nothing else.

Band logo

Paul Screeton carried out a more extensive interview with Allison with excerpts in his 2012 book The quest for the Hexham Heads. 

Digging into the archives

Both Roger and Lindsay suggested I contact Andrew Parkin at the Great North Museum, Newcastle, which now has the archives of the old museum of Antiquities. He kindly scanned and sent me everything in their files appertaining to the Hexham Heads. This file has in the past (I presume) been consulted by Paul Screeton, who reproduced various letters and newsclippings I was sent in Quest for the Hexham Heads.

The documents in this file include a series of 20 letters, notes, and memos, documenting back and forth between the museum staff, academics, the finders of the Heads (the Robsons) and the alleged maker of the heads (Des Craigie). Correspondence includes letters to, or from, Roger Miket, Anne Ross, David Smith (museum director), and DA Robson, one of the scientists who examined the little rascals. Theses documents cover the period 29th October 1971 to 8th April 1975.

Also included were two newsclipping from 1972 (from the Evening Chronicle and Journal) and two Fortean Times articles from 2012, the latter suggesting that the file was at least at that point in time being actively maintained.

Other ephemera include the original version of the Screeton book (Tales of the Hexham Heads) as 10 pdfs, although you can now download this as one convenient pdf from the Hexham Heads blog.  A copy of a book section in some kind of mysteries encyclopedia where H is for HH was also appended.

Finally, two key analytical reports were in the file: the pivotal one by DA Robson which argues that the Heads were made of cement, and a more credulous earlier summary written by F Hodson in 1972 that suggested a geological origin for the material that the Heads were made from. Both are discussed in my previous blog post on this matter and are in the public domain.

The earliest letter is the first communication sent to Anne Ross, in other words the first she would have heard about the discovery of the Heads. The letter, from Miket, ends with a handwritten note that the Heads were packed and sent, presumably to Ross, on 25th November 1971.

Miket letter 29101971

Also of note in the file, is a letter from Mrs Robson in March 1975 asking for the Heads to be returned to her sons, as they were keen to have them back. The Museum had been keen to return them for some time, having concluded that they were of modern origin. The following month, a letter was sent by David Smith to Des Craigie saying tests had concluded, the Heads had been returned to the Robsons, and that the file was now closed. Typical of the confusion and coincidence that hovers around the Hexham Heads like bees around the Candyman is the note in the letter about the Robson family and analysis by Dr Robson.

Smith to Craigie letter

What happened next? The archive trail stops here and further confusion has been sown by the above letter. Screeton notes that the Heads were indeed returned to the Robson’s via Prospect House, Hexham (Quest, pg 75). There are still some dots to be joined here however because Screeton also notes that in 1977 Anne Ross said that the Heads were in Southampton with one of the geologists who had sampled them two years earlier and that they had been in a box there for years. Don Robins (not Robson, do keep up!) got his hands on them on 21st September of that year (pg 82) and the rest, as they say, is mystery.

The contradictory nature of historical records is not unusual, and suggests actions and words were not necessarily aligned in this paper trail. There is no way to resolve how the Heads were both in Newcastle being returned to the Robsons while at the same time were in a box in Southampton. 

The complex timeline of the movement of the Heads between 1975 and 1978 is captured nicely in the Hexham Heads blog in a tour de force of parallel alternative histories. Four possible sequences of possession are postulated, depending on when the Heads were actually made, and what happened in the pivotal spring of 1975 when the Heads had their Sliding Doors moment. This is ‘Sequence 2’ which presupposes the Heads were indeed genuine ancient objects found by the Robsons and ended up in Southampton, never being returned to the family.

“Sequence 2  (the chain begins at the top and each name passes to the name underneath, [being the handiwork of James Fisher])

  • Colin and Leslie Robson
  • Betty Gibson
  • Professor Richard Bailey
  • Barbara Harbottle
  • Roger Miket
  • Peter Moth
  • Dr Douglas Robson
  • Anne Ross
  • Frank Hodson
  • Anne Ross
  • Don Robins
  • Frank Hyde”.

All of this begs the question as to how many heads there actually were, and which variants Don Robins / the Robsons were actually given…

There seem to have been a lot of Heads knocking about at this time. Des Craigie, when attempting to demonstrate he made these little ugly objects knocked one up for the media. Newsclippings in the Hexham Heads file include this story dated to 3rd March 1972, from The Evening Chronicle, with the wonderful headline ‘Terror from the Celtic mists’.

Terror from the Celtic mists

The story tells of Ann [sic] Ross’s plans to excavate in the garden at Rede Avenue, it being a possible ‘Celtic burial ground’. Ross makes a direct connection between the presence of such a shrine and the supernatural. Here also the story notes that Colin Robson had been making creepy clay heads at school before his big discovery. Occam’s razor and all that…

Family fear another night of terror

The same claim is made in the above cutting, also in the collection, from the Journal at the same time.

As archaeological objects, the Hexham Heads pose more questions than they provide answers. Their origin, discovery method, materiality, chain of ownership, and current whereabouts are unclear. Frankly this is all a bit suspicious if we are to regard these as anything other than modern curios. There are issues of authenticity, honesty, and motivation, that all render these deeply problematic objects. And that is before the curse is taken into consideration. 

