Tag Archives: Urban Prehistory

A trick of the light

17 Jun

The standing stone stands outside the shop.

The shop is situated beside the standing stone.

But which came first – the shop or the stone?

Odin stone

This is the new Odin Stone, on the corner of Junction Street and Burnmouth Road, Kirkwall, Orkney. Right across the road from Buster’s Diner and a long stone’s throw from the marvellous Bothy Bar.

It is a replica of the old Odin Stone, which once stood between Maeshowe passage grave and the Ring of Brodgar. This was destroyed by an over-zealous landowner in 1814 and apparently built into a barn.

This is a standing stone that was / is distinguished by it’s hole, through which (reputedly) arms were thrust and within which objects were balanced in ancient rites.

canmore_image_DP00038990

The Odin Stone (right) in 1807. The Watch Stone is on the left.

The new Odin Stone might have been erected to mark the launch of a fancy gift shop in Kirkwall in the early 2000s called Odin Stone. (The ‘the’ was dropped.)

Or was the shop called Odin Stone because there was already a replica Odin Stone on this street corner?

Which came first? What is the stratigraphy here?

Odin Stone shop frontage

From defunct Odin Stone website

It was a nice shop, and sold the kinds of things one would expect to find in a high-end gift and souvenir shop. I once bought a nice butter dish from there and from time to time browsed through boxes of expensive black and white prints with little intention of actually buying one.

One travelogue review described how the Odin Stone (the shop not the old or new standing stone) had the aspiration ‘to honor [the] spirit [of the Odin Stone] by representing local artists and craftspeople’ which is a curiously cynical way of describing what was in fact the kind of shop that one would have expected to do well in the new cruise ship reality of Kirkwall, a reality that has changed the character of the town over the last decade.

But sadly this does not seem to have been the case and on my most recent visit to Orkney in June 2019, the shop was gone. Probably long gone.

The standing stone – the fake Odin – abides though. And there is something rather comforting in that.

General view Odin stone 1

General view Odin stone 2

By the standards of replica megaliths, it is a hole lot of fun.

Through the Odin hole

But what’s this? A new business opportunity has sprung up. The Orkney Experience.

The Orkney Experience

The heavily painted windows make it difficult to see inside but this is clearly not a shop, more of an ‘experience’ as, to be fair, the name suggests. Cruise passenger fodder that promises OPTICAL & ORCADIAN on one window, and ILLUSIONS ARTEFACTS on the other. Beneath these bold words are pictures of a wee monster and someone running away from it, dressed like a stereotypical archaeologist. Wearing the books of a pirate.

He is running for the sanctuary of the Odin Stone.

Optical Orcadian

Illusions artefacts

Much of the imagery on the outside of this building now points towards the Norse heritage of the island, and mythology.

Norse imagery

This painted wall sign, to the side of the shop entrance, actually retains the ‘Odin Stone within the O’ motif of the Odin Stone shop, as demonstrated by the ghost sign of the old shop which still protrudes from one wall albeit with the stone viewed from different directions, inverted versions of one another.

Ghost sign

On another window of the Orkney Experience is a curious optical illusion, an Escher Trilithon, imported from Stonehenge. Beneath it, cards or CDs with standing stones on them line the window sill. A mirage of a man runs past in the rain, mirroring the optical illusions that this place seems to sell, obscuring the Odin Stone’s reflected doppelganger.

A trick of the light.

Illusionary trilithon

What is the Experience that this places sells? Entry has it’s price. I confess I couldn’t be bothered going in. It can’t be that big a place inside (the shop wasn’t) so what does £6.50 get an adult punter? Something like this according to BBC Orkney’s Huw Williams…

Huw

The Experience’s website tempts the prospective customer with this offer: ‘Come and dress like a viking, ‘visit’ a Sanday beach, or be caught by Cubbie Roo the giant’. Making a virtue of a small premises with illusions appears to be the name of the game. From various images available online, this seems to be a place with a complex combination of acrylic paintings that act as optical illusionary photo subjects, dressing up props, and real and replica objects, fixtures and fittings. Such as a Skara Brae dresser.

skara brae

From The Orkney Experience website

Not a lot of the consumer offer appears to focus on prehistory or archaeology however.  Is there no Odin Stone inside?

A magic window
A most marvelous confection
But windows are for looking through
Not for checking out your reflection (Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales)

 

The standing stone stands outside the experience.

The experience is situated beside the standing stone.

