I have blogged in the past about the use of standing stones and megaliths as war memorials, and Howard Williams has also blogged and written about this phenomenon. Standing stones, dolmen and other forms of megalith are redolent with deep time, reliability, a solidness of form that brings reassurance, and can have ancient connections with land and even national identity (for good but for largely ill), all characteristics that make them ideal memorials.
A while back I was pointed in the direction of what might have – had it been realised – become the most elaborate example of this phenomenon – a war memorial in Campbeltown, Argyll and Bute.
This remarkable vision was the work of Glasgow architect James Salmon (1873 -1924) and was an entry in a competition to design a war memorial for the Argyll town that was held in in the years immediately after the First World War ended. Salmon’s vision did not come to pass however, and in the end a very different winning entry was unveiled to the public in 1923 – it stands in the town to this day. Incidentally, the winning design includes a Celtic cross element, another connection to a mythical past. The architect of the winning entry was by Alexander Nisbet Patterson (1862-1947).
James Salmon was an architect active in Glasgow at the end of the 19th, and early part of the 20th, centuries, and he worked in various different styles – art nouveau, modernism, romantic, mock tudor – being influenced by his education at Glasgow School of Art.
He worked in partnership with John Gaff Gillespie (1870–1926) and his most famous building is known as the ‘Hatrack’ building, located at 142a-144 St Vincent Street in Glasgow. Together, they “embarked on one of the most astonishing and innovative periods of architectural design the city had yet seen, with the introduction of Art Nouveau, Glasgow Style and Modernist elements in their buildings” (source).
A closer look at the plans for Salmon’s ‘Celtic circle’ and mound concept shows that this was very much an amalgam of various ideas and architectural forms from British prehistory.
The plan of the monument, above, shows it to have been a circle of standing stones, with a grass interior area divided into four quarters. The centre of the monument was a tower with large boat sculpture atop it.
This was envisaged as a communal, even crowd-sourced, construction project. The plan above included the notes:
This reminds me of the Gretna Auld Acquaintance cairn, constructed during the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014 from stones brought by visitors from across the UK.
This also suggests that not only was there to be a stone circle, but also earthen mound and stone dyke elements to the monument. These are only hinted at in this sketch:
This drawing does show however that several of the standing stones were in fact intended to be trilithon arrangements, including an elaborate triple setting facing towards the sea.
The date of this drawing is given by the holder of the Salmon archive, HES, as between November 1918 and September 1923, but it is likely that the competition entry was submitted in 2019 (source). Salmon himself died of cancer within a year of the rival war memorial plan being completed but not before submitting an entry for another competition – the Chicago Tribune Tower – in 1922.
Salmon’s vision for a monument to mark the sacrifices of the Great War is inherently romantic and fantastical, drawing on a mythical pagan past, and shaped by the collective efforts of society during the War. One can only imagine what this would have looked like had it been the prize-winner and been constructed. No doubt today we would look on the imagery included by Salmon as much more problematic than it would have been regarded in the 1920s.
The memorial that never was …. probably no bad thing.
Acknowledgements – thanks to Peter McKeague of HES for making me aware of this war memorial design. Image sources are given in the captions above.
The original drawing is now held by HES in their archives – here.
A broch built for bears does not sound the most obvious of architectural concepts, but nonetheless such a structure exists on the north side of Dundee.
This building – Bear Broch – is a functional art installation from the artist Mark Dion which sits beside the bear compound in Camperdown Country Park, a rather tired looking zoo. (In the news at the time of writing as it happens for a controversial story involving its wolf pack.) It was developed in 2005 in collaboration with wildlife centre staff Kevin Gosling and Aileen Whitelaw from the Wildlife Centre and Duncan Myers, an architect. The work was commissioned by Dundee Contemporary Arts around the time that a new compound was being created for a pair of European brown bears.
Situated beside the current residence of these fully institutionalised brown bears, Dion saw this as a chance to make deep time connections with these animals whilst creating a new space for visitors.
My interest is primarily in the conceptualisation of the human element of the project—not bear space but people space. In exploring architectural models, I am interested in looking at structural forms that existed when brown bears were still native in Scotland, sometime in the tenth century. The circular dry-stone broch of ancient Scotland offers a remarkably adaptable platform for a viewing experience of the bears as well as a site to investigate the natural history and ever-changing cultural meaning of brown bears.
The Bear Broch was constructed to act not just as a viewing area to watch the bears, but also as a repository of information. As a plaque beside the broch suggests, it ‘provides a record of the hopes, fears and fantasies projected by human society onto Ursus Actos‘. So exhibited inside the structure was standard bear information through to curated bear-associated things. Dion told MAP magazine, ‘Within the broch installation, sculptures, collections and images will replace the standard didactic zoological text panels’.
In plan, this is very much an archaeological monument, and Dion’s archaeological sensibilities come to the fore in this wonderful image.
This shows the internal arrangement of the Bear Broch and some of the exhibits on show such as a lurking small bear skeleton inside what looks like a fireplace, the sort of space within the wall that one would expect to see inside a broch. The walling is not drystone, but evokes that style: thick, and in places hollow, walls are classic broch.
You can see a great range of photos of the interior of this broch – perhaps how it was rather than how it now is as we shall see – at the Public Art Dundee website.
Jan and I paid a visit to the Bear Broch in January 2023 during a visit to the city to see the Plastic: Remaking our World exhibition being held at the V&A. Going on rather vague location information found online, we headed to the zoo, having no conception that there was a zoo in Dundee. We parked and asked a staff member where the Bear Broch might be found. After some confusion about what we were even talking about, we were given directions, paid an entrance fee, and went to find the tower – number 40 on this abstract location map.
We wandered around the perimeter pathway on the southside of the wildlife park, pausing from time to time to peer through the window of a hut to see sleeping creature of some kind or other, as most of the animals did not seem to be keen to be seen outside on a Sunday morning in January in Dundee, a sentiment I could understand. The pack of wolves swaggered around their compound, unaware of their impending sad fate, while in some other large caged areas, assorted birds sat on branches and feeding platforms, peering pensively at the grey skies, and jealously at wild birds taunting them from the other side of the mesh fence.
We passed through a gap in one of the old estate walls dotted around the park, this ghostly grandeur at odds with the shabby and far from chic set-up for the docile wildlife now residing here, a sad parody of the comfortable vibrancy that must have occupied these spaces in the past.
Then ahead of us we say, being at that very moment started towards by a large European brown bear, the Bear Broch.
The bear was squatting with violent intensity, looking from the broch, to a couple of park visitors gawking at this mighty creature from behind layers of green fence.
There is no doubt that this construction, despite being a scaled down version of the Iron Age original prototypes, was superficially a very brochy looking building.
However, to my great disappointment, the broch was locked up, and there was no way of accessing the interior which had been so lovingly curated by Mark Dion. The rather drab and weather-beaten wooden door was barred and locked shut, it’s girder runner red with rust. A green bin sat beside the entrance open-mouthed. Some rudimentary investigation of the doorway suggested it had not been open for quite some time.
This was confirmed by images captured when I stuck my phone through a narrow gap in the door to have a peek inside. There was not much inside there except some leaves, a blue bin, and a rather brutal looking piece of wood. The interior arrangement was hinted at, with an unpadlocked door to the left, which in the Iron Age would have led to a so-called ‘guard chamber’. Ahead was the viewing window to get a better view of the sad bears, but it seemed most of the contents had been removed.
In many ways, this replicated visits I have made to ruinous brochs in northern Scotland and the Western Isles – there is a recognisable geometry and architecture to what remains, and hints of rubbish deposition, but none of the good stuff has been left lying about.
I am intrigued by the choice of broch for this small building, something that Dion explicitly connected to a version of Scotland where bears once roamed the earth. Research by Hannah O’Regan has suggested that brown bears may not have become extinct in the wild in places like Yorkshire until 425 to 594 AD and so it is feasible that Iron Age folk may have come across these hairy beasts although their numbers would have been low at that time. O’Regan’s research shows that direct evidence for bears in Scotland during the Iron Age was vanishingly rare, but (from the caption for the map below), the ‘specimen from Bear Cave, Inchnadamph, Sutherland, Scotland, which is dated to the cusp of the Bronze Age and Iron Age, is included in the Bronze Age’. And absence of evidence need not be evidence of absence.
Bears continued to live in Britain beyond these dates but in states of forced domesticity, and more recently, in zoos and safari parks. The two brown bears that reside in this corner of Dundee fit that bill and looked suitably miserable about the experience.
