Tag Archives: Urban Prehistory

How old is a piece of stone?

3 Dec

There can’t be much left to write about the London Stone, an urban megalithic curio that The Guardian newspaper called a ‘psychogeographer’s landmark’. This strange roughly cuboid limestone block, located at 111 Cannon Street in London for at least half a millennium, may well be a solid lump of stone but it consists more of myth than molecule.

the-london-stone-at-st-swithins

There are so many legends associated with this roughed-up beige 76 kg stone block that it strikes me as weird that it has consistently been located in such an un-legendary location. Although in the past the the London Stone has by historical accounts been set into the wall of the former St Swithen’s Church, it has also in more recent times been contained by a rather crappy cage in the wall of a WH Smiths and before that a Sportec sports shop and even The Bank of China. This was after a near miss during the Blitz.

London_Stone-WHSmith

Wikipedia: creative commons, John O’London

Rex Shutterstock photo Daily Mail

Rex Shutterstock photo Guardian 2016

Above two images both Rex / Shutterstock, sourced from The Daily Mail 12022016

There is little point in rehearsing the many stories associated with the origins, meaning and biography of the London Stone. There is such a depth of lore about this object that I am sure that it deserves more than the one or two paragraphs afforded in most books about London; certainly, a lack of time permitted me researching this as rigorously as I would have liked.

For the time being, to cut to the urban prehistoric chase, let’s focus on how old the LS actually might be. Peter Ackroyd (London: the biography, 2001), suggests that it, ‘is of great antiquity’, but ‘as a perishable stone, cannot be assumed to survive from prehistoric times’. Two pages tell the story of the Stone in John Matthews and Caroline Wise’s The Secret Lore of London (2016); they describe is a ‘worn stump’ and a ‘geomantic mark-stone’ of, at oldest, Roman origin.

London Lore book illustration

Reproduced in The secret lore of London (Matthews and Wise)

In The Stones of London (2012) Lee Hollis suggests that the London Stone may be little more than a Roman gatepost that has taken on all sorts of myths and legends depending on the political needs of those who told those stories. Ed Glinert (The London Compendium, 2004) calls the Stone a ‘totem for the city’s safety’ which has prehistoric overtones, but more broadly draws on myths about the Stone not being removed from the city. And so on. Each account draws on the same pool of lore, include lots of secondary referencing, and indicate the limitations of the historical text as a source as authors attempt to peer back into the murky mists of time.

There is much that could be done from an archaeological perspective to add to the already-colourful story of the London Stone. There have been various different reliquaries that have held the LS, and this would be an interesting line of investigation both in terms of the form but also materiality of these cages and boxes, as well as telling us something about how people engaged with and interacted with the Stone, and what levels of control were exercised over that engagement.

4-London-Stone-in-Cannon-Street

From John Thomas Smith’s Antiquities of London (1791-1800)

Or perhaps a mapping exercise could be undertaken, considering the various different locations that the London Stone has been placed, on both sides of the street and with slight variation, and other possible places of repose. The location of the Stone vertically might also be traced, with pavement level and higher in the church wall just two variations. Again, how people encountered the London Stone and spatially where it was located might shed light on its social role, and this includes the bodily inclination needed to view the monolith: looking down or peering up.

london-stone-conserved-portrait

Helen Butler does some conservation work (c) Museum of London

The stone itself could (and I’m being fanciful here but what the heck) be the object of scientific study, with techniques such as XRF and Ramon Spectroscopy able to discover paint, blood, sweat, tears and semen stains (OK, maybe not the latter, that would need a CSI-style UV light source…). Use-wear analysis would be able to (theoretically) shed light on the exact metallurgical properties of the sword that was used to strike the London Stone by rebel leader Jack Cade in 1450 (but not what he had for breakfast that day).

jack-cades-rebellion

Stock image of Jack Cade waving his sword about, various sources online.

It is interesting how many old drawings of the stone focus on the detail of the container and not the stone, which more often than not seems to be a shapeless lump. This is perhaps because geometrically this thing is a shapeless lump. The Mail Online described it as looking like, ‘a large piece of leftover masonry’. So a 3D model of the stone would be nice so capture its slightly strange shape and rough surface, and might shed light in the mechanism of the breakage of the stone (it may once have been larger), as well as highlight historic damage and carvings.

London_Stone_scan

(c) Europac 3D

Indeed, after I had written these words, I found out that such a scan has indeed been undertaken by Europac 3D. This laser scan, undertaken to sub 1mm resolution, was done using Arctic Space Spider which sounds like something from a John Carpenter film but probably isn’t. Interestingly, this ‘revealed several man-made carvings, one of which is believed to have been made when Jack Cade entered London’ although I think that one was already visible with the naked eye. I think full results are yet to be published, but at last the Stone can be viewed as something other than a blurry block in a photo or as an etching of a blob in a box (see below).

Ackroyd book illustration

Reproduced in Ackroyd’s London: the biography

The London Stone, as it happens, recently spent a couple of years in the capable hands of the Museum of London’s archaeologists, and they undertook some conservation work on the Stone as well as putting the thing on display with a lovely purple background in their museum (and getting the aforementioned scan done).

John Chase photo Guardian Sep 2018

(c) Museum of London

One of the key areas of their presentation of the stone to the public was some myth-busting, and blimey there are lots of myths and stories attached to this object that they wanted to bust.

Myth number 1 that they ‘bust’ was: It has stood in London since prehistoric times and Myth number 2: It was an ancient altar used for Druidic sacrifices. Both of these centre on the suggestion that the LS is the remnant of a much larger prehistoric stone or even a broken standing stone. However, MOLA question the urban prehistory credentials of this rock, and thus by extension the legitimacy of this blog post. In fact neither myth is really busted, but rather some of the historical biography of the London Stone cited, with the underlying suggestion that there is simply no evidence that this was ever part of a prehistoric monument. They push is back possibly to Saxon or Viking times, maybe even Roman, but no earlier.

Assumed by some authors such as John Strype and William Blake to be a pagan stone, in fact this had no basis in fact and simply confirmed their own romantic proto-druid mythologizing, captured in this stansa from Blake’s Jerusalem:

Where Albion slept beneath the Fatal Tree,
And the Druids’ golden Knife
Rioted in human gore, In Offerings of Human Life…
They groan’d aloud on London Stone,
They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook…

Finally, MOLA get to the point and conclude: “There is no evidence for this, and London Stone, whatever its purpose, was certainly not erected before the Roman period.” Boo.