There can be no doubt.

This stone came first.

 

Sources and acknowledgements:

The old Odin Stone has National Record for the Historic Environment number HY31SW40

There is a fine account of the unfortunate fate of the original Odin Stone in the Orkneyjar website.

The 1807 drawing of the Odin Stone and neighbouring megalith is (c) RCAHMS / HES and was downloaded from canmore.

The pic of the original Odin Stone shop front came from the now defunct website for the shop – the link won’t go anywhere. 

Thanks very much to Huw Williams for permission to reproduce the photo of him with Cubbie Roo.

The lyrics towards the end of the post come from the track A Trick of the Light from the Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales album Room 29.

Finally, by way of balance, check out the wholly excellent and positive reviews (as of 17/6/19) of the Orkney Experience on Trip Advisor.

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Bronze Age

5 Jun

 

We’ve been having something of a clean out in the archaeology department at Glasgow Uni recently in preparation for a new digital imaging lab, and I came across some boxes of papers. These largely contained a collection of notebooks, images, typescripts and photographs that were amassed by a former colleague of mine, who I shall call Dr G_________. Although most of this work has been published in one format or another, one folder in particular caught my eye. This blog post briefly describes the nature of G_________’s research and the unexpected outcome of it. Certain points of detail have been redacted for reasons that will become clear.

files 2 low res

The folder was foolscap, of pink cardboard, and on the front was written the following information in black biro.

BROWN

POWDER

ANALYS.

i.1973 – iv.1973

Above this was added in somewhat less order: Burn this file!!! written with such conviction that the pen had almost punctured the cover of the folder.

the pink file lr

The folder contained the following materials.

  1. A typescript manuscript entitled Analysis of brown powder recovered from the cist at Wester H________ and its implications for our understanding of Bronze Age chieftains in Scotland. The text was short. Written at the top of the page, in rough script in blue biro was the phrase ‘For D.E.S. and the Ministry only’.
  2. A small plastic bag filled with brown powder / dust.
  3. A scientific report on 2 sides of A4 written by a Prof W.X.F. B_________ entitled: Scanning Electron Microscopy of brown dust from a prehistoric grave.
  4. A small notepad with a series of crude childish sketches.
  5. An annotated drawing of a small ceramic vessel.
  6. A stub from a cheque book (Bank of Scotland).

Upon reading the typescript, it became clear that the following sequence of events had occurred. In 1959, when Dr G_________ was still an undergraduate, and senior boy scout, he participated in an excavation on the island of _________. During that project, a stone coffin or cist was discovered and excavated, rather crudely by the sounds of it, by the scout troop leader who was also the organist in the local church, St D_______ of C______. The materials from within the cist were roughly inventoried and stored in a bucket, which remained in the garage of the scout troop leader until he died a decade later during a bank robbery on the mainland. The excavation had never been published due to, I assume and reading between the lines, the embarrassing circumstances of its poor excavation. The whole episode was reported in the local press at the time as a gardening project gone wrong.

typescript low res

Later established as a member of academic staff at Glasgow, Dr G_________ was prompted to return to this youthful episode upon hearing the news of the bank job death, surprised as he was to discover that the troop leader, a Mr Q________ had been robbing banks in his twilight years. He journeyed to the island of _________ and was able, with some persuasion and bribery, to recover the bucket of artefacts and bones. He set about privately trying to redeem himself by funding from his own resources the analysis of all the objects in the bucket, with the intention of bringing the site to publication in the Glasgow Archaeological Journal. He felt confident he could reconstruct the cist itself in sufficient detail for such a publication from a combination of memory and some sketches he took at the time.

Everything proceeded smoothly with these private endeavors for a few years, with cheques removed from the cheque book testament to payments made for services rendered from pottery, human bone, textile and lithic specialists. These payments appear to have been made once annually, around the time when it was customary for young academics to receive a bonus for satisfactory performance. These monies were, it seems, used to fund his nefarious post-excavation project, in order to assuage his guilt.