A plaque to accompany the broch, which I somehow missed and so did not photograph, adds some rather unhelpful chronological information: ‘….when brown bears last roamed the Scottish countryside, sometime in the tenth century’. Regardless of whether this is meant to be AD or BC, this is not the Iron Age – first century AD would work though.
There are some misunderstandings here, and perhaps a mis-alignment with the data and the reality. However, by evoking prehistory, so Dion and the wildlife park have drawn attention to the lengthy but contested relationship we have with animals that sit on the cusp of domestic and wild. This was starkly illustrated after our visit, with the recent sad euthanising of the Camperdown wolf pack reminding me of the old (mythical?) story that the last wild wolf in Scotland was shot in AD 1680. Bears and wolves still live amongst us, but like prehistory, their freedom is a thing of the past.
Sources and references: firstly I would like to thank Gavin MacGregor who drew my attention to the broch in the first place, and the helpful staff at Camperdown.
Hannah O’Regan 2018 The presence of the brown bear Ursus arctos in Holocene Britain: a review of the evidence. Mammal Review 48.4, 229-44.
I had many questions and I got some answers. About cinematic standing stones. Tropes of horror, folk horror, rural horror, the uncanny. The entanglement of film and megalith: tapes of stones, and stone tapes. Urban prehistory in the big screen in the city – London, Edinburgh.
Q&A. Call out and response. Panels and chairs, chairs and panels. Tapes of stones and stone tapes.
During January 2023 I had the good fortune to attend two cinematic events that presented films that all combined elements of rurality, unsettlement, and standing stones. In both cases, films were followed by Q&A and panel sessions with film makers and artists.
First up was a showing of Enys Men, directed by Mark Jenkin. This Cornwall-set movie has been branded in marketing as being folk horror and includes many of the key elements – a remote rural setting (in this case an island), a lonely protagonist, local legends turned to song, a hint of menace, and a standing stone.
The director was happy enough during the Q&A at the end to suggest that the marketing for this film perhaps over-egged the horror element, but there is no doubt that despite there being little blood shed or physical violence shown on screen, nonetheless a horror-scape was evident through a fragmented temporality and the wonderful use of sound. The recurring roar of a generator reminded me of some of the more visceral sounds one finds on Italian horror movie soundtracks.
The film was wonderful and the Q&A fascinating, with Mark Jenkin being generous both with his time and his insights into the creative process. For more of the same, here is an extended discussion about Enys Men with Mark Kermode and central actor Mary Woodvine.
But we’re here for the standing stone! Sadly my raised hand did not get my question asked on the night, and a tweet the following day remains unanswered at least by Mr Jenkin.
In fact, it is both a real – and a fake – standing stone. The actual Boswens menhir was used for some scenes.
But in an article about the film by Tanya Gold in The Spectator, she suggests that a fake standing stone was used in some scenes, and this makes sense, as it comes and goes, and is to an extent altered during the film.
Landscape has agency in Enys Men. I walk to Boswens Menhir after watching it: it’s the stone in Enys Men, though they made a replica, which I found in the rafters at the reclamation yard Shiver Me Timbers a few days later because the owner is also the prop master. It’s middle Bronze Age, about 4,000 years old, a haunted object.
The two incarnations of the standing stone – real and fake, mirror images of one another – nonetheless have a powerful agency in this film, and probably deserve second billing in the cast list. It / they fulfil(s) the role that megaliths often do in folk and rural horror, in that the standing stone acts as a focal point for our fears and anxieties, a mute and timeless observer that just might become a participant in the right set of circumstances. “Presiding over this time-slipping strangeness is a giant standing stone” (Mark Kermode) and Jenkin himself has noted that of standing stones in the Cornish landscape:
I was really haunted by the Pipers. I’d look through the gateway and I’d think they’d moved slightly. I like the idea of a sentient stone.
And this is a sentient stone with anthropomorphised traits: reviewers use phrases like ‘keeping her company’, and note that the stone seems to have the ‘power to move’, and even that it ‘moves around the island …. changing position and size’. I’ve also read phrases like ‘stands sentinel’, and ‘presiding over’ (reference perhaps also to the fact that it seems to be located in the highest point in the internal island landscape of the film).
Writing about the film, Adam Scovell (sort of the godfather of critical Folk Horror writing) is also drawn to the recurring standing stone imagery, an evocation of what might be called ‘Cornish eerieness’. This is also suggested by the other heritage landmark shown in the film, an abandoned tin mine, which reminded me of earlier Cornish horrors – Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and Crucible of Terror (1971). These heritage horrors play on time depth and mystery, a vein mined with much success by MR James. Mark Kermode has suggested that Enys Men could be viewed as “the cult 70s TV frightener The Stone Tape reconfigured” – if only past lives, rites, and voices played out beside standing stones could be recovered now, but what if we were to find that blood had been spilled or the living petrified?
Enys Men is a thought-provoking megalith movie that happens to have people in it, orbiting around a standing stone, an eternal entanglement.
A couple of weeks later I was back for more, this time an event organised by The Stone Club, part of London Short Film Festival, and called Figures in the landscape – see this page. Over a couple of hours, five short films were shown followed by a panel discussion.
Stone Club traverse Britain and Ireland’s ancient landscapes via the medium of shorts. From mysterious apparitions in Cymru, sculptural monoliths on the misty moors of Kernow, and a bouncy Stonehenge travelling across the UK, Stone Club offer visions that attempt to thin the veil, inviting us to re-enchant the landscapes we inhabit on a daily basis.
The five films shown were:
Figures in the landscape is a short documentary about the artist Barbara Hepworth at work in and around St Ives, with an evocative narration and soundtrack, and featuring standing stones (of course) and artworks that perfectly align with the Cornish landscape. This included the juxtaposition of standing stones and sculpture as this selection of stills demonstrates, such as the 1938 piece Forms in Echelon.
The narration intones: Stones for dancing and stones for dying…death and rebirth, in and out
This was followed by Tresor, a film directed, written and produced by the Cornish singer, composer and artist Gwenno, to accompany her recent album of the same name. Claire Marie Bailey, a Cornish-based film-maker and photographer, collaborated closely with Gwenno on videos for this album and the short film I saw in London. (Mark Jenkin worked with her on a video from a previous album, and one song by Gwenno appears on the Enys Men soundtrack.) This film is joyous and playful, and features Bryn Celli Ddu Neolithic barrow, upon which Gwenno did a DJ set in 2022. (The hat worn below by Gwenno was designed by the Stone Club’s Lally MacBeth.)
Also obligatory draping over and hugging the ubiquitous Mên-an-Tol!
Like Enys Men, Tresor includes the use of Cornish, and was made during a Covid lockdown.
Third up was Jeremy Deller’s film English Magic, made and first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013. The centrepiece of this work was scenes of children playing on Deller’s bouncy castle Stonehenge, Sacrilege (2012). Again, this was joyous and fascinating, and it was fantastic to hear at the end during the Q&A how much Deller admires the creative thinking and creativity of archaeologists.
The exhibition for the British Pavilion at Venice included this film and other pieces. Deller’s website notes,
The exhibition reflects the roots of much of Deller’s work, focusing on British society – its people, icons, myths, folklore and its cultural and political history. He weaves together high and low, popular and rarefied to create unique and thought provoking work. English Magic addresses events from the past, present and an imagined future.
Sacrilege is a famous artwork, megalithic in form, but green and plastic in execution, a playful inflatable that toured the UK during Olympic year of 2012 including a stint in Glasgow Green park.
In Deller’s film, we see bouncy Stonehenge blown up (not Transformers 5 style!), enjoyed via the process of uncontrollable bouncing, and then deflated like a giant air bed (but more dignified than National Lampoon’s European Vacation style!). I’ve been to Stonehenge a few times and I’ve never seen anyone have much fun there, so this was always a refreshing installation, and it was nice to see its use documented.
The penultimate film was HforSpirit and Nick Hadfield’s 2021 short ‘pagan rave film’ UnTyMe, “… a short fly on the wall film about a group of friends that flee the city on a rave escape to the hills”. I must confess this was less engaging and joyful than the other films. I can’t like everything! But there was some cool dancing around Castlerigg stone circle with a typical foreboding big sky. You can watch an extract here.