That’s fine, and also true. There is no evidence that the London Stone is prehistoric in origin. But does this matter? Some in the past have believed it to be the case, and some still do. The prehistoric credentials of this stone are nothing to do with reality, but perception, and this is often the way with odd megaliths and other urban prehistoric miscellany. We might as well ask: how old is a piece of stone? Because the fact that the London Stone is an oolitic limestone means that it is very old, dating to before 1,000,000 BC. It depends on how one frames the question.

London Stone launched

Source: London TimeOut 05102018

Visiting the London Stone today seems to me a legitimate exercise in prehistoric speculation now that it has been re-instated in a new shrine on the former WH Smith site, still 111 Cannon Street.

London Stone wide view low res

The Stone has only been back in its old location for a few months, although now the weird cage has been replaced with a glossy shiny glass-fronted display box. This reliquary appears to be a throwback retro design referencing older versions of the container for the Stone, some of which are pictured earlier in this post.

London Stone new setting low res

Two black plaques sit on either side, one of which explains that we know bugger all about the London Stone, while the other says the same thing in braille (I assume).

The right-hand information panel begins with a malformed tripartite sentence.

London Stone plaque low res

Above the ceremonial repository, there is a simple bookplate inscription saying LONDON STONE and this appears to be part of a limestone facade of the fancy new building, thus mimicking the materiality of old Stoney itself. Has the architectural design for this glassy building been designed with the LS in mind?

London Stone sign low res

This has replaced the crappy but endearing WH Smith context of yore, and the new mini-high rise building is rather more glassy and glamorous. The London Stone has clearly gone upmarket. This is certainly a gentrification from its earlier status, described by Ackroyd as, ‘blackened and disregarded, by the side of a busy thoroughfare‘. Nonetheless, the latter part of this statement remains true.

The London Stone obscured low res

The glassy nature of the building within which the LS is now encased affords views behind the Stone, a glimpse that was not within the gift of the stationer WH Smith. Here, disappointingly, the oolitic lump appears to be concealed behind a wall of mdf, although there is the hint of a small panel that might be removable with a smuggled screwdriver once this establishment opens for business, whatever that business might be.

Behind the London Stone low res

Observing those walking past the London Stone suggests that this is, at worst, of no interest, or at best, an over-familiar landmark, as few pedestrians paused to pay their respects. The noticeboard detained a few men with suits for a minute or two, while a woman with a pram did look at it as she perambulated past.

Road closed low res

I got the sense that this is a lonely Stone as I lurked in the area for far too long. This is perhaps why this geological curio literally engaged me in a short twitter conversation, expressing the surprising and hitherto un-expressed desire to be called Kevin. I duly obliged, walking past and affording LS this new moniker with a jolly shout of ‘hello Kevin’, although as yet this new persona has not been adopted widely.

Tweet 1

Tweet 2

Shall we ever get to the truth of it? No, of course not. And why should that matter? When we ask ‘how long is a piece of string’ we don’t expect a factual, empirical answer. The London Stone’s prehistoric credentials are not in doubt as far as I am concerned, elements of a story long told, whether that be the one about it being a broken standing stone or having served as a druid altar or some other sacred megalith of yore.

It doesn’t matter how old the London Stone is: we only need believe it to be so. This is rich narrative, a stone that does not roll but has gathered spiritual moss. As AD Cochrane has noted, ‘Down the centuries a parade of charlatans, poets, modern psychogeographic writers, alchemists, historians and eccentric clergymen have enriched the mythology of London Stone‘. If this isn’t prehistory, I don’t know what is.

There is one source that I was able to find that suggested that this misshapen hunk of rock was once part of a prehistoric monument. In a review of the former London Stone Pub (107 Cannon Street) a contributor to the website ‘Fancy a Pint.com‘ suggests that the Stone was, ‘possibly part of an ancient stone circle’. The same review also suggests that the pub contained, ‘gargoyles, cocktails in test tubes and other assorted horror ephemera’ so perhaps it is for the best that it closed a couple of years ago, to be replaced by The Cannick Taps.

London Stone pub

Photo: Fancyapint.com

Rare views inside the London Stone pub, which appears to have been a gothic extravaganza of poor taste, suggest decor that mimicked the grey metal cage that enclosed the Stone until fairly recently. Bad art imitates poor cage.

quaint-decor-in-pub

Trip Advisor – interior of the London Stone pub (deceased)

How old is this piece of stone? Who cares.

The London Stone is as the London Stone does. LS if you are into the whole brevity thing.

The London Stone abides.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: if you want to find out more about the London Stone, ask it questions on twitter via @thelondonstone – it / Kevin might answer back.

 

 

 

 

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Ghosts

31 Oct

It is a cliche to say that archaeological sites are fecund with the ghosts of those who occupied, lived, worked, cried and laughed in those places in the past. Even the most unremarkable ancient place is likely to have been passed through by countless living but now dead humans and animals. Mute witnesses whom we cannot call to account. Spectral presences that haunt our efforts to write their stories with all of the constraints of the archaeological record and our imaginations.

01 Sandy Road 2.jpg

These phantoms of the past are always present as we visit archaeological sites (as we clinically call them), just invisible from the corners of our eyes. The dead are knocking once, twice, if only we would listen. Warping the thin rood screen between now and then, past and present, and bending the wind to their will. Light cannot pass through them, and forever their ancient haunts will be opaque to us, clumsily accounted for in our narratives, our excavation reports, our notes. Archaeologists are amateur ghost story writers with neither the elegance nor the critical ambiguity of MR James.

04 Ravenswood low res

Urban prehistory sites suffer more than most, and at this time of the year in particular. The harsh entombment of concrete and tarmac, brick and gabbion, combine to dull the kinetic urgency of the dead users and makers of prehistoric places with the misfortune – the curse – to haunt places now occupied by a different strain of zombie: commuters, shoppers, drivers.

03 Bargeddie l r

Only school children and certain sensitive individuals remain attuned to the specific frequency that prehistoric ghosts broadcast via. Sometimes the past bleeds through though, as if in a seance, and becomes a matter of record. Twisted clues offer fragmentary accounts, uneasy truths, partiality. We place our trowel on the ouija board trench surface and hope that a spirit will animate it, write the story for us, shatter glass.