Forteviot chafing vessel

Once the Christmas 1972 bonus was safely banked, he turned to the next phase of his activities, which is where the meat of this tale is to be found. Here, analysis was required of a curious deposit of brown dust that was found in a heap within a small ceramic vessel that was recovered from beside where a partial skull lay on the cist floor. This was seemingly recovered by one of the team members, a lanky youth called B. Mc________, using a teaspoon, and poured into a small sealable plastic bag. Upon the bag was written, in a childish hand, ‘Brown stuff found by head’ and the site code, which I will not reveal here for fear of allowing the identification of the site. This was placed in the bucket with all the other materials at the end of the escapade and went into storage, only being recovered by Dr G_______’s re-invigoration of this site.

sample low res

The mostly empty bag of brown powder (reversed to protect the anonymity of finder and site name)

It appears that in January 1973, Dr G_________ gave this bag of brown powder to the renowned chemist Prof W.X.F. B_________ who was at that time also tenured at the University of Glasgow. The material was analysed using a newly installed Scanning Electron Microscope. This analytical machine was at that time a novelty, being closely based on the ‘Stereoscan’ machine first put into use at Cambridge University in 1965. The analysis was undertaken rapidly, although the report on this work took several months to be delivered to Dr G________ in his attic office in the archaeology department.

1970s SEM

1970s SEM (source)

The results, contained within the scientific report were brief and to the point. Dr G________ summarized the results and added his interpretation of them in his typescript.

The brown powder, was found under SEM analysis, to contain the following minerals and compounds: Mica, Titanium Dioxide, Dihydroxyacetone and various Iron Oxides. Initially I regarded this as some kind of dyeing agent, perhaps to ensure that [the] deceased within the stone coffn [sic] had clothes of various shades of brown as is widely believed to have been the case in Scotland in the Bronze Age (Stafford and Green 1963). However, further research led me to the revelation that this was, in fact, what is known colloquially today in 1973 as ‘bronzer’ or ‘self-tanning powder’. In other words, the man (as our analyses have shown) must have kept his tan topped up, perhaps as an indicator of status. This is in keeping with our understanding of Beaker folk: Piggott used to tell me that they liked to look healthy, and the a tanned appearance was indicative of a leisured class with time to spend in the sun.

This radical conclusion – that in effect self-tanning powder was invented in the Bronze Age and was a Beaker-associated novelty just like faience, jet beads and copper axes – would have been a career-making publication for Dr G_________. Yet the discovery was quietly forgotten, filed away in the pink folder, presumably intended never to see the light of day. From what I can gather from the remainder of the account in the folder and some other scribbled notes stapled to the manuscript (some even on toilet paper and napkins) the whole post-excavation project was abandoned at this point as well. Prof W.X.F. B_________ left the University to take up a position with the state-run Premium Bonds organisation within six weeks of turning in his report to my former colleague.

premium bonds

Prof W.X.F. B_________ (right) in his new role marketing Premium Bonds (The Times)

Dr G________ himself, from that point onwards, threw himself into the study of brochs, crannogs, wheelhouses and other variants in Iron Age roundhouse form. He never published a single word on the Bronze Age ever again.

What happened? I spoke to a few retired colleagues who remembered working with Dr G_________ and one of them told me a curious tale. She was not sure of the significance at the time, but then she was not privy to what G_______ was up to or his secret file. The story goes that back in 1973 the University senior management was looking for opportunities to monetise humanities research. One day a heated argument was heard in Dr G_______’s office between G and two vice-principals. When eventually Dr G________ emerged from the office he was ashen faced and from that day onwards he tilted to the Iron Age and quit the boy scouts where he had risen to the rank of Brown Owl. Even more curious, the VPs quit their jobs the following month. To open a tanning parlour in Bellshill called Bronze Age.

This money-spinning venture remains open to this day and I can’t help but join the dots and wonder: what became of the rest of the brown powder that was missing from that little plastic bag…..and what the secret of the success of this lucrative salon might be…..

Bronze Age Bellshill

My suspicions were confirmed only a few days ago, when I was scrambling around beneath the desk in my office looking for a sandwich I had dropped. I noticed a scrap of paper, stuck to the underside of the desk, with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. What was sketched onto that little piece of paper made perfect sense when I recalled that my desk and my office had indeed once been the domain of Dr G__________. As I read once in a fortune cookie: cartoons are the window into a guilty soul.