Finally, there was a rather depressing Irish documentary from 1974, called Stones will Speak, directed by Terrence McDonald. This was an evocative and poetic exploration of, I suppose, elements of misplaced nostalgia, for a rural way of life that was neither sustainable nor equitable. “…voices of residents of the west coast tell the stories of their lives – dispelling romantic notions of rural life with tales of immigration, loneliness and hard work….[the film] has an air of truth, bearing witness to the changeless beauty of the Irish countryside but equally the harsh reality that a man cannot live on beauty or support his family on folklore”.
You can watch the film here. I suppose it speaks of a universal human melancholy related to landscape change. “I doubt there is anything in the city to match the sunshine on the mountains”.
The evening was concluded with the panel discussion featuring artist Jeremy Deller, the Stone Club’s Lally MacBeth & Matthew Shaw, artist and archivist Victoria Jenkins, and musician and producer Richard Norris. This was a free-flowing discussion on the films that covered a lot of ground although didn’t quite bottom out the enduring fascination for stone, and standing stones, suggested across the films. There was much discussion about ‘re-enchantment’ which I confess is a concept that I am not sure how to respond to as a prehistorian. It was all, with one exception, very English.
The chance to watch these films on the big screen was too good to miss, coupled with the opportunity to hear film-makers, artists and musicians discuss them. It was also an opportunity for me to explore the increasing interest there is today in Britain with standing stones and megalithic rites, a trend that transcends Folk Horror, despite what this recent Guardian article suggests.
There is something in the wind – perhaps this was even said by a panel member in London – that has so far largely escaped archaeologists. Looking back at my notes from that evening event, perhaps a better way of putting it is that there is a ‘yearning for something’ – and this seems dripping with nostalgia which is entangled with childhood TV memories, some kind of slower paced past, and played out through a rather retro and analogue sensibility. There are dangers of course with such nostalgia, especially were recollection falls to a sort of pagan past that never was. But I get the sense that all of those who were involved in making and curating the films discussed in this blog post are well aware of these dangers, and indeed would actively work against them.
Panels and chairs, chairs and panels. Tapes of stones and stone tapes. Standing stones in the cinema.
PS I still have many questions. One of them was answered via twitter by Mark Jenkin, a belated but welcome answer to my question as set out above about the Enys Men standing stone.
Sources and acknowledgements: I’m very grateful to all of those who organised and participated in the events that are discussed in this blog post, and I’m appreciative of the creative talent involved. I paid to attend both events, this was no junket! My companions on these evenings – Bam and Jan – both helped me think through some of the issues discussed above.
Special thanks to Gwenno for correcting information on the first version of this post in terms of collaborations for Tresor videos and film, and for the kind words!
I hope I have cited all sources for images and so on correctly and clearly above, let me know if you see any problems.
My visit to London was supported by a grant from the School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow.
Stone circle is a category of monument that does not, in its definition, and despite what you might think, have a stipulated time period. There is no point beyond which a stone circle is no longer a stone circle. A circle of standing stone will always be a stone circle. I have written about this elsewhere in a short piece called Stone circle (21st century). These are some of my words:
The implication that we might consider building a stone circle as an active living tradition is not as daft as it sounds. You are unlikely to travel much distance by road in the UK without passing a roundabout with a stone circle inside it, while megaliths seem to be default landscaping elements when a gap in a new development needs to be filled.
Recently I visited two stone circles which very much belong to the 21st century (this century, not the BCE one). I encountered one by accident, the other by design. This reinforced to me that there are, in effect, endless permutations and purposes to the simple act of arranging stones in a roughly circular setting. (The circle thing is a bit of a misnomer if you are looking for geometrical perfection.) There is a kind of magic to this simple concept, transforming both the materials used, and the space defined, into something altogether different through a bringing together and re-arrangement of some geological raw materials. Under the correct circumstances making a stone circle might also change the maker, while there may be a hope that the stone setting will affect some or all potential users.
Megalith creation might be an act of decoration, of convenience, even of whimsy. Or it could be deadly serious, done with the purpose of remaking a place, engaging with people, offering a service, perhaps enhancing wellbeing.
This is what one might call stone-circling: verb, the creation of a stone circle. At any time in the past, present, or future for whatever purpose. It doesn’t get much more niche, or vague, than that.
During a recent visit to Mainsgill Farmshop on the A66 in the north of England, I noticed by chance when looking out of the upper floor window a bloody stone circle! My views of this monument shifted as I moved from window to window, creating a series of surreal vignettes, a juxtaposition of gift shop nonsense with a neatly organised circle of stones.
Framed – a triptych of stone circle views from a gift shop
The origins of the stone circle at Mainsgills Farmshop are not precisely known, its construction sometime before 2010.
This is a confection, a jumble of farm detritus, with random gateposts and, perhaps, lintels, gathered together and set in a circle. A stone lies recumbent in the centre, and picnic benches intrude on the northwest side.
The monument itself has its own page in the Megalithic Portal, categorised as Modern Stone Circle. Editor Andy Burnham quotes Andy Farrington who noted that this monument “is made up of old farm gate posts and has been built in the last 5 years as a tourist attraction for visitors to the farm shop and tearooms”. This would date this monument to the years before 2010, and since then the expanding farm shop has begun to encroach on the fringe of the circle as this photo of the monument, below, taken by Farrington in 2011, suggests.
This stone circle seems to me a superficial gesture to rurality in a highly commercial environment, part of an attempt to make this place as farm-like as possible. Slightly ruinous barns, muddy roads, animals, the faint whiff of shit in the air – are all part of the farminess of Mainsgills Farmshop. One can almost imagine a brainstorming session where stone-circling was conceived of as another layering of authenticity.
This contrasts with another modern stone circle I visited recently, this time as part of my Death BC project. This circle is equally recent in terms of its construction and also sits within a business premises, but could not be more of a contrast.
The stone circle at The Lost of Village of Dode, Kent, is part of a different set of transactional rural practices, built with marriage, death and other life landmarks in mind. The church itself was sealed shut during a bout of the old Black Death back in the 14th century. It was brought back to life by Doug Chapman in the 2000s, who lovingly restored the building. An income stream was found through this becoming a wedding venue, and things have evolved further since. The church itself is stunning.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Doug for the project about his barrow columbarium, built during lockdown.
This partially overlaps Dode’s stone circle, known as Holly Henge. This is – despite the name – a stone circle consisting of seven stones set in a circle with a single stone towards the middle. This was added to the church grounds as the services provided here expanded. It is now used for hand fasting and baby naming ceremonies, and memorial services. The additions of the barrow means that the major rites of passage in life can now all be marked at Dode.
Those marketing Dode make much of the potential prehistoric depth of these kinds of interactions with stone circles.
The Handfasting ceremony has its roots on Ancient Celtic Tradition and dates back as far as 7,000BC.
Traditionally a handfasting involved a couple, holding hands which are bound by cords and declared that there is only one life between them; much in the same way as vows are made now. The couple would then exchange a gift, most commonly rings or a gold coin, broken in half; a token of their love and commitment.
Where better to continue this meaningful tradition that at Holly Henge, the stone circle of Dode. To declare the significance of your relationship and future journey together, witnessed by your guests and the centuries old stone that has seen so much of the history of our world. (from Dode website, link above).
It is interesting that an appeal is made here not only a timeless human tradition, but also the timelessness of stone – the stone is ancient, and so therefore the stone circle has an ancient quality. These are appeals to perceptions of prehistory rather than any reality we can prove archaeologically but why should that matter? Doug’s stories about his time at Dode and online testimonies show that this, for many people, all works.
This says something about the mutability of the stone circle form and the spiritual benefits that stone-circling can bring. Yet my earlier example, bereft of emotion, shows another side of stone-circling – the creation of atmosphere. At both Mainsgill and Dode, the stone circle serves a purpose to evoke a certain kind of atmosphere – of the rural in one case, the pagan in the other. Stone circles therefore can be – and perhaps always have been – deployed to create a temporal jump, recalling some imagined, wished-for, past to serve a specific purpose. In that sense, stone-circling retains its important social purpose even today, and what’s more, folk relate to this, they buy into it, there is an unspoken contract that we all sort of know what stone circles mean. That is real power.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would very much like to thank Doug Chapman for showing Andrew Watson and I around Dode and for being interviewed. Thanks also to Andrew for accompanying me on the visit and helping with the interview and logistics on this project. Photos in this blog post with no attribution were taken by me.