Cursed fieldwork

If Anne Ross planned fieldwork, then perhaps so should I, although excavation seemed a bit over the top.

I first tried to document a visit to Rede Avenue back in March 2013. On a fieldtrip with Honours students to northern England, I left the team at Hexham Abbey and briskly walked the 15 minutes or so it took to get to the house where the Heads had been found 40 years earlier. After a detour to a nice toilet in M&S I headed through a car park, up some stairs, and walked the few minutes towards the familiar house, number 3. There followed some discrete photography of the house and street signs, and some careful peering through a hedgerow into the back garden where the Heads were found.

map of the hexham walk

On my walk back to meet up with the students, I went down a very narrow alley connecting a car park with Priestpopple (an actual street name) past some warehouses. Daubed on one wall was a cartoonish round face, a head looking back at me in Hexham. A coincidence? 

I met the students at The Grapes pub. This establishment features in Paul Screeton’s book about the Hexham Heads because apparently it is haunted. He featured a salacious story about the ghost’s nefarious activities.

Haunted pub newsclipping

On the occasion of that visit, no hauntings or further incidents occurred, and I had a pleasant pint in the shadow of a slot machine, possibly one of those ones with the head of Noel Edmonds on it, glaring out with Iron Age inscrutability. Then we decamped and headed onto some Roman site nearby.

A few years later when I was starting to blog about the Heads, I went back to my archives and could not find any photos from this visit. I had the photos of the abbey visit itself and the Roman site afterwards, but the Rede Avenue images were missing. Cursed!

It took me six years to make it back. In the area to make some mediocre Neolithic-style pottery with Potted History Graham Taylor, I decided to take the chance and make the pilgrimage again although this time Jan came with me to take the photos. I wasn’t taking any chances this time. Especially as I had forgotten a power cable for my phone and so I could not take any pics. Even then it took ten months to retrieve the photos from the visit from the cloud, a ghostly disembodied repository. 

We headed up the alleyway but the graffiti was gone, replaced by one of those muddy brown rectangles that are frequently painted over such daubings. Through the retail car park we passed (which was not pedestrian friendly lacking a pavement) and up the set of stairs out onto Wanless Lane / Loan. In turn we wound up a slight gradient to Rede Avenue. This is Hexham Head country.

Rede Avenue

We sidled up to the semi-detached house at the western end of the street, standing at the end of the drive-way. Some photos were taken of the house and surrounds, and no-one seems to have been around, or looking out through one of the many windows on the property.

Rede Avenue 2

As with my first visit, my only sense of unease related to lurking outside someone’s house and taking pictures of it. We looked at the back garden from whence the Heads came. But this did not feel like a cursed place to me. It had no real sense of pastness, which I do sometimes pick up when working at prehistoric sites. But in itself this is probably wishful thinking.

The end of my quest for the Hexham Heads was a disappointment, but then I think those particular objects retain a sense of mystery only when we don’t look at them too closely. Expose them to the harsh light of scrutiny, or stare directly at them, and their power withers and they become, well, frankly a bit ridiculous.

We retreated to a Wetherspoons in town that is a converted old cinema, which I must say has very spacious toilets.

A few months later we returned to Hexham, this time to see the Abbey, which had been closed in our earlier visit, which had me cursing at the time. Inside, we saw more heads, this time carvings on wooden benches, misericordia, and a fine series of stone carved figures along the side of the tomb of Rowland Leschman, Prior of the Abbey in the 1480s.

DSC_1105

Screeton spends a lot of time looking at heads in the abbey and trying to find rude sculptures, but of course they have nothing to do with the Rede Avenue Heads. Quite a few places here did remind me though of the BBC adaptation of The stalls of Barchester.

Stalls of Barchester

Heads are everywhere in Hexham. Painted heads. Wooden heads. Stone heads. Pints with great big foamy heads. Cursed heads. They should call the place Headsxham. 

The curse

Do I feel cursed now that I have excavated those stone rows in Caithness, or disturbed a few prehistoric burials in my time? Have I brought certain doom and bad luck upon myself because I have reduced the Heads to archaeological objects? Should I be looking over my shoulder for mummies, were-sheep, or the ghosts of monks, or Dad’s Army cast member zombies?

Not really. I don’t look over my shoulder. Perhaps I dare not.

I have visited Rede Avenue twice, in my hunt for the tale of the Heads. Not the truth you understand. Just the story. The place. Suburbia. Mundanity coloured by an explosion of supernatural energy. Five minutes’ walk from Marks and Spencers. Ten minutes’ stroll from haunted pub The Grapes. Not much further on to ‘spoons and the Abbey. Something undeniably weird happened here almost 40 years ago……

Head hunting has its pleasures, and one of the things that strikes me as most fascinating about the HHs is that, despite their loss and uncertain origins, they have never been more accessible, more visible, more written, and spoken about. A new lease of life has been afforded the Heads as generation haunters, and this will be the subject of my final forthcoming post on this bestial pair of spheres.