Cartoon stock

Cartoonstock (from here)

Modern Stone Age family

13 Apr

We’re about to meet the Flintstones
They’re the modern Stone Age family

Fun fair

In the town of Brodick
They’re a page right out of prehistory

Flintstones 1

Let’s ride with the family down the street
Witness the arrangement of Fred’s conjoined feet

Flintstones 2

No refunds, pushing or somersaulting on the slide
Please don’t eat, smoke or drink as you glide

Flintstones 3

When you’re with the Flintstones
Have a yabba dabba doo time, a dabba doo time
We’ll have a gay old time

Flintstones 4

ooooOOOOoooo

The amazing inflatable Flintstones slide I witnessed in Brodick, Arran, during a warm spring day is indicative of perhaps the most common way that children (and drunk adults) get to engage with prehistory in urban (party) settings: the Flintstones Bouncy Castle / water slide. For the purposes of this spurious argument, let’s all just agree to ignore the fact that there were no castles (or inflatable water slides) in the Stone Age…..

Fred Flintstonesource: alibaba

This is a surprisingly commonplace phenomenon.

I now present the most comprehensive picture gallery of Flintstones bouncy castles and water slides in the world. If you see any other Flintstones big party inflatables, let me know with a comment at the end of this post, or contact me via twitter @urbanprehisto using the hashtag #Flintstonesbouncycastles. [This post should not be taken as an endorsement of any of the products shown here! I have not bounce-tested them yet.]

Bentley Hire

Rainbow Inflatables

 

BB Castles

Basil’s Bouncy Castles, Essex

ian's bouncy castles

Ian’s Bouncy Castles, Basildon

Prestige Inflatables

Prestige Inflatables, Aberdeen

toys ocean

Toys-Ocean Amusement Equipment

Portsmouth

Love to Bounce, Portsmouth

double deckers

Double Deckers Entertainments, Newcastle

AliBaba

Alibaba Inflatables

Moonwalk Houston

Texas Party Inflatables, Houston USA

dobson ferris wheel

Dobsons Ferris Wheel

Airbounce Cumbria

Airbounce Cumbria

CeeJays

CeeJays Bouncy Castles, Merseyside

abcinflatables

ABC Inflatables, Flintshire

SwanseaWild West Entertainments, Swansea

The-Flintstones-Theme-Inflatable-Bouncer-Castle-1134-

close up

Rainbow Inflatables again. “The inflatable the flintstones playground is hot for sale now. If you want to make the beautiful inflatable amusement playground, you may have a try of ours”.

hisupplier

HISupplier (Made in China)

Stolen bouncy castle

Flintstones bouncy castle, stolen from the Fox and Duck Pub in Arlesey Road, Stotfold in 2017.

Zombie parent guide blog

Spotted in Valley Garden, Harrogate (Zombie parent blog)

Pelican promotions

Pelican Promotions, somewhere in Ireland

I await reader’s photos and suggestions to expand this image gallery…..

 

 

Hyperprehistory

31 Mar

This blog post contains selected extracts from a paper I gave at the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (SPMA) ‘congress’ at the University of Glasgow. More details on the session, The archaeologies of now, organised by James Dixon and Sefryn Penrose, can be found at the end of the post.

My paper abstract

Me giving the paper Brian Kerr photo

Photo: Brian Kerr

Crash

For a decade now, I have been exploring various ways that my interest in prehistoric sites in urban places might intersect with a Ballardian worldview. English author JG Ballard’s fiction and non-fiction writing is often characterised as prophetic and dystopian, covering themes such as climate change, consumerism, middle class isolationism and violence, auto-erotica, hidden pathologies, and the excesses of supermodernity. These teased at my brain, something awaiting unlocking.

There is no better indication of the crashing together of prehistory and our modern urban world than roads and cars competing for the same spaces as standing stones. Sometimes this can take on a visceral form, such as a documented attempt in the 2000s to drive a car over the reconstructed Bronze Age barrow at Huly Hill near Edinburgh.

Crash montage

The images above show the outcome of a collision between a BMW and Bedd Morris standing stone in Dyfed, Wales, in October 2011. The stone was broken, and the toppled half initially removed for safe-keeping before later being reinstated. This crash resulted in a small excavation which recovered material culture from the stone socket and two C14 dates. This was not the first time this has happened, the stone being situated on a bend on a fast country road. This event is doomed to be repeated multiple times as if on a loop.

To pursue my Ballardian pathology, I purchased a copy of Simon Sellar’s book Applied Ballardianism on the mistaken belief that it was a textbook or academic treatise about the application of JG Ballard’s ideas in the humanities.

What I got was something very different and yet it unlocked something in my brain that I am still trying to come to terms with: Ballard as a way to rethink our engagements with the material outcomes and traces of the ancient past in the present. A Ballardian archaeology.