Urban prehistory can be transformational, but it can also be mundane, generating little more than footnotes. When all is said and done, the discovery of ancient pots and precious bones is just another part of the relentless tireless digging in that humans have always done, extracting, replacing, destroying, creating. The ground surface is a gateway to the past but also a pointer to the future and our own bodily and material mortality.
On Wednesday 25th of March 1885, during road construction works in a field and the creation of the leafy suburb of Kylepark in the Lanarkshire town of Uddingston, two large ancient pots were found within a foot of the ground surface. “Both urns, in accordance with a not unusual practice, had been merely placed in the earth mound downwards over the bones they were intended to protect” (Duncan 1885, pg. 337).
A few days later, the then Honorary Secretary of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, J Dalrymple Duncan*, visited to take charge of the site and he carried out what must have been a fairly rudimentary investigation of the findspot, just a stone’s throw from the River Clyde. Before he arrived some human bones had also been found, and so Dalrymple “had the ground dug up for a considerable space around the spot, when after some search we were successful in discovering a few small portions of a third urn” (pg. 337).
JDD collected together the fragments of urn that had already been found, to be passed to Joseph Anderson of the National Museum of Antiquities. For one of the urns was damaged by a pick axe, the other had been squashed by a construction tramway inadvertantly laid over it. The third urn survived only as ‘trifling portion’.
The human remains were analysed by Professor Young of Glasgow University and Professor Buchanan of Anderson’s College. They could not say much with certainty but suggested that there were at least two people represented, perhaps an older short man, and a slighter younger person, “inextricably mixed together”.
And so the road was completed, and the houses constructed, what was once a riverside field, now sandstone homes, gardens, and trackways. The wheels of time moved on, with the location of this remarkable discovery – what we would now know to be a 4,000 year old burial site – settling in to its comfortable middle class future.
The interpretation of this modest discovery was associated with the Bronze Age by Dalrymple, and noteworthy as, “the first instance … of one of these having been brought to light in the immediate neighbourhood of Glasgow” (pg. 340).
In 1904, a local history book was published called By Bothwell banks: some chapters on the history, archaeology and literary associations of the Uddingston and Bothwell district, written by George Henderson and architect J Jeffrey Waddell. This documented for the most part the medieval and later history of this area, with Bothwell and Uddingston being neighbouring towns on the banks of the Clyde.
The first three pages of this narrative explore what the authors call the ‘earliest times’ and they make note of the discovery of the urns and bones at Kylepark, as well as – in a footnote to this footnote – mention of another Bronze Age discovery at Viewpark to the north in the early years of the nineteenth century. The discovery at Kylepark was loosely connected to local folk traditions.
Looking back to these ancient days, the authors cannot help fall back on colonial narratives of the uncivilised, exotic nature of these prehistoric folk. The river would have had,
“banks luxurious with vegetation of almost tropical growth, overshadowed with gigantic trees, with its waters as yet unsullied by civilisation, would be as well stocked with the lordly salmon as any river in Canada”.
They continued, “…hunting and fishing would have occupied their days, varied only by such gentle relaxation as tribal war” (pg. 2).
Such narratives recall the fantastical writing of Ludovic McLellan Mann in his 1937 book Earliest Glasgow: Temple of the Moon. Earliest man “watched with awe and eagerness the great mammalia striding across the meadows and through the woodlands” (pg. 1). Mann will appear again in our story before the end.
There is a curious conflicted view of colonialism within the Henderson and Waddell narrative, who on the one hand treat prehistoric people as if they were a lesser, different species, and on the other hand bitterly note the ‘iron foot’ of the subsequent Roman invaders of Strathclyde. There seems to be a recognition that in ‘civilising’ someone, you change them and their environment in not altogether positive ways. Yet there is also a strand of continuity from these folk, with a note that the nearby location of a church means that this ground was “hallowed … by many forms of worship”. And of course these Bronze Age dead – whose bones were picked over by Professors – were pagans.
The houses were constructed, the road established, middle classes became entrenched, people slotting into types just as surely as the pots that were found at Kylepark. The three vessels were studied at a visual level, being drawn (see above) and characterised – two urns, one of the encrusted type, and one Food Vessel. These were distributed widely, held across two museums in Glasgow and Edinburgh, where they still reside today in cardboard boxes in environmentally controlled museum stores.
X.EA 108 Encrusted pottery urn with band of raised zigzags and bosses on upper part, from Uddingston, Lanarkshire, Middle Bronze Age. Clay; band of raised zigzags and bosses on upper part (source).
This and the other vessels have from time to time been of use to archaeologists.
In 1933, Ludovic Mann addressed a fieldtrip of the Glasgow Archaeological Society and the Scottish Ecclesiological Society in Bothwell, close to the Kylepark discovery. There he outlined an outlandish argument that the current location of St Bride’s Church in Bothwell was indicative of a prehistoric sacred landscape on a par with Stonehenge. His theories were developed in story in the local newspaper The Hamilton Advertiser a week later, a story Mann was so enamoured with he had made into a pamphlet.
The detail and contextualisation of Mann’s lecture and demonstrations that day will be the subject of a more detailed examination (link to be added when this is published) but suffice to say that of course the Kylepark discovery was surely of interest to Mann’s theorising. “Bothwell must have been a very notable place in pre-Christian times…” (pg. 3) and it is probable that the urn findspot was included on a large map Mann brought for the occasion and used as the basis for an illustrated talk at the Clyde Hotel (now the Bothwell Bridge Hotel). This was a sacred landscape in ancient times, according to Mann, aligned on the solstices and organised around careful measurements of distance and time. Narratives spun on a Saturday afternoon after tea, nothing more.
There is nothing at Kylepark today that would make one know that this had been a place of death, rites, subsistence and salmon abundance. Just another sandstone suburb on the fringe of Glasgow.
There is no documentary evidence of the reaction of the workers who found these objects, or how they reacted to the arrival of a posh amateur archaeologist to take control of their site, view the pick-smashed base on one urn, dig into the field for bones and more. Just another day, another inconvenience, perhaps an anecdote to be shared with friends and family.
These are all footnotes.
* James Dalrymple Duncan as called in this paper is better know as James Dalrymple Gray of Dalrymple, founder of the Dalrymple Lecture series held annually at the University of Glasgow. He was the son of Rev Thomas Gray Duncan and Mary Dalrymple. He changed his name – Pitt-Rivers style – for family inheritance reasons. I am indebted to GAS archivist James Mearns for clarifying this. Obituary
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to the staff of special collections at the University of Glasgow, and Jim Mearns.
The following sources were consulted and quoted above:
Duncan, J D. 1885 Note regarding cinerary urns recently discovered at Uddingston’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 19, 1884-5, 337-40. Online here
Henderson, G and Waddell, J J 1904 By Bothwell banks: some chapters on the history, archaeology and literary associations of the Uddingston and Bothwell district. Glasgow. You can see this whole book, digitised, online here.
The London Mithraeum, and the corruption of prehistory.
The Mithraeum in London was found and excavated in the early 1950s as part of a campaign of work by archaeologist WF Grimes to explore ruins and bombsites created by the Second World War. Hints of this structure were found in 1952 when the Walbrook waterway was identified, and full exposure and excavation happened in 1954. As well as the remarkable architecture of this riverside Temple, carved stone fragments were also found including parts of the god Mithras himself.
Some 400,000 flooded to visit these excavations, in advance of commercial redevelopment. The initial discovery was memorable and powerful, as documented by an oral history project (instigated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MOLAS) and Bloomberg). In some cases a visit to the site stimulated a lifelong interest in archaeology. This kind of public interest, and pressure, as noted by Mike Pitts (Digging up Britain), forced the developer to “rebuild the temple foundations within the new office block” some 100m from where it was found. This replication only came after a period of storage in a nearby builders yard, and seems to have been something of a hasty and mishandled compromise. Thus began what might be termed the ‘peripatetic’ (source) life of this monument, and an entanglement with City of London money.
For many decades the Temple lay hidden in plain sight beside Queen Victoria Street, about 100m from its original location. Orientated north-south rather than east-west it looked every inch a shallow ruin, “embedded in concrete outside Bucklersbury House” (Great Wen blog). The general consensus as far as I can tell from blogs and memories of this incarnation of the Temple was rather sad and lost. Mike Pitts has described this location as, “a weed-grown pavement ornament collecting food wrappers wafted by passing buses” (Digging up Britain (2019), pg. 64). Not the kind of deposition that the acolytes of this mystery cult had in mind, but certainly an ordeal – a trial – for this building.