Sources and acknowledgements: many thanks to Lindsay Allison-Jones, Andrew Parkin, and Roger Miket, for their help with filling in some of the archaeological and archival background. Many thanks to Jan for taking the Rede Avenue pictures in this post. Other images have been credited as appropriate in the text or below those pictures. I have never been in touch with Paul Screeton (I don’t think he likes archaeologists all that much) but I owe a debt to his book and several images that have been reproduced in this post. Information about the Leschman Screen at Hexham Abbey came from the abbey webpages. Finally, thanks to James Fisher, custodian of the Hexham Heads blog, for his help, and making material about them available freely and for all who dare to care.

Faifley Rocks WH19

14 Nov

This is a summary account of the excavations at Whitehill 3, 4 and 5 rock art panels between 13th and 19th August 2019. This report was written with co-director, Yvonne Robertson. This is a brief and provisional account, with a more detailed publication to follow in the future.

zines

Zines inspired by the excavations, created by University of Glasgow archaeology students

Faifley Rocks! is a project researching prehistoric rock art sites to the north of Faifley, Clydebank, West (and as it turns out East) Dunbartonshire, using excavation, survey, oral history and archival research. The largest rock art site in the area, the Cochno Stone, has received the most attention, but sits within a small group of c 16 rock art panels. Some of these sites were identified in the late nineteenth century, others through more recent fieldwork, but no comprehensive work has been done on any of these sites since Ronald Morris’s fieldwork in the 1960s and 1970s (reported on in Morris 1981).

This was the second excavation as part of the project, following work at Auchnacraig in June 2019. The summary report of this excavation includes some more background on the project which need not be repeated here.

Whitehill 2019 excavations

In August 2019, excavation took place around three of the rock art sites in the area, sites known as Whitehill 3, 4 and 5 in Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) database. These outcrops are situated within a small area of woodland amidst arable fields immediately to the northeast of Whitehill Farm and north of Law Farm on a prominent landscape position with extensive views to the south. The outcrops are sedimentary, being gritstone or sandstone. They are located around NS 5138 7403 and are listed in canmore. These are just inside East Dunbartonshire and hence not quite on the map below right!

WH19 location map

location map

Red circle = Whitehill 3-5 location. Green circles = Whitehill 1-2 and 7 locations

Two of these sites were first recorded in the 1960s by Morris unlike the Auchnacraig sites which were first documented in the late nineteenth century. Morris documented these in his 1981 book The prehistoric rock-art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway). The numbering system he used is slightly different to the system adopted here; we are adopting the ScRAP nomenclature.

Whitehill 3 is the most extensive of the panels and located on the edge of an escarpment. Morris called this site Whitehill 5. It was initially briefly documented in the Morris and Bailey gazetteer (1967, 161) as a hilltop or break of slope location decorated with 25 cups and a few cups-with-rings. This is reflected in a sketch that is within his archive at HES (see below).

In 1971, Morris uncovered an area some 10m by 10m (although his plan suggests a smaller area was looked at) and found more symbols. He recorded, ‘5 cups-and-two-rings, at least 21 cups-and-one-ring, and at least 40 cups. Radial grooves were noted in some instances, and dumb-bell shapes identified’ (1981, 130).

IMAG3963

Sketch in Morris archive from 1960s showing the area of this rock that is typically visible (Image sourced by Denise Telford)

Morris plan of WH3

Morris’s drawing of Whitehill 3, published in 1981, based on a more energetic clearing of vegetation from the outcrop during a visit in 1971

IMAG3966

 Morris photo of Whitehill 3 presumably during the 1960s visit (Photo sourced by Denise Telford)

In March 2019, these panels were subject to detailed recording and photogrammetry as part of SCRAP. RTI survey of Whitehill 3 was also undertaken by a team from Glasgow School of Art. The SCRAP record for this site notes that 22 cupmarks, 13 cup-and-ring variants and 7 grooves were recorded; the latter are distinctive oblong cupmarks that the record sheet calls ‘courgettes’. An enigmatic graffiti symbol was also noted; this had been pointed out to me on previous visits. Connections between symbols and ‘fissures’ were noted.

Whitehill 3 model screengrab

3D scan of Whitehill 3 (c) HES / ScRAP

WH3 during 3D recording March 2019

Setting up for RTI recording of Whitehill 3 in March 2019 (photo: Alison Douglas)

Stevie rock-art low res

Another part of the Whitehill 3 panel usually covered by vegetation, on a visit in 2018 with Stevie Cafferty

During the SCRAP and Glasgow School of Art surveys, the site now called Whitehill 4 was discovered c20m to the south. This is described in the SCRAP Project database as a ‘domed sandstone outcrop’ that has four cupmarks, one of them dubious. Morris noted additional cupmarks at Whitehill but did not formally document them; this is probably one he spotted and referenced (1981, 133).

WH4 March 2019

Whitehill 4 photographed after recording in March 2019

WH4 3d scan screengrab

3D scan of Whitehill 4 (c) HES / ScRAP

The third panel in this location, 25m south of Whitehill 3, is known as Whitehill 5 in the SCRAP database. The survey in March 2019 identified seven cupmarks on this stone, which was entirely covered in turf at the time.