05 Townhead lr

Archaeologists act in advance of urban expansion and development as ghost-busters, using highly sensitive equipment to pick up the wavelengths of the spirits of prehistory, then extracting those spirits by way of storage bags and boxes that are transported far away from the site and blessed with the obscure rituals of the trinity of lab analyst, the archivist and the curator. We do everything but consult with priests, and can be found in libraries furtively flicking through a dusty grimoire.

07 Succoth Place low res

As archaeologists we often state our case ‘in all seriousness’ and yet this is simply to cover up our fears, and insecurities. We laugh off the uncertainty of the past, the questionable proofs of prehistory, supported by the safety net of out ontologies which when analysed have all the supportive qualities of the spiral staircase in the library in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Aberdour Rd low res

Like many a Poe-inspired mansion in a Roger Corman movie, everything may end up in a suspicious but cathartic conflagration. All of us wish to be Quatermass, to discover our own Pit, and with it our fate and destiny.

Boydstone Rd low res

We must embrace the ghosts of our ancient past,  strain to listen to what they have to tell us, get everything on tape, play it back over and over again to hear their story until it stretches and snaps. For we ignore them at our peril.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talus

12 Oct

Talus. Noun.

  1. an accumulation of scree at the base of a cliff or steep slope
  2. an ankle bone
  3. a fortification

 

Automatic writing

The pressure of my thumb caused just enough 0.7mm graphite to ooze from my pencil. Sitting on a train, breathless, fumbling in my bag for the book. Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. This crumpled paperback that had become the roadmap for my increasingly eccentric visits to places in heavily urbanised or industrialised places with obscure prehistoric predecessors. This was no longer enough, I came to realise after writing 116 posts for my blog. I needed new kicks, fresh experiences, the hard stuff.

I opened Sellars’ book up at random pages and saw continual relevance to my own condition, just as the unreliable narrator of this fever-dream of a novel had also done. I began to scribble in the margins, automatic writing. The sections of the book that I applied marginalia to appeared to be random but were perhaps not. Bunker Logic. Scar Tissue. Emergence.

IMG_4723

This book was the archaeological fieldwork guide that I had always wanted. More profound than Barker’s Techniques of Archaeological Investigation. More informative than Drewett’s Field Archaeology. More grounded in reality that Hodder’s The Archaeological Process. More emotionally charged than the MoLAS archaeological site manual (3rd edition).

I came to realise that as a rulebook for surveying the deep time in our world one need do no more than read the complete fictional works of JG Ballard, Applied Ballardianism and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology.

IMG_4966

IMG_4967

Through this psychogeographik grimoire, I had found my hard stuff. The hard stuff of life.

The midden.

 

Calcium Cairns

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 the return of, 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.

 

In the Mesolithic of Oronsay, hunters and fishers would bury human finger bones in their shell middens.

In the Neolithic of Orkney, farmers would use midden material to insulate their houses.

Oronsay shell midden canmore_image_SC01453537

But 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 middening.

 

A Gruesome Inventory

The kitchen-midden was discovered on the far side of the small estuarine island of Inchkeith in 1870 at the base of a slope. This artificial organic talus consisted of cooking-debitage, eating-scree, of unknown date and origin. The midden was monumental in its scale, up to 3m high, thick with greasy charcoal.

Baskets of bones were removed from this midden for analysis back in Edinburgh. The scientist tasked with the analysis of these bits and pieces produced a gruesome inventory, scraped from the pages of an anatomical manual, notes from an animal autopsy.

inventory

Basi-occipital and basi-sphenoid fragments of grey seal skulls. Mastoid process and temporal fossa of sheep. Head of the ulna of a sheep. Fourth cervical vertebrae of a pig. Head of left tibia of an ox. Cannon bone of hind foot of bos. Toe bone of bos. Parts of jaw, and several teeth, of horse. Jaw bones of the rabbit. An assemblage of alien species.

Many shells were found too, listed in the analysis like an incantation. Tapes pullastra. Purpura lapillus. Pecten varius. Ostrea Edulis. Pecten maximus. 

It was concluded after this analysis and repeat visits to the island that, ‘there is no evidence as to the period when these rejecta were first cast forth’.

Cast Forth in the Forth.

 

Urban Midden

Hunter Street. There is no such thing as a coincidence so I told myself as I cut up from the Barrowlands Ballroom and headed towards the urban prehistory. I turned onto Hunter Street, folding a map and stuffing it into my back pocket. Across a railway line, over an abandoned tunnel. Ahead of me now were the rusty skeletal remains of warehouses, the Victorian city excarnated, exposed as if on a osteoarchaeologist’s slab.

The sign of the Hunter was affixed to a street light that had beside it a rusty totem pole, its evil twin, pock-marked with corrupted spirals and corroded cupmarks.

Hunter Street

Two drunks in navy shell suits kept appearing during my walk, as if they were being projected for my benefit on a loop by some unknown projectionist. One of them spoke to me tenderly, momentarily breaking the fourth wall, confusing me for his partner in grime, before realising his mistake and flickering out.

I was looking for hunters in the city, middenscapes in the shadow of the industrialised Tennants’ Brewery, makers of liquid gassy capitalism. From my perspective as I entered Barrack Street it seemed that the aluminium pipes that emerged from the brewery were connected directly to the Necropolis, Glasgow’s city centre cemetery, and for a moment I speculated that this must have been for the exchange of fluids. Through the beer haze I could also see the outline of Glasgow Cathedral, one of Ludovic Mann’s ancient Glaswegian pagan places, his Temple of the Moon. There is no such thing as a coincidence.

Moon temple view

Back on Hunter Street (confusingly re-appearing) I reached my destination. A block of modern flats and some old brick-built industrial units on Duke Street where a shell midden had been found during construction works in 1985. Ancient oyster shells had been found on the spoil from the job, and identified too late as being of archaeological significance. In prehistory, I reminded myself, everyone was swallowing oysters all of the time, as they were, as in Victorian times, not simply the preserve of the rich. The shells were then dumped in a pile, calcium cairns, middens.

The industrial unit was orange and glowed in the late afternoon sun, raking across the facade and revealing ghosts – ghost signs, phantom lettering, a typeset palimpsest of failed and out-dated businesses. The building was dominated by a monstrous sign: JAS. D GALLOWAY. TYRE DISTRIBUTORS.