But thanks to unfettered capitalism, the Mithraeum moved again! In 2010, the development merry-go-round began once again, the churn of new-for-old office blocks meaning the end was finally nigh for Bucklersbury House. Unlike the Temple of Mithras, this structure was not dismantled brick by brick and put into storage, having little value other than as a testament to really really boring post-war architecture, of which there are and remain many better examples.
Excavations in the 1990s and 2000s in advance of massive shiny (but still boring) new office blocks at Poultry and then Bucklersbury revealed loads more evidence for Roman occupation of this area documented nicely by Mike Pitts in Digging up Britain (page 64 onwards) and this book produced by MOLA. This development also posed a fundamental threat to the the Temple itself, but the developer, Bloomberg, committed to give a permanent new home to the Temple more or less where it was found in the 1950s.
There is no doubt that the construction of the European headquarters of this massive information and media company allowed a lot of archaeology to be found. There is also no doubt that Bloomberg were keen to celebrate, embrace and (let’s be honest) exploit these discoveries, probably due to a mixture of a genuine sense of duty and some of that reputational boosting feelgood magic dust that only deep time can sprinkle. Don’t take my word for it, this is Michael R Bloomberg in the 2017 book (link above) called Archaeology at Bloomberg:
As steward of this ancient site and artefacts, Bloomberg has embraced the City of London’s rich heritage. And as a company that is centred on communication – of data, information, news, and analysis – we are thrilled that Bloomberg has been at the core of a project that has provided so much, hugely important, new information about the character and development of Roman London during its first century of existence.
Before reaching its current original – final – resting place, the Mithraeum moved again, being constructed and deconstructed more times that one would normally expect even for a Roman site. Sadie Watson who ran many of the excavations around this bit of London told me that before reaching its current location, the Temple was moved and rebuilt temporarily to Battersea. The remarkable resilience of this structure is testament both to the original builders and the skills of archaeologists.
And so eventually, in November 2017, the Temple of Mithras had been moved back to more or less where it had been found by Grimes, and was opened to the public within and beneath the huge shiny gold Bloomberg HQ building. Located 7m beneath street level, it offered the opportunity for a free archaeology experience in the heart of the city of London, and I have been lucky enough to visit twice since then (in November 2019 and October 2022). One thing that was noticeable on both visits was that there were primary school groups there, so this is clearly a popular educational visit.
Discourse around discoveries made at the Mithraeum are rooted in the world of commerce and finance as befitting a site that sits near the heart of the City of London, a gold bar’s throw away from the Bank of England. Or as Peter Ackroyd would have it, “…where the clerks of the Empire tossed their pens into the water” (London the Biography (2000), pg 27). Perhaps this is inevitable, with the survival of the Temple and its current fancy latest incarnation down to the largesse and riches of Bloomberg.
The materials on display reinforce this connection between ancient London and finance, with an obsessional focus on one type of object found during the MOLA excavations – wooden tablets with legible words impressed into them. One dates back to between AD43 and 53. Ghostly Latin words captured some sentiment about a debt and a poultry-keeper. Pitts notes that this tablet is concerned with ‘finance’ and notes also another tablet dated to 8 January AD57 is also concerned with finance, this one being an IOU. In the wall of artefacts on the ground floor of the Mithraeum experience, the caption for this latter tablet reads: “the oldest record of a financial transaction in the city of London”. This stuff isn’t subtle.
The mystery religion of Mithras was, therefore, replaced simply by the mystery of the markets. Occult practices that shape our lives today with their origins millennia ago. Merlin Coverley included the Temple of Mithras in his occult gazetteer of London (Occult London (2008), pg. 136), suggesting that this riverside cult centre set in motion an almost unbroken sequence of the performance of all-male dark arts in this place.
Visiting the Mithraeum is less of an archaeological deep dive and more an exploration of the murky world of secret, unattainable knowledge. In many ways this is a shame, as the nakedly capitalist agenda and the overwhelming miasma of big money almost overcomes what should be a simple exploration of a place of worship. When I was there all I could think about was that this was the corruption of prehistory. As Pitts has noted, “There was no London at all before Rome invaded in AD43”, but there was a whole lot of prehistory out there to inculcate into pseudo-capitalistic practices and tensions.
This is mediated through a multi-media immersive experience of the Temple. Booked timeslots manage the flow of punters, offering a sense of control and selectivity of those allowed in which again reflects the original purpose of this structure. (Although to the great credit of Bloomberg this is a free attraction, unusual in London.)
There is a gallery – the Space – with temporary art exhibits, and a large wall display of objects from various excavations in this block, displayed in a clinical and stylised fashion, with additional information mostly held on tablets that visitors can consult. Thus we have tablets about tablets and all the other Roman rubbish on display Tetris style.
From here one descends, of course a literal realisation of the subterranean nature of the Mithras experience, to 7m below current pavement level. A schematic section drawing of London lines the side of the stairs, allowing one to descend as if on an elevator through an excavation, unpeeling layers, identifying key moments in the time – the great fire of London! The blitz! Once at the bottom, one enters a dark room with black walls, some touchscreen installations, and ghostly figures projected onto the wall. Music and words float in the air, some from archaeologists, and with a narration by Joanna Lumley. A sense of tremendous anticipation is set up by this gloomy space, with tightly wound tourists pacing beside the closed door that will – when opened – allow access to all that matters, the much-moved Mithraeum.
Down another set of stairs, a performative space is entered, with the ruinous Mithraeum spreadeagled in the centre of a large room, surrounded by a glass walkway and fence, in essence a viewing platform.
The lights gets dimmer and mist starts to form, creating a weird barrier of light around the ruins. Sounds become apparent too, footsteps, chattering voices, a ghoulish horn that reminds one of the opening Germanic battle scenes in Gladiator. Latin chanting begins and there are some groans and animated discussion just beyond the scope of our understanding. A neon tauroctony scene lights up the business end of the Temple, a high-tech version of the hole-and-candle altar to be found at Carraburgh Mithraeum on Hadrian’s Wall. Suddenly it stops and after a photo op, visitors can return back above ground, back to the future and the bustle of London. What passed between these visitors alone with their own thoughts in the darkness, deep in the sweat and pain of pathetic elitism, must remain a mystery.
This is a powerful location, on the banks of the buried and largely lost Walbrook, close to the magical London Stone (which I blogged about in 2018). It feels like a location that has depth enough to enflame solitary male rage, echoes of the bull being slaughtered. Because this bloody act – the Tauroctony – lies at the heart of Mithraism, an eternal chase across the University to kill the bull. This is about men getting their hands dirty, doing what has to be done, whatever the cost. In the streets above this monument to self-serving brutality, pubs in the area heave in the early evening with men in suits holding long thin pint glasses of lager. They smell of booze, of money, of mundane masculinity.
During my most recent visit, a stripped to the waste lone guy climbed onto a Starbucks on Walbrook and started throwing rocks at the windows of a mirrored office block. As we watched from Cannon Street, he restlessly prowled back and forth, ranting. The motivations of this topless shouting man hurling rocks at capitalist totems was never made clear: was he slaying the bull or had the bull slayed him?
The London Mithraeum has at its heart the violent act of slaying the bull, the obsessional and bloody outcome of this mystery religion. On my first visit in 2019 I was disturbed by the violence – the capitalist cult – of this place. and what its location represents today. For London, the coming of money, and this mystery religion, meant nothing would ever be the same again.
Halloween on the banks of the Clyde, chasing down a witch in swirling wind and spluttering rain, weather fitted for late October. Early evening is neither the witching hour nor the devil’s hour but this does not mean that a haunting would not take place.
Galoshans – guising – trick or treat in descending order of Scottishness – terminology for transactional temporary arrangements entered into between children and adults. Deals are made at this time of year – allowance to walk the street, dress up, paint faces, stay up late, demand sweets from friends and strangers, all in exchange for a performance, however feeble. These contracts may last for only minutes but can echo across a lifetime.
And so the pavements are alive with ghouls and vampires, superheroes and robots, and sometimes even wizards, warlocks and witches. But not midnight, more like just-after-dinner time, as more than likely this will be a ‘school night’ and even the generosity of parents can only be stretched so far.
To Gourock, the car park of the railway station to be precise. Here be Galoshans, giant puppets manipulated by three people, one anonymously buried deep inside the torso, the other two working the hands and arms with sticks. Jerking unnatural movements, always on the edge of falling over, vulnerable to puffs of wind and surges of enthusiastic children, the giants weaved their way back and forth, moving to the beat of George Ezra and Taylor Swift.