WH5 in March 2019

Whitehill 5 during recording in March 2019 (photo: Alison Douglas)

WH5 screengrab

3d model of Whitehill 5 (c) HES / ScRAP project

It is not clear if this is the same as Whitehill 6, a site was first recorded by Morris during the visit to the location in 1971 already noted above, having been found by a JM Stables (Morris 1971; 1981). Morris noted that the rock was carved with a ‘much-weathered cup-and-two-complete-rings, slightly oval’ (1981, 133) and suggested it was 55m south of SCRAP Whitehill 3. This site appears similar in Morris’s Plates 123 and 125 (see images below) but the presence of a clear cup-and-ring mark, and its location info, suggests this is a different panel.

Morris Whitehill images

Objectives: August 13-19th 2019 excavation

The specific research questions for the excavation of these three panels were:

  • Do carvings extend beyond the currently exposed outcrop?
  • What evidence is there for activity in prehistory, and in the twentieth century?
  • How do the panels physically and spatially relate to one another?
  • Are there any other carved stones in the vicinity? Morris noted others that are not accounted for in the SCRAP survey eg Morris’s Whitehill 6 and 7.
  • Is there additional historic graffiti on the rock art at Whitehill?
  • What is the significance of the location of these sites eg in relation to views and other rock art such as Law Farm sites and SCRAP Whitehill 1-2?

Methodology

The excavation was conducted between the 13th and 19th August 2019 by Glasgow University staff and students, and local volunteers. Upon arrival, the area was subject to a visual inspection to ascertain the condition of the outcrops containing rock art and any further possible features and archaeological remains.

Essentially we ended up clearing vegetation from the outcrops rather than excavating the surrounding area due to the extensive nature of the bedrock.

Cleaning low res

Three ‘trenches’ were laid out focusing on the exposed outcrops at Whitehill 3, 4 and 5. Seven small test pits were also excavated (all but one measuring 1m by 1m) which were positioned in the surrounding woodland targeting areas of archaeological potential both on the ridge and in the valley below. The trenches and test pits were all hand dug, with contexts and rock art being recorded in plan and section, as appropriate, by measured drawing, digital photography, and written descriptions on pro forma sheets. Photogrammetry was also conducted on all three exposed rock art outcrops. After excavation and recording the excavated material was replaced and the turf reinstated.

sketch site plan

Sketch map showing the locations of the three trenches and test pits 1-7. Base map is OS 1st edition.

Results

Trench W3

Trench W3 aimed to investigate the largest of the three known Whitehill rock art sites, Whitehill 3, where a number of cup marks were already visible on an exposed outcrop of bedrock.

A trench measuring 5.0 m by 5.0 m was opened over the exposed outcrop and the flat top to the west and north covered with a shallow layer of turf and topsoil. An extension measuring 2.5m by 1.0m was opened to the west of the trench as well as an extension to the north-east measuring approximately 2.5 m by 2.0 m in order to investigate a wider area for potential rock art symbols. Turf was also cleared off the steep slope of the outcrop to the east in order to investigate the potential for further symbols.

WH3 low res a

Where present, the topsoil comprised a shallow layer (0.15m) of loose medium to dark brown silt loam (context number 301/303) which contained modern glass, plastic and metal as well as a small quartz pebble (Find 1) recovered from a crack in the bedrock. The topsoil directly overlay the natural bedrock (300) in the majority of the trench although pockets of a medium orange brown silt clay with infrequent small pebble inclusions (302) and a medium dark grey silt clay with frequent angular stone inclusions measuring 0.05-0.10 m (304) were recorded in pockets across the trench within natural fissures in the bedrock. This material was relatively sterile and was interpreted as natural hill wash. Disturbance caused by tree roots was apparent throughout deposits across the trench.

WH3 low res b

Bedrock (300) was encountered across the entire trench. The bedrock was a large flat-topped sedimentary outcrop which sloped steeply downwards to the east and gently sloped to the north, west and south.  Up to 65 carved symbols, including c. 33 cupmarks, 16 cup-and-ring marks, six cup-and-ring marks with double rings, eight oval/elongated cupmarks or grooves and at least two radials, were recorded within the trench, largely concentrated on the flat top of the outcrop (see photos). The symbols were of varying size, depth and quality, and dispersed in no clear pattern across the outcrop, and some had clearly been weathered as a result of having been exposed.  Large natural cracks where the bedrock had fragmented in parts were visible across the surface in a north-east to south-west orientation and these areas were devoid of markings. A graffiti symbol was also recorded on the bedrock (300) where the rock had previously been exposed; the meaning of this symbol remains unknown.

graffiti on wh3 low res

Graffiti on Whitehill 3. This might be upside down! 10p for scale.

Trench W4

Trench W4 measured 4.0 m by 3.0 m and was centred on a bedrock outcrop to the south-west of Whitehill 3 known as Whitehill 4. Prior to excavation, four cupmarks were visible on the bedrock outcrop and the trench aimed to investigate whether further symbols were present as well as whether any further archaeological features were present in the area surrounding the outcrop.