Applied Ballardianism lr

Ballard’s obsessions with gated communities, boundaries, social disorder, antisocial behaviour, subversion and urban decay are all obsessions we should have as archaeologists. His focus on urban edgelands and dystopian developments mirror the working environment of many in the heritage sector. These are our desire lines to the past.

Urban dreams

The place where the thin line between past and present is at its thinnest is in the urban environment, a point of singularity, starkly shedding light on the condition of being an archaeologist, performing as a prehistorian, rooted in the present.

I have gradually come to realize that urban prehistory is nothing if it is not Ballardian.

Ballard book titles

Ballards’ writing offers for me the clearest and most coherent means to understand the juxtaposition between past and present which dominates archaeology. All our encounters with traces of the past – material and otherwise – happen in the contemporary, the modern. The past and present meet at a stark and jagged edge, a tear, that for a moment gives the illusion of a past that still exists in a degraded form.

Sighthill crown of stones

Prehistory offers a heightened state of time-consciousness.

These points of fusion – wormholes that lead nowhere – are the places where the magic happens. The powerful intersections between the ancient and the supermodern occur in places that Ballard would recognize and frequently wrote about – motorway intersections and roundabouts, suburban gated communities, industrial estates, shopping malls, golf courses and leisure centres.

ballard_cokliss

Our encounters are here,  in the shadow on the destruction machine.

Quarry

Horton Neolithic house – Wessex Archaeology

These renegade essences of the past offer uncomfortable glimpses into the nature of our consumerist society: our prehistoric heritage is routinely damaged, or destroyed, often surgically excavated, to allow development to occur and to maintain our consumer commuter society.

Some of the most fascinating engagements – our weird rituals – with prehistory in the contemporary happen in relation to travel infrastructure projects and that is what I want to focus on here.

weird ritual

The Day Today (BBC)

Roads and the car. Railway lines and stations. Airport runways and terminal buildings.

These are all places and things that could be described as supermodern, and thus require special consideration.

Hyperprehistory

In order to apply Ballardian logic to prehistory, we must accept that we are now in the age of Hyperprehistory.

Hyperprehistory is a concept that describes the role of prehistory in the supermodern environments we live in today. Supermodernity, as defined by anthropologist Marc Auge is ‘the acceleration of history’.

gettyimages-852300790-1024x1024 Marc Auge

It is a period of what he called excesses: factual, spatial and self-reflective over-abundance. Gonzalez-Ruibal has gone further and suggests that the super (or hyper) modern includes also material abundance.

An outcome of this is an increased and dynamic world of things and places, which serves and perpetuate these excesses. It is within these processes that prehistory has become entangled.

non-places book cover

The supermodern is physically defined by non-places, parts of the landscape that are irrational, ahistorical and that have no identity. These primarily consist of places of transit and consumerism. This concept echoes the work of the geographer Edward Relph who argued that we have created urban spaces that have a sense of placelessness, bereft of emotional attachment. Our urban cityscapes consist of impersonal places where transactions are carried out and facilitate movement to another place, often another non-place.

Hyperprehistory reflects the intimate connection between urban development, the needs of our consumer society, and the material traces of prehistoric lifeways. It suggests that in the creation of non-places, we often encounter prehistory.

And hyperprehistory also contains within it the potential to place non-places, to add emotional attachments where there are none, to replace surface gloss with the depth of deep time.

Crossrail 1

Crossrail excavations

We should expect to find prehistory in urban places and in association with transport infrastructure. We should actively seek it out, rather than despair on its ruination.

I always look at roundabouts. They are a legitimate fieldwork target.

Ballard wrote that high rises constructed around his hometown of Shepperton resembled the megaliths of Stonehenge.

Shepperton images

There is no such thing as coincidence.

Terminal prehistory

How can we derive meaning from such encounters? What is the social value of hyperprehistory in a supermodern urban world?

One of the most captive audiences you will ever have (except for audiences who are literally captives) are those on public transport, whether on trains, planes, trams or omnibuses. That is why so many commuters spend much of the journey blankly staring of a window picking their nose. They have the disbenefit of having even less agency that car drivers.

More captive still are those who have to pass through and / or spend time in travel hubs, from the humble bus stop to suburban railway stations right up to massive international airports. These placeless places not only have designated waiting / lurking areas, but are also replete with connecting passages, walkways and tunnels. In other words, all sorts of spaces that become venues for consumption, as advertisers and those who own these transit hubs recognise the value of having a bored audience just where you want them.