Galloway

I wondered around the block onto a different section of Barrack Street (I was becoming spatially disorientated). I passed a pub – the Ladywell, suggesting an ancient spring or holy well once stood here. On the wall of a neighbouring car repair shop, an occult symbol had been crayoned onto a white-washed wall. Was it a spiral, or a malformed cup-and-ring mark, or a reversed number nine – or a shell, a mollusc, a midden-component?

the symbol

A constellation of coincidences? I reflected on the words written by Marion Shoard and quoted by the fictional headcase Philip in Applied Ballardianism. Urban edgelands allowed us to see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. In essence, socially fundamental constructions, materials and infrastructure often become restricted to urban edges. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

In prehistory, those conflicted spatially dangerous fundamentals were middens.

 

Organic Rejecta

under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow layers of practice the stratigraphy of a lifetime of generations of meals of daily routine of repetition and habit and routine and the accumulation of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow under the people under the streets pressing against the walls of the basements pressure toe bone of bos parts of jaw and several teeth of horse jaw bones of the rabbit tapes pullastra purpura lapillus countless rejecta under the flats and the factories are places of accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds and pips and marrow calcium carbon cairns

 

The Island of Dead Birds

Inchkeith today is a very different place from the island where the kitchen midden was recorded in 1870. Militarisation began in 1879 and continued throughout the first half of  the twentieth century transforming this small rocky eminence through the construction of concrete bunkers, control buildings and the infrastructure of ammunition supply.

This was a defensive, reactive place, but never saw action.

After this brief flourishing, the island has more or less been abandoned to nature (with most of the personnel withdrawn in 1943) like some kind of social experiment.

Quite by chance, this island of precaution has become an emergent prehistoric landscape with its own monuments, its own concrete vocabulary, its new middens.

The porcelain cairn –

The porcelain cairn

The fallen megalith –

IMG_E4562

The shit-stained monolith –

IMG_E4567

The island has its own sacred geometry, ghost paths and leys –

ghost paths

Bunkers abound, underground spaces for the containment of ammunition and men. The walls are burdened with a sinister anatomy of coat hooks and shelf supports.

IMG_E4551

Animals have become complicit in re-making prehistory, the island covered in bird-build middens, accumulations of shells and bones and twigs and nuts and seeds.

The bird built midden

Now, in its abandoned state, this concrete island is becoming something … other.

 

Talus

Middens

Mummified mice

Nests within nests by nests

Scattered cartilages and cartridges

Shells upon shells under shelves and on skulls

Pips amidst pipes and petrification

Calcium cairns. Concrete cairns.

Broken bunkers and bones

Talus Talus Talus

Middens.

 

Concrete Island

IMG_4559

Bunker archeology image Amazon

“Abandoned on the sand of the littoral like the skin of a species that has disappeared, the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military history…. (Virilio 2014, 46).

 

Dirty Edgelands

What is urbanisation but an accumulation?

A midden with prehistory as its dirty edgelands, if not in space then certainly in time.

We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.

Living on our own islands with our own futile defences, bunker mentalities, surrounded by lots of shelves.

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

And when our megaliths have collapsed, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens and our single-use plastic.

Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds.

We are tomorrow’s urban prehistory.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: I would firstly like to thank Gordon Barclay for inviting me to spend a day visiting various fortified islands in the Firth of Forth, amongst them Inchkeith. The few facts about that island that appear in the narrative above come from Gordon’s excellent handouts to accompany the trip and he appears in one photo striding towards an anti-aircraft gun position. 

The account of the kitchen-midden found on Inchkeith in the 1870s is (you can find it online by googling the title of the paper): David Grieve 1872 On the discovery of a kitchen midden on Inchkeith, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 9, 452-55. The jumbled list of animal bones in my post is adapted from this paper.

The limited information available for the Barrack Street / Hunter Street shell midden can be found in the canmore entry for the site here, and Sloan recorded in the 1985 edition of Discovery and Excavation in Scotland (pg 46):

“Deposits of oyster shell were reported from approximately this location during housing development in 1982. Although reported too late for active investigation a sample of shell was recovered from builder’s spoil; remains in the possession of the Committee for Early Coastal archaeology”.

This could be a Mesolithic site, but it could also be medieval, or anything in between. We choose our own myths about the past.

Ludovic Mann’s moon temple writings are included in his 1938 short book Ancient Glasgow: Temple of the Moon.

The photograph of a Mesolithic shell midden near the start of the post is of the site Cnoc Sligeach on the island of Oronsay, taken in 1911, and reproduced here thanks to canmore and is © HES: Early photographs of sculptured stones.

I must finish by paying a debt of gratitude to Simon Sellars for his brilliant novel Applied Ballardianism (Urbanomic, 2018) for inspiring aspects of this post, and leading me to the chapter Edgelands by Marion Shoard (quote from this in the blog post) in Jenkins’ book Remaking the landscape (Profile Books, 2002). Sellars also led me to the majestic Bunker Archeology by Paul Virlio (my version being published in 2014 by Princeton Architectural Press). The image from that book was sourced from the Amazon page for this volume and a credited quotation appears above as well.

The definitions that start this post were adapted from wikipedia

Taunton axe

26 Sep

Serendipitous encounter with

the material culture of urban prehistory

unexpected discovery

the happenchance of sewage infrastructure

small find destined to be documented, drawn

and stored in a box

once found, then forgotten again

almost unknown

unknowable

indicative of an act: loss, disposal

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

the slow accumulation of the archaeological record

drifting until discovery

on the riverbank

beside the cricket ground

by Mick Aston off the Time Team.

stone axe from taunton drawing

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

SomHERimage14159 Mick Aston

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

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

location today

Eggs

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

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

The art of the Cochno Stone part 2

1 Sep

In my first post looking at art and the Cochno Stone, I considered the 5,000 year-old tradition of using this domed sandstone surface as a canvas for various creative acts in the form of shallow scratches, deeply incised hollows and painted lines. These surface alterations are ambiguous in meaning, each with their own aesthetic qualities and values, either reducing or adding to the monument, all of them inspiring passionate opinions.

cups and rings and lines and scales

In this second post, I would like to consider the art of the Cochno Stone from another perspective, through the medium of sketches and drawings, specifically those drawn from life (ie before the stone was buried in 1965) over a period between the 1880s and 1930s. No doubt there will be some who will argue that some of these drawings are not really works of art and creativity. For instance, can we regard ‘measured’ depictions of something, technical drawings as part of an archaeological study, as being creative or simply reductive? And what is the archaeological value of studying archive material or newspaper clippings with old drawings when we know with the benefit of hindsight that the drawings are either inaccurate, or incomplete, or both? More fundamentally – and this gets to the roots of much debate on the nature of archaeological narratives – to what extent are these objective renderings of the Cochno Stone? Is such a thing even possible? There are layers of art entangled with art here, the art of art, about art, for art.