Context 405

The trench was largely covered by topsoil (401) comprising a friable dark black brown clay loam with occasional angular stone inclusions (measuring 0.05 – 0.20m) as well as rare charcoal flecks. Modern glass and plastic as well as a post-medieval or modern ceramic fragment (SF 2) were present within the topsoil. The topsoil directly overlay bedrock (400) in the centre of the trench, however, an underlying clay silt wash comprising dark brown clay silt with occasional angular stones and frequent charcoal (402) was recorded in pockets of the trench within undulations in the bedrock (400).

WH4 after first clean

Whitehill 4 after initial cleaning. Greasy silty dark brown (402) in patches visible across the trench, these presumably washed into cracks in the rock.

This deposit also overlay what initially appeared to be a rubble stone wall comprising angular stones (measuring 0.08m – 0.30m) in the north-west corner of the trench. Further rubble material was encountered to the immediate east of this within a large sub-rectangular depression (404). Fragmented bedrock as well as other fragmented stone within a grey silt wash matrix similar to (402) filled the depression and may have been a leveling deposit within a natural hollow, purposefully placed for a platform or trackway or naturally occurring.

WH4 stone cluster

Mid-excavation view of possible leveling deposit from the west

To the south of the Whitehill 4 outcrop, a clean light grey sand was recorded below (402). The material was sterile and appeared to have been a naturally washed in deposit directly overlying the bedrock.

W4 plan

No further symbols were observed on the bedrock (400) nor were any further archaeological features recorded in the surrounding deposits.

Trench W5

Downslope and to the south of Whitehill 4, a trench measuring 2.0 m by 0.5 m with a roughly rectangular extension to the south-east measuring 2.5 m by 2.5 m was excavated. The trench focused on an outcrop recorded as Whitehill 5, previously exposed by SCRAP, where three cupmarks were visible on the exposed outcrop prior to the removal of any material. Topsoil (501) was found to extend across the rest of the trench and comprised a friable medium orange brown silt loam with extensive root disturbance and organic material and generally had a depth of 0.10m. The topsoil directly overlay bedrock in much of the trench although a silt clay wash deposit (502) formed a subsoil between the topsoil (501) and the bedrock (500) in the east of the trench. This material was largely sterile and there was clear root disturbance.

WH5 during planning

Trench W5 during planning

WH5 cupmarks

Cupmarks on Whitehill 5 (the only previously recorded ones are those immediately next to scale and N arrow)

In addition to the cluster of three previously recorded cupmarks associated with Whitehill 5, a further seven possible cupmarks were observed approximately 1.5 m east on the same bedrock outcrop (500) (Plate 7). These were recorded to the east of a large sub-circular area of conglomerate within the bedrock (500). No further features were encountered within the trench and no small finds were recovered.

Test-pits

Seven test pits were opened in all, all bar one measuring 1m by 1m. The location of these is shown in the general site plan above.

Test Pit 1

Test Pit 1 was located at the most northerly point of the ridge on which Whitehill 3, 4 and 5 were situated, c. 45 m north of Trench W3. The test pit targeted this area as it was the highest point on the ridge and found to be relatively level with views of the landscape extending south-east towards the Clyde Valley and to the north-west towards the Kilpatrick Hills. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.30 m.

Topsoil extended across the entire test pit and comprised a friable dark black brown silty loam with occasional angular stone inclusions (0.02m – 0.08m in size) (1001). The topsoil was rich in organic material with some root disturbance. Frequent glass was encountered within the deposit. Beneath the topsoil, medium orange brown clay silt with occasional stone inclusions (1002) was recorded which extended to a maximum depth of 0.20m. This overlay the bedrock (1000) which had an undulating surface within the test pit and sloped downwards from west to east.

No symbols or archaeological features were observed in Test Pit 1, nor were any artefacts recovered.

Test Pit 2

Test Pit 2 was located c. 24 m to the north-west of Trench W3 in a relatively flat area, devoid of turf and simply covered in organic woodland debris. The test pit was placed in this location to determine if there were any archaeological features within this area which could be related to the rock art sites to the south. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.35 m.

TP2

A friable medium black brown silt loam with occasional angular stone and rare charcoal inclusions formed the topsoil (2001) within the test pit and continued to a maximum depth of 0.10m. Modern activity in the area had clearly occurred as glass and modern metal cans were observed throughout. A firm medium orange brown sandy silt with frequent small roots and rare small angular stones formed a natural subsoil (2002) beneath the topsoil and this directly overlay the bedrock (2000). The subsoil deposit was relatively sterile, although some charcoals flecks were noted likely as a result of surface burning and root bioturbation.

No significant archaeological finds or features were recorded.

Test Pit 3

Test Pit 3 was situated c. 7 m north-west of Trench W4 in the centre of a shallow sub-circular hollow. The hollow, although appearing natural, was thought to have archaeological potential and the trench was situated within it to investigate whether features may be present within the area. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.20 m.