Huly Hill

JG Ballard commonly wrote about such transactional commuter spaces. He noted in an essay on airports for instance that Shepperton was not a suburb of London, but of Heathrow Airport. He wrote:

I have learned to like the intricate network of car rental offices, air freight depots, and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world. Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than a mythical domain of village greens, cathedrals, and manorial vistas.

Ballard would I suspect have been delighted that the expansion of Heathrow Airport in the 2000s created prehistoric landscapes: great primeval forests within which hunter-gatherers thrived and great beasts roamed, geometrically rigorous cursiform vistas, farming landscapes swollen with fecundity. The additional terminal building, an expansion of this sky-city (as Ballard has called it), in its construction passed from non-place to place and back to non-place again.

t5

Framework Archaeology – T5 excavations

The hiatus in the middle was the invigoration of excavation, a kind of ecstasy of data gathering.

Heathrow Airport is a place of deep time and shallow lives lived. Ballard noted: I welcome the landscape’s transience, alienation, and discontinuities.

Ballard has also noted that:

At an airport like Heathrow the individual is defined not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40 years, but by the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on a screen.

A flickering screen is the medium by which the prehistoric eruptions that accompanied the construction of the terminal building are communicated to the trapped commuters. Enforcedly at leisure, numbly holding onto their travel documents to enable even the most minor of purchases in Boots and WH Smith, holidaymakers and business people offer the required captive audience.

real-time-schipholclock-maarten-baas-clock-installation_dezeen_936_0

Martin Baas, Real Time – Schiphol Airport departure lounge

The stasis of the departure lounge is used as a vehicle for the presentation of a short film about the excavations that took place in advance of the construction of Heathrow Terminal 5. This video, and associated online content, had subtitles rather than sound, a visual essay in deep time.

This short film can also be viewed on any device via youtube, where you can provide your own soundtrack.

The intercity exhibition

In 2018, I stumbled upon an explicit attempt to ‘culturally contaminate’ a ‘non-place’ while travelling from Milan to Milan Malpensa airport via train. The railway station at Terminal 2 contained a detailed exhibition on prehistoric lifeways, material culture and burials. This exhibition is located in that most placeless of places, a concourse between two travel hubs.

atrocity exhibition cover

The purpose of this bland tunnel-space would be impossible to determine should one be blindfolded and led here. The exhibition space had the qualities of a hospital and an airport waiting space, illuminated by shiny surfaces and energised by the low hum of escalators and the mechanical whirr of elevators.

Exhibition concourse lr

The material on display was discovered during excavations in advance of the construction of the railway line between Terminals 1 and 2. These objects and this information were revealed because of an infrastructural need, a direct result of supermodernity.

exhibtion low res 1

Reconstruction drawing

The exhibition has the explicit aim of making a place of this non-place.

The railway station has been chosen as the place to exhibit the finds … making them accessible 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for a very large audience. Passing through the exhibition, even the most hasty and distracted traveller will notice the presentation of a wide selection of finds … accompanied by immediately comprehensible communication.

Exhibition noticeboard

It is almost as if JG Ballard had written the text to accompany this commuter museum, this intercity exhibition.

Scar tissue

Amongst Ballard’s writings include the novel Millennium People, and the collection of essays and reviews, A user’s guide to the millennium. But I increasingly find myself wondering – what millennium was he writing about?

Book cover

If this pathology has a name, it is archaeology.

Prehistory is the scar tissue of the past.

Hyperprehistory is our framework for navigating ourselves through the coming millennium, whatever it may bring.

 

Archaeologies of Now session

A twitter moments summary of the session, posted by James Dixon, can be found here.

Session abstract 2

Session intro low res

Session notes lr

Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank James Dixon for inviting me to take part in this fantastic session, and for the positive feedback my paper got. Thanks to the other speakers for stimulating papers. 

I would like to thank Brian Kerr for allowing me to use his photo of me giving the paper.

Image sources, where known, are noted in captions. The first photo of JG Ballard (BBC4 still) comes from an article about Crash in The Reprobate. The second (Shepperton) was sourced from an article about Ballard in The Spectator. In both cases, I don’t think this is the original source of the photo.

The Huly Hill photo source is unknown. Sadly I don’t think it is one of my photos – it is too good!

The Ballard quotations in the post come from an essay he wrote called ‘Airports: the true cities of the 21st century’ which can be found here. His comment about Stonehenge came from a Guardian interview. 