Regardless of the motivation, medium, and intended audience, I would argue that there is a deeply artistic strand running through the history of attempts to capture the spirit of Cochno and I hope that this story of four decades worth of drawing and sketching the Cochno Stone will persuade you of this. Before getting to the real stuff, however, I want to reflect a little more on the art of depicting rock-art, and this also has resonance for part 3 of this sequence of posts, which will focus on art inspired by the Cochno Stone, so please take notes! 😉

 

The art of rock-art

Prehistoric rock-art lends itself well to contemporary variations in unusual locations, with the simple form and shallow depth endlessly replicatable. Wherever it occurs, if offers a juxtaposition, a curious time slip. Palaeolithic rock-art – cave paintings to you and me – work especially well in this respect, with otherwordly effects as standard.

cumbernauld

Cumbernauld shopping mall mural (artist unknown)

twitter source unknown

I confess I got this from twitter but have no idea who tweeted it, sorry!

More abstract Neolithic and Bronze Age rock-art works is equally portable. This lovely image is in Umea, Sweden, photographed by Lorna Richardson (and reproduced here with permission). This was part of a campaign by the local authorities to promote cycling and draws on the local rock-art repertoire which is a little less abstract than the Scottish equivalents.

Umea urban rock-art Lorna Richardson pic

Photo: Lorna Richardson

Many artists have been inspired by the simplicity and concentricity of cup-and-ring marks. Gavin MacGregor wrote about one such artist, Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933), a landscape painter who lived most of his life in and around Kirkcudbright in southwest Scotland, and one of the famous ‘Glasgow boys’. Gavin notes that Hornel consorted with antiquarians and was himself a keen amateur archaeologist, and as it happens, Kirkcudbright happens to be a real hotspot for rock-art (as well as being the location of some shooting for The Wicker Man movie).

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Brownie of Blednoch (1889)

MacGregor, and the biographer of Hornel, Bill Smith, both draw attention to the echoes of cup-and-ring marks in the depiction of the moon in painting such as The Brownie of Blednoch (1889) and The Druids: bringing in the mistletoe (1890, with George Henry). Gavin notes the former (see above) is dominated by a ‘Gallovoidian shepherd beast, beard of circles and cup-marked eyes … manifestation of the living rock….’. Hornel went as far as to search for new cup-and-ring marked stones and some of his discoveries were recorded in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

It is in the work of the polymath-antiquarian-artist-archaeologist that we find the first recorded artwork associated with the Cochno Stone, with the earliest engagements mediated by various characters of this ilk as well as clergymen. The earliest drawings we have of rock-art in the pages of antiquarians books of the nineteenth century emerged form such a melting pot of influences and interests, blurring the lines between art and objective record, in fascinating ways. Hornel was himself involved in the process of the creation of a series of black and white engravings of Kirkcudbrightshire rock-art, which MacGregor notes were collaborations between a small team and were based on photographs taken of casts made from rock-art panels.

High Banks engraving

This is a period when the first drawings as a matter of record were being produced for cup-and-ring marks, and there was no rulebook, no style guide, no best practice conventions to follow. Artists used licence and produced evocative and memorable images, which often used unusual perspectives and were, for a time, concerned with context and not metrical accuracy.

Stronach Ridge drawing

Somerville’s 1901 sketch of the Stronach Ridge cup-and-ring marks, Arran

It was also around this time that a young Ludovic Mann became obsessed with cup-and-rings marks near the rural family holiday home, according to Katinka Dalglish, an obsession that would reach its feverish conclusion on the surface of the Cochno Stone to which we now turn. Before going any further in this post, I must also offer the debt of gratitude I owe to Jim Mearns for doing much of the archive research which underpins the history of early drawings of Cochno.

 

Sketches and symbols

Several drawings or sketches of the Cochno Stone were undertaken before 1900, each with a very different style, scope and ambition. (A cast was also taken although the nature and fate of this remains unknown.) These wonderfully capture the emergent understanding of Cochno, presenting only symbols that were initially visible, sometimes selectively so. The gradual reveal of the removal of grass from the stone was played out in these artistic renderings and associated accounts.

A partial drawing, defined within a box, was published with the first detailed account of the Cochno Stone, by Rev James Harvey, in 1889. This may well be the earliest drawing we have of any part of the Cochno stone, certainly the first to be published, and it focuses on the only area of the stone cleared when Harvey encountered it. This is a rather plain drawing, with cupmarks represented as dots and dashes, and lacking depth. Harvey himself did the drawings in 1887, but also took rubbings, which he was then able to use to correct his field sketches. The end product has a sense of immediacy, a work in progress, megalithic notations in a sketchbook. Looking at this sketch now for me is slightly disorientating as east is to the top, but is a welcome break from the tyranny of the north. However, this is also a drawing of some authority, having been published in that august organ the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS).

Harvey published drawing

The wonderful little sketch below was drawn by another minister, the Rev Robert Munro at the latest in 1890. It shows edited highlights of what must have been visible at that time. Two slightly different versions of this drawing were reproduced, the earliest, remarkably, in The Illustrated London News on 6th September 1890. A slightly amended version was then included in John Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick (1893). (A further version of this was reproduced in Harry Bell’s 1980s book Glasgow’s Secret Geometry but wrongly attributed to William Donnelly.)

ILN version of the drawing 1890

1890 (top), 1893 (below)

Harvey drawing detail

When compared with what we know of Cochno now from our excavation of 2016, some of this drawing is quite fanciful, but it is also an image that has real depth. (The version published by Bruce even has the feel of a rubbing, a nice observation made by Grahame Gardner.) However, unlike Harvey’s drawing, there is no scale here, thus giving the drawing a sense of being more of an artistic and interpretive depiction rather than a document of precise record. This is perhaps the case, as elements of this depiction of the stone are spatially impossible, with symbols simply in the wrong place relative to one another and so this is an image of cup-and-ring mark density, not accuracy. The use of a sharply defined diagonal line allows symbols from another part of the stone – in this case the south-western extent, several metres from the other symbols to be shown in the same drawing, making this a sort of ‘Cochno Stone greatest hits’ compilation.