TP3

Eric and Ross working on Test Pit 3

An organic vegetation layer (3000) covered the test pit and overlay topsoil comprising a loose light brown organic loam (3001). Beneath this, a natural subsoil comprising a clay silt wash (3002) was observed which continued to a maximum depth of 0.19m which contained patches of compact orange disintegrated sandstone (3003) and overlay the undulating bedrock (3004) (Plate 8).

TP3 sketches

There were no traces of significant archaeological remains within the test pit.

Test Pit 4

Test Pit 4 was positioned c. 5m south-west of W3 and targeted a partially exposed outcrop of bedrock. The aim of the test pit was to investigate if further unrecorded rock art symbols were present on smooth outcrops in the immediate area. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m with a maximum depth of 0.10m.

A small outcrop of bedrock (4001) was already exposed and only shallow topsoil was found to cover the bedrock in all areas of the test pit. The topsoil comprised friable dark black brown silty loam (4000) and modern glass fragments were observed throughout. There was no evidence for archaeological features within the excavated area and no markings were observed on the bedrock which was found to be undulating.

Test Pit 5

Test Pit 5 was located c. 5m east of W5 at the southern extent of the site. The location was chosen as it appeared to be a flat area with the potential for a bedrock outcrop to be directly beneath the turf topsoil. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.30 m.

TP5

The topsoil comprised a shallow loose light brown organic sandy loam (5000) which overlay a very compact light brown sand with frequent angular stones up to 0.25m in size. Beneath this a compact layer of dark brown black sandy silt with some large angular stone inclusions was observed (5002). No significant archaeology was recorded within the test pit.

Test Pit 6

Test Pit 6 was located approximately 22 m west of W4 within a level area in the valley below the ridge. The test pit was excavated to investigate whether there were any features associated with quarrying activity in this area. The test pit measured 1.0 m by 1.0 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.50 m.

The topsoil (6000) comprised a dark red brown silty loam which contained modern glass. This was overlying a light red brown clay sand with angular and rounded stone inclusions of various size (6001). Bedrock was not reached within the test pit. No archaeological finds or features were recorded within the test pit.

Test Pit 7

Test Pit 7 was located c. 21 m west of W3 within a slight hollow on the west edge of the ride. The test pit targeted a supposed flat-topped bedrock outcrop and was also located within this area to investigate the potential for features related to the occupation of the site. The test pit measured 1.50 m by 1.50 m and was excavated to a maximum depth of 0.20m (Plate 9). Peck marks on the flat bedrock surface were identified and probably related to someone trying to get purchase on a tent peg…..

TP7

Jean planning Test Pit 7

Modern peck marks

Probably modern peck marks found within Test Pit 7 on flat bedrock

Photogrammetry

Under the guidance of Megan Kasten, teams of students undertook photogrammetry of the three outcrops, which supplemented work already undertaken by SCRAP. In each case more of the rock was exposed than during this earlier survey, and in two cases (W3 and W5) more symbols were exposed as well. These models are still being worked on and final versions will be added to this post, or linked to, in due course.

WhitehillLowerCupmarks Cluster 2

Initial render of results of W5 photogrammetry

Whitehill501lowres

The complete survey of W5, again at early stage of processing

Discussion 

The excavations at Whitehill have shed further light on three of the known rock art panels at Whitehill. Previously unrecorded symbols were observed and recorded on both Whitehill 3 and Whitehill 5, as parts of the outcrop previously left covered by Morris and SCRAP were exposed, and the areas around the outcrops also investigated.

Whitehill 3 was found to be the largest and uppermost decorated outcrop with a huge number of symbols observed on its flat top and the top of the smooth slope on the eastern side. A wide variety of symbols were recorded with no obvious pattern deciphered. The mixture of type, depth and quality does, however, potentially suggest the rock art was conducted by different people at different times. This is the second most extensive rock art site in the area after the Cochno Stone. The rock art panel known as Whitehill 4 was occupied by four simple cupmarks only while up to 13 single cupmarks were recorded as part of Whitehill 5. There is no evidence as of yet to allow interpretation of the relationship of the individual panels or to either confirm or deny that these cupmarks are contemporary with one another as no datable material was recovered in or around the outcrops.

The symbols on all three panels were limited to areas of smooth bedrock enclosed by glacial striations, with only the best areas for carving having been selected. It was also noted that the symbols were largely limited to the top of the flat-topped outcrops with few symbols on vertical faces. Several other rock outcrops were investigated on the ridge to determine whether other panels were present in the area, however, none were found. The shape and aesthetics of the natural rock surface therefore appear to have played a major role in the selection of the outcrops as well as potentially the design of the carvings, a notion also apparent at Hunterheigh Crag, Northumberland (see Waddington et al 2005).

While the areas around the panels were investigated, few further archaeological features were observed. The only notable feature was observed in Trench W4 focusing on Whitehill 4 where an area of fractured bedrock was found to potentially signify the remains of a wall or leveled area. This feature may be related to prehistoric use of the site, with ‘rubble platforms’ having been found to be contemporary with carvings at Copt Howe (Bradley et al 2019) and also, interestingly, at nearby Auchnacraig 1; however, it could also be a result of later quarrying or landscaping activity in the area. No material was found within the cracks on any of the outcrops despite investigation, based on the results of rock art sites such as Torbhlaren, Argyll and Bute (Jones et al. 2011). The quartz pebble found in W3 was in an area removed from the carvings and more likely ended up there through natural processes.