Kids followed the giants around the car park, safely protected from the real dangers of the world and the night by gazebos, catering vans, an ice cream van, even a minibus and a static portaloo. This was an enclosure, the children and their patient parents wrapped in the kinds of things children really like – ice cream, crap burgers, terrible pop music. Amidst the whirling and the screaming wandered a whole family, each with an illuminated pumpkin for a head.
The giants were weirdly scary – a pirate, a white-skulled ghoul, Mel Gibson from Braveheart, a creature that looked like a living giant white loaf. In the middle of it all was the witch that we were looking for – Granny Kempock. Her trio of puppeteers steered her around the car park, swaying to Lizzo, awkwardly posing for photographs. Her green horrible face was topped by straggly grey hair and a black pointed hat of the type that seems only to be worn by cartoon witches. Around her neck was a rope connecting green skulls, neon death jewellery. The arms had too many joints and were serpentine, the hands like five-headed snakes. Her clothing hung around her like dirty white rags, and this translucent garb meant that the operator inside was visible, almost as if the giant witch had swallowed a human who was then forced to wriggle through Granny’s guts to escape.
The looming witch and the other giants tirelessly roamed the car park compound even as we retreated. We had witnessed history – local history, but we had also seen reflected back on us prehistory, local prehistory.
Just a few hundred metres away from this street party, solace was to be found with a silent and altogether more dignified incarnation of Granny Kempock, a standing stone on the edge of a cliff overlooking the back of the main street in Gourock. Standing stones always transform in the dark, and this one is no different, even if it was illuminated by a sickly orange street light. Located within a caged enclosure, mimicked by the enclosure of facilities down at the railway station event, Granny Kempock remained immobile, completely un-moved by the new single from Lewis Capaldi. If local myths are to be believed however, a person is also trapped within this version of Granny, a petrified witch, consumed by stone.
The contractual nature of Halloween was evident here too – this is a standing stone that is fogged up with stories of deals made with the devil or god, promises of protection, blood vows, eternal life, lost souls. Salacious stories collected by local historians and repeated by generations of locals bring this stone to life as surely as if they were her puppeteers. Dressing up the stone as a New Year’s Day rite continued until the 1970s, another key point of the year where Granny Kempock rises from the dead and de-petrifies.
The dual nature of this late October evening was powerful and moving. Two Granny Kempocks, one alive with movement and rhythm, surrounded by children dancing with the scary witch. The other dead, danced around in the past only by the recklessly heathen. Traces of prehistoric cosmologies, ancient ways of understanding the world and the passing of the seasons, preparation for the cold dark winter where witches haunt the alleyways and car parks.
Two Granny Kempocks. Polar opposites, doppelgangers, still holding this small Inverclyde town in their spell after all these years.
The Galoshans Festival is an annual event in the run-up to Halloween held across Inverclyde. An element of this event is street performance by local musicians and the Galoshans giants, all based on local myths and legends. The street party I attended on evening of 28th October 2022 described above was a street party, one of three that weekend, with others in Greenock and Port Glasgow.
The Kempock Stone is a standing stone in Gourock town centre, almost certainly prehistoric, perhaps not in its original location. There are many local stories and myths and rites focused on this stone, including an association with Granny Kempock, supposedly a local witch. I have blogged about this stone before and working on a paper on the local value of this monument with geographer Tim Edensor.
Some of the photos from this blog post were taken by Jan Brophy. The book extract comes from Rev David MacCrae’s 1880 book Notes about Gourock, Chiefly Historical.
Rock art in a church. A little niche and in a little niche. Nice.
The church is St John Lee in the small village of Acomb to the north of Hexham, close to the bustling A69. Nestled beside the entrance to this church is a liver-shaped stone with carved cup-and-ring marks and some other wounds.
This stone is unfussily sitting, recumbent, on the church floor, accompanied by an information panel of some care and attention. The handwritten note tells us that this ancient sacred object – The Oakwood Stone – was found nearby and ‘many years ago’ dragged to this propitious location by chain.
extracted from the land
The Oakwood stone, twice named, vaguely reminiscent of MR James’s Austin the Twice Born and his enchanted oak carving skills. The Lee part of the name of the church refers to a clearing in the wood, cutting down trees and making recompense with symbols, a church.
It is appropriate that stone should come to rest here, as it was of religious significance to its makers.
There is an inclusive nature to this inclusionary act, protecting this homeless carved stone, not ‘Christianising’ it. This is refuge. There is no judgement here, no condemnation, just quiet reflection on the mystery of religion and the things folk do for their gods.
One of the little-known pleasures of researching prehistory is excavating archives. This is because the material remains of the past can only tell us so much. Whisper it, but understanding prehistory sometimes requires an engagement with the written word. From antiquarian accounts and field notebooks, to scheduling and planning documentation, to personal archives and media repositories, there is a wealth of information out there that can tells us about the most recent history of even the most ancient of sites. Documents, photographs, sketches, and even letters can be as informative as a nicely excavated posthole or a sherd of Grooved Ware when it comes to forming our prehistoric narratives. Research into any prehistoric site must include consideration of the historic in order to fully contextualise that site.
In his recent book A Contemporary Archaeology of London’s Mega Events (UCL Press, 2022), Johnny Gardner has set out a persuasive case for the methodological toolkit of the contemporary archaeologist to include visits to archives and oral histories, as well as more traditional field skills such as excavation and survey. I would extend this to prehistoric archaeology. Making sense of how a site appears to us now and the range of tangible evidence likely to have survived can only benefit from consideration of historic engagements with these sites; the story of how the site came to be in its current incarnation did not end when the last Neolithic person trudged away at the end of a ceremony. Site formation process documentation is not just about understanding sediments, erosion, or animal burrowing. In the archaeological record nothing stays static for long and humans can’t help themselves.
This post has been prompted by the recent passing to me of some very special photos of the Cochno Stone, a rock art site in West Dunbartonshire that I have been researching since 2015. (Watch this lecture I gave in 2021 for the story so far.) This made me reflect on the journey I have been on searching archives, gathering images, and speaking to people about this site and other rock art panels next to Faifley. I’ve also been doing some writing about this and I’ll update this post with links when they come to fruition. I also did an online lecture on this theme in August 2022 for Kilmartin Trust Museum, which should be available to view here soon.
The point I want to make here is that good prehistory, like any other investigation of the past, can and should happen in libraries, collections, archives and living rooms, otherwise we risk limiting ourselves.
To help make this point I would like to look at photography and the research context for these images. So I’m going to look at two aspects of the Cochno Stone story through the lens of archival material: the painting of the stone by Ludovic Mann in 1937, and events in the years around its burial in 1965.
Material being used here includes the Ronald Morris archive; HES / RCAHMS / Glasgow Life / West Dunbartonshire Council archives; and material held by private individuals. The Ronald Morris archive was my first port of call very early on in the process. Morris was a solicitor turned rock art aficionado, the godfather of amateur rock art archaeology in the UK for many. He was active in the field between the 1960s and 1980s, but he didn’t ever see the Cochno Stone, his first visits to Faifley coming a couple of years after the 1965 burial. I was hopeful though that he might have acquired some photos of Cochno on his visits or through his network of local contacts. So I have spent a couple of sessions looking through his extensive and largely uncatalogued archive held by HES at John Sinclair House in Edinburgh.
The archive contains a series of record pockets, one for each rock art site in Scotland. The Faifley record cards are a treasure trove of information on the sites at Auchnacraig and Whitehill with photos, sketches, fieldwork notes, letters and so on, most of which did not make it into Morris’s publications. Other sources of material will be introduced below.
Clearly significant archaeological events such as those discussed in this post should be documented well, one would think. But in fact, they are not. There are many photos of the Cochno Stone – try googling it – but in fact these have rather limited scope and tend to fall into one of two categories. There are a tranche of black and white photos that probably date to the years immediately after Mann painted the stone in 1937. These photos tend to show parts of the site, which has been helpful in making sense of the detail of Mann’s paintjob although some areas of the stone have never quite been captured.
The other type of photo are from the time of our excavations at the site in 2016, when the whole stone was uncovered for 10 days. Some of these are ‘official’ photos as it were, taken by me and other team members, and then shared online. Others were taken by visitors to the site, while there is some officially sanctioned HES photography on the canmore page for the site including images taken by their high-spy piece of kit. (This has over 50 photos of the site, a great cross section and well worth checking out.)