This emphasis on selected bits of the Cochno Stone was countered by the clearing of vegetation, and drawing of the whole monument, by William Donnelly in the mid-1890s, working with John Bruce. Illustrator Donnelly’s drawing of the whole of the stone was published in PSAS in 1896, but a slightly earlier and different version was printed in an edition of Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick and includes the artist’s signature and the date – 1895. The slightly earlier drawing, the upper of the two versions depicted below, is notable for its inclusion of a north arrow and some landscape detail that are inexplicably absent from the more widely circulated ‘authoritative’ PSAS version.

Bruce material on Cochno 005

Figure 3

Donnelly’s drawing from 1895 (top) and 1896. Spot the differences!

Donnelly himself was an interesting character, and his illustrations showed an equally bold approach to cup-and-ring mark symbols found elsewhere.

william donnelly

William Donnelly at work with a sweaty forehead (c) HES

dumbuck-dubious-debris

Hoax carved stone objects found near Dumbuck Crannog (c) HES

His depiction of symbols of these hoax items found during his excavations (with John Bruce, him again) have echoes of what he saw and drew at Cochno just a few years previously, and suggest a hankering towards the weird and esoteric which he was also able to satisfy at Cochno with his recording of a cross in a circle and two four-toe footprints, neither typical prehistoric motifs. On the cusp of archaeological professionalism, but with visibility and access to archaeological sites still somewhat limited, at the turn of the century such drawings had to be taken on trust.

Yet the rise in interest and participation in rambling and hikes in the early decades of the twentieth century allowed less authoritative accounts of archaeological monuments to be composed and disseminated. The only two sketches of the Cochno Stone that I know of from between 1900 and 1965 were both drawn by non-professional archaeologists.

The earliest of these was published, firstly in the Glasgow Evening Times newspaper in 1909, and then in the book Some Sylvan Scenes near Glasgow by T C F Brotchie in 1910.

Brotchie drawing

Brotchie book

This lovely sketch captures a very small fragment of the Cochno Stone focused on a ‘dumb-bell’ motif, sketched at the end of a good ‘Saturday afternoon ramble’. This is a truly artistic rendering, taken from an oblique angle rather than depicting the plan view, with no scale, no north arrow, no conventions – but a sufficiency of dynamism. The rings around the cup have a real sense of mobility, almost as if the symbols were spinning in front of Brotchie’s eyes. There is also a synechdotal quality to this sketch, a gutter running off the right-hand side of the drawing hinting at more to be discovered (and drawn) beyond the frame.

Such dynamism is also evident in another Cochno Stone drawing, one which I have reproduced before, notably in the excavation summary report. Ludovic Mann’s audacious attempt to explain the cosmological meaning of each ring of a cup-and-ring mark complex is as mind-blowing now as it must have been when published in the late 1930s as part of a consideration of the Knappers site he had been excavating in nearby Clydebank.

Figure 5

Source: Mann’s 1939 booklet The Druid Temple Explained.

This ‘dialectogram’ (for the wonderful work of Mitch Miller is one of the best parallels I can think of here) is an amalgam of all the other Cochno drawings to that date. There is convention. There is artistic licence. There is narrative. There is a focus on the giant cup-and-ring mark motifs on the upper reaches of the Cochno Stone that also featured prominently in the drawings of Munro, Harvey and Donnelly. There is passion. And there is wonder.

And there are more questions than answers. Always more questions than answers.

All of these Cochno Stones drawings, produced over a period of forty years, offer a series of dynamic and creative attempts to document and make sense of the cup-and-ring marks, using the conventions and styles of their time and channeled through the personal motivations and passions of the artist-recorder. In their own ways, each of these drawing is a version of the Cochno Stone that captures some of the character of the rock and its symbols and taken together they form a compelling biography of this place, another chapter of a story that began to be written (before there was writing) 5,000 years ago.

What I especially find alluring about this collection of drawings is that they were drawn from life – by actually standing at the site and looking at the stone. This is where Morris’s much reproduced drawing of the stone falls short – it was cobbled together from the plans by Harvey and Donnelly, and some photographs from the 1930s. While it was (until our photogrammetric and laser survey of 2016) the most comprehensive drawing of the Cochno Stone produced, it creaks at the edges with the slightest bit of scrutiny especially when compared with earlier, more dynamic, drawings. It is clinical, transactional, flat.

decent drawing of the stone

Source: Morris 1981

Morris, a solicitor, was a lateral thinker. To really start to make sense of rock-art, concentric thinking is required.

 

Thinking concentrically

One of the most common questions that I get asked about the Cochno Stone regards the meaning of the symbols, and regardless of how accurately we record and draw the cupmarks and the cups-and-rings and the gutters, that meaning cannot be revealed to us. Therefore, despite the formal and technical shortcomings of some of the earlier drawings of the Cochno Stone, these are no more or less likely to help make sense of the symbols than any image we could generate now that was mediated through digital technology. In this case at least, the pencil is no more or less mighty than the pixel.

Figure 13 Laser scan

The joy of the art of the Cochno Stone – and indeed any abstract rock-art – is not about accuracy, or precision, but about mediation, dialogue, spending time with the stone, tracing the contours of the prehistoric depressions with our fingers. There is much merit in standing back and letting a laser scanner do its thing, or viewing the stone through the lens of the camera. But drawings and sketches involve a powerful intimacy that mirrors the acts that created the rock-art in the first place.

Forget the scales. We don’t need north arrows. Making sense of rock-art is about thinking concentrically, not metrically.

S Jeffrey Sian Jones cleaning rock-art

Auchnacraig rock-art panel, near Cochno (Photo: Stuart Jeffrey)

In the final part of my series of posts looking at the art of the Cochno Stone, I will consider art and creative acts that have been inspired by the Cochno Stone, but that exist spatially somewhere else. In some cases they have only had a brief existence or do not exist at all. A mural, a comic book, Chalkno stones and inspired architectural design all attest to the power of Cochno to provoke a response and empower.