Later use of the area was noted with the west side of the ridge having visibly been quarried and more recent graffiti observed on Whitehill 3, which was limited to one area of exposed bedrock on Whitehill 3. There is no indication of what this quarry was or when it was in use in nineteenth century maps.

Yvonne

Yvonne!!

Acknowledgements

The excavation was funded by the University of Glasgow archaeology department, as part of the 2019 Cochno Farm Field School. Supervisory support was provided by AOC Archaeology Ltd.

We appreciated the team of helpers who came along and worked on site. Team members (in alphabetical order) were: Zahra Archer, Erin Butler, Samantha Climie, Hayley Drysdale, Todd Ferguson, Adrianna Figacz, Eric Gardner, Alexa Hayes, Joel Karhapaa, Emma Keenan, Caitlin McLeod, Gordon Morrison, Linsey Reid, Nikki Reid, Jean Tumilty, Tom Tumilty, and Ross Wood.

Thanks to the Honours students who worked on the amazing zines shown at the top of this post!

Megan Kasten conducted the photogrammetry of the three outcrops and provided training for students, for which we are grateful. Megan also supplied images for this report.

Equipment was provided by the University of Glasgow. Thanks to Aris Palyvos for organising and transporting tools. We’re also grateful to the staff at Cochno Farm for allowing us to store equipment there.

Finally, we really appreciate the work done at these sites in March 2019 by the SCRAP team, led by Tertia Barnett and Maya Hoole. The 3D models of both rock art panels has been invaluable to this project and images from that project are included in this report. Thanks also to Stuart Jeffrey of the Glasgow School of Art Centre School of Simulation and Visualisation for undertaking an RTI survey of Whitehill 3 in March 2019. Processing work in this image continues at the time of writing but this will be added to the post in time.

Thanks to all those who visited the site especially those who brought cakes (Jeremy Huggett, Ellen Laird) and local knowledge (Stevie Cafferty).

References

British Geological Survey, 2019. Geology of Britain. [Online version]

Bradley, R, Watson, A & Style, P 2019 ‘After the axes? The rock art at Copt Howe, North-west England, and the Neolithic sequence at Great Langdale. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 1-16.

Brophy, K 2015 The Cochno Stone: an archaeological investigation. Phase 1 summary report. Urban Prehistorian blog post.

Brophy, K 2016 Revealing the Cochno Stone: Phase 2 excavation and digital recording summary report. Urban Prehistorian blog post.

Brophy, K 2018 ‘The finest set of cup and ring marks in existence’: the story of the Cochno Stone, West Dunbartonshire. Scottish Archaeological Journal 40, 1-23.

Brophy, K and Douglas, A 2019 Faifley Rocks! Auchnacraig 1 and 3, June 20-27th 2019 Data Structure Report. Available as an Urban Prehistorian blog post of course!

Historic Environment Scotland, 2019a. Scotland’s Rock Art Project (SCRAP).

Historic Environment Scotland, 2019b. Whitehill: Cup and Ring Marked Rock (Prehistoric). [canmore]

Jones, A, Freedman, D, O’Connor, B & Lamdin-Whymark, H 2011 An animate landscape: rock-art and the prehistory of Kilmartin, Argyll, Scotland. Oxford: Windgather.

Morris, R 1971 Old Kilpatrick, Whitehill, cup-and-ring marked outcrops. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 1971, 19.

Morris, R W B 1981 The prehistoric rock-art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway), Oxford: BAR British Series 86.

Morris, R and Bailey, DC 1967 The cup-and-ring marks and similar sculptures of south-western Scotland: a survey. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 98, 150-72.

Waddington, Clive, Mazel, Aron & Johnson, Ben. (2005). Excavation of a rock art site at Hunterheugh Crag, Northumberland. Archaeologia Aeliana. 5th Ser. 34. 29-54.

Reaktor

26 Oct

The prehistory laboratory repository

In the middle of an industrial estate

Amidst the units and the car parks

Is a laboratory

A laboratory that is a repository for prehistory

An appointment with science

This is East Kilbride

S.U.E.R.C.

Scotland’s Environmental Research Centre

Branded with a dynamic flowing liquid logo

suerc-logo

Where prehistory sits in test-tubes

Where prehistory resides in aluminum capsules

Where prehistory is turned into gases and powders and pastes and unguents

Through the corridors of power are the containers of powder

Corridors of power

The geochemistry of prehistory –

The radiochemistry of prehistory –

The isotope biogeosciences of prehistory –

The prehistory of Scotland and beyond

In the hands of the scientists

In this prehistory laboratory repository

In East Kilbride.

 

The small print

Bring your samples to us and let us analyse them we provide a comprehensive post-excavation service and are happy to deal with prehistory but also not prehistory if that is appropriate and in some cases we are aware that you are aware that when samples are given to us you do not know if they are prehistoric we do not know if they are prehistoric or not and we offer no money-back guarantees as there are no guarantees no a priori assumptions here just hard science the atoms have no politics our reaktor has no biases and there is no prejudice in a test tube once they have been thoroughly cleaned so roll up and bring us your samples and we will do you proud.