But I have been aware for several years that there are gaps in the photographic record for this monument. There are, so far as I can tell, no photos that have come to light yet that show the Cochno Stone before Mann painted it. We only have sketches from the half century between ‘discovery’ in the late 1880s and 1937. Until recently there was only one photo I had seen of the stone actually being painted. And there is real dearth of imagery from the period in the run-up to the burial of the stone in 1965 – a time when one would presume based on our excavation observations that the stone was at least partially grown over and Mann’s paint had largely faded into memory. So we have really good photographic coverage from 1937 to 1950, and 2016, but almost nothing between 1888 and 1936 or 1950 and 1965; clearly between 1965 and today the stone has been buried and beyond the realm of photography for all but a fortnight.
There is a real research imperative to tracking down photos from these gaps in our coverage, as these would, one hopes, shed light on the, say, the process of painting, and the changing condition of the stone through time. So I have spent quite a bit of time searching in archives for photos that might fill these time gaps, and I’ve also been fortunate enough to be passed photos and slides from others who know of my research interests. This has allowed the gaps to gradually be filled albeit it slowly and in limited quantities. However when a new photo comes to light it is almost always a thrill, but often poses more questions than it answers. This also catalyses further research, whether that be returning to the excavation archive itself, or going to a library.
When I started work on the Cochno Stone, finding out more about the painting in 1937 was a primary aspiration. The painting of the stone by Ludovic Mann and with help from George Applebey is one of the defining moments in the biography of this monument. Notes in Mann’s own archive so far have revealed only circumstantial evidence for what Mann did and why he did it. Speaking to George Applebey’s son, also George, also revealed little on what happened in that summer of 1937. Mann’s work at Knappers / Druid’s Temple that summer completely overshadowed his time at Cochno, to the extent that almost no newsclippings could be found that even showed the paint never mind reported on the event. This is surprising as Mann was very much an influencer and serial media user at the time, as I have written about elsewhere. My attempts to work out what Mann was up to can be found elsewhere (Brophy 2020). Suffice it to say that this eccentric act has in its origins in Mann’s obsessions with prehistoric eclipses, cosmology and metrology.
The actual act of painting, which must have taken quite some time and been very complex, is even trickier to make sense of due to a lack of documentation. One photo in the public domain supposedly showed Mann himself painting the stone. This was published in Ronald Morris’s 1981 book The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway). The caption for Plate 111 notes, ‘L. M. Mann painting in the carvings about 1937’ and the photo was taken from the J Harrison Maxwell collection.
This doesn’t really look like Mann is painting (is it even Mann?) so this is probably a posed shot once the job has been completed and this is certainly one of the most detailed photos of this feature of the site. It reminds me of a rather better-known image, again probably posed by Harrison Maxwell, this one featuring Mann and Applebey. This digital version held by HES was scanned back to front by RCAHMS for some reason, the correct version is also included for reference.
During preparation for The Mann the Myth conference in Glasgow in 2019, Glasgow Life curator Katinka Dalglish passed me a photo she had found in the Mann archive they hold that does actually show someone painting the surface of the stone. At first I assumed this was Mann himself but his hair is not the same as the chap who is definitely Mann in the above photo. Here coloured paint is being applied (probably red, maybe blue) using a course brush and messy paint tin. The stones and white sheet / paper may relate to a rubbing being done of the stone at the same time.
Then in May 2022, I was emailed a selection of scanned photos. These photos had been sent to a Mrs Bowie of Clydebank by Ronald Morris in 1979. In turn these had been passed to committee members of the Clydebank Local History Society, Dave Carson and then Sam Gibson. It was Sam who kindly sent me the scans. One of these immediately blew me away: another paint job shot.
This remarkable photo shows another team member – a woman this time – working on the stone, probably painting a cup-and-ring white. Here, the paint tin is clearer, with some on twitter suggesting this might be Crown brand. A brush sits beside the paint, and the brush is slightly less coarse than the one branded by the unknown man above. This suggests that painting the stone was more of a team effort than I had initially presumed. But who are these members of the painting team?
One last look: 1964
The Morris archive contains a folder for the Cochno Stone (aka Whitehill 1). It is disappointingly thin (as he did not actually see the site) but did contain some fascinating photos from 1964 and perhaps 1965.
There are tantalising notes and photos regarding a 1964 excavation carried out by the University of Glasgow’s Horace Fairhurst. This is accompanied by an incredible series of photos showing four middle-aged men on a large rock surface, examining the stone and even lifting flaps of carpet-like turf expose the symbols beneath. There is some confusion in the published work of Morris and his notes as to whether this is actually the Cochno Stone or a neighbouring site that has since been ‘lost’.
What the third of these photographs clearly show is that the Cochno Stone was by 1964 apparently largely free of the paint that Mann had applied, this having weathered away after almost 30 years of exposure to the elements. This photo also shows quite clearly that the edges of the stone had begun to grass over, something we had suspected during the 2016 excavation. The stone was stained on the fringes and the paint survived, suggestive of these areas of the monument having been protected from weather to an extent.
So far I have been unable to find any written record of this piece of fieldwork or established the nature of what Morris called an excavation at this time. Horace Fairhurst (1908-1986) was a geographer cum archaeologist, and the first head of Archaeology Department at the University of Glasgow in the 1960s (a post I currently hold). His most significant research related to medieval and post-medieval settlement in Scotland and the archaeology of the island of Arran. This may well have been an opportunistic piece of work carried out at the request of Morris, and seems to have been at most ‘having a good look’ at the site.
Very recently another set of photos came into my possession that were taken around the same time, perhaps even during this fieldwork episode. My colleague Nyree Finlay found a small number of slides showing rock art sites within the archive of our now sadly deceased colleague, Alex Morrison. Two of these slides were taken of the Cochno Stone in 1964 and crucially are in colour. These photos have presumably never been seen outside the lecture theatre – until now. I am not sure if these photos were taken by Alex – he graduated in 1964 and so may have accompanied Fairhurst on a visit to the site as they shared rural settlement research interests. Unlike the black and white photos above, here the scale is a shooting stick, rather than a measuring tape.
These stunning images are very helpful in understanding what the Cochno Stone looked like in 1964, less than a year before its burial. Grass and weeds have encroached onto the fringes of the outcrop. Almost no traces of Mann’s paint survives. But perhaps most noticeably, the surface appears covered in scrapes and scratches of the kind one might associate with a lot of people walking on the stone and in some cases marking it: some letters are visible scraped into the stone surface as well as hints of the more deeply incised graffiti we found in 2016. The wall surrounding the stone seems almost ruinous in places with parts of this lying in weeds around the stone although the style survives on the north side. Finally, there is apparently a fence around the entirety of the stone, something I had previously not been aware of.
Within months the stone was buried. Perhaps this brief interlude of interest in the Cochno Stone by some archaeologists from the University of Glasgow was instrumental in the burial, or the visit occurred for the purposes of documentation before the the stone was covered over. This has yet to be established.
The Morris archive includes another significant image which seems to show the location of the Cochno Stone not long after it was buried. The triangular feature on the skyline is part of a metal fence atop the wall around the Cochno Stone and so this picture seems to have been taken from the south-south-west. Rubble or wall remnants appear in the foreground. If this photo was taken by Morris is might have been on a visit to the area in 1968; not all of the stone appears to have grassed over however at this time. Another note: this image seems to be from a proof, but was this photo ever published?
The photos and records I have been fortunate enough to consult over the past few years have been transformative in my understanding of the 20th century story of the Cochno Stone. Yet even for the recent past gaps in knowledge and understanding remain, gaps that to an extent can be filled by talking to people and learning from their memories and experiences. Taken together, these very historical means of knowledge generation – archives, files, photographs, interviews – can help us to piece together the modern biography of prehistoric sites and their study. In turn, this final piece of the biographical narrative of such sites that stretched back thousands of years can be more fully understood. And the last chapter is almost always essential reading in any book for a good reason.
There is much more to unpick here. More photos and files remain to be consulted, and there are people to speak to. Excavating this kind of knowledge will probably be more useful in helping us to understand Faifley’s rock art than anything I could do with a trowel or a microscope. These are human stories, regardless of whether they were being written in stone 5,000 years ago or in 1937, or 1964. So my plea to prehistorians is – look to history!