 

Sources and acknowledgements: as noted in the post, the story of the antiquarian and early drawings of the Cochno Stone could not have been told without the research and diligence of Jim Mearns. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Gavin MacGregor and Alex Hale for the input that their research has had on this post and I have linked to their work where possible. For more on Donnelly and Dumbuck, you can download for free Alex and Rob Sands’ book Controversy on the Clyde: archaeologists, fakes and forgers from here. The biography of Hornel alluded to is Bill Smith’s 2010 book Hornel: the life and work of Edward Atkinson Hornel. I’m also very grateful to Lorna Richardson for both allowing me to use her Umea photograph, but giving me some background context for the image. 

The High Banks rock-art drawing came from Hamilton’s paper in PSAS 23 (1888-9) ‘Notice of additional groups of carvings of cups and circles on rock surfaces at High Banks, Kircudbrightshire’. The Stronach rock-art sketch comes from Somerville’s PSAS article, ‘Notice of cup- and ring-marked rocks on the Stronach Ridge, near Brodick, Arran’ (volume 35, 1900-1901). All PSAS articles can be downloaded free.

Ronald Morris’s drawing of the Cochno Stone comes from his 1981 BAR volume The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway).

Other image permissions have been included in the captions, or the text accompanying the images

Urban Prehistory and Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy

23 Jun

It is my pleasure to introduce a guest post, by Dr Helen Green, who has recently completed a ground-breaking and important PhD thesis on the topic of ‘Renewable Energy and the Historic Environment: An Analysis of Policy and Practice in Scotland’. Helen is a post-doctoral researcher who, amongst other things, is currently advising the archaeology department in Glasgow (where I am based) on our impact case-studies for the next REF (Research Excellence Framework 2021), and so this blog post comes from a place of being immersed in the process and scrutinising potentially impactful research such as ‘urban prehistory’. REF involves a lot of crap for academics, but at least the requirement to evidence the impact our research has on society concentrates minds and gives a certain credibility to such activities. There are some nice things written here about the stuff I do, but ultimately Helen’s message is that there is a strategic context for this type of public engagement research, and academic checks and balances are in place. I am delighted that Helen sees potential in my work…..

 

Urban Prehistory and Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy

by Helen Green

With this guest contribution I would like to take a step back and consider the work of the urban prehistorian from a slightly broader perspective. In particular, I aim to contextualise it, and outline its importance from a strategic point of view: where we are going as a discipline, and what we are aiming to accomplish together. To this end, I want chip in a few thoughts about how urban prehistory sits in relation to Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, a sector-wide collaboration aimed at focusing and integrating the work we do to support the contribution archaeology makes to society.

 

Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy

Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy was launched in 2015, with the overriding aim of fostering inclusion and collaboration in Scotland’s archaeology. It was produced in response to issues, such as a sense of fragmentation in the sector, but developed into a forward-looking, collaborative framework for trying to improve archaeology’s contribution to society. The committee is chaired by Prof Steve Driscoll from Archaeology at Glasgow University, but includes representatives from across the world of Scottish archaeology, including Historic Environment Scotland, Archaeology Scotland, local council archaeologists, the commercial sector, and the third sector. Delivering the Strategy’s aims is a crucial strand in the work we do in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow.

Strategy front cover

Perhaps the Strategy’s most central and challenging aspiration is to work towards ‘a Scotland where archaeology is for everyone’. However, the Strategy also outlines several more specific aims, which include ‘delivering archaeology’, ‘encouraging greater engagement’, ‘enhancing understanding’, ‘caring and protecting’ and ‘innovation and skills’. I want to consider how urban prehistory and related work is making an important contribution to fulfilling these aims, through a focus on engagement in particular and the ethos of inclusion in general.

 

Urban Prehistory Encourages Greater Engagement

A strategic aim identified in a Historic Scotland report in 2012 (see sources) stated that one of the priorities of any strategy for the sector was to look at ‘how the output from archaeology can be made accessible even more readily and quickly for the purposes of education and interpretation and public display as well as for academic consumption’.

For a long time, the main outputs expected from archaeological fieldwork and research, other than a few shiny monographs and webpages, were dry factual ‘data structure reports’. Even when these are helpfully made freely available on portals such as this one, these are technical documents that are largely inaccessible to non-experts. Academic publications are also problematic, written for an academic audience, and often stuck behind a paywall. There is a great deal of interest in archaeology in Scotland, and some excellent work is being done to make fresh research and excavation reports accessible, through outreach and social media for example, but much more can always be done – and for this reason the Strategy aims to encourage the sector to do better on this issue.

The first aspiration in encouraging greater engagement in the Strategy is:

To encourage creative and collaborative archaeological activities, developing better ways of engaging people with the process and results

One example of this kind of approach is Burning the Circle, a public engagement project held on the island of Arran three times since 2013, which involved the construction of timber monuments to give insight into the process of their creation, which prehistorians such as Colin Richards argue may have been more what they were actually all about, than the finished ‘product’. This is then followed by ‘ritually’ burning them down, to better understand how the archaeological record is formed – and at the same time, to create a spectacular and memorable experience for the general public, which may even reflect an experience people shared thousands of years ago.

2014 Montage lr

Photos: Gavin MacGregor

This work has been carried out by the urban prehistorian in collaboration with organisations, such as Northlight Heritage (in the form of Gavin MacGregor), the National Trust for Scotland, and Arran Ranger Service, and widely publicised with the results shared on social media (@TeamBuildNBurn) and blogs. This innovative way of doing things results in not only a fascinating and engaging experience, but this experience may well echo that of people in prehistoric Scotland, who were surely just as fascinated with timber and fire as anyone.

Team photo from Arran Banner

Photo: Arran Banner

This activity is having other impacts, for instance opening up conversations about ways that people living on Arran could benefit more from the amazing prehistoric monuments and archaeology they have around them. Changing the ways people think about the places they live, and providing opportunities for social benefit = research impact. As the photo above shows, building prehistoric-style monuments is also a great outdoor learning experience, utilising the ‘green gym’.

Other creative and collaborative work of the urban prehistorian has included guided walks in Glasgow, Kilbirnie and Crieff, aimed at bringing to life monuments and prehistoric traces in urban settings that are often no longer visible, informing people and challenging them to see these urban landscapes in different ways. Details of these walks have then been published on the UP blog, bringing these sites and places to more people.

crieff ghosts poster

IMG_3853

The second strategic objective in encouraging greater engagement is:

To maximise the role archaeology can play in learning for people of all ages, benefiting from everyone’s contribution towards valuing, understanding and promoting our past

One neglected archaeological resource in Scotland which the urban prehistorian has helped bring to light is the remains of the past found in the construction of Scotland’s schools. Often the grounds of a school have hidden traces of a very different world in that site’s past – the potential is clear for an immensely valuable educational resource for use in those schools, literally on their doorstep.

GUARD photo of excavations

GUARD excavations in advance of two new playing fields beside the secondary school in Carnoustie, Angus: two Neolithic timber halls and a Bronze Age hoard were found (c) GUARD

Preliminary research by GU student Mar Roige Oliver has identified over 60 new-build schools in Scotland (post-2000) where excavations and evaluations in advance of construction found archaeology.

Schools archaeology Mar chart

Archaeological work undertaken in advance of new-build and refurbished schools in Scotland (Data: Mar Roige Oliver)

But teachers, even if they were made aware of these discoveries (which they almost never are), cannot always make use of this resource by themselves, and archaeologists can and should facilitate better communication and start to explore how these discoveries might impact on the life and fabric of new schools buildings and communities. This was the subject of a lecture Kenny gave recently.

It is sometimes said that archaeology is a largely middle-class pursuit – it shouldn’t be, and, potentially, engaging children and young people through learning could instil a pride in, and passion for, local heritage in more people in society.

A good example of what can be done is the urban prehistorian’s engagement with Ally Beckett of Northlight Heritage, who worked with SSE and the teachers at the school to help build a timber circle in the grounds of Strathearn Community Campus based on Ally’s excavations at Pittentian. Within a short space of time, the circle was already in use for learning, teaching and performance in the school – embedded in the life of the community and as this photo below shows, it looks as good today as it did when built in 2015.

Timber circle at Crieff

timber circle in buckets

Using the Pittentian Neolithic timber structure as a basis for a teaching session (photo: K Brophy)

The strategy’s final objective for greater engagement in archaeology in Scotland is:

To increase and improve the presentation and interpretation of archaeological information

Staying with the idea of schools as a central part of communities, and a fruitful place for engagement with archaeology, an excellent example of encouraging greater engagement by improving the presentation and interpretation of archaeological information can be found in the campus with the timber circle, Crieff High School. Here, a new information panel was designed by the urban prehistorian and Steve Timoney (UHI Perth College), to presence and celebrate hidden prehistory in and around the grounds. In this case, the archaeology is the cropmark Broich cursus monument, remnants of which still run beneath the school buildings and playground. (Cursus monuments are an enigmatic and little-known type of Neolithic monument (dating to the fourth millennium BC), in most cases ploughed flat and known only from aerial photography.)

Eila speech

Eila MacQueen of Archaeology Scotland and the new noticeboard (Photo: K Brophy)

This is part of the ongoing creation of an archaeology trail (the timber circle mentioned above was phase 1), an innovative project drawing on cropmark evidence, pre-school build excavations and historical records, to bring ‘invisible’ archaeology in and around the campus back to life. Despite the massive impact that these sites and monuments once had on prehistoric communities, little remains to be seen nowadays, and so without the work of archaeologists not only studying these academically, but helping to presence them in the heart of communities, the cursus monument and other monuments of Crieff would be all but unknown. It takes imagination, and persistence, to bring these back to life, but having a cursus beneath one’s town or village can alter perception of a place by adding a real sense of deep time.

During the unveiling of this new noticeboard, Eila MacQueen of Archaeology Scotland said that this initiative (two further boards and a trail are forthcoming) will share the ‘wonderful story’ of the Broich Cursus with both the local community and visitors. She also noted that the creation of this trail fulfils all five objectives of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy, so this shows I’m not alone in seeing this work through the lens of strategy.

 

Acknowledgements / sources: the HS source that was mentioned in the text regarding aspirations for the strategy was Historic Scotland (2012) A Review of the Archaeology Function (no longer available online). For more on Scotland’s cursus monuments, see Brophy, K. 2015. Reading Between the Lines: The Neolithic Cursus Monuments of Scotland. London: Routledge. And Colin Richards’ work on stone circles can be found here: Richards, C.  p4-5 Interpreting Stone Circles. In C. Richards (ed.), Building the Great Stone Circles of the North, 2-30. Oxford: Oxbow Books. The information on school archaeology came from Kenny Brophy and Mar Roige Oliver. You can follow post-excavation progress for the Carnoustie excavation by following @CarnoustiePx on twitter.

 

 

Post-atomic megalith

29 May

Dounreay nuclear power plant

Cnoc na h-Uiseig chambered cairn

Clachar megalith

tripartite

entangled                    powerless

 

an inventory of atomic performance

splitting atoms

transcending time

centrifugal forces

power generation

accumulation

 

radiating

 

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

Dounreay during construction Getty Images

 

Chambered cairn b&w photo

the asymmetrical arrangement of hollow spaces

blueprints

directing minds

intentionality

erection

 

orthostatic rods

 

cells

chambers

voids

 

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

 

Chambered cairn plan and section

Section of nuclear power Open University

 

Dounreay interior TopFoto National Archives

 

the architecture of containment

exclusion

approach with caution

wear protective clothing

warning signs

invited participants only

unshielded humans

inside and outside

 

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

Dounreay workers Alamy stock photo

 

Chambered cairn b&w interior photo

 

systematic investigation of a death chamber

material culture

beakers

skulls

broken bones

 

typologies

 

rule-bound

precise

fast reactions

a steady hand

required

 

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

 

Ox bone

Dounreay-explosion-environment

control panel BBC

Beaker sherds

 

ideological demands for absolute decommission

half-life

decay

ionization

 

the shaft

 

excavation

preservation by record

backfilling

made safe

forever

 

Inside the reactor

Cairn during excavation AOC

fan room decommissioning dounreay

 

“The evidence would disclose

that this had been

a chambered tomb of the Pre-Atomic age”.

 

 

A Tripartite tale: some notes

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

Neil Gunn

The Silver Bough

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

Dounreay fieldwork poster

Map from canmore

Source: Canmore

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

Dounreay glossy brochure

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

It is becoming post-atomic.

 

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

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

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

The rest of the images, from top to bottom:

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

Reactor diagram (colour) The Open University

Inside the reactor (B&W) National Archives

Masks (B&W) Alamy Stock Photo

Debris (B&W) Friends of Bruce

Control panel (colour) BBC

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