This paper was also referred to in the post: Gonzalez-Ruibal, A 2014 Supermodernity and archaeology. In C Smith (ed) Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, 7125-34. New York: Springer.

My paper was also summarised in this twitter thread.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossrail 1

 

Levallois

16 Feb

There is something Neanderthal in the suburbs of Paris. Or at least there was.

Line 3 of the Paris Metro terminates in the west at Levallois. So what?

This observation, which I can’t believe I had not thought harder about in the past, led me to an interesting story at the cusp of archaeology as a modern discipline and a new candidate for the label of the first urban prehistorian. It also made me realise that archaeologists often take for granted the familiar labels that we use, and often don’t stop to think about the historiography of these terms and from whence they came.

metro low res

Levallois is a name most archaeologists should be familiar with, as it is describes a reductive technique used by Neanderthals to make flaked stone tools back in the mists of time. There is a good deal of discussion as to the significance of this method of making tools – to what extent does this indicate the agency of Neanderthals and their ability to think ahead and in abstract terms tens of thousands of years ago? Is this a technique that was recognised, shared and duplicated across a wide geographic area (not restricted to Europe), or is this simply our characterization of a narrow aspect of the archaeological record? Such ‘types’ are the bred and butter of archaeology, for good and for ill.

levallois-technology_monnier_1_2

The Levallois technique (from Monnier 2012, (c) Nature Education)

The attribution of a site name to a type of material culture, architectural style or craft technique has a long tradition in archaeology, although not all terms have had the longetivity of Levallois and often we find modern and more boring ways to describe stuff we find in the archaeological record. My favourite example, now sadly rarely used, is the British late Neolithic pottery style Rinyo-Clacton Ware aka Grooved Ware, only really now known beyond prehistoric archaeology through the name of a Russell Hoban novel. (As another aside, one of the best future urban prehistory novels ever written is Hoban’s Riddley Walker.)

Hoban book cover

Whither Levallois?

Nathan Schlanger has noted that this Parisian suburb has gained ‘everlasting archaeological notoriety’, as if often the fate of obscure places where a technology or style of object was recognised for the first time.

However, it is not clear exactly when the first Palaeolithic stone tools were recovered from sand quarries in the Levallois-Perret area, but it was probably in the 1850s. At this time Paris was an expanding city surrounded by quarries and urban development.

Montmatre quarry

Monmartre gypsum quarry in the 19th century (source: Written in Stone blog, link below)

Matthew Pope and David Herisson via the medium of twitter suggested that Victor Commont ‘first described’ the Levallois technique, decades after these initial discoveries.

But the earliest publication of the tools themselves was by Jules Reboux. The images below appear to be from the first ever description of these lithics, which came out in 1967. (This is dated 1951 in an online source but this appears to be too early.) Here, Silex Tailles means knapped flints (thanks Becky Wragg Sykes!) and the title of the pamphlet notes the ancient, geological context from which they were found. The specific reductive preparation of the flints was noted here, but it was not yet called Levalloisian.

Cover of Reboux publication

Image courtesy of David Herrison

 

Levallois drawing from 1850s

Knapped (worked) flint from a Levallois quarry (Reboux 1867)

These initial discoveries were courtesy of excavation and fieldwork by Reboux in the 1860s and 1870s. He was a geologist and antiquarian / archaeologist who lived near the edge of Paris at the time, and Schlanger suggests his work in the likes of Levallois and Clichy was akin to proto-rescue archaeology. In fact he appears to have been the first urban prehistorian.

He wrote in 1866 (in French I assume), ‘dedicated research has for long been undertaken in distant lands, when we have under our own feet, in Paris itself, the most certain proofs of the ancient stone industry’. 

Apparently Reboux spend years visiting quarries, monitoring  building sites, and surveying railway cuttings, all around Paris and collected thousands of worked flint tools and objects.

There seems to have been a good deal of innovation around Reboux’s work at, and about, Levallois. Schlanger suggests that one of the sand quarries at Levallois was also the location of one of the earliest documented episodes of ‘comparative experimental flint-knapping’ during a fieldvisit lead by Reboux on 30th August 1867. And Reboux published, in 1873, a stratigraphic section of a quarry at Levallois, one of the first drawings of its kind in an archaeological context ever attempted.

Reboux stratigraphy

Reboux’s stratigraphic sequence, combining archaeology and geology, based on a section at Levallois-Perret. Published in 1873, reproduced in Schlanger 2013.