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank the staff of the HES search room for looking out the Ronald Morris archive for me to consult. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Nyree Finlay and Sam Gibson for providing me with some of the materials discussed above.Thanks very much to Michael Gannon for scanning the Morrison slides for me.
I have written a chapter on Ronald Morris’s archive in a book published to celebrate Stan Beckensall’s wonderful life and career in September 2022. The book is being edited by Kate Sharpe and Paul Frodsham and my chapter is called: Digging into the Ronald Morris archive: a Kilmartin Glen case-study. Full details as soon as I have them.
The other reference in the text relates to my own writing on Mann’s paintjob in 1937: K Brophy 2000 The Ludovic technique: the painting of the Cochno Stone, West Dunbartonshire. Scottish Archaeological Journal 42 [email me if you want a pdf of this article]
I also appreciate the invite to speak as part of the Kilmartin House Trust lecture series in summer 2022. The topic was using the Ronald Morris and Ludovic Mann archives. There was a great and well-informed audience of almost 90, and Ken McElroy created this disturbing image to market the talk. It must have worked!
Has there ever been a contemporary archaeology of an artificial geyser? I’m not sure, and until very recently this is not a question that kept me awake at night. Regardless of the answer, it is probably time for such a thing to happen (again).
On a recent trip to Reykjavik in Iceland, a circular stone feature caught my attention during a visit to the Perlan, a geothermally-heated water storage facility that acts as a visitor attraction and is a landmark in the city skyline due to its hilltop location. It is the ‘number one attraction in Reykjavik’ according to their website.
Perlan sits within an extensive park with a network of pathways, and abuts the regional airport, which is actually a repurposed WW2 military airfield and so the area is also dotted with concrete and earthwork remnants of the former military use of this landscape. So there are already quite a lot of interesting humps and bumps for the archaeologist to ponder over before we come to the geyser.
Situated a couple of hundred metres to the south of Perlan on a slope down to the coast, and now located beneath a scary looking zipline are a series of features which relate to what was, until 2012, an artificial geyser denoted “Goshverrin” Strokur (“The geyser” Strokkur).
The physical remains
The remains of the artificial geyser consist of two circular stone arrangements, one of which was the geyser basin itself, the other a viewing and information zone. This is surrounded by remnants of a rope fence and warning signs.
The geyser itself erupted from the centre of a circular scooped basin some 4m in diameter bounded by a kerb of oblong igenous blocks. The floor of the basis is lined with cobbles of a similar petrology (at least visually) and within the central zone is an arrangement of irregular rocks set around a capped rusty pipe from which, presumably, water would forcibly leave when in operation. A layer of fine gravel is evident beneath this arrangement.
The basin is set concentrically within a larger circular enclosure, defined again by a block kerb. This setting is some 12-15m in diameter, with an incomplete boundary. This seems to have been some kind of demarcation, perhaps to keep viewers away from the hot water, and there are no obvious features in the space between outer boundary and the basin, a space that is now largely overgrown with vegetation.
Beyond this a now incomplete outer cordon marked by a rope boundary is evident in places, and some warning signs remain in place. The fence consists of evenly spaced – about 2m apart – squared wooden posts, most of which have warning signs attached to them; these are connected by a black rope. Separate free-standing wooden posts with warning signs are also evident outwith this cordon.
Immediately to the northeast of the geyser arrangement itself is a smaller circular enclosed and paved area, furnished with four information boards, that I took to be a formal viewing area for when the geyser was activated. This is shown in a photo above. It is a circular space again, about the same size as the geyser central feature, but surrounded by a more substantial wall. The floor of this area is cobbled, with a concentric design centred on a single square cobble and triangle arrangement. Set into the walls of this enclosure are a set of four information boards; these show clear signs of a lack of maintenance and are partially concealed by overgrown vegetation.
These boards essentially present information about Iceland’s volcanic setting, how geysers work in general, and specific details about how this fake geyser was operated. This is given in Icelandic and English, with accompanying geography textbook-like diagrams. The relevant text (and accompanying illustration) to explain how this all worked is:
“A hole was bored ?0m into the ground and outfitted with a steel pipe connected to a water conduit charged with geothermal water of temperature up to 125 degrees C. An interchangeable section in the upper part of the steel pipe makes it possible to constrict flow at that point. This equipment determines the height of the eruption …. confined basis surrounds the opening”.
To the east of these information boards, and also set into the same wall, is a metal box with a locked door. There is a sticker of a skull in the centre of the door and graffiti across the object. I assume this is either how the geyser was operated ie a control box, but I suppose it is possible that it is hatch leading to some subterranean access to the geyser workings.
The geyser appears to have been a very good simulation of a natural geyser, the most famous on Iceland being Strokkur. This erupts on a fairly regular cycle, at least once every 10 minutes, and shoots lukewarm water in the air up to 40m in height.
This phenomenon is caused by spring water leaching downwards coming into contact with volcanically heated rocks, the pressure of which shoots water and stream through a vent or opening at the ground surface. This repeats itself on a cycle which can be interrupted or even completely altered by earthquakes and volcanic activity.
The artificial geyser at Perlan therefore was an attempt to demonstrate this phenomenon in a relatively controlled fashion. I can find very little information online about its origins or use. It was constructed by The Reykjavik Heating Utility company and the travel website Petit fute had this to say:
To remind people that Reykjavík was named after the fumaroles of the many hot springs that once existed, the capital’s heating company decided in 1995 to recreate an exact copy of a geyser. Today, geysers and other steam jets have disappeared from the capital area due to the lowering of the water table. The new real-fake geyser, inaugurated in January 1998, operates for two to four hours a day and reaches a height of 20 to 30 metres.
The last time I can find evidence for it working was in summer 2013 in a blog, also the source of this photo.
There are surprisingly few photos of the geyser erupting to be found online but these suggest it was quite spectacular.
There is also some video footage online as well of course (this example from 2012):
The videos are useful as they give some more insight into how the geyser worked, with a good deal of steam before main eruptions, and the basin filled with slowly draining water after the event. It is likely that this cycle will have had implications for the localised flora and fauna in the same way as weird creatures congregate at ocean floor vents.
Weirdly, until recently there was also an artificial geyser inside the Perlan building, shooting water from the basement beside a central stair well. I think this was decommissioned when the building was revamped in 2018-19. It does look rather feeble but tourist guidebooks were still advertising this until quite recently. When the book is written about the typology of artificial geysers, file this one under ‘fountain’.
Geysers are spectacular natural places but subject to human manipulation. In some instances soap has been used to provoke eruptions, as used to happen at Great Geyser, and I was witness to at the Lady Knox Geyser, Waiotapu, in New Zealand. Here, a guy stood beside the orifice and told us all about ‘geezers’ before dropping a huge bar of soap down into the vent and running off to the side quickly. There followed an ejaculation of soapy warm water turning into a full scale geyser eruption that lasted quite a while. This rather hollow experience is ‘presented‘ to the public daily at 1015 am.
Incidentally, the type of soap used to stimulate a geyser eruption is known as a surfactant, and this practice has ceased in most places for environmental reasons. I would imagine the Perlan geyser eruption was started by someone pressing a button, perhaps in that metal control box, and did not require the use of soap.
Toward an archaeology of artificial geysers
Various comments on TripAdvisor suggest the Perlan artificial geyser stopped working in 2012, and there were plans to get it back up and running as recently as 2018. The fact a zipline goes right across the top of it now suggests it may never work again and will continue its decline (or elevation depending on how you see it) into the archaeological record and it looks to me like it is, to all intents and purposes, a ruin. Not only that but a significant ruin too: this an extremely rare example of this form of architecture with a fairly limited geographical and cultural distribution.
There is no doubt that this is now an archaeological site, and one that could benefit from some work. I would suggest the complex should be properly surveyed and mapped, while expeditious excavation may reveal information about the visitor experience of this site and allow study of any micro-environment caused by repeated soaking in warm water. (This might also identify whether soap was ever used here as a surfactant.)
Why bother? What can archaeology tell us here? Even although it was made in 1995 and went out of use within two decades, there are already few memories and images associated with it, and it will soon fall from oral tradition. Archaeology combined with ethnography should be applied to this site before it is too late – at some point places, regardless of how old they are, might as well be prehistoric. Otherwise, when archaeologists rediscover this site in 700 years time, they really will be starting from scratch when it comes to making sense of this diamond geyser.
NB If such a project has already been done by archaeologists at Reykjavik University, my apologies!