We will accept samples in the following vessels and receptacles: plastic Tupperware box, tin foil (no hats), carrier bag (bags for life please), matchbox, kinder surprise eggs (plastic element not chocolate please you would be surprised), shoebox.

Samples cannot be accepted in liquid form unless sample is a liquid.

Samples cannot be accepted in gaseous form unless sample is a gas.

The following materials are permissible for sampling and we have some kind of technique for all of these, and if we do not have a technique, we will invent it. Plant microfossils, teeth, shells, all sorts of wood, bone, antler, horns, crusty residues, methane, dirt (please clean dirt before deposition and remove all worms), speleotherms, all manner of artefacts from metals to ceramics to textiles (you name it we, we date it as long as it has a carbon component and once had a proverbial pulse), and assorted elements of the periodic table namely 1-64, 71-100 and 112 (latter only in extremis and we need a 36 hour warning and lots of permits). 

We are contractually obliged to note that you should not expect to get your sample back at all, ever, and certainly not in the form you gave it to us. Furthermore it is likely that the container you delivered the sample to us in is unlikely to come out of the process in one piece, and indeed may well be destroyed / recycled / contaminated / melted. However, we do reserve the right to retain bags for life to distribute amongst our staff. 

Please note we do not sample the living. 

 

Isotope flavours and ancient diets

Reaktor artwork

 

Prehistory turned into gas

controlled area

 

And so to the Reaktor

disembodiment

Only the most disembodied of prehistory makes it this far

Only the finest samples underpinned by the most clearly articulated stratigraphic arguments are permitted entry to the Reaktor

Only the best can experience nuclear ecstasy in the Reaktor Shed.

The Reaktor Shed, on the edge of the industrial estate gives nothing away regarding its contents, masked behind the corrugation of obscurity

Shielded from penetration

The reaktor shed

The Reaktor Shed adorned with a stark geometric deep blue monolith, appearing to emit turquoise ectoplasm, the escaping spirits of the past

Reaktor shed monolith

Inside the shed, an appointment with science awaits

Don’t be late because time is important here or at least relative chronology

The chronology of prehistory –

Time measured through atomic bombardment –

Complex machinery for the deconstruction of materials and the transformation of those materials into something else – data, information, knowledge

Data that is corrupted by the ignorance of objectivity and the ‘clause of subjectivity’

Spinning stories from the centrifuge.

 

Reaktor

travelling in time bending light stretching the laws of physics bombarding inside the cage lead lining artefacts broken down to constituent parts indistinguishable from the matter that defines the universe big bang flickering lights and electrical surges

Hazel nutshell protons

Birch bark electrons

Cremated human pelvis photons

Meadowsweet flower quarks

Carbon isotopes 12 and 14

big machine U of G photo

Inside the Reaktor (c) SUERC

science direct photo

(c) Science Direct

 

The poetics of C14

Carbon abstraction from carbon extraction

SUERC-21566 (GU-17836); 3120 ± 40 BP; 1500 – 1290 cal BC (95.4%)

SUERC-23247 (GU-18537); 8290 ± 30BP; 7480 – 7250 cal BC (87.1%)

Foreplay before the Bayesian dance

Visual inspection only – for now

A dagger through my heart.

forteviot-dagger-with-organics.jpg

The Forteviot dagger (c) SERF Project

 

Isotopic heaven

The devil in the detail

Craving statistical probability

The past as conjuration, mediated through tree rings, carbon on carbon, wood on wood

The results are preconceived and can only have one outcome because

All journeys end at the Reaktor

All journeys begin there

The Reaktor loves decay even although the Reaktor cannot love

It is an information machine

Never look back.

Looking behind

 

SUERC is a shared facility between different Universities in Scotland, and they undertake a wide range of scientific analyses for archaeology and beyond the idea being that lots of expensive equipment and expertise is more efficiently pooled in one location for all to access. This facility includes the following Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) facilities: the Radiocarbon Facility (Environment), the Argon Isotope Facility, the East Kilbride node of the Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility, the Isotope Community Support Facility and the Cosmogenic Isotope Analysis Facility. It has emerged from decades of activity and was formerly the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre (SURRC). They have amazing staff and undertake amazing research and analyses. I could not do what I do without them.

Most of the photos in this blog were taken during a visit to SUERC with Honours archaeology students from the University of Glasgow.

The radiocarbon dates in the ‘C14 poetics’ stanza are from the SERF Project, one of well over 100 dates from that project that were produced by SUERC and funded by HES. The dates were provided by Dr Derek Hamilton.

Much of the information in this post comes from the SUERC website and the text betrays my lack of scientific understanding.

The concept of the ‘clause of subjectivity’ comes from a paper by Tim Flohr Sorensen entitled ‘More than a feeling: towards an archaeology of atmosphere’ (from the Journal Emotions, Space and Society 15, 64-73 (2015)). Thanks to Erin Jamieson for suggesting I read this.