It isn’t clear when the objects found at the quarries at Levallois became the objects upon which all similar stone tools were compared in terms of their manufacturing process, although Victor Commont wrote about Levallois tools and debitage in the 1910s, noting differences with other Palaeolithic stone tool ‘industries’.

Victor Commont

Commont was credited with bringing the study of the Palaeolithic in northern France into the ‘scientific era’ by Tuffreau. Like Reboux, although decades later, he was an observer of discoveries in quarries, in this case near Amiens, and studied the Quaternary from his home in Edinburgh Street.

The term was further refined and given its classic modern characerisation through new discoveries and experimental flint-knapping in the early to middle twentieth century. Much of this hands-on and intellectual heavy lifting was undertaken by Francois Bordes. A significant figure in Palaeolithic archaeology in the twentieth century, Bordes was responsible for refining our concept of the flake method of Levallois in notable publications during the 1950s such as ‘Technique Levallois et Levallois ancient’ in L’Anthropologie 56 (1952), and in his 1961 book Typologie.

Typologie book cover

Lewis Binford even had a go at the Levallois in various famous studies around the same times as Bordes, and the concept, and what it tells us about Homo Neandertalensis, is still a very important aspect of Palaeolithic archaeology across the world.

Sadly I have reached the depth of my knowledge about this technique and I have little sense what the current state of play in Palaeolithic studies is with regards the Levallois so apologies to colleagues working in this field! Unless someone wants to write a fictional story called something like Monsieur Levallois comes to town I am unlikely to learn any more.

However, there is one thing left for me to do. It is clear that a visit to Levallois itself by Metro is needed to bring this narrative to a satisfactory conclusion and I’ll do this next time I’m in Paris. I’ll remember to pack a cow….

Levallois postcard

‘Man pushing a cow into a bus’ (photographer unknown)

 

Sources and acknowledgements: I’m indebted to the many Palaeolithic experts who responded to my plea for information on twitter (link in text above) and directly to emails. Thanks especially to Nathan Schlanger and Dene Wright who helped me via email, as well as the following tweeters.

  • David Herrison = @david_herisson
  • Joseba Rios-Garaizar = @jorios
  • Matt Pope = @MatthewPope
  • Becky Wragg Sykes = @LeMoustier
  • Helen Loney = @Worsted2

Apologies if I missed anyone, and these good folks cannot be held responsible for how I have mangled their responses and pointers to sources of help….and most of the quotes in this post have benefited from the translation skills of others such as Schlanger.

The following academic sources were also consulted in preparing this blog post:

  • Pettit, P. 2009 Francois Bordes. In R. Hosfield, F. Wenban-Smith & M. Pope (eds) Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859-2009, pages 201-212. Lithic Studies Society, London.
  • Schlanger, N. 1996 Understanding Levallois: Lithic technology and cognitive archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6.2, 231-54.
  • Schlanger, N. 2013 One day hero. Jules Reboux at the crucible of prehistory in 1860s Paris. Complutum 24.2, 73-88.
  • Tuffreau, A. 2009 Victor Commont. In R. Hosfield, F. Wenban-Smith & M. Pope (eds) Great prehistorians: 150 years of Palaeolithic research, 1859-2009. Lithic Studies Society, London.

A sense of the mining landscape that was nineteenth century Paris can be gained by reading this fascinating blog post about Paris’s historic gypsum quarries (Written in Stone blog). This was also the source of the Montmartre quarry picture.

The source of the Levallois technique drawing is another interesting source (find it here): Monnier, G. (2012) Neanderthal Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):11

 

Illustrations (unless source given in the caption)

Hoban and Typologie book covers – widely available online

Stone tool drawing – this was reproduced in Schlanger 2013, but the original drawing was published in 1867 in the following place:

  • Reboux, J. 1867 Silex tailles associes a des ossements fossiles dans les terrains quaternaires de environs de Paris. Congres international d’archaeologie et d’anthropologie prehistorique, 2e session: 103-9.

Stratigraphic section from the quarry at Levallois – again this was reproduced in Schlanger 2013, but the original drawing was published in 1873 here:

  • Reboux, J. 1873 Des trois epoques de la pierre. Bulletin de la societe d’anthropologie de Paris 8, 523-31.

Victor Commont from Tuffreau 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Dene Wright for information on the Levallois technique.

 

Monnier, G. (2012) Neanderthal Behavior. